Lillard, Joseph ("Joe")

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LILLARD, Joseph ("Joe")

(b. 15 June 1905 in Tulsa, Oklahoma; d. September 1978 in Long Island City, New York), African-American athlete whose career playing football, basketball, and baseball was shortened due to racial prejudice.

Lillard's father shoveled coal into furnaces for a living; his mother was a homemaker. Orphaned at age ten, he grew up with his brother in Mason City, Iowa. Lillard first showed his athletic prowess at Mason City High School, where he was All-State twice in both basketball and football; a state track champion; and an imposing pitcher, outfielder, and switch hitter in baseball. As a football player Lillard was the classic "triple threat." He was a great passer, runner, and kicker, both punting and kicking (the latter a real art, as dropkicking, not placekicking, was the rule of the day). Lillard reportedly once drop-kicked a fifty-yard field goal. As was typical in that era, Lillard also played defense, where he was a standout defensive back known especially for his hard tackling.

In 1926 Lillard played basketball in Chicago for a new team formed by Abe Saperstein, first called the Savoy Big Five. This was the original squad that in 1930 renamed itself the Harlem Globetrotters. Lillard was thus one of the original Globetrotters.

Lillard, who graduated from high school in 1927, wanted to play for the University of Minnesota football team. At the end of the summer of 1930 the Minnesota coach Clarence ("Doc") Spears took a new job at the University of Oregon and invited Lillard to move with him. The West Coast had fewer entrenched barriers against African Americans than did other areas of the country, especially the South, where African Americans were still banned from major campuses. Lillard quickly proved a standout on the 1930 Oregon freshman team.

Prior to the opening of the 1931 Pacific Coast Conference (PCC) season, little was expected of Oregon. West Coast sportswriters predicted a championship for the University of Southern California (USC). Then in the first weeks of the 1931 season, Oregon surprised everyone by winning its first three games. Lillard was their star. Owing to the open prejudice of the day, fans dubbed Lillard "Shufflin' Joe" and "Midnight Express." But the Oregon fans meant it with affection; Lillard was a popular athlete on campus.

The following week, on 20 October, Oregon was slated to face USC. First considered an easy spot on the fall schedule for USC, Oregon and Lillard were now causes for great worry. The USC coach hired an African-American player to pose as Lillard in practice so the team could get used to keying on someone who looked like him. Behind the scenes, USC officials pulled other strings. A week before the game it came to light that in the previous summer Lillard had played semiprofessional baseball. Lillard maintained his innocence, claiming he had been paid only to drive the team's bus. Even if he was guilty, hundreds of other college football players had also played semiprofessional ball, including the USC quarterback, and other USC players had been given convenient work as extras on Hollywood sets. USC manipulated the PCC officials into banning Lillard. Oregon officials protested and at first won a reprieve. Then the conference commissioner threatened to resign unless Lillard was suspended, and the majority yielded to him. No other PCC player that season was banned, disciplined, or even reprimanded for playing semi-professional baseball. USC went on to beat Oregon 53–0. Off the Oregon football team, Lillard dropped out of school. Oregon lost the rest of its games, and USC went to the Rose Bowl.

After leaving Oregon, Lillard moved to Chicago and played more exhibition football. In 1932 he tried out with the NFL Chicago Cardinals. He easily made the club, one of only two African Americans to make any team in the league that year or the next. (The other was Ray Kemp, who played sporadically for Pittsburgh.) The Cardinals were a poor team, but Lillard was their star. In 1932 and 1933 he led the team in passing and running, handled the punting and dropkicking, was their best defensive back, and ran back punts and kickoffs.

The Cardinals were the "second" team in Chicago, with the Bears dominating the local fans and press. When the two teams squared off, as they did twice a year, the game was a big event for the city. In the second 1933 Cards-Bears game, Lillard starred in an upset, running a punt back for the winning touchdown. A photograph showing Lillard's punt return as he eluded the grasp of the Bears great Harold "Red" Grange prompted shock and consternation in the white press (and celebration in the African-American Chicago Defender). After the Cardinals defeated Boston in 1933, a reporter proclaimed Lillard was "one of the greatest all-around players that has ever displayed his wares on any gridiron."

Typical of a star player on a weak team, Lillard was the focus of every opponent. Lillard's race added to the mix. One of his coaches, Paul Schlissler, admitted, "he was a marked man. [Opponents] would give Joe the works." As a result of the foul play, Lillard sustained numerous injuries. He missed several games and practices, and his teammates accused him of loafing and breaking rules. Lillard responded by generally keeping his distance from the rest of the team. In subsequent decades, Lillard's personality and style would have engendered labels like "brooding" and "intense." But in the 1930s an African-American man who showed such harsh tone and pride was in trouble. In 1932 his head coach suspended Lillard for several games for his attitude and behavior. Even reporters for the Chicago Defender, keenly aware that the end of African Americans in the NFL might be near, counseled Lillard to tone himself down, "to play upon the vanity of whites." This Lillard would not, and most likely could not, do. He had to be himself.

Whether or not Lillard's personality was a factor, between the 1933 and 1934 seasons the NFL team owners, led by the Boston (subsequently Washington) Redskins' George Preston Marshall, struck a "gentleman's agreement" excluding any remaining African-American players from the league and barring any in the future. Despite the obvious quality of such talented players as Lillard and several other college stars in the 1930s, this notorious ban held for thirteen years. As at Oregon, Lillard had played superbly but was caught in the snares of a racism that was impossible to disentangle. He was out of the NFL, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Lillard played more professional baseball, basketball, and football. He played in the baseball Negro Leagues. He formed his own professional basketball team, the Chicago Hottentotts. In 1936–1937, amidst an unsuccessful attempt at a football Negro League, Lillard played for Fritz Pollard and the New York Brown Bombers. In all his efforts he was never able to play on any teams that would avail him the national attention his talent merited. In 1938 a group of African-American athletes formed an all-star squad and staged a game with the Chicago Bears in which Lillard participated. But he was a bit past his peak, and the team, hastily organized and lightly practiced, lost 51–0.

The NFL ban on African-American football players continued through the World War II years, in spite of the shortage of players. When the color bar finally fell in 1946, Lillard was too old to take advantage of the opportunity. Like the great Josh Gibson in baseball, he had simply come along too soon. Every indication of his play with Oregon, the Globetrotters, and the Cardinals showed him to have had the makings of a true star, equal to any players of the time. But like so many African-American athletes of a time when laws enforced racial segregation in the South, the true extent of his talents will forever remain unknown.

Lillard spent most of his remaining years in New York. He served two years as a policeman, worked in a department store, and ran a community gymnasium, serving as a community social investigator and cultural director to help juvenile delinquents. He died of heart failure in Long Island City, New York, in September 1978. He is buried in Queens, New York.

Lillard was one of the truly outstanding athletes of the 1930s. His saga illustrates to how great a degree African Americans were the victims of the racial prejudice that was so pronounced in that era.

Lillard's football career is covered in Charles Kenyatta Ross, Outside the Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League (1999).

Alan H. Levy