Historians Weigh In: Ranking the Top 10 Historically Significant Black Athletes

ESPN’s The Undefeated’s recently unveiled their 50 Greatest Black Athletes. The rankings inspired conversations across social media about black athletic excellence as well as the impact and historical significance of certain figures. Over the last two-weeks we asked sport historians to weigh in and offer their own Top 10 lists. A dozen scholars responded with their lists — Corye Beene, Joe Benge, Micah Burch, Andrew McGregor, Louis Moore, Ryan Murtha, John Price, Robert Pruter, Patrick Salkeld, Rwany Sibaja, Sarah Trembanis, and Robert Turpin.

We asked for their Top 10 historically significant Black athletes, leaving it intentionally open-ended and up for individual interpretation. Some viewed this only in the United States context while other took a global approach. Robert Pruter shared his interpretation, writing “By ‘historically significant’ I understand it to mean African Americans who made significant breakthroughs in their sports, that impacts society as a whole.” John Price saw the exercise more as an effort to educate and expand beyond commonly included figures. “I tried to think outside of the box and add in some notable absences from the ESPN list,” he admitted. Joe Benge chose a majority of international athletes, and sent along an extended essay on why Viv Richards is his #1.

In total, over forty different people were named — twenty-one of them also appeared on The Undefeated’s list. Surprisingly, there was only one unanimous selection: Muhammad Ali. Twenty-three different people appeared on only one list. Annotations accompanies most lists, offering insight into each person’s selections but we also accepted lists from people without commentary in order to expand our numbers.

Most contributors commented on how difficult this exercise was for them. Sarah Trembanis wrote, “The process of coming up with this list has been illuminating and frustrating and has left me very, very aware of my own blind spots (and what needs to be added to my reading list).” For many there were a few obvious inclusions. Micah Burch noted that Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, and Jackie Robinson “require no explanation,” at least for an audience of historians. Yet, beyond the “no-brainer” choices, most contributors agonized over the final few selections. Several included ties and co-ranked athletes, such as John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who are often linked to one another. Perhaps a Top 5 list would have been more uniform and Top 15 less agonizing.

Below is a list of each athlete named in the submissions we received with number of times in parentheses as well as brief comments about why certain people included that person or what they see as significant about their lives. We hope this list will help shed light on Black athletes that some scholars view as significant and worth exploring further. As Trembanis noted, this activity can be both educational and reflective. In the future, we’d like to share our reading lists to help readers find the best sources to learn more.

At the end of the post you will find each scholar’s submitted list. Feel free to continue the conversation in the comments below as well as add your list. You can also vote in our poll (at the end of this post) by choosing your Top 10 Black athletes from our list.

The Complete List

1. Muhammad Ali (12)

Corye Beene: He was a heavyweight boxing champion who was famous for his braggadocio and smack talking style. He won an Olympic gold medal in 1960. Because of his conversion to the Nation of Islam, he refused to join the military & fight during the Vietnam War; after his arrest, his case went to the Supreme Court where his conviction was overturned.

Historical context: Ali brought attention to the topic of conscientious objection which caused dialogue about the meaning of the war in Vietnam, patriotism and military service; his philanthropic work after his boxing career ended earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom

John Price: The greatest boxer of all time. Anti-war activist. Civil Rights activist. Superstar celebrity.  Olympian. Grammy Award-winning poet and singer.  The people’s champion. His very name has passed into American lore, his statements and rhymes are modern-day proverbs, and his matches are legendary moments in our shared memory.  There’s nothing to be said about Ali to exaggerate his impact on American culture both in and out of the ring.

Robert Pruter: He became the greatest heavyweight boxer in history, and achieved immense worldwide acceptance overcoming many barriers. These included his militant Black Muslim religion (he later converted to conventional Islam), his resistance to the draft, and the stripping of his heavyweight title.

Sarah Trembanis: Ali continued the work that Jack Johnson started. Ali’s physical accomplishments are a marvel. His agility and strategic dominance in the ring transformed the sweet science. His willingness to risk censure, popularity, and his boxing license shook the world.

2. Jackie Robinson (9)

Corye Beene: He was the first to integrate professional baseball. Before Rosa Parks, he had his own bus incident in which he refused to move to the back of the bus while serving in the military at Fort Hood, Texas. He became a Civil Rights Advocate after his retirement.

Historical context: Despite the racism he endured while playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he remained largely silent in the face of abuse; upon his retirement, he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. & was outspoken against Malcolm X and the black nationalist movement; he started the first bank dedicated to helping African-Americans secure loans & promoting black entrepreneurship (Freedom National Bank)

John Price: The American sports landscape would look drastically different had Jackie Robinson not broken the color barrier the way he did.  Robinson was in a position where he had to be an almost perfect player and live up to completely unrealistic social expectations, including openly hostile crowds and opposing players.  He responded to the pressure by becoming Rookie of the Year, a six-time All-Star, the first black MVP, and ended up having his number retired by the MLB.

