It’s April again, and Tiger Woods is in the hunt for his fifth Masters title at Augusta this weekend, 12 years after he became the first person of color to win at a previously whites-only golf course. Tiger’s chase comes at the end of a week in which we marked the 35th anniversary of Hank Aaron’s historic 715th home run, the one that broke what many still consider the Holy Grail of sports, Babe Ruth’s 39-year run as the home run king.
Spring has long been a metaphor for change; new season, new flowers, rebirth. And in sports, the rites of spring have also included important rites of passage for black athletes.
It was 25 years ago this month that John Thompson became the first African-American coach to win an NCAA championship in Division I basketball. Later that year, Thompson and his star player, Patrick Ewing, posed with President Ronald Reagan on the cover of Sports Illustrated. This year’s NCAA winners didn’t get a historic magazine cover, but they got a call of congratulations from the black president.
Barack Obama’s presence in the White House may tend, these days, to overshadow the significance of previous African-American “firsts.” But each new pinnacle is achieved by climbing on the shoulders of the last hero, and that makes them worth remembering.
Next week marks 62 years since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball and 34 years since Frank Robinson became the league’s first black manager.
"If I had one wish in the world today, it would be that Jackie Robinson could be here to see this happen," Robinson said at his opening day press conference in 1974 on being the first black manager.
Robinson says old milestones like his are still important. “We knew we were a part of an era that was going to create a legacy, not just for baseball, but for sports as a whole.”
No doubt, this era’s groundbreakers, like Woods and the Williams sisters, are focused on their legacy, too. “It’s definitely a historic time when you think about it,” said Richard Williams, the father of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams. “What Tiger, Venus and Serena have done is show the world that we can do whatever we want to.”
Tiger Woods may or may not win his fifth green jacket on Sunday. What we know for sure is that something will happen, something will change. It’s spring, after all.