Soccer Thoughts on Jackie Robinson Day

Gilbert Gillie Heron

Gilbert "Gillie" Heron

In the world of the Beautiful Game April 15th is most known for Hillsborough, but in the United States, April 15th is best know for one of the most significant sporting and cultural moments of the 20th Century. It was on April 15, 1947 that Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, forever breaking the color barrier that kept Americans of African descent from playing in the MLB. It should be noted that in addition to breaking the baseball color line, Jackie Robinson was among the earliest African-American soldiers to become commissioned officers during World War II.

During those 60 some odd years that the MLB kept black players out of its league (and occasionally taking the time to bash soccer as a foreign sport), the various professional and semi-professional soccer leagues scattered across the United States had, for the most part, more to worry about then the skin tone or pigmentation of the players. Maybe it was the path that Jackie Robinson forged in the three years since his debut, maybe it was the fact that soccer languished in a world with little press attention, or maybe it was a combination of those two factors (and other factors), that when the U.S. returned to the international stage at Brazil ’50, that the presence of Joe Gaetjens, who played for Brookhattan in the American Soccer League, on the U.S. National Team apparently caused little, if any, raised eyebrows in the press or the powers that be in U.S. Soccer. After all, Jamaica born Gilbert “Gillie” Heron had spent the 1940s playing for the Detroit Corinthians and Detroit Wolverines, and was labeled the “Babe Ruth of Soccer” by Ebony magazine in 1947. Heron, the father of musician Gil-Scott Heron, moved on to become the first black person to play football in Scotland, where he scored a goal for Celtic in 1951.

In the years since Joe Gaetjens scored the winning goal against England at Belo Horizonte, numerous players of African descent have played for the U.S. National Team, including Cobi Jones, Tim Howard, DeMarcus Beasley, Jozy Altidore, Eddie Pope, Tony Sanneh, Jimmy Banks, Desmond Armstrong, Oguchi Onyewu, Robin Fraser, Roy Lassiter, etc. While incidents of racism occur, for the most part, black soccer players in the United States have been spared the types of vicious comments made by fans that were not happy to see color barriers in baseball or in European football busted, many of these players, like other serious soccer players in the U.S.; however, have had to endure the anti-soccer comments made by their peers who to understand the game.

While soccer may not be the most popular sport among African-Americans, a segment in which even the great American game, baseball, has lost traction, African-Americans have played an integral role in the development and evolution of soccer in the U.S. So, on this day when we remember the victims of Hillsborough and the historical watershed that occurred when Jackie Robinson took the field in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, let us also take a moment to remember and respect the diversity that has made and will continue to make soccer in the U.S. the Beautiful Game.

19 Responses to Soccer Thoughts on Jackie Robinson Day

  1. Great piece.

    Jimmy Banks and Des Armstrong were the two most important ones on the list. At the time they emerged on the scene in the late 80s, “soccer” was a very white sport in the United States. In fact both were subject to subtle racism but both persevered and were on the US World Cup team in 1990.

    We didn’t have all of the monkey chants and ultras organize around race/ethnicity like in Europe but their was an underlying racism in US Soccer circles until the1980s. The game was dominated by the children of Northern European immigrants and even Italian-Americans weren’t totally accepted.

    The split between Italian-Americans and Northern European protestants was a clear dividing line in 1950, but in fact persevered on the grassroots level until the 1980s. Latinos were generally not accepted but Tab Ramos and Hugo Perez broke that glass ceiling and were accepted more easily than the black players because their technical skill was superior to any other players eligible for the US team in the 1980s.

    I also want to mention Colin Fowles from south Florida, who played for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the NASL in the 1970s and early 1980s and was capped several times for the US, including in our first win over Mexico since 1934 which was at Lockhart Stadium in November 1980. Fowles was shot dead in a random murder at a soccer field in Opa Locka in 1985.

  2. kyle says:

    I think it goes to show that sport is where people from all kinds of backgrounds can come together for one simple goal, to win.

  3. Kick It Out says:

    What an absolutely fantastic and informative piece. We are currently featuring it on our site, as it is hugely relevant to the topics that Kick It Out covers.

  4. Joey Clams says:

    Kartik, maybe the underlying racism was a social thing that found its way on to the soccer field. “Northern European Protestants,” as you call them, emphasized honesty, punctuality and fair play. They were suspicious of those who lived by their wits. Let’s not dump on those “Protestants.” You’re not Lula. And Portuguese-American players always has a part in the major New England teams. Have you ever played with Portuguese players, Kartik? I have. They’re good guys and they’re good players. But, guess what. They drive like maniacs, they’re loud and they’re hot-headed. Does pointing that out make me a racist?