Robert Pruter: Played the most significant role in the history of African Americans and sports, by successfully integrating Major League Baseball in 1947, by becoming a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and opening up America’s then recognized national sport to other African American players. The opening up of baseball to integration helped pave the way to integration in other areas of American life.

3. Venus & Serena Williams (9)

Corye Beene:  Serena Williams is the only tennis player to have won 10 Grand Slam singles titles in two separate decades; and the only tennis player in history (male or female) to have won singles titles at least six times in three of the four Grand Slam tournaments. She is also the only player ever to have won two of the four Grand Slams seven times each (seven Wimbledon titles and seven Australian Open titles). Oh and she also has four Olympic gold medals.

Historical context: one of the greatest tennis players ever, she has been able to stay top-ranked and play at a high level, despite overcoming injury; she and her sister Venus Williams remain unbeaten in Grand Slams Doubles Finals; she and her sister Venus are the first African-American women to have ownership in an NFL team (Miami Dolphins)

Micah Burch: Two of the best female athletes ever, they brought some swagger to the country club, and proceeded to use that opportunity to do more than become all-time greats in their sport.  Yes, this is a dig at Tiger Woods, particularly the bland corporate pre-wigged out version – imagine if he had been like them!  The Williams sisters did for tennis what Tiger was supposed to do for golf.

Ryan Murtha:  There are plenty of black athletes that have forced us to reckon with the absolute whiteness of many of our sports, from Cullen Jones and Simone Manuel in the pool to Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles in gymnastics. But none have been able to match either longevity or level of dominance that Serena brings to the lily-white enclaves of the WTA tour.

Robert Pruter: During their careers, still not finished, achieved by 2017 thirty Grand Slam singles championships (Venus, 7 and Serena 23). The two players won four Gold Medals in the Olympic Games. They won their many championships with grace and sportsmanship, but faced much resentment and hostility for not only their many wins, but for their powerful and strong play (and their muscled bodies).

Sarah Trembanis: Confession time: I don’t watch much tennis. I admire the game but only keep up with it tangentially. Even from my less than immersed vantage point, it is impossible to deny the greatness of Serena Williams. She has set records that will likely never be matched, not backwards and in heels a la Ginger Rogers, but under the heavy weight of the double burden of racism and sexism. Apologies to Ali (and I’ll get to him soon) but Serena is the greatest.

4. Jesse Owens (7)

Corye Beene: He was the first American to win 4 gold medals in one Olympic Games:  1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. He set three world records and tied a fourth world record all at one meet: Big Ten Championships in 1935. While competing for Ohio State University, he did 42 events his junior year and won ALL of them.

Historical context: Served as the symbol of tolerance and democracy while competing in front of Adolf Hitler’s Berlin Olympics; his track and field successes are unsurpassed; his honors as an American hero include the Medal of Freedom, the Living Legend Award, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Congressional Gold Medal

Ryan Murtha: Owens broke three world records in one hour at the Big 10 Championships in 1935, dominated the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, was awarded the first-ever endorsement deal for a black athlete, and highlighted the hypocrisy of segregation on the home front.

Robert Pruter: Set track and field world records in high school, college, and the Olympic Games, becoming the most internationally heralded African American athlete of his day. His achievement helped to belie the notion of white racial superiority as promulgated by the German Nazi Regime, and by many white people in the United States and other nations.

Sarah Trembanis: 1936. Berlin. Owens wins gold in the midst of the growing crisis that would lead to WWII. Owens not only won 4 medals in a performance for the ages, he did so under immense pressure. Much like with the bouts between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, symbolic weight was placed on Owens. His victories were celebrated as proxy victories against Hitler’s racial beliefs.

5. Michael Jordan (6)

Corye Beene: He won six NBA titles; MVP five times; 2 Olympic gold medals – greatest basketball player in US History.

Historical context: his competitiveness and original playing style made him the most revered and hated player during his years in the NBA; he was the one of the first pro athletes to receive million-dollar lucrative sponsorship and endorsement deals

Micah Burch: He should probably make the Mt Rushmore. Best player ever in the most ridiculously athletic and exciting sport ever took the game global and in so doing changed sports, marketing, and fashion – all while having a crap personality.

John Price: The perfect modern athlete, Jordan was – and still is – a media icon, a commercial tour de force, and of course, the greatest basketball player of all time.  At the height of his career, Jordan “retired” to play baseball, then came back to win a second three-peat.  Despite his unmatched on-court accomplishments, Jordan’s historical significance is not just an athlete but as the exemplar for modern personal branding, exploiting commercial endorsements to become the first billionaire NBA player.

