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Althea Gibson was an African-American woman who achieved greatness in not one, but two sports: tennis and golf. She found her athletic calling during a tough childhood, which she spent mostly in the Harlem area of New York City. Gibson won a college scholarship in sports after winning numerous tournaments and championships. She was the first black woman to be invited to compete in Wimbledon in 1951. She won the French Open in 1956 and Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles in 1957 and 1958. She became a tennis professional in 1959.
Her brief professional golf career wasn’t as successful as her tennis career, but Gibson nevertheless broke racial and gender barriers in golf as well. After retirement, Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971. She served as the New Jersey Commissioner of Athletics and a member of the governor’s council of fitness. Gibson died of respiratory failure in 2003.
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With her tireless crusade for women’s equality in sports, Billie Jean King greatly leveled the playing field. She launched many organizations for women athletes including a sports magazine, a sports foundation and a professional women’s tour. Her numerous accomplishments include six Wimbledon singles championship wins. However, the turning point in her life and women’s sports was when she accepted a challenge to play against one-time Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs. In 1973 at the Houston Astrodome, the 29-year-old King defeated 55-year-old Riggs in straight sets in what became known as the “Battle of the Sexes.”
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Joe Louis was the first African-American athlete to receive crossover appeal in mainstream America, earning reverence from black and white people alike. His astounding wins as a heavyweight champion got him the name “The Brown Bomber,” a man who, no matter what a boxing match or life threw at him, always rebounded. He even famously overcame his only boxing defeat with German fighter Max Schmeling in a much-publicized 1938 rematch. To many Americans, this rematch represented the United States overcoming Nazi Germany.
Growing up in poverty, Louis started training at around 10 years old. Though he was the top boxing champion from 1937 to his 1949 retirement, Louis maintained his characteristic integrity, which instilled dignity in a sport long riddled with brutal violence and gambling.
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Though St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood lost a U.S. Supreme Court case against Major League Baseball in 1972, his actions ushered in the era of the free agent. Refusing to let the Cardinals trade him at the end of the 1969 season, Flood challenged the MLB about the reserve clause, which stipulated that a team owns a player for life until their release or trade. Flood was fully aware of the repercussions for his career, but knew the case would benefit other athletes.
The lost Supreme Court case was not a lost cause, however. In 1976, through collective bargaining, two pitchers became free agents when they agreed to play one season with no contract. Flood overcame a rough post-baseball life of alcoholism, debt and a failed marriage to receive the NAACP Jackie Robinson Award in 1992.
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The first American athlete to win four gold medals in one Olympics, Jesse Cleveland was born James Cleveland Owens in 1913. He became known as “Jesse Owens” instead of going by “J.C.” when a school teacher thought he said “Jesse” during a classroom roll call.
Owens’ record-setting track and field career began in high school, when he set national records in the long jump and the 100 and 200-yard dashes. He shattered more track and field records while attending Ohio State University. The pinnacle of his career was the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, when he garnered four gold medals in track and field. Gerald R. Ford granted him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976. Owens died from lung cancer complications in 1980. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal.
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In spite of his significant role in breaking the racial barrier in the Professional Golf Association (PGA), Charlie Sifford said he wasn’t trying to make a historical statement, but simply wanted to play the game he loves. “I just wanted to play golf, you know?” he told Fox Sports. “That’s all there was to it.”
Sifford honed his golfing skills as a young caddy in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he practiced on the green after work. In 1952, Sifford received an invitation to play in the Phoenix Open after boxer Joe Louis passed on the invitation from the PGA. As an African-American in those days, he received much mistreatment during his career. Sifford’s career highlights include winning the UGA National Negro open five times prior to winning his first PGA Tour. He was the first black individual to get inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004.
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Babe Didrikson Zaharias defied traditional femininity and proved that women can make exceptional athletes. As “the World’s Greatest Woman Athlete,” Zaharias dominated tennis, track and field, basketball, golf and baseball. Born Mildred Ella Didrikson, Zaharias got the nickname “Babe” after baseball great Babe Ruth, reflecting her baseball abilities. Her participation in several sports at Beaumont High School in Beaumont, Texas was varied and exemplary. She won two gold medals and a silver medal in track and field at the 1932 Olympics.
Though very athletically talented, it was said that golf was her sport. She won 82 tournaments, including amateur and professional, and was a founding member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association. She met her husband, professional wrestler George Zaharias, while playing golf; they married in 1938. She died from colon cancer in 1956 at age 45. Among Babe Didrikson Zaharias’s legacy are a museum dedicated to her in Beaumont and topping several greatest athlete lists in the media.
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One of the first black trailblazers of professional football, Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard established a series of firsts. He was the NFL’s first African-American coach and the first black person to play in the Rose Bowl (in 1915). This athletically gifted Chicagoan attended Brown University on a scholarship from the Rockefeller family in 1915. He played for the Akron Pros in the American Professional Football League (which was renamed the NFL in 1922) and won a championship for them in 1920.
In 1921, Pollard became head coach while still playing pro. He coached NFL teams in Indiana and Milwaukee until the NFL segregated the organization in 1926. Pollard fought back against the NFL’s decision until 1937, when he retired to pursue a career in business. Though the NFL discontinued segregation in 1946, actual integration didn’t occur until 1962 when Bobby Mitchell signed on with the Washington Redskins. Pollard died in 1986. Three years later, Art Shell became the first black coach (for the Oakland Raiders) in the contemporary NFL. Pollard was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.
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At the time Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey invited Jackie Robinson to join the Major League Baseball team in 1947, the MLB hadn’t had an African American play for it since its segregation in 1889. Jackie Robinson’s legendary decade-long baseball career included winning six pennants and one World Series Championship for his team. He was recognized as the National League Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player of the Year and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Long after his death in 1972, Robinson has never left the American consciousness. The world honored him in 1997, the 50th anniversary of his signing with the Dodgers. He was featured on a commemorative stamp, was made the subject of a 2011 biopic starring Harrison Ford as Rickey and Chadwick Boseman as Robinson, and starred in a 2014 Mazda3 commercial, the greatest of all honors.
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Two major media outlets, the BBC and Sports Illustrated, named Ali Sportsman of the 20th Century. He was recognized as one of the most famous faces of the last century, and he made his personality — in which he famously boasted he could “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” — as big as his boxing skills. There has been no one like Muhammad Ali.
In 1964, he adapted the name Muhammad Ali (“Praiseworthy One”) after joining the Nation of Islam. He cited his faith as the reason for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War; this decision stirred controversy that took a hit to his career. Making a comeback in 1970, Ali reclaimed victory in elaborately named matches set in exotic locations like the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman in Zaire and the “Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier in the Philippines. He announced his retirement in 1981 after experiencing some defeats. Since then, the continuously active Ali has supported and donated to numerous charities and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.