Major, Jack, Willie and Warren

March 23, 2009



In the year 1899 an American cyclist won the world championship in the 1-mile track event. In those days, track cycling was what really mattered and cycling was a reasonably big deal. So this was an event in sport. An even bigger deal was the fact that Marshall “Major” Taylor (Wikipedia) was black. This fact was, likewise, important:

The League of American Wheelmen, then the governing body for the sport, banned blacks from amateur racing in 1894, just as bicycling’s popularity surged.

The “colored cyclone,” as the newspapers called him, competed fiercely on the national circuit in 1897 but had to abandon the quest for sprint points champion when Southern race promoters refused him entry.
Hostility from white riders had gone from conspiratorial race tactics to threats to physical assault. One time a competitor pulled Taylor from his bike and choked him into unconsciousness. Some of the press condemned the racist treatment Taylor received, but some articles suggested he was to blame, saying white riders were understandably angered by his racing prowess and his failure to keep in his place.



Between the years 1908-1915, Arthur John “Jack” Johnson (Wikipedia) was the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the world. For those of you who grew up with, or only know of, the likes of Ali, Foreman (twice!), Sugar Ray, Tyson, Holyfield… the fact that Johnson was black will be no big deal. Back in the early 1900s it was a different story:

By 1902, Johnson had won at least 50 fights against both white and black opponents. Johnson won his first title on February 3, 1903, beating “Denver” Ed Martin over 20 rounds for the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. His efforts to win the full title were thwarted as world heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries refused to face him. Blacks could box whites in other arenas, but the world heavyweight championship was such a respected and coveted position in America that blacks were not deemed worthy to compete for it. Johnson was, however, able to fight former champion Bob Fitzsimmons in July 1907, and knocked him out in two rounds.
Sydney Stadium during the Johnson-Burns match on December 26, 1908.
He eventually won the world heavyweight title on December 26, 1908, when he fought the Canadian world champion Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, after following him all over the world, taunting him in the press for a match.

WillieORee.jpgMost of you will be familiar with what happened in baseball on April 15, 1947 (1889 to 1947, my friends. long time.) but are perhaps unfamiliar with the events of January 18, 1958. On this august occasion, one Willie Eldon O’Ree (Wikipedia) debuted with the Boston Bruins (yay!) against the much detested Montreal Canadiens (boo!). As it turned out, O’Ree did not go on to have a stellar career at the top ranks but he did play in the minor leagues until the ripe old age of 43. Do I even have to mention this?

O’Ree played just one more game in the NHL that first season before he returned to the minors. He made it back for the 1960-61 season, and that’s when he began to understand the difference his skin color made, in particular to fans and opponents in America. Trips to New York, Detroit and Chicago were the worst, as he played through slurs, taunts and threats.
“In the penalty box, stuff would be thrown at [me], and they’d spit at me,” O’Ree says, his voice even, and his memory clear. “I never fought one time because of racial remarks. I fought because guys butt-ended me and speared me and cross-checked me. But I said, ‘If I’m going to leave the league, it’s because I don’t have the skills or the ability to play anymore. I’m not going to leave it ’cause some guy makes a threat or tries to get me off my game by making racial remarks towards me.'”

Man. Things kinda sucked back then if you were a sports fan, didn’t they? I mean, sports is all about the excellence of competition. Any comers, all comers…knowatimsayin? Glad we left all that nonsense behind long before I became a sports fan.
WarrenMoonEdEskimos.jpgHmm. You know, I once watched a Rose Bowl in which an undersized mediocre looking, but nevertheless competent, quarterback did a decent job of not losing too badly to his opposition. Faint praise right? Well, homie went on to a NFL pro career and made tons of cash while being, well, still kinda mediocre. Back in the 1978 Rose Bowl, however, fans were lucky enough to watch one Warren Moon (Wikipedia) of the UW Huskies whup up on the U. Mich Wolverines (boo!). Of course, even for some third rate collegiate bowl game, the fans were lucky to have him.

He was recruited by a number of colleges, but some wanted to convert Moon to another position as was the norm for many major colleges recruiting black high school quarterbacks.[9] Moon decided to attend West Los Angeles College in 1974-75 where he was a record-setting quarterback. After Moon showed his ability at West L.A., only a handful of four-year colleges showed interest in signing him. Offensive Coordinator Dick Scesniak [University of Washington], however, was eager to sign the rifle-armed Moon.

…oh, for chrissakes! People. This was the 1970s!!! Oh yeah, that’s right. I remember those days. Black players can’t be quarterback, you see. Don’t have the right shoulder structure, it’s a genetic thing doncha know. Plus, they aren’t as good at all that, you know, quarterbacking stuff….
Come to think of it, I seem to recall some weebag Div I hockey player (who never ended up going anywhere professionally) writing some paper about how black people’s hip structure precluded them from skating very well. (Or, skating like gangbusters and then fixing, oh, knees and hips for a living as an orthopedic surgeon)
Sorry. Back to the point. Oh yes. Warren Moon. Back to the Wikipedia:

Throughout his CFL career, Moon amassed 1,369 completions on 2,382 attempts (57.4 completion percentage) for 21,228 yards and 144 touchdown passes. He also led his team to victory in 9 of 10 postseason games. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Edmonton Eskimos Wall of Honour. In 2006, he was ranked fifth on a list of the greatest 50 CFL players presented by Canadian sports network TSN.