Patrick Salkeld: Outside of his basketball career, Michael Jordan contributed to society when he set a standard for the branding and marketing of athletes. According to a 1998 Fortune Magazine article, his brand produced $10 billion in fourteen years.

Sarah Trembanis: In the 90s, Jordan ruled the world. The NBA was synonymous internationally with one name and that name was Michael Jordan. Jordan’s utter dominance of the league and his omnipresent presence in commercial campaigns cemented his place as the un-American athlete and the modern American pitchman. “Space Jam” is a discussion for another time and place.

6. Althea Gibson (5)

Corye Beene: She was the first to play international tennis, the first to win a Grand Slam title (French Open), the first to compete on the women’s professional golf tour, and the first to be voted by Associated Press as Female Athlete of the Year in 1957.

Historical context: Broke the color barrier for tennis and golf; a successful professional athlete in two sports; paved the way for not only African-American athletes but female athletes as well

Robert Pruter: Became an international tennis champion, winning 11 Grand Slam events, after integrating the United States National Tennis championship in 1950. Her breakthrough helped integrate the tennis establishment, and paved the way for the breakthrough of such black tennis greats as Arthur Ashe. She later competed in golf, in the LPGA, and although less successfully her presence helped show integration in a sport long restricted to white players.

Patrick Salkeld: Althea Gibson global racial barriers and opened tennis to blacks when she became the first person of color to win Wimbledon, the French Open, and the US Open in the 1950s.

7. Joe Louis (5)

Andrew McGregor: Joe Louis is significant in multiple ways. His fights with Max Schmeling endeared him to White Americans, allowing him to become one of the United State’s first black sporting heroes. This was only possible because he carefully cultivated an image that rejected controversies of Jack Johnson and re-established a pathway for African Americans to participate in integrated boxing (and other sporting) contests. Louis was an important intermediary figure that helped set the stage for figures like Jackie Robinson to follow and expand upon.

Robert Pruter: Boxer who became the first African American boxer who was accepted by white America in his long reign as heavyweight champion. His 1939 defeat of German heavyweight Max Schmeling, who had earlier defeated Louis in 1936 was one of the most famous boxing contests in history of the sport, and cemented his claim as the world champion.

8. Jack Johnson (5)

Ryan Murtha: The first African American world heavyweight boxing champion. Johnson beat the original ‘Great White Hope’ Jim Jefferies in the Fight of the Century in 1910, becoming a powerful symbol during the height of the Jim Crow Era.

Sarah Trembanis: Retreating to historical figures makes me feel I’m on more solid ground. Let’s talk about Jack Johnson—the first black heavyweight champion of the world and total badass. Johnson was so greatly superior to his opponents, that he was able to toy with them, beating them not only physically but psychologically. Johnson’s most impressive boxing feats came not in his infamous match with Jim Jeffries but in his rise to the title.   His dominance in the ring was accompanied by his strength outside it. Johnson would not submit to attack anywhere, questioning racial discrimination and refusing to bend his own desires to fit into the mold of the respectable race man. His shadow and legacy loomed over every other black boxer in the twentieth century.

9. Wilma Rudolph (5)

Micah Burch: Could’ve gone with Alice Coachman (as more trailblazing), or Flo Jo (faster, flyer), but Wilma being the fastest woman alive in the early 60s, in front of an early worldwide TV audience, surely had to have something to do with ushering in the Civil Rights movement and modern feminism, no?  If not, she at least represents black American women’s dominance of the purest sport.

Robert Pruter: track and field runner who became an international icon in the sport, after competing in the 1956 Olympics and winning three gold medals in the 1960 Olympic Games. For a few short years, Rudolph was the United States and the world’s most visible black women athlete, paving the way for other African American women athletes.

Sarah Trembanis: As part of the famous TigerBelles, Rudolph competed in two Olympics (1956 and 1960) but is best known for her amazing accomplishments in the 1960 Olympics. In 1960, she caught the attention of the world, winning three gold medals and setting world and Olympics records. Rudolph is remembered not just for her gold medals but her success in sports as black woman who had struggled with a physical disability as a child.

10.Tiger Woods (4)

John Price: Golf is a sport mired in racial and classist tension and Tiger Woods smashed through those barriers in the 1990s.  His talent was undeniable and his media savvy brought golf into a new age of exposure and popularity.  Through the late 1990s and 2000s, Tiger was arguably the most dominant professional athlete in any sport at the time. It’s unfortunate how his personal life has unfolded before the camera’s eye, but his story of triumph is a quintessentially American one and still resonates in popular culture.

