CLEVELAND — Through the years, Northeast Ohio has been home to a myriad of influential black athletes and sports figures who have impacted not only our community, but the world. In honor of Black History Month, here are some of the most influential sports figures in Northeast Ohio.
Scrolls through the timeline below:
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Larry Doby and Satchel Paige
Larry Doby was a professional baseball player in the Negro leagues when he became the second black player to break the color barrier and the first to play in the American League. In July 1947, just three months after Jackie Robinson made history by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, Doby made history, signing a contract with the Cleveland Indians.
Doby was a seven-time All-Star center and joined Satchel Paige as the first black players to win a World Series when the Indians won it all in 1948—the last time Cleveland won a World Series.
After a long career in the Negro leagues, Paige became the oldest man to ever debut in the major leagues at the age of 42. During the pennant race in 1948, Paige recorded a 1.33 ERA with a 5-1 record, helping the Indians get to the World Series, which they later won in six games. He was the first player from the Negro leagues to pitch in the World Series.
Known for being the best running back in Browns franchise history, Jim Brown still holds several franchise rushing records, was a Pro Bowl selection every season he played in the league and won an NFL Championship with the Browns in 1964. In addition to his impressive football resume, Brown also was a seasoned actor and the co-developer of the Black Economic Union, which held a Summit with Muhammad Ali to discuss politics and anti-war movements in Cleveland in 1967.
Born in Canton, Renee Powell is a professional golfer who became the second black woman to ever play on the LPGA tour in 1967. Powell received death threats during the tour and was refused stays at the official tournament hotels and sometimes was refused service at restaurants along the tour. After moving to the United Kingdom in the 1970s, Powell became the first woman to compete in a British men’s tournament. She now serves as the head professional at Clearview Golf Club in East Canton and runs a rehabilitation program for female war veterans.
The “kid from Akron” is one of the greatest to ever play the game of basketball. James led the Cavaliers to the team's first NBA title, breaking a 52-year drought in the city. What makes James so influential goes beyond basketball. His philanthropy is also the stuff of legend. From building basketball courts in underprivileged areas in Northeast Ohio to opening the I Promise School in Akron, providing education and college tuition for hundreds of students, James has worked tirelessly to make Northeast Ohio a better place for the next generation.
An incredible 14-time All-Star outfielder, Frank Robinson used his talents on the field to make history near the end of his playing career, becoming the first black manager in major league history when the Indians hired him to be their player-manager in 1975. While the team wasn’t great during his time in Cleveland, Robinson opened the door for other black and minority managers to find jobs on MLB teams. Robinson’s No. 20 was retired by the Indians and his statue was unveiled in 2017.
Born in Cleveland, Cheryl White became the first black female jockey in the United States in 1971. During her career, White won around 750 races and became the first woman to win five races in one day in 1983. After retiring from racing in 1992, White became a racing official, returning to the saddle for multiple charity events until 2014. She died at the age of 65 in Youngstown in September 2019.
Jesse Owens moved to Cleveland with his family when he was 9 and the track and field legend put East Technical High School on the map when he hit the world record in the 100-yard dash at the 1933 National High School Championships. He went on to set a world record at Ohio State and made a name for himself at the 1936 Olympic Games, winning four gold medals in Berlin and dismantling Adolf Hitler’s plan to showcase “Aryan supremacy." Upon returning to a segregated country, Owens was forced to work menial jobs. He stayed vocal throughout his life on the struggles of race.
The Springfield native and first black NBA general manager Wayne Embry got his start with the Milwaukee Bucks and hired by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1986. During his time with the Cavaliers, Cleveland reached the playoffs nine times. He became the first black team president and chief operating officer of an NBA team in 1994. He worked in Cleveland until 1999. The Cavaliers inducted Embry to their inaugural Wall of Honor class in November.
Bill Willis and Marion Motley
Bill Willis was born in Columbus, playing for the Buckeyes during the school’s first national championship in 1942. Willis was one of the first two black players to play professional football in the modern era, signed to the Browns in 1946 with Marion Motley. After retiring in 1954, Willis became Cleveland’s assistant recreation commissioner and the chairman of the Ohio Youth Commission to help troubled youth in the community.
Motley grew up in Canton and played high school and college football before enlisting in the military during World War II. Motley played for a service team coached by Browns legend Paul Brown, who later invited him to try out for the Browns. Motley was signed to the Browns a few days after Willis. After his football career, Motley struggled to find coaching opportunities in the NFL but coached the Cleveland Daredevils, a Women’s Professional Football League team for a few years.
Both Willis and Motley faced racism on and off the field. The two were taunted and insulted on the field. Off the field, the two were forced to stay behind while the team traveled to a game against the Miami Seahawks after receiving threatening letters and Miami declaring it would invoke a law forbidding black players from competing against white players. Hotels on numerous occasions refused stay for Motley and Willis during away games. Both have since been inducted into the Pro Football
While we celebrate these athletes during Black History Month, their legacy should be remembered beyond the month of February, as their contributions and trailblazing actions have changed the world of sports, and the world in general, forever.