RIP to the 'Unknown Jackie Robinson' - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

RIP to the ‘Unknown Jackie Robinson’

BALTIMORE – When George Taliaferro died the other day, he left a legacy as The Unknown Jackie Robinson. He broke the block in the National Football League, but almost nobody remembered it. But Taliaferro opened a door in pro football no less than Robinson did in major league baseball.

He was the first African-American drafted by a National Football League team. He was part of that post-war movement in which professional sports belatedly, and often reluctantly, discovered a conscience.

It was never easy – not for Robinson, nor for Taliaferro, who died last week, at 91, and caused sports fans across America who heard the news to ask a simple question: George Who?

Maybe Taliaferro got cheated on recognition because he played before professional football was established as a true big-time American sport. Baseball was the national pastime back in the 1940s and early ‘50s.

And maybe Robinson got the lasting recognition that Taliaferro missed because he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the hot media cauldron of New York. Taliaferro played for several NFL teams when the NFL had small crowds and small TV markets.

But he went through most of the same ordeals Robinson went through because of his skin color: belligerent fans, teammates who shunned him, and separate accommodations in an America that was still coming to grips with racial integration.

Taliaferro went to the University of Indiana, where he played halfback, quarterback, defensive backer and kicker. He led the Hoosiers to an undefeated 1945 season and its only undisputed Big Ten championship, and in 1948 was named the team’s most valuable player. He’s in college football’s Hall of Fame.

But he couldn’t live in a university dorm, nor eat in the school cafeteria, nor swim in its pool.

In the National Football League, where he was named an All-Pro three times, he played seven different positions for four different teams, including the old Baltimore Colts. He played quarterback here. That fact alone made him a pioneer. For years, pro football (and most college) coaches were reluctant to let blacks play that position. Coaches claimed they couldn’t handle its mental requirements.

Taliaferro was smart enough to forge a post-football career as a social worker in Baltimore, and then he became Dean of Students at this city’s Morgan State University.

But, like many black athletes in cities across America, he faced various forms of racism.

He joined the Baltimore Colts after seasons with the old New York Yanks and Dallas Texans. It was 1953 when the Colts’ star running back was Claude (Buddy) Young, who was also black.

One time, Young emerged from the Colts’ locker room to find a small gang of white people who’d smudged something on their faces to make them look like minstrel characters. It was a cruel attempt to mock Young, who simply ran through them.

But there were more insults for that era’s players. When the Colts drafted future Hall of Fame halfback Lenny Moore, and he arrived at training camp in Westminster that summer, Young told him, “This city is very, very segregated.”

The white players could go to any restaurant or bar after practice, but the blacks were only allowed at a nearby Twin Kiss, where they could get ice cream – strictly carry-out.

And it wasn’t just Westminster. When the team got to Baltimore, Moore was turned away from a downtown movie theater. No blacks allowed there. It was 1956. The humiliation stayed with Moore for years.

Taliaferro felt the same way. He always said the thing he liked best about football was hitting people. Almost all those he was hitting happened to be white.




About the author

Michael Olesker

Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of five previous books, including Michael Olesker's Baltimore: If You Live Here, You're Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts' Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins. Contact the author.

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