Ryan Murtha: Plenty of ink has already been spilled over Tiger, so I’m just going to leave you with this.

Robert Pruter: Of mixed racial heritage but deemed as African American, became what many golf historians feel was the greatest golfer of all time, despite having won only 14 majors to Jack Nicklaus’s 18. His career was stalled due to his many injuries, but his level of achievement at his height was much far ahead of any of his contemporaries, not matched by any other golfer in the modern history of the game.

11. John Carlos & Tommie Smith (3)

Micah Burch: Probably the most politically significant act in the history of sport, their brave, righteous, and silent statement rocked America and was powerful enough to reverberate literally around the world, waking the nascent consciousness of racial injustice in the remote island of Australia, and elsewhere.

12. Pelé (3)

Micah Burch: Like a number of others on this list, he’s a consensus top 10 athlete in the world full stop and for a whole generation of Americans, he’s the only player of the world’s #1 sport they could name.

Patrick Salked: Pelé evolved into one of the first global names in sport before globalization, which helped ignite the mainstream popularity of soccer in the United States and inspired millions across the world to play the sport.

13. Bill Russell (3)

Robert Pruter: While not the first African American to integrate basketball when he joined the Boston Celtics in 1956, he was the first to become the most centrally important player on an NBA team and to coach an NBA team. He also played a significant role with his college team, the San Francisco Dons, to win the NCAA twice, 1955 and 1956. His defensive skills changed the game, as rules were reshaped to make it more difficult for the center to block and defend against baskets.

14. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2)

Ryan Murtha:  Not only is he arguably the best basketball player of all time, but also one of the most prominent Muslim-Americans and the prototype for the modern athlete-activist.

Robert Turpin:  Important during college and pro career because of his success on the court and thoughtful, often controversial, opinions off the court. He continues to be influential over the current generation of conscientious/woke athletes.

15. Arthur Ashe (2)

Andrew McGregor: Ashe was apprehensive to become political at first, but once he did, he took on a variety of issues. From integrating major men’s tennis, leading the U.S.’s Davis Cup team, fighting Apartheid in South Africa, and facing his own battle with HIV/AIDS, he had a tremendous impact on society. What sometimes gets lost in the focus on his activist and athletic career are his contributions to the academic study of black athletes. Following the end of his playing career, he taught college courses and wrote a three-volume history of African Americans in sports. Our ability and awareness of many of the excellent black athletes on this list owes a great deal to Ashe.

Patrick Salkeld: Twenty years after Althea Gibson, Ashe became the first (and only) black man to win at Wimbledon, the Australian Open, and the US Open. Ashe also received notoriety for his HIV/AIDS advocacy.

16. Jim Brown (2)

Robert Pruter: An outstanding football player at every level of competition—high school, college, professional—was the most powerful fullback in the history of the game. He was consensus All-American at Syracuse University. He excelled at all the sports he competed in, lacrosse (one of the best in the history of the game), basketball, and track. In his nine-year professional career on the Cleveland Browns he set many rushing records. After his retirement from football in 1966, he entered film where he developed a persona of a strong black man.

17. Curt Flood (2)

Ryan Murtha: Flood’s name is (rightfully) known best for when he famously refused to accept a trade from St. Louis to Philadelphia, setting off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the death of baseball’s despotic reserve clause. But the man was no slouch on the field either, with 3 All-Star appearances to go with his 7 Golden Gloves and pair of World Series rings.

18. Andrew “Rube” Foster (2)

John Price: Foster is only third on my list because he never transcended into a popular media icon like Robinson or Ali.  Often dubbed the “Father” of black baseball, Rube Foster began his career as a dominant pitcher in his time.  Foster was the driving force behind formalizing barnstorming circuits into the Negro National League.  Through the NNL, Foster wanted to build a strong core so that when MLB reintegrated it would be forced to absorb teams intact, giving black owners business power and control of the labor market.  Although Foster’s vision of integration was not realized and individual players were picked by white owners, the integration of Major League Baseball remains a turning point in American sports history.  Foster was a visionary of black sports and business practices, and without him the history of America’s past-time might look quite different.

19. Colin Kaepernick (2)

Micah Burch: Not to ignore the many other instances of racially and politically motivated blackballings, but for one so preposterous to happen in 2017, it seems, like the Trump presidency itself, like the beginning of the end for America. Colin Kaepernick will have his own exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Patrick Salkeld (ranked alongside Ali): Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick faced massive backlash, but stood firm in their convictions when they protested the oppression of blacks in the United States despite the consequences to their careers.

20. Isaac Murphy (2)

Corye Beene: He was the first to win the Kentucky Derby 3 times. He participated in 11 Kentucky Derby races, and his winning percentage in these races was 44%.

