Rosa Parks of professional golf

earlier published on

Joe Louis is not a name you would normally associate with a golf website. In fact, you are probably wondering at this point whether you’re even on the right page. After all, Joe Louis is widely recognized as one of the most famous and successful boxers of all time, and clearly not as a golfer.

Even a quick Google search of ‘Joe Louis Golf’ will first throw up Joe Louis The Champ Golf Course in Riverdale, Illinois which is still understandable. After all, except for the Joe Louis “The Champ” GC, a 6,869-yard par-72 public course south of Chicago, nothing in golf honors him for his almost forgotten integration of the 1952 San Diego Open.

Born in 1914 in Lafayette, Alabama, Joe Louis, popularly heralded as the Brown Bomber, held the world heavyweight title for more than 11 years, recording 25 successful title defences second only to Julio Cesar Chavez. He may have retired from the ring in 1951, but he kept fighting – for diversity in golf, a game which he had fallen in love with decades earlier.

His son Joe Louis Barrow Jr. said his father was introduced to the game in 1935 by the television host Ed Sullivan.

In 1936, Louis lost for the first time-and one of only three losses in his professional career- to the German Max Schmeling, a stunning upset that his son blamed in part on golf.

“He was spending more time on the golf course than he was training for that fight,” he said.

In retirement, Louis became a major supporter of the United Golf Association as well as an accomplished amateur player. The UGA was an African-American organization that conducted tournaments across the country.

In 1941, at Rackham, a public course in Detroit, Louis sponsored his own tournament, the Joe Louis Open. He donated the $1,000 purse, and also paid the entry fees and transportation costs for golfers who otherwise might not have been able to play.

In 1952, the former heavyweight champion received a sponsor exemption from Chevrolet to play in the inaugural San Diego Open at San Diego Country Club. As Louis’s son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr., recounted in 2012, the auto maker had no idea that there existed a “Caucasian-only” clause in PGA of America by-laws.
Louis did not take kindly to the rule. Louis and others put together a petition and delivered it to the California governor, Pat Brown, who declared that the clause was unconstitutional. The PGA eventually permitted Louis to play as an exempt amateur. Louis, the first African-American to compete in a PGA-sanctioned event, missed the cut but made a powerful case for the inclusion of minority players in the sport, leading to the removal in 1961 of the Caucasian-only clause.The previous year, the PGA had voted to retain the clause, and had gained the ire of California’s attorney general Stanley Mosk, who threatened to shut down the PGA in the state until the clause was removed.

It paved the way for the first generation of African-American professional golfers such as Calvin Peete. Louis himself financially supported the careers of several other early black professional golfers, such as Ted Rhodes, Bill Spiller, Howard Wheeler, James Black, Clyde Martin and Charlie Sifford. He was also instrumental in founding The First Tee, a charity helping underprivileged children become acquainted with the game of golf. His son, Joe Louis Barrow, Jr., currently oversees the organization.

In November of 2009, Louis was one of four African-American golf pioneers posthumously honored at the 93rd PGA Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

The PGA of America granted posthumous membership to Ted Rhodes, John Shippen and Bill Spiller, who were denied the opportunity to become PGA members during their professional careers. The PGA also has granted posthumous honorary membership to Louis.

All Joe Louis did for the game was summed up quite perfectly by his son when he said,

“My father worked very hard to integrate the game”.

Joe Louis was a black and white sort of man who dealt in absolutes. And that is absolutely clear to understand.