The awful cliché that tragedy occurs in threes became prophecy over the last week in the world of sports. A trio of towering athletes died, two from age and one decades before his time. These three shared something powerful in common, beyond their field of work. None were ever formally recognized as Hall of Famers for their play, yet all were truly iconic. They were the kinds of players that young sportswriters made pilgrimages to interview; the kind who could either silence a room or cause attendees to spontaneously rise to their feet. They also shared a deeper sociopolitical significance worth remembrance and appreciation. Their names were Earl Lloyd, Orestes “Minnie” Minoso and Anthony Mason.
In 1950, Earl Lloyd became the first black player to take the court in the National Basketball Association, making his debut three and a half years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball. Lloyd played nine seasons with a reputation as a gritty and tireless defender. He endured segregated accommodations and racial barbs from fans, but was undeterred, blazing a trail for a new generation of players that would reshape, reform and recreate the beautiful game. From Bill Russell to LeBron James, the black athlete in the NBA begins with the slings and arrows suffered by Earl Lloyd. As kind a person as I have met in sports, Lloyd was quoted in his New York Times obituary from 1992 saying, “…they’d yell stuff like, ‘Go back to Africa,’ My philosophy was: If they weren’t calling you names, you weren’t doing nothing. If they’re calling you names, you were hurting them.” Lloyd always took the time to speak about his experiences with a combination of detail and deep humility. His passing at the age of 86 is a tragedy for anyone in basketball who never had the chance to keep his company, even for a cup of coffee.
The Cuban-born Orestes “Minnie” Minoso was another trailblazer, becoming the first black player to ever suit up for a baseball team in the city of Chicago on May 1, 1951. He is perhaps best remembered for playing in five different decades, pinch-hitting in 1980 for the White Sox at the age of 55. But that gives short shrift to a brilliant Hall of Fame–quality playing career as one of the best hitting outfielders of his generation and pioneer of racial integration. As Adrian Burgos argues brilliantly at Sporting News, his rightful place is in the halls of Cooperstown. Beyond statistics, he should be honored for his role as a beacon, inspiring the great wave of Afro-Caribbean talent that first flowered throughout Major League Baseball in the 1950s and 1960s. As Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda said to Ed Sherman of the Chicago Tribune, “Orestes Minoso was the Jackie Robinson for all Latinos; the first star who opened doors for all Latin American players. He was everybody’s hero. I wanted to be Minoso. [Roberto] Clemente wanted to be Minoso.” In a region that has nurtured more baseball talent per capita than anywhere on earth, Minoso broke down the cruelest and most backward of barriers: the one that for decades separated teammates and countrymen from making a joint jump to the Majors because of the different shades of their skin. No one is quite sure how old Minoso was upon his death. Maybe 90. Maybe 92. He always kept that number close to his vest. From Chicago to the Caribbean he will remain immortal.