Historical context: African-Americans had success as jockeys in the late 19th century; they had trained and taken care of horses since the American Revolution; Murphy was considered wealthy by today’s terms and even bought his own stable at one time.

Robert Turpin: He was so successful at horse racing that it led to disallowing black jockeys from participating.

21. Paul Robeson (2)

Ryan Murtha: Robeson’s athletic credentials may pale in comparison to some of the other names on this list (he was a 2x All-American at Rutgers and played two years in the NFL). But his historical importance as a man is second to none. Robeson was one of the most visible proponents of leftist ideology during the first half of the 20th century, and traveled the world encouraging support for it until running afoul of the HUAC.

22. Major Taylor (2)

Corye Beene: He won many national and international competitions at the height of the bicycling craze. At one time he was the most popular black athlete/black celebrity in the US and he set several world records in bicycling.

Historical context: Bicycling was extremely popular in the late 19th/early 20th century; Taylor was able to overcome the white biking establishment who tried to prevent him from entering races; when he did race, white riders colluded to keep him from winning.

Robert Turpin:  One of the first international sports stars. World champion cyclist in spite of attempts to exclude him and all African Americans from the sport.

23. Hank Aaron (1)

Micah Burch: Bore the same cross as Jackie Robinson of dealing with rabid, unfathomable racism while becoming the national pastime’s biggest stud – and did it with the same grace and vision.

24. Usian Bolt (1)

25. Roberto Clemente (1)

26. Lee Elder (1)

John Price: A couple of decades before Tiger smashed racial barriers, there was Lee Elder.  Primarily known for being the first black golfer to play in The Masters (1975), Elder was a prominent golfer in both domestic and international tournaments.  In the 1960s and 1970s, he sometimes faced open hostility from American crowds, and often alternated between rented houses to stay one step ahead of the hate mail.  In some situations, he and other black golfers were forced to use separate locker rooms or denied entry into clubhouses.  Elder was a vocal critic of Apartheid South Africa and the continued racism in American golf culture.  Although not as well-known as Tiger Woods, Lee Elder was a pioneer in race relations in a sport that is unfortunately partly defined by its racialized past.

27. Eusebio (1)

28. Justin Fashanu (1)

Patrick Salkeld: Justin Fashanu became the first openly gay active soccer player when he came out in 1990. He persevered in his career (1978-1998) despite the discrimination he faced as a black gay footballer in Britain.

29. LeBron James (1)

John Price: LeBron is one of those players who is so dominant it almost becomes boring.  He’s probably the most famous advocate in sports today, deftly utilizing both his social media platforms and his physicality to advocate for a range of social issues.  This is in distinct contrast to Michael Jordan, who explicitly and intentionally avoided commenting on current events.  Just as the two are compared for on-court dominance, their opposing stances toward advocacy has helped facilitate a divide among sports fans as to the role and responsibility of superstars to engage politics.  For the foreseeable future though, “King James” seems completely comfortable at the forefront of both the NBA and social activism.

30.Jackie Joyner-Kersee (1)

Sarah Trembanis: Jackie Joyner Kersee was an incredible all-around athlete. Competing in the long jump and punishing heptathlon, often injured, she holds three gold, one silver, and two bronze medals over three Olympics games. Her heptathlon performances may never be equaled. She holds the world and Olympic records and has earned the best six point totals ever in the event. Her ability to succeed in an event that requires diverse athletic skills certainly qualifies her as one of the greatest athletes ever. This LA Times article from 1988 underlined her immense talent.

31. Brian Lara (1)

32. Lisa Leslie (1)

Patrick Salkeld: Lisa Leslie and Briana Scurry both popularized women’s sports (basketball and soccer, respectively) and inspired young women to become professional athletes. They set records in their respective sports and won numerous awards.

33. Carl Lewis (1)

Corye Beene: He was a 4 time Olympian; 9 gold medals. He also won 8 gold medals at the World Championships during his 15 year career.

Historical context: was such an impressive athlete that he was drafted by the NFL and NBA; Sports Illustrated named him “Olympian of the Century” and the International Olympic Committee named him “Sportsman of the Century.”

34. William Henry Lewis (1)

Andrew McGregor: Lewis is perhaps a bit too obscure for this list, but I chose him because he had profound influence on college football. He played center at Amherst College and later Harvard University while attending law school during the 1890s. At both institutions, he captained integrated teams. In 1892, he became the first African American named to the College Football All-America Team. After his playing days were over, he joined the Harvard Coaching staff, serving from 1895 to 1906. During this time he wrote American Football: A Primer of College Football, which was regarded as one of the most thorough guides on how to coach and train football players. His influenced placed him on par with Walter Camp in shaping the early game.

