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Recalling black sports pioneers of New York

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame Library

In honor of Black History Month, we take a look back at a few of New York’s black sports pioneers:


When he was called up in 1947 to the Brooklyn Dodgers from the minor-league Montreal Royals, 28-year-old Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s modern-era color line. Robinson’s grace and courage during his sensational Rookie of the Year season paved the way for successive former Negro League players who broke through for other New York-area teams.

On July 8, 1949, future Hall of Famer Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson debuted for the New York Giants, the first black players for that organization.

Not until April 14, 1955 — the year before Robinson retired — did the Yankees’ roster include a black player. Elston Howard played left field that day at Fenway Park. After years of toil behind Yogi Berra, Howard took over the starting catcher job and was named the American League’s MVP in 1963.


Ever since the day in 1964 when the newly minted heavyweight champion toured New York (including the U.N. building), Muhammad Ali (who had recently rejected his “slave name” Cassius Clay) has been closely associated with New York. Two of the Louisville, Ky., native’s greatest bouts — his 1971 loss to Joe Frazier and the successful rematch in 1974 — were witnessed by rapt crowds at Madison Square Garden.


Emlen Tunnell, who joined the football Giants in 1948 on a one-year, $5,000 contract as an undrafted safety, was the franchise’s first black player of the postwar era.
Tunnell was also a league-wide pioneer as the NFL’s first black full-time assistant coach. Retiring in 1961 with 79 interceptions (still No. 2 all-time), “Emlen the Gremlin” was inducted as the first black Pro Football Hall of Famer in 1967.

(Additional reporting by Dina Davis)



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