Black Athletes In The 1960s

18 Jan

My perspective on African American athletes in the 1960s was pretty much formed by whatever was written about them in the press at the time. It was a very impressionable time for me, and the gang I grew up with, and I remember we idolized many pro athletes and didn’t really make much of what color they were, as long as they helped whatever our favorite team at the time was win games. I read a column over the weekend in which retired Buffalo News columnist Larry Felser recalled his first meeting with Buffalo Bills star Cookie Gilchrist. He was in the team’s locker room trying to get Cookie to do an interview, and Gilchrist told him he couldn’t at the moment but to give him his address and he would do it later. Sure enough, Gilchrist showed up at his house and stayed for over 3 hours, granting the interview. It reminded me of what Bill Russell, the former Celtic great and another of the greatest athletes of the ’60s said, when asked why he refused to sign autographs. Russell said that signing his name on a piece of paper for a stranger felt impersonal, and that he’d rather stop and have a five minute conversation with a person than sign his name and have that person walk away. I think there was a purpose to Gilchrist’s request to meet Felser at his home. It was a test of sorts, to see if the young writer respected him enough as a man to actually invite him into his home, rather than just do the interview in the “safe” confines of the locker room. Looking back, I believe that was what a lot of black athletes at the time were really looking for – to be shown respect as men in a time when in a lot of places they still weren’t allowed to be served in restaurants, or had to use separate bathroom facilities, or stay in separate hotels on the road than their white teammates. They were searching for basic human dignity. One of my athletic heroes growing up at that time was the legendary Cleveland Browns’ fullback, Jim Brown. I recall reading a story once where Brown came into the locker room carrying a briefcase. He was already starting to look into a post-football acting career, and also was beginning to become involved in the growing Civil Rights movement, and carried a lot of papers having to do with these non-football interests in that briefcase. When a sportswriter asked him why he needed a briefcase, he responded that he was a businessman. The writer ridiculed him in a column and labeled him a “malcontent”, which was a term that was tossed around a lot back then by white writers when they were looking to describe black athletes whose behavior they didn’t understand. You could write a novel documenting what Muhammad Ali went through alone. When Curt Flood, an African American outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, challenged baseball’s reserve clause tying a player to his team, he was called a malcontent and worse, and eventually was unofficially blackballed from the game by owners. Of course, every modern day player who signs a huge free agent contract should thank Flood for his courage. I admire and idolize the players from that era even more now than I did then, armed with the perspective of a grown man who now sees the battles they fought on the field and off.


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