A Brief History
On April 8, 1974, Hammerin’ Hank Aaron slugged his 715th career home run at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta to surpass Babe Ruth as the all-time major league home run hitter. We use this historic event to enjoy some alliteration in the title (one of our favorite things) and to give you our list of the 10 African American (male) athletes we think should be considered among the greatest. Remember the “American” part of the list, as great Black and African heritage athletes from places outside the US are not being considered. (Soon we will list our greatest female African American athletes.)
1. Henry Aaron, Baseball.
Sorry Barry Bonds fans, Hank Aaron was the real deal, a pure gentleman that did not need steroids to accomplish great things. One of only 2 players to hit 30 homers in a season at least 15 times, Aaron never hit 50 in a season, but was so consistently good for so long his reliability at a level of excellence is unsurpassed. Aaron still has the Major League record for career RBI’s, career extra base hits, and career total bases. He finished his career with 3771 hits and 755 home runs.
2. James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens, Track and Field.
How serendipitous that a guy with Cleveland in his name would be born in Alabama and move to Cleveland, Ohio when he was 9 years old. One of the greatest in a long line of great Ohio State University athletes, Owens is perhaps the greatest all around track and field athlete of all time. His 4 Gold medals in the 1936 Olympics are legendary. Not only a spectacular performance at the 1936 Olympics, but Owens also set the long jump world record in 1935 and it lasted until 1960 when US Olympian Ralph Boston finally broke the enduring record. Owens of the US team was provided a pair of Adidas track shoes for the 1936 Olympics, the first time an African-American sponsored a product at the Olympics. The 4 events won by Owens in 1936 were the 100 m dash, the 200 m dash, the long jump, and the 4 X 100 m relay. At a 1935 Big Ten track meet Owens won 4 events and set world records in 3 of them, perhaps the greatest single day performance in track and field history.
3. Joe Louis, Boxing.
Sorry fans of Muhammad Ali, The Brown Bomber was the REAL “Greatest” of all time. The World Heavyweight Champion from 1939 to 1947, his reign lasted 140 consecutive months, in which he won 26 Championship fights, more than any heavyweight boxer ever. Sorry fans of Floyd “Money” Mayweather, of course the bigger, stronger Louis would knock the medium sized guy out in a second. Plus, Louis was a genuinely decent guy, beloved by his fellow Americans. He did not need the endless, tiresome self-promotion of Muhammad Ali, either. He finished his wonderful career with a 66 and 3 record.
4. Arthur Ashe, Tennis.
Ashe retired from professional tennis in 1980 and ranked #1 in the World in 968 and 1975. He was the first Black man from any country to win a Grand Slam event, of which he won 3 such titles (Wimbledon, US Open, and Australian Open). Ashe won over 76% of his singles matches and was the first African American named to the US Davis Cup team, with which he won the event 4 times. Sadly, Ashe contracted AIDS in the early 1980’s from a tainted blood transfusion when he underwent heart by-pass surgery. He died at the age of 49 in 1993, but left a legacy of social activism in support of Civil Rights (even for South Africa) including writing a 3 volume book about African American athletes (A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete, 1988).
5. Jim Brown, Football.
Considered (by me) as the greatest football player of all time, Brown played only 9 seasons in the NFL before leaving while still the best running back in the game to richer pursuits in Hollywood. He led the NFL in rushing 8 of his 9 seasons, was MVP of the NFL 3 times, won an NFL Championship in 1964, and retired as the all time leading rusher in NFL history with 12,312 yards, double that of his closest rival! He also scored 106 touchdowns and averaged an all time best 5.2 yards per carry. With a career average of 104.1 yards rushing per game, Brown is the only player in NFL history to average over 100 yards rushing per game. Brown holds the NFL record for leading the league in all-purpose yards 5 times. Playing in an era of grass (aka, mud) fields and only 12 and 14 game NFL seasons, Brown’s numbers would have been even more eye-popping had he played on turf and 16 game seasons. He never missed a game, even playing in the NFL Championship with a broken big toe, his foot in a complete cast after the game. Brown was also an All-American lacrosse player for Syracuse (including a place in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame), and in high school scored 38 points per game in basketball (a Long Island, New York record until broken by baseball legend Carl Yastrzemski).