Oh, and after his coaching days were through, he was the first African American appointed as a United States Assistant Attorney General. While his appointment was challenged and led to his expulsion from the American Bar Association, who mistakenly admitted him thinking he was white, he served from June 1911 until Woodrow Wilson took office in 1912.

35. Willie Mays (1)

Sarah Trembanis: It’s hard to think of a better all-around baseball player than Willie Mays. In the field or at bat, Mays was one of the greatest. Even without the now nearly mythical “catch,” Mays would have easily qualified for any ten best list. The fact that he had early experience in the Negro Leagues before debuting with the Giants merely underscores the way in which Mays was a transitional and transformation figure for baseball.

36. Tom Molineaux (1)

John Price: Molineaux should be more famous in the public consciousness than he is, but without the public media exposure, Molineaux’s impact has been almost totally unknown by American audiences from the 18th century until today.  Born a slave and taught to fight for the entertainment of his masters, Molineaux won his freedom in the ring.  He went to England and became a sensation, defeating top boxers with a style and flair predating Ali by 150 years.  His most famous match was for the English title against Tom Cribb that took 35 rounds to be decided.  The rematch was in front of 15,000 spectators and although Molineaux lost both fights against Cribb, his legacy as a black sports icon was set.  Unfortunately, American audiences heard little or nothing about this, reinforcing slavery’s chokehold on black masculinity.  As William Rhoden wrote in Forty Million Dollar Slaves, “Molineaux was a pioneer … in showing how the tools of enslavement could become the tools of liberation.” (47)

37. Satchel Paige (1)

Sarah Trembanis: Satch. No player did more to personify and further black baseball than Satchel Paige. He burst through the color line – not as the first into the white league—but as a talent that could not be ignored by white fans and white sportswriters. Satch’s extraordinary pitching, electrifying performances, and showmanship electrified and transformed the Negro Leagues and the sport of baseball. His public role as trickster extraordinaire cracked the very foundations of Jim Crow. Satch’s fastball and hesitation pitch bedeviled and beguiled baseball fans and batters for decades.

38. Walter Payton / Barry Sanders (1)

Sarah Trembanis: Complete cop out here. Barry Sanders and Walter Payton are the two greatest running backs in NFL history. It’s a coin toss here folks. I’m a child of the 1980s and a fan of the Super Bowl shuffle, so my heart is with Sweetness, but I’m not going to argue with anyone who’d put Sanders slightly ahead. Both were pure magic on the field- making runs that should have been impossible into the centerpiece of highlight reels.

39. Viv Richards (1)

Joe Benge: Viv Richards was the most dominant batsman of his generation and, very likely, of all time. His cricketing excellence was inherently political, tapping into global currents of Black Power, anti-colonialism, and Pan-Africanism. One of the leaders of the all-conquering West Indies team of the 1970s and ‘80s, Richards’s supreme confidence and fearlessness on the field, allied with an outspoken political consciousness off it, helped citizens of several small Caribbean nations forge a collective identity soon after they had won their independence from former European colonial powers.

Richards’ West Indies team dominated cricket for 20 years after his debut – not losing a single series between 1980 and 1995. The team assembled by captain Clive Lloyd in the mid-1970s was constructed with the intention of shaking off a reputation for being entertaining losers. The great West Indian fast bowlers of this era looked to scare opponents, sending balls at 90-95 miles per hour into the rib cages and arms of English and Australian batsmen. Richards carried the same attitude into his batting, deconstructing bowling attacks with powerful hitting. Test cricket in the 1970s and ‘80s was as physical as it has ever been, and Richards was its strongest competitor. When helmets became commonplace in the early 1980s, Richards was the last player to decline to use one, batting his entire career in a cloth cap.

Before the 1976 series against England, opposition captain Tony Greig claimed that he intended to make the West Indies “grovel” in submission. Richards went on to score 829 runs in the series, taking apart the English bowling attack with a blistering display of batting that included a momentous 291 in the final game. The West Indies won 3-0 and Greig half-jokingly crawled on his hands and knees in repentance. At a time when Caribbean immigrants to the UK were still treated with hostility by whites and routinely economically discriminated against, Richards and his teammates proved that black people could dominate a sport imposed upon them by the British Empire. Under Richards’ leadership in the 1984 series, the West Indies crushed England in the first ever “Blackwash,” then repeated the feat the following year in the Caribbean.

Much like Muhammad Ali, Richards was outspoken about his political beliefs throughout his career, most notably in refusing to tour South Africa with an unofficial West Indian team in 1983. He was a fierce critic of South African apartheid, and was keenly aware of the links between the struggle at home in the Caribbean with that of African Americans in the USA. Richards’ prowess on the cricket field and his role as hero to the people of the Caribbean and the wider black diaspora made him one of the most significant black sportspeople of the 20th century.

