By Jack Belanger
There are only two athletes in the United States who have had their jersey number retired league-wide in their respective sport. Wayne Gretzky, who is often regarded as the greatest hockey player of all time, had his number (99) retired by the National Hockey League in 2000. Jackie Robinson had his number (42) retired by Major League Baseball in 1997 in recognition of breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Additionally, April 15 was named Jackie Robinson Day in honor of Robinson’s first game, during which every player wears a jersey bearing the number 42.
Even though just about every major sports league in the U.S. was segregated at one point in time, Robinson gets the most recognition for desegregating Major League Baseball. This is partly due to the fact that baseball’s popularity in the 1940s and 50s surpassed that of any other sport in America.
While Robinson undeniably deserves this recognition for his courage and skill, athletes in other major professional sports should be honored similarly for their impact on equality in sports. I want to take time to write about multiple athletes who deserve to have their jersey number retired league-wide just like Robinson. While most of these athletes broke their sport’s color barrier, some also deserve to be recognized for their work in promoting civil rights.
Willie O’Ree (No. 22):
Eleven years after Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers, Willie O’Ree became the first Black hockey player to appear in the NHL when the Boston Bruins called him up to play two games in 1958. Not only did O’Ree have to suffer through the racial taunts from fans and cheap shots from opponents, he also had to deal with the loss of vision in his right eye, which occurred two years earlier. O’Ree only told two people about not being able to fully see. Had he told anyone working in the NHL, he likely would have not gotten called up. O’Ree would go on to play 43 games during the 1960-61 season for the Bruins before getting sent back to the minors for the rest of his career. While O’Ree did not have the longevity of Robinson in professional league ice hockey, he nevertheless played an important role in paving the way for future Black hockey players. His perseverance and courage still have an influence on players today. Detroit Red Wings defenceman Madison Bowey, who is bi-racial, wore the number 22 in honor of O’Ree when he played for the Washington Capitals. Former San Jose Shark player Joel Ward once said that O’Ree was his inspiration to play hockey and that the league should talk about retiring O’Ree’s number.
In 1998 O’Ree was hired by the NHL to be the Director of Youth Development for the league’s diversity task force while also serving as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador. In 2018, O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder of the sport. That same year the NHL introduced the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, which is presented “to an individual who—through the game of hockey—has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society.”
Chuck Cooper (No. 11)/Nat Clifton (No. 8)/Earl Lloyd (No. 11):
Today people of color make up 80.7 percent of the NBA, making it one of the most diverse professional sports leagues in the U.S.; however, that was not always the case. While the league was established in 1946, it was not until 1950 that Black players would step onto the court. It may be unprecedented and difficult to have the NBA retire three numbers at once, but Chuck Cooper, Nat Clifton, and Earl Lloyd deserve the honor for breaking the color barrier in the NBA. Cooper was the first Black player to be drafted to the NBA when the Boston Celtics selected him with the 14th overall pick in the 1950 draft, Clifton was the first of the three to sign with an NBA team, and Lloyd was the first Black player to appear in a game.
Each of the three players played over 400 games during their careers and found relative success in the league. Lloyd won an NBA title with the Syracuse Nationals, and Clifton was named an all-star in 1957. Despite their successes and roles as pioneers, none of the three were inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame until years after their retirements. Further, Lloyd was the only one of the trio that was still living at the time of his enshrinement in 2003.
While Cooper, Clifton, and Lloyd faced harassment from fans and at times were denied service from hotels, their teammates were much more welcoming than Robinson’s fellow Dodgers. Cooper became close friends with Celtics legend Bob Cousy during his time on the Celtics.
The trio certainly deserve to be honored for their role in the NBA’s history, but if there is only one basketball player who can have his number retired across the league, the next player on this list stands is him.
Bill Russell (No. 6):
This may be a personal bias because Bill Russell is one of the greatest Celtics of all-time, but Russell certainly deserves a nod for his role in breaking color barriers. He was drafted only six years after Chuck Cooper and became the first Black NBA star.