    And now you claim that racism against blacks lasted until the time of Ramos and Perez? Are you joking?

    I tell you what, guys. Feel great about yourselves for settling old scores. I’ll read a Cheever short story about racist Northern European Protestants, even though I’m Roman Catholic of Irish descent. That reminds me: I should probably read some O’Hara short stories, as well, just so I can remember just how priviliged we Irish coal miners were back in the day.

    Boy, it’s great being a benificiary of the racist system.

    Jackie Robinson? Great player, more importanlty a great man. But did he play soccer? I didn’t think so.

  5. Joey Clams says:

    So, it appears that I have touched a nerve.

    Readers, please know that my previous post was in response to some phrases that Kartik has deleted.

    Good one, Kartik. You did the right thing.

  6. Joey Clams says:

    By the way, the stuff on Gillie Heron was fantastic. Thanks.

  7. Joey you totally misinterpret my comments.

    I am stating opportunities were denied to Southern Europeans and Blacks in football prior to the 1980s. I am not saying being a Northern European makes anyone a racist. But their was a closed shop for a long time in this country. Had we accepted more Southern European influences we would not have gone 40 years without qualifying for a World Cup.

    I am no lover of Italia. My piece on Hillsborough where I point out the bias against English football that came out of the 1980s while their was deference to Italian football should make a point.

    But the bottom line is their was some serious racism in the game in the US. sorry but it’s true. Go back and see how many Italian-American or Portuguese-American coaches were given real chances even though the Portuguese community dominated the soccer setup in New England while the Italians had a great influence in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago.

    When I had an Italian coach on my U-10 team many parents were concerned and wanted to have their kids switch teams. This went on all over the country.

    Thankfully those days are behind us, but they did happen. No sense in denying it. America is less racist than most of the world.

    I happen to believe the South has been given a bad rap by an elitist northern press and that alot of the racial violence in the South throughout the 1900s was caused by Northern agitation.

    But racism in American “Soccer” Football was a fact. What caused it is another issue for another day, just as Southern racism was a fact but it was in my opinion caused by external factors.

  8. One more point: it was always okay to have Italian-American players and Portuguese-American players at the youth level but never anything but Dutch, German and British coaches. As youth players turned into full professionals and attempt to weed out the Italians and Portuguese from the setup ensued. Some still made it but more often than not they had to fight that much harder to win their place.

  9. Brian says:

    Sadly,today the biggest form of soccer related racism that I have personally run into is from nonsoccer fans who equate soccer with illegal immigration and think ICE should be present at all Dynamo matches.

  10. The Gaffer says:

    Brian, where did that happen? Was that in public or at work? That topic alone is worthy of a separate editorial/article.

    That’s horrible that it happened but unfortunately I’m sure it’s a view shared by many, which is despicable.

    The Gaffer

  11. Brian says:

    Those kind of statements pop up on the “comments” section of articles posted on the Houston Chronicle website. I’ve read such comments in articles regarding the Dynamo Stadium and similar comments are made to articles about the InterLiga matches at Robertson Stadium and sometimes to articles about the Dynamo hosting an FMF squad. I’m sure articles about Mexico playing here in the Gold Cup will suffer similar comments. Sadly, there are certain radio personalities here who seem to get the ratings they like by fanning the fires of the immigration issue, and that has seriously boiled over into the Chronicle’s comment sections even for news stories that have nothing to do with immigration.

  12. eplnfl says:

    Great piece Kartik. Important for all of us to remember how our country in the living memories of many Americans allowed racism to exist. We as American’s do not reflect enough on how our society and culture today is still adversely effected by what went on in the past and how even today we must work to stop racism.

  13. There's vandalism on the FIFA wikipedia pages says:

    Can one of you guys go fix that? Some idiot added a “Castrol Cup” to the FIFA page. And also, the 2014 World Cup wikipedia page was vandalized as well. Some fool says that teams are already qualified for that. Go check it out now

  14. eplnfl says:

    Sorry, Great Piece, Brian!

  15. Juan says:

    Good job, dawg!!!!

  16. Brian says:

    That’s a very good article Golnoir, in fact it was one of the articles I used for fact checking when I wrote the above article. In that article, the author compiles his Starting 11 of black athletes who have played for the US National Team.

  17. Golnoir says:

    As I’m the one who wrote it, I say thanks and glad I ws able to help.

  18. Horhay says:

    Great piece, Brian. As a American black person loving soccer I learned a lot about that part of U.S. soccer history. Excellent work

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