Not to shabby for a guy thought physically and mentally incapable of playing the quarterback position because of his skin color, right? Pretty decent.
What? What’s that you say? There’s more? Oh, riiiiigghht. That Warren Moon. The one who next jumped to the NFL and played from 1984-2000 as one of the more exciting quarterbacks to take the field,

Combining his NFL and CFL stats, Moon’s numbers are nearly unmatched in professional football annals: 5,357 completions in 9,205 attempts for 70,553 yards and 435 touchdowns. Even if his Canadian League statistics are discounted, Warren Moon’s career is still exceptional: 3,988 completions for 49,325 yards, 291 touchdown passes, 1,736 yards rushing, and 22 rushing touchdowns. During his NFL career, Warren Moon was named to nine Pro Bowl games (1988-1995, 1997).

I’m just getting going…
Alright. There’s really not much point in going on and on to list Owens and Ashe and Gibson and the Williamses and Ribbses and Woods and Jones and all the other great athletes who thrilled (or continue to thrill) us with their class, competence and courage. Little point in detailing for each case where and when the operating rules of their sports (official and/or de facto) would have (or did..or still do) prevent them from excelling because of their skin color. Not much profit in describing how the overt bigotry of “they can’t do it” papered over the fear that someone might be better than the rest of us. Silly to talk about the moral repugnance of categorically closing off the open field of play to some people just to benefit ourselves or those more like ourselves.
Because, you know, we’re beyond all that sort of thing now. And…this is a blog that is supposed to focus on science. And the conduct of science. Which is objective. The only goal is the discovery. Doncha know.
Talking about diversity and openness and all that is just whining. Until you show us, with data, how discovery is being impaired by any particular lack in diversity. With data. did I say that part yet? Because, you know, we’re about empirical science. Discovery. We couldn’t possibly learn any lessons without a prospective experiment…
Update 032509: Related post from Abel Pharmboy

No Responses Yet to “Major, Jack, Willie and Warren”

  1. D. C. Sessions Says:

    Reverend, I think I can speak for the choir when I say that we get the sermon.
    The question isn’t “is the Promised Land a good place to be?” Unfortunately, Google Maps isn’t offering any directions.


  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    hmm, I coulda sworn it was you, DC, that left some comment about how discovery was everything and until diversity was proven to improve discovery we needn’t fuss. my mistake. but someone was on about that in a comment somewhere or other. I’ll find it eventually. or, more likely, somebody or other will oblige in the comments.
    Google Maps isn’t offering any directions.
    yeah, well sport is offering a direction or two. sounds as though you aren’t really listening to the sermon…


  3. juniorprof Says:

    Back when I was a wee-lad the Oilers used to play the Cowboys in preseason in what was called the governor’s bowl. After one of those games, I stayed around outside the exit to the bus from the Oiler’s locker room hoping to get some autographs. I wanted Warren Moon’s but figured I’d just be able to get some other ones. I asked everyone that came by and was roundly ignored; however, Moon eventually came out and I, along with several dozen others, screamed and yelled and he came over and signed every last autograph. I still have the program for the game with Moon’s giant signature right on the cover.
    On another note, while we can learn much from the progress of sports we can learn nearly as much from its recent failures. Look, for instance, at the good-old-boy network that runs the college football coaching ranks and its dismal failure to hire highly qualified minorities.


  4. D. C. Sessions Says:

    I coulda sworn it was you, DC, that left some comment about how discovery was everything and until diversity was proven to improve discovery we needn’t fuss.

    Nope. It was me who left a comment about how working conditions in academia (including diversity) are likely to suck until the people writing the checks find it to their advantage for them to change.
    That may involve changing their minds about the value of diversity, or it may involve collective bargaining, or it may involve shooting all of them who don’t Get With The Program. Lots of ways to get there, some better [1] than others.

    yeah, well sport is offering a direction or two.

    Somehow I don’t think most of us will be happy waiting the better part of a century for the situation to improve. Or were you looking to model some other aspect of the examples you cited?
    Maybe academic departments should be composed of fixed-size teams with winner-take-all competitions. That would certainly crank up the incentive to recruit for superstars, which I seem to recall observing would drive the people with budget authority to be less inclined to drive down the per-person cost.
    [1] FSVO “better”


  5. Curt Fischer Says:

    DrugMonkey, I hope this post is not supposed to be a response to my comment . Your examples of athletes who fought hard win recognition and shrug off injustice are inspiring, no doubt about it. But at the end of the post when you start mentioning diversity, discovery, and the linkage between the two, I fear you are reacting to an argument that I never made.


