The comedian will pause and then hit the boffo line "That joke is so old that when I first heard it, the heavyweight champion of the world was white!"
Being slow afoot or unable to jump very high is known in most college frat houses as the "white man's disease."
On most professional football teams, the "white man's position" is center. Or coach.
Today, there's a bull market for black athletes. It's white guys who are greeted with skepticism, who have to prove themselves. Coaches prefer their running backs, power forwards, and even infielders to be one solid color, black.
It's hard to believe it was less than 40 years ago the opposite was true. Not a single black face appeared in any lineup in the NFL, NBA (or its forerunner), the National or American Leagues. In fact, they were banned by law from two of them and custom from all of them.
Everyone knows what happened. Branch Rickey of the Dodgers, for whatever reasons, decided to tap the black pool of unused players in baseball and signed Jackie Robinson. The NFL, locked in a recruiting war with the rival All-American conference football league, hastily signed college stars Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. The Boston Celtics got tired of getting outrebounded and reached out for great players who theretofore had to star in blacktop basketball, not hardcourt.
But, what happened? How come, when the floodgates were opened, the black athletes inundated the games? How did they learn from a standing start, so to speak, how to shoot the jumper, hit the curve, split defenses, run a pattern?
A hard clue may be found in a documentary which will air this afternoon on Channel 4. Hosted by Arthur Ashe and titled "A Hard Road To Glory," it will trace the black athlete's rise to prominence from slave quarters to Park Avenue.
Everyone has heard of Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Kenny Washington, Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali. Who ever heard of Tom Molineaux, John Henry Lloyd, Bill Richmond, Rube Foster and William H. Lewis, Dolly King?
Did you know there were major league teams full of black baseball stars until the bigoted Adrian (Cap) Anson refused to take the field against some of them in 1889? Anson, who brought Jim Crow to baseball must be surprised his Hall of Fame is getting with black players.
Are blacks genetically superior? Is there something in the African roots that produce better runners, jumpers, hitters, throwers? Maybe. But many of these super athletes come from backgrounds generations removed from Africa. And, any genealogist knows, many of them are descended from Sherman's soldiers. Or Lee's. As Arthur Ashe concedes. "Black America is thoroughly miscegenated."
The truth of the matter is, the black experience is saturated with sports lore. The very first heavyweight championships may not have been held in Europe at all but in West Africa where fistic prowess was so highly prized, the chiefs of the tribe may have been chosen by fist fights or wrestling matches.
The sheds of slavery were breeding grounds of pugilistic champions in the ante-bellum South when plantation owners pitted their most powerful slaves against one another and wagered heavily on the outcome. "Tom Molineaux was a slave in Richmond who won his freedom in a prize fight. His owner, Algernon Molineaux, who had bet heavily on the outcome, promised to free him if he won," Ashe recounts.
Molineaux went to England where he became a famous bare-knuckle fighter, deprived of the world title when officials gave the British world title-holder, Tom Cribb, an illegal 10-minute rest between rounds, in an historic match in 1810.
"Bill Richmond was a black from Staten Island who was not only the first black boxing champion but the first American one," Ashe reveals. He, too, lost a 90-round fight to Cribb in England.
Baseball always flourished among black since its invention, Ashe discovered. Before Anson, blacks played in the organized leagues. After Anson, they played their own brand of baseball which those who watched it ruefully concluded was better than the Jim Crow brand. "A St. Louis writer once asked the best player in baseball, responded 'Well, if you're talking about the best player in organized baseball, it's Babe Ruth. If you're talking about the best player in all baseball, it's John Henry Lloyd.' " Ashe reports. Lloyd was a shortstop who could hit home runs or catch ground balls upside-down with the same degree of skill and nonchalance.
A baseball team calling itself "The New York Cuban Giants" probably were of World Series caliber in the segregation era. "To get into New York dining rooms, they invented this patois which no one else could understand and they passed themselves off as Cubans," Ashe recounts. John McGraw tried to sign one of them, re-christened him "John Tokohoma" and sold him as an American Indian--until his family showed up at a pre-season game one day and his cover was blown. "The league wanted to know what tribe that was," McGraw noted ruefully.