50 Black athletes who transformed American sports
The Super Bowl is near, college basketball is in full swing, and pretty soon teams will begin reporting for spring training. As we reach peak sports mania, combined with Black History Month, it is hard to ignore the impact of Black athletes on American history. For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Black athletes were forbidden from competing as professional athletes. But trailblazers like Jackie Robinson and Althea Gibson slowly chipped away at color barriers in American sports and opened up the floodgates for today’s stars to thrive.
Stacker compiled a list of 50 Black athletes who transformed American sports using information from professional league record books, statistical databases, museums, historical articles, and other sources. Included in this list are names you might expect like the incomparable Willie Mays, who was idolized by legends like Ted Williams but also pushed for the integration of baseball by organizing offseason traveling tours that featured Black ballplayers. Muhammad Ali’s accomplishments in the ring and his activism outside of the ropes surely earns him a spot, but there are also pugilists like Jack Johnson, who was the first Black heavyweight champion of the world. Despite his athletic prowess, Johnson was shadowed by the enforcement of arcane laws throughout most of his life.
Do you know the name of the first Black hockey player to play in the National Hockey League? What about the speed skater who made history at the 2006 Olympics, or the former track star turned bobsled Olympic medalist? We dig into those biographies and more, paying respect to figures that continue to influence American society.
Fifty names don’t do justice to all of the groundbreaking Black American athletes, but the accomplishments of those included are sure to inspire. From overcoming diseases to segregation, learn about the legends of American sport who are responsible for the way we watch games today.
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A six-time Olympic medalist, Jackie Joyner-Kersee is one of track and field’s most decorated athletes. Joyner-Kersee also won four world championships. A native of East St. Louis, she spoke out about overcoming asthma throughout her career.
Ted Williams once said they invented the MLB All-Star Game for Willie Mays. A 24-time All-Star, Mays is one of baseball’s most accomplished players, but he also advocated for Black American athletes during his career. In the 1950s, Mays helped organize traveling tours that showcased some of the game's best unseen Black talent.
Few American athletes have had an impact on society like Muhammad Ali. Born Cassius Clay, Ali, who converted to Islam, was a standout boxing champion who mastered the art of the interview and was not afraid to speak out against issues he deemed unjust. Later in life, Ali became a recognizable spokesperson in the battle to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease.
In 1950, Althea Gibson became the first Black tennis player to compete at the U.S. National Championships. Six years later, Gibson became the first Black athlete to win a tennis grand slam tournament, capturing the 1956 French Open. Gibson won five singles grand slam tourneys, and in 2019, a statue was unveiled in her honor on the grounds of the U.S. Open in New York.
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A two-sport star in professional baseball and football, Bo Jackson helped redefine athletics in the 1980s. A hip injury incurred while playing football derailed Jackson’s career in both sports, but the glimpses of power, speed, and acumen were almost revelatory. Jackson’s versatility inspired future star athletes to compete in as many sports as possible.
A three-time WNBA most valuable player and two-time WNBA champion, Lisa Leslie is a pioneer of women’s pro basketball. At center, Leslie was a force on both ends of the floor but proved to be equally resonant off the court. Leslie helped change perceptions of female athletes by regularly modeling for fashion, and returning to the court after taking time off to start a family.
Barry Bonds holds MLB records for most career home runs (762) and most home runs in a single season (73). However, Bonds’ legacy is complicated, clouded by suspected use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). For much of the 2000s, Bonds was a polarizing figure, clearly a monumental athlete who stirred controversy over PED usage in professional sports.
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