  6. scribbler50 Says:

    Drugmonkey, I’m a big fan of the great Jack Johnson not just for his prowess inside the ring (clearly a man among boys and decades ahead of his time) but for how he lived his life outside the ring. He never got the memo that he should “step and fucking fetch it” for the white man, and as is already well documented… he took absolutely no shit from no one!
    Two interesting side stories:
    (1) In that fight with Tommy Burns in Australia, the main guy in Burns’s corner was the famous “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, the legend and former champion. (Errol Flynn played him in the movie of Corbett’s life) Well, the story has it that the “Gentleman” spent the entire fight, which Johnson could’ve ended in the first round by the way, spitting horrible racial epithets at Mr. Johnson. Nonstop. Some gentleman, huh? And, as extra salt in the open wound, just as Johnson moved in for the inevitable knockout, they shut down the cameras so it would never be recorded on film that a white guy lost to a black guy in the ring. Fucking pathetic! We have several classic boxing pictures above the back-bar where I work, one which is of this guy Tommy Burns. He looks like a bruiser in it. And when people comment on the pic saying something like, “Wow, that fucking guy looks tough,” I take great delight in telling that person that Burns ran from Johnson for years, finally got embarrassed into fighting him, and the embarrassment grew round by fucking round.
    (2) Johnson was pulled over for speeding one day, in his sporty open convertible, just as he was approaching this small town down south. The officer demanded that the fine be paid right there on the spot… fifty dollars, which was a huge amount back then for such a violation. So old Jack pulled out a big wad, peeled himself off a c-note and said, “Here, keep the whole thing. I intend to be speeding on the way out of town too.” Like I said, Jack never got the memo.
    Terrific post, DM.


  7. DrugMonkey Says:

    Curt@#5, no that wasn’t the comment. Your comment did, however, quote becca referring to the same comment which I remembered but likewise am having trouble locating. It must have been at some other blog…


  8. Martijn Says:

    Cycling still is an almost all white sport, so Taylor really was way ahead of his time.


  9. BikeMonkey Says:

    Cycling still is an almost all white sport, so Taylor really was way ahead of his time.
    Well, not really all-white. There are quite a number of tan folk in the pro ranks, they just tend to hail from South American places and not be what we think of as “black”. And there are a couple-three track cyclists from the African diaspora who have occupied the top ranks now and again–it’s just that track cycling has fallen relatively low in the eyes of fandom- road racing is all that now.
    but yeah, where the hell are the Kenyans?


  10. road racing is all that now.
    For certain values of “all that”.


  11. Umlud Says:

    DrugMonkey – I get your point (or at least I think I do). However, what about Native American athletes, or what about Americans of East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, West Asian or Polynesian descent? True, many of these groups do not have a history of slavery and poverty in the US, but there are many inherent prejudices against them, especially in the area of sports and other conceptualizations of “manliness”. (Or are you leaving that up to others?)


  12. DrugMonkey Says:

    The essential point here is not limited to any particular class of individuals for which systematic barriers to participation or achievement are present, no. Nor is it directed solely at sporting pursuits.


  13. Mike Says:

    BikeMonkey – I assume you mean black Kenyans, rather than someone with a Kenyan passport who then switches to UK nationality because that’s where their grandparents were from.


  14. Another superb post, DM. I can’t believe I’m two days late to this one.


  15. Toaster Says:

    There has historically been a very similar pattern in music. Sure, now we venerate the Chuck Berrys and Smokey Robinsons of the world, but not until after European American culture has appropriated and owned their styles. It’s especially apparent in rock and roll. I can only think of 3 rock bands with African American members: The Dirtbombs, Bad Brains and Sevendust, and none of those are exactly mainstream.
    Your point stands well, and it echoes through far too many other aspects of our culture, even today.


  16. John Says:

    Toaster: Well, your comment also brings a different perspective. As you say, there are still very few major rock bands with black members, let alone frontmen. OTOH there is a large majority of black acts (bands or individuals) in hip hop and RnB.
    Should we conclude that this is caused by racism among the major labels? Should we start slapping fines on labels that don’t have enough black rock bands? Should we force labels to have at least X% of black people among their new signs for each year?
    It makes no sense to blame lack of diversity on the established practitioners of the field.


  17. JohnV Says:

    Weird all this time I thought Warren Moon played in the USFL before the NFL, even went to look it up just to be sure.
    And toaster you’re missing Killswitch Engage (their frontman, no less), who I highly recommend!
    (no longer posting as John to avoid confusion with the guy above :P)


  18. F.O.R. Says:

    A friend of mine, who is also a student of mine, was a pretty well known and successful African American pro NFL player during the 1960s. As a college player he was managed by his coach as a commodity (And the other black players were as well, more so than the white players), and threatened with removal from the team if he got involved in civil rights related activities that were going on across campus. Now, as part of his efforts to finish the degree he could not at that time finish, he’ll be writing this up. This is going to be interesting. It has been very interesting for me to hear the background as he works it out.


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