But there are other black athletes who also made a difference, even though many of them have become footnotes in history. Gerald R. Gems attempts to shine a light on those lesser-known pioneers to light in a book of essays he has edited, Before Jackie Robinson: The Transcendent Role of Black Sporting Pioneers (University of Nebraska Press; paperback; 313 pages).
Gems presents 12 essays about black athletes who excelled in sports like horse racing, golf, boxing, baseball, football and even aviation. Even if you are a rabid sports fan, you might not have heard of some of these men and women; Gems brings these athletes to the forefront, and each of the authors he has chosen has written compelling stories about athletes who broke down barriers.
Gems is a professor in the kinesiology department at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. He has written and edited several books, including Boxing: A Concise History of the Sweet Science in 2014. He earned his Ph.D. in sport history at the University of Maryland and is a past president of the North American Society for Sport History. He has been the book review editor for the Journal of Sport History since 1996 and has written about ethnic, racial, gender and social class factors and the role of sports in society.
In Before Jackie Robinson, Gems said his choice of subjects “provides a sense of chronological change” and the transition in race relations in the United States. The reader learns about Isaac Burns Murphy, a jockey who was recognized as the sport’s best from 1883 to 1890. Murphy won the Kentucky Derby in 1884, 1890 and 1891, but his career was curtailed when someone tried to poison him as he prepared to race at Monmouth Park.
John M. Shippen Jr. was one of the first American golf pros and certainly was the first black tournament golfer as he competed during the 1890s. He played at the second U.S. Open in 1896 and was a club professional at several Long Island golf clubs. Sam Ransom starred in football, baseball and basketball during the first decade of the 20th century at Beloit College in Wisconsin, but made a bigger impact by campaigning for civil rights.
Isadore Channels was a tennis and basketball star. She won four ATA national tennis singles titles, from 1922 to 1924 and again in 1926. She also starred in basketball for the Roamers Athletic Club in basketball during the 1920s. Her story reads like a detective novel, because although her athletic achievements were public knowledge, little was known about her personal life.
Tommy Brookins was a pioneer in basketball and jazz, while Bessie Coleman was the first black female aviator. Tidye Pickett was a pioneer in women’s track, and Harold “Killer” Johnson moved easily in athletic and entertainment circles.
The essayists are knowledgeable in their fields. Pellom McDaniels III, who wrote about Murphy (and also wrote a biography of Murphy in 2013), is an assistant professor of African-American studies at Emory University. Sarah Jane Eikleberry is an assistant professor in the kinesiology department at St. Ambrose University in Iowa, while Robert Pruter is the reference and government documents librarian at Lewis University in Illinois. Gems provides a short biography of each contributor at the end of the book.
There is no denying that Robinson, Louis, Owens, Ali and Ashe were trailblazers. But Before Jackie Robinson shows the foundation that was built that made it possible for those athletes to make a difference. These lesser-known athletes led interesting, competitive lives. Some advanced farther than others, and some were relegated to obscurity. Gems and his team of essayists have provided a necessary and useful look at sports in commentary that encompasses racial, gender and social lenses.