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Joe Louis: Fighter for golf diversity

By Bob Denney
Published on

Joe Louis Barrow, one of the greatest boxing champions in history, 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.

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.

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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.

Born in 1914 in Lafayette, Alabama, Louis held the world heavyweight title for more than 11 years, recording 25 successful title defenses. He was introduced to golf in 1935, a year before he lost for the first time as a professional to Germany’s 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,” said Barrow, the chief executive officer of The First Tee. In a 1938 rematch with Schmeling – who was unfairly portrayed as a Nazi symbol, even though he wasn’t a Nazi – Louis carried the pride of a nation on his shoulders. He scored a knockout in just 124 seconds of the bout held before 70,000-plus in Yankee Stadium.

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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.

When someone flippantly called Louis "a credit to his race," New York Post sportswriter Jimmy Cannon responded, "Yes, Louis is a credit to his race – the human race."

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Louis, who died in 1981, received a special exemption in death. President Ronald Regan waived the eligibility rules for burial at Arlington National Cemetery and Louis was buried there with full military honors. His funeral was paid, in part, by Schmeling, a former competitor and friend, who also acted as a pallbearer.

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 Board of Directors bestowed PGA membership upon Ted Rhodes, John Shippen and Bill Spiller. Louis was elected a PGA Honorary Member.