40. Oscar Robertson (1)

Ryan Murtha: Robertson may be one of the greatest guards of all time, but his most important contributions to basketball were made off the court. As the first head of the Players’ Association, he was plaintiff in a successful antitrust lawsuit against the league. This caused progressive labor reform in the Association years before it came to any of the other professional leagues, and solidified the players’ labor power in a way that no other union has been able to do as successfully.

41. Eddie Robinson (1)

John Price: Robinson’s 57 years as head coach of the Grambling University football team were historic for a litany of reasons.  His tenure made him the second winningest coach in NCAA Division I history, the first coach to win 400 games, and he was immediately inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame after his retirement in 1997.  In the face of football’s institutionalized segregation and bigotry, Robinson guided Grambling beyond its HBCU dominance and into a national powerhouse that fielded over 200 future professionals, including Doug Williams (also included on this list).

42. Brianna Scurry (1)

Patrick Salkeld: On August 3, 2017, Scurry became the first black woman inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame, which she should have received much earlier like other USWNT members who won the 1999 World Cup. Surprisingly, neither Althea Gibson, Lisa Leslie, nor Briana Scurry appeared in The Undefeated’s list.

43. Moses Fleetwood Walker (1)

Corye Beene: He was the first to play in majors in 1884 (American Association) as a catcher for the Toledo Club, he wore a mask but often caught pitches bare-handed. He played in 42 games before being released for an injury.
Historical context: While Jackie Robinson gets the accolades for integrating major league baseball, Walker is the true pioneer; his white pitcher refused to follow the pitching signals Walker gave him so he caught balls not knowing what the pitcher would throw him.

44. Ora Washington (1)

Andrew McGregor: Ora Washington was one of the first major black female sports stars. She dominated tennis and basketball courts throughout the 1930s and 1940s, becoming the first “Queen of Tennis” and paving the way for later stars. Her Tribune Newsgirls basketball team won at an astounding rate.

45. Doug Williams (1) 

John Price: Before he was the first black quarterback to play in a Super Bowl, to win a Super Bowl, or to be named a Super Bowl MVP, Williams was the NCAA Black Player of the Year twice, set NCAA passing and touchdown records, and was a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. (The Heisman would not be won by a black quarterback until 1989, over a decade later.)  Williams’ legacy is somewhat ambiguous as he was prone to injuries and was an outspoken critic of NFL management. In his autobiography, Quarterblack, Williams blatantly called the NFL racist and came across as somewhat disenfranchised with his time as a sports star.  But his accomplishments speak for themselves, and his role in breaking down racist stereotypes and restrictions cannot be overlooked as the NFL still struggles with race relations between players and management.

Contributor Submitted Lists:

Corye Perez Beene teaches history at South Plains College in Texas. You can follower her on Twitter at @historybeene.

1. Isaac Murphy
2. Major Taylor
3. Althea Gibson
4. Jackie Robinson
5. Jesse Owens
6. Michael Jordan
7. Muhammad Ali
8. Carl Lewis
9. Moses Fleetwood Walker
10. Serena Williams

Joe Benge works in Primary Education in London. He has a BA in American Studies from the University of Sussex and is interested in labor and popular culture histories. He can be reached via email, at joepbenge@gmail.com, or on Twitter, @jpbng

1. Viv Richards
2. Brian Lara
3. Pele
4. Muhammad Ali
5. Joe Louis
6. Jackie Robinson
7. Jesse Owens
8. Serena Williams
9. Tommie Smith & John Carlos
10. Eusebio

Micah Burch is a law professor at the University of Sydney (Australia) Law School where he teaches mainly tax law but also international sports law.

1. Jesse Owen
2. Muhammad Ali
3. Jackie Robinson
4. Michael Jordan
5. Venus & Serena Williams
6. Colin Kaepernick
7. Pele
8. John Carlos & Tommie Smith
9. Wilma Rudolph
10. Hank Aaron

Andrew McGregor teaches American history at Purdue University and is the Founder and Coeditor of this blog. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter: @admcgregor85.

1. Jack Johnson
2. Jackie Robinson
3. Muhammad Ali
4. Joe Louis
5. Ora Washington
6. Wilma Rudolph
7. Rube Foster
8. William Henry Lewis
9. Serena Williams
10. Arthur Ashe

Louis Moore is an Associate Professor of History at Grand Valley State University. He is the author of two forthcoming books, I Fight for a Living, which explores boxing, Black manhood, and race in America from 1880-1915, and We Will Win the Day, a book about the Civil Rights Movement and the Black athlete. He is on Twitter at @loumoore12 and can be reached at moorelou@gvsu.edu.

