The success of the black athlete in America is even greater than Branch Rickey thought it might be on that day in the 1940s when he was inspired to introduce to baseball's cloistered world the very special skills of Jackie Robinson. Until then the black man had won sporting prestige primarily in prizefighting and in track, and not too much in track, because college coaches then were recruiting few black athletes.
But consider what has happened since Jackie Robinson jogged out to first base at Ebbets Field:
•In basketball three of the five players named to the 1969-70 All-NBA team were black, as were all five of the players named to the All-Rookie team. Blacks have won the league's Most Valuable Player award 12 times in the past 13 seasons.
•In pro football all four 1969 Rookie of the Year awards for offense and defense were won by blacks.
•In baseball black men have won the National League's MVP award 16 times in the past 22 seasons.
•Twenty-six years ago there were no blacks on any of the big-league basketball, football or baseball professional team rosters, though on rare occasions in the past, basketball, baseball and football had used black players. Today there are 150 blacks out of 600 players in major league baseball, 330 out of 1,040 in football and 153 out of 280 in basketball. Of the players on the professional leagues' 1969-70 all-star teams, 36% in baseball were black, 44% in football and 63% in basketball.
It is clear that the black community in the U.S. is not just contributing more than its share of participants to sport. It is contributing immensely more than its share of stars. Black athletes accounted for all eight Olympic records set by U.S. runners at Mexico City in 1968, which led a European coach to observe: "If not for the blacks, the U.S. team would finish somewhere behind Ecuador."
As American black athletes have achieved world recognition they have stirred competitive instincts in their ancestral Africa. Africa's first Gallup-type poll was taken in 1965. Seven thousand Africans were asked what man—politician, writer or sportsman—would they consider as African of the Year. Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila, first black African ever to win an Olympic gold medal—he won the marathon in 1960 and '64—was elected. Now he has lots of victorious company. In the 1968 Games, Ethiopia's Mamo Wolde won the marathon, and three Kenyans—Kipchoge Keino, Naftali Temu and Amos Biwott—took gold medals in the 1,500 meters, the 10,000 meters and the steeplechase respectively.
In the 1960 Games the emerging nations won one gold and one silver medal. In 1964 they took one gold and three bronze. In 1968 they won four gold, seven silver and three bronze medals. Indeed, at Mexico City only four men won more than a single medal in individual track events, and three of them were from black Africa—Keino, Wolde and Temu. The other was Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia. Overall, in men's track and field, black runners and jumpers from Africa, the Americas and Europe accounted for 40 of 90 medals (including the relays), and they won 11 of the 24 events.
In only one sport, thoroughbred racing, has the role of the American black declined over the years. This was the first sport in which any considerable number of blacks became prominent. The first Kentucky Derby, run in 1875, had 15 jockeys, 14 of them black. In the first 28 runnings of the Derby black jockeys brought in 15 winners. The first jockey ever to win back-to-back Derbies was a Negro, Isaac Murphy, in 1890 and '91. His total of three Derby victories was unequaled for 39 years and unsurpassed for 57. Other noted black jockeys were Willie Simms, who won the Belmont in 1893 and '94, the Derby in 1896 and '98 and the Preakness in 1898, and Jimmy Winkfield, who won the Derby in 1901 and '02 and finished second and third in his other two rides.