Russell spent his entire 13-year career with Boston, where he won 11 championships, was named to 12 all-star games, and won five MVP awards. He was considered one of the league’s best defenders and rebounders, averaging 22.5 rebounds per game for his career. Despite his personal and team success on the court, Russell encountered constant racism throughout his career. On one occasion, vandals broke into his Massachusetts house, destroyed several of his trophies, and spray-painted racial slurs on his walls. Another time when the Celtics were supposed to play an exhibition game in Kentucky, Russell and other Black Celtics players were denied service at a restaurant. Instead of fighting against the restaurant’s policies, Russell and the other players simply left, refused to play in the game, and flew back to Boston.
While Russell’s basketball skills were notable, he was also known for his work as an activist. Playing in Boston, which has struggled when it comes to racial equality, Russell did not always receive support when he advocated for the Civil Rights Movement. He was an active member of the NAACP and was present at the “Cleveland Summit” to support boxer Muhammed Ali’s refusal to join the army.
Russell also made history when he was named the head coach of Celtics in 1966, becoming the first Black coach in North American professional sports. He would win two titles as a player-coach before retiring at the age of 34. In 2011 he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. In 2019 he was awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYS, which is given to those who “stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.”
Russell was one of the first athletes to use his position to provide support for equality, which opened the doors for his successors. Stars such as Lebron James and Chris Paul have the ability to speak up about social injustice and inequality thanks to Russell.
Wendall Scott (No. 34):
If NASCAR really wanted to make headlines, the league would retire the number 34 to honor Wendall Scott, who was the first African-American driver to compete and win a race in its Grand National Series (now NASCAR Cup Series), the highest level of racing in the country. It would be a historic move for a sport whose audience consists of almost entirely white Americans in the South.
Scott was born in Virginia in 1921 while Jim Crow laws still dominated, and segregation made it nearly impossible for him to join NASCAR. Because Black people were not allowed into NASCAR at the time, he raced in the Dixie Circuit that ran more local races near his home in Virginia. He tried bringing his car to multiple NASCAR events but was denied entry every time. It was not until 1953 that he was able to convince a NASCAR steward, Mike Poston, to grant him a NASCAR license.
For the next nine years, Scott raced in regional NASCAR-sponsored events. Early on, he faced prejudice from fans and other racers. Some racers tried to deliberately wreck his car. Over time, the other drivers began to recognize him for his racing and mechanic skills rather than his skin color, and some racers eventually befriended him.
Scott finally moved up to NASCAR’s top division in 1961, and, in 1963, he won his first race in the Grand National Series, but not without controversy. On Dec. 1, he competed in the Jacksonville 200 and was the first car to cross the finish line, yet he was not initially declared the winner. The second-place driver Bud Baker, who was white, was announced as the winner. It was not until hours later that Scott was awarded the prize money, and another two years to be declared the winner. It is still the only time an African-American driver has won a race at NASCAR’s highest level. By the end of his 13-year career, Scott had amassed a total of 147 top-10 finishes. Despite his success and role as pioneer in racing, Scott was not named to NASCAR’s Hall of Fame until 2015—25 years after his passing.
Retiring Scott’s primary car number would be a huge step for a sport that has massively struggled with institutionalized forms of racism. Since Scott, there have been only seven other Black drivers who have competed in NASCAR. Bubba Wallace is the only one who currently drives.
The major professional sports leagues should honor the athletes above (Willie O’Ree, Chuck Cooper, Nat Clifton, Earl Lloyd, Bill Russell, and Wendall Scott) by retiring their numbers league-wide in their respective sports league. First and foremost because of the role each athlete had in breaking the color barrier of their sport. But also, because, as in the case of Russell and Scott, their talent. And in the case of O’Ree and Russell, their contribution to improving their communities and society. Since they all had a lasting impact on professional sports, the honor bestowed upon them should also have a lasting impact—retiring their numbers league-wide will do just that.