1. Jackie Robinson
2. Muhammad Ali
3. Joe Louis
4. Paul Robeson
5. Althea Gibson
6. Jack Johnson
7. Bill Russell
8. Serena Williams
9. Curt Flood
10. Wilma Rudolph

Ryan Murtha is a graduate student in the Physical Culture & Sport Studies program at the University of Texas at Austin. You can find him on Twitter at @ryanhoodie 

1. Muhammad Ali
2. Jackie Robinson
3. Jack Johnson
4. Paul Robeson
5. Jesse Owens
6. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
7. Oscar Robertson
8. Curt Flood
9. Serena Williams
10. Tiger Woods

John E. Price is a doctoral candidate and instructor in American Studies and Communications at Penn State Harrisburg. He also serves as Editor of New Directions in Folklore. Price can be reached at jep311@psu.edu or find him on twitter @thejohnprice.

1. Jackie Robinson
2. Muhammad Ali
3. Rube Foster
4. Michael Jordan
5. Tiger Woods
6. Doug Williams
7. Eddie Robinson
8. LeBron James
9. Tom Mollineaux
10. Lee Elder

Robert Pruter is a retired reference librarian and independent scholar. He has written numerous articles and book chapters on sport history as well as the book The Rise of American High School Sports and the Search for Control, 1880–1930. 

1. Muhammad Ali
2. Jim Brown
3. Althea Gibson
4. Joe Louis
5. Jesse Owens
6. Jackie Robinson
7. Wilma Rudolph
8. Bill Russell
9. Venus and Serena Williams
10. Tiger Woods

Patrick Salkeld received his Master of Arts in History from the University of Central Oklahoma in 2017. His research focuses on the rise of mainstream soccer in the United States from the 1960s to the present in addition to the relationship between social movements and sports, the role of the LGBTQ+ community, race, and gender. His twitter is @patsalkeld and his website is patricksalkeldhistorian.wordpress.com.

1. Pele
2. Muhammad Ali
3. Colin Kaepernick
4. Althea Gibson
5. Arthur Ashe
6. Brianna Scurry
7. Lisa Leslie
8. Jackie Robinson
9. Michael Jordan
10. Justin Fashanu

Rwany Sibaja is an Assistant Professor of History and Director of History, Social Studies Education at Appalachian State University. His primary research focuses on the history of soccer in Argentina and identity formation. Contact him via email at sibajaro@appstate.edu or follow him on Twitter: @rwanysibaja

1. Pele
2. Michael Jordan
3. Serena Williams
4. Jesse Owens
5. Tiger Woods
6. Muhammad Ali
7. Roberto Clemente
8. Joe Louis
9. Bill Russell
10. Usain Bolt

Sarah L. Trembanis is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Delaware and the author of The Set-Up Men: Race, Culture, and Resistance in Black Baseball. You can follow her on Twitter at @STrembanis.

1. Serena Williams
2. Jack Johnson
3. Muhammad Ali
4. Satchel Paige
5. Jackie Joyner-Kersee
6. Jesse Owens
7. Wilma Rudolph
8. Willie Mays
9. Michael Jordan
10. Walter Payton / Barry Sanders (tie)

Robert Turpin is an Assistant Professor of History at Lees-McRae College in North Carolina. You can follow him on Twitter at @RobertTurpin.

1. Muhammad Ali
2. Jack Johnson
3. Marshall “Major” Taylor
4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
5. Tommie Smith
6. John Carlos
7. Althea Gibson
8. Serena Williams
9. Jim Brown
10. Isaac Murphy


Vote for your Top 10 Historically Significant Black Athletes from the list offered above.

5 thoughts on “Historians Weigh In: Ranking the Top 10 Historically Significant Black Athletes

  1. Really fascinating list which shows the wealth of possibilities, and also difficulties of definition. Good to see cricketers included – would add Learie Constantine, in 1920s broke barriers to play as pro in England, brilliant all-rounder, won vital case against hotel which refused him admission, became lawyer, ended up in House of Lords. Frank Worrell, first black captain of WI, in equivalence nearest thing cricket has to Jackie Robinson. Garry Sobers best all-round cricketer of all time, Afro-Caribbean or otherwise

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think I would have more internationalized my selections–you did say black athletes not African-American athletes–but because this is a Sport in American History site I just unconsciously focused on American black athletes. I thought most of the selections that I did not make but made by others were worthy. I would question the selection of Colin Kaepernick, because it is a current event selection…….how can we evaluate his historical significance until some time has elapsed?


  3. Pingback: Call for Submissions: Top 10 Women Athletes | Sport in American History

  4. Pingback: Looking Back and Looking Forward: Four Years of Sport in American History | Sport in American History

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