Barrier Breakers

Western Pennsylvanians are accustomed to shattering norms, overcoming adversity, and blazing a new trail for future athletes.

Senator John Heinz History Center

Willie Thrower (c. 1950)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Willie Thrower

Wille Thrower, a native of New Kensington, Pa., is acknowledged as the first African American quarterback in the modern era of the NFL, appearing in a game on October 18, 1953 for the Chicago Bears. 

Thrower also played football for New Kensington High School, Michigan State, where he became the first Black quarterback in the Big Ten, and in the Canadian Football League.

Chuck Cooper in Boston Celtics uniform (c. 1950)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Chuck Cooper

A standout player at Westinghouse High School before being drafted into the Navy, Cooper served in World War II. After the War, Cooper became an All-American at Duquesne University and made history when the Boston Celtics selected him in the 1950 NBA Draft.

The first African American to be drafted, he joined two other players in integrating the league that year.

All-American uniform worn by Chuck Cooper (c. 1949)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

After a successful NBA career, Cooper continued to break barriers, becoming the first African American department head in city government, serving as director of parks and recreation. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019. 

Hill District Satellites softball team (1970)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Hill District Satellites softball team

In 1960, Mildred Allen (pictured in second row, far right) played a key role in developing the Tri-Boro Softball League.

Allen coached while playing shortstop and second base for the Satellites. The Satellites actively chose an empowering civil rights stance while seeking an equal playing field and opportunities in athletics.

In 1970, the team was sponsored by the United Black Front, a cultural nationalist organization involved with progressive community activities that included economic development and civil rights.

John Woodruff races in the 800m Olympic final, trading card (1936)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

John Woodruff

Woodruff overcame obstacles of poverty and racism to become a world-class middle-distance runner. During the 1936 Summer Olympics in Adolf Hitler’s Berlin, Germany, he won the 800m event in dramatic come-from-behind fashion, clinching the gold medal with a time of 1:52.9. 

Josh Gibson trading cardOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Josh Gibson

A resident of Pittsburgh’s North Side and catcher for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays, Gibson became one of the greatest hitters of all times.

He led the Grays to nine consecutive pennants, was named to nine All Star teams, and claimed four batting titles in the Negro National League.

In addition to the Negro Leagues, Gibson barnstormed against major league competition and had tremendous success in winter leagues outside of the U.S. In 1972, Gibson became the second Negro League player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

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