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•Proverb Jacobs, a tackle from the University of California, was one of three blacks in the 1963 Oakland Raider training camp. Jacobs decided that the other two would be kept but that his chances were doubtful, so he went to Al Davis, then the Raider coach, and asked to be cut, even though Jacobs figured he was better than many of the white candidates.
"I know you need an even number of Negroes for rooming on the road," Jacobs said, "and I'd be the extra man." Davis assured him there would be no such quota system, and Jacobs made the team.
In point of fact, however, there used to be a quota system in all pro sports. "That's why you'd usually see an even number of blacks on teams," says former Brooklyn Pitcher Carl Erskine. It was one thing to ask a black player to lay down a sacrifice bunt for a white teammate, quite another to allow him to room with a white. Black-black combinations, like Roy Campanella-Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson-Dan Bankhead, were much more common. Robinson, for all his trailblazing, never had a white roommate in the majors.
Marion Motley, the Hall of Fame Cleveland fullback, for example, might never have gotten a chance with the Browns had they not needed a black roommate for Bill Willis, a guard drafted out of Ohio State in 1946 and the first black in the old All-America Football Conference.
By the time the first black was drafted into the NBA—Chuck Cooper by the Celtics in 1950—baseball had taken some of the heat off the race issue. Basketball was forced from the beginning to mix roommates racially because its quota system pretty much restricted a team to one black. "They said they didn't have a quota system, but they did," says Jack Nichols, a white, a former Celtic and the first roommate of a hotshot rookie named William Felton Russell.
Cooper's first roommate was Cousy, who had written his senior thesis at Holy Cross on the persecution of minority groups. He could've added a chapter on Charlotte, N.C., where Cooper was denied a room in the hotel where the team was to stay during an exhibition game. Cooper was so discouraged that after the game, instead of joining the rest of the Celtics at their hotel, he and Cousy jumped on an all-night sleeper to New York City, where they caught a morning flight to Boston.
It's probably impossible to pinpoint the first pair of racially mixed roommates: Maybe it was Branch Rickey, then a coach at Ohio Wesleyan, and a black player named Charlie Thomas, who shared Rickey's hotel room one night in 1904 after Thomas had been refused his own accommodations in South Bend, Ind. Campanella and Joe Tuminelli, a white utility infielder, were briefly assigned a room together while playing on the Dodger's Nashua, N.H. farm club in the New England League in the spring of 1946. Buddy Young and Zollie Toth roomed together on the Colts in the early '50s. Willie Lanier and Jim Lynch came to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1967, to battle for the same middle linebacker job (Lanier won it) and remained roommates for several years. Bobby Bryant, a white from Macon, Ga., and Alan Page, a black from Canton, Ohio, were longtime roomies on the Vikes. Art Powell and Jack Kemp were a mixed pair on the Buffalo Bills in '67, and Brig Owens and Jerry Smith roomed together for several years on the Redskins, beginning in the mid-'60s. Curt Blefary said he received a lot of publicity and hate mail after he chose the late Don Wilson as a roommate when they played for the Astros back in 1969. Reggie Jackson and Pitcher Chuck Dobson were another early black-white combo when they roomed together on the Oakland A's in the late '60s. There are dozens of such combos in all sports these days, though they aren't all that common, considering the percentage of black players in pro sports.
Perhaps the most unlikely combination occurred on the Vancouver White-caps of the NASL during the 1979 and '80 seasons. It matched Carl Valentine, a black of Jamaican ancestry, and Bruce Grobbelaar, a white South African who as a soldier had fought black Rhodesian insurgents. Grobbelaar left to play First Division soccer in England after the '80 season, but they've remained close friends.
Both players felt a certain amount of apprehension about the pairing, which had been suggested by Whitecap management. Grobbelaar's was intensified when he went to meet Valentine as the latter arrived at the Vancouver airport to join the club.
"Right before I came off the plane, this big black dude, maybe 6'6" and all muscle, came walking by Bruce," says Valentine. "He thought that was his roomie."