6. Lebron James, Basketball.
Yes, we have to include Lebron along with Michael Jordan, but apologies to Wilt Chamberlain (who one season AVERAGED 50 points per game!) and Kareem Abdul Jabbar who certainly deserve consideration. We include Lebron James because of his excellence at all aspects of the game, his strong civic presence, and his leadership on the court that can be rivaled only by Michael Jordan. Lebron is the consummate team player, and never tried to pad his statistics, often sitting out the 4th quarter of games already won or lost. Had he played for teams that wanted him to post numbers, he probably could have easily scored many, many more points. Lebron is racking up NBA records as his career enters his 15th season, and at the age of 33 will certainly end up at or near the top of many NBA categories by the time he retires. Lebron has amassed 4 NBA MVP awards, 3 NBA Finals MVP awards, 14 selections as an NBA All Star, 5 times named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, twice was named by the AP as Athlete of the Year, twice awarded the Hickock Belt, and twice named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated Magazine. In March of 2008, James became the first Black man to appear on the cover of Vogue Magazine. Take that, Michael Jordan!
7. Michael Jordan, Basketball.
Not only a spectacular player and charismatic guy, MJ was also a winner, as 6 NBA Championship rings will attest, along with 6 NBA Finals MVP awards, as well as starring on the University of North Carolina 1982 National Championship team. He was a 14 time NBA All-Star and a 3 time NBA All-Star Game MVP. As good as Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone and several others have been, Jordan is in a league by himself and Lebron James. How good was he? He successfully got people to buy Hanes underwear because he said so! So great is the athletic accomplishments and public appeal of Michael Jordan, that he currently ranks as the third richest African American. He led the NBA in scoring a record tying (with Wilt Chamberlain) 7 consecutive times (10 times total) and was named to the All-NBA Defensive Team 9 times. Jordan is second to Lebron James in career playoff points scored and 4th in career scoring all-time. In 1999 ESPN ranked Jordan as the Greatest North American Athlete of the 20th Century.
8. Carl Lewis, Track and Field.
One of only 3 Olympic athletes to win the Gold Medal in 4 consecutive Olympics in a single event, Lewis racked up a total of 9 Olympic Gold Medals and 8 World Championship Gold Medals, throwing in an Olympic Silver Medal and 2 other World Championship Medals to round out his totals. Lewis set World Records in the 100m dash as well as in both the 4 X 100m and 4 X 200m relays. He has held the indoor long jump record since 1984! Lewis has been named “World Athlete of the Century,” “Olympian of the Century,” and “Sportsman of the Century” by various organizations, and was named “Athlete of the Year” by Track and Field News 3 times. Unfortunately, Lewis missed out on an opportunity to rake in even more Olympic medals when the US boycotted the 1980 Olympics.
9. Willie Mays, Baseball.
Quite possibly the best all around baseball player of all time, spectacular in the field and at the bat. Enthusiastic and a clean player, the Say Hey Kid obviously loved baseball as much as any player ever and served as a great example for little leaguers to follow. Only the third player to hit over 600 home runs in a career, Mays also may have hit the longest home run in baseball history, a statistic hotly debated in baseball circles. Mays played in 24 All Star Games, a record he shares with Stan Musial and Hank Aaron and has a record 12 Gold Glove awards (tied for 1st all-time).
10. Jerry Rice, Football.
Arguably the best receiver in football history, Rice was so good he is considered by many as the greatest football player of any position (such as NFL Network’s NFL Films Division). The Sporting News magazine listed Rice second only to Jim Brown on their list of Greatest Football Players. Of course this product of Starkville, Mississippi has a place in the Pro and College Football Halls of Fame. Among the credentials Rice holds, are over 100 NFL all time records, more than any other player. He was chosen for 13 Pro Bowl games and won 3 Super Bowls, along with an additional AFC Championship. He attended Mississippi Valley State University. His 1549 career receptions are over 300 ahead of the second most prolific NFL receiver!
Question for students (and subscribers): Feel free to nominate your own choices for this list or to voice your reasons why one or more of our listed athletes do not belong. Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Ashe, Arthur. A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete, 1919-1945. Warner Books, 1988.
Edwards, Harry. The Revolt of the Black Athlete. University of Illinois Press, 2017.
Lester, D. Through My Eyes with a Pencil: An Illustrated History of the 100 Greatest African American Athletes of the 20th Century. Mascot Books, 2018.