Joe Lillard Superstar

Very few people in the crowd of 15,000 fans who watched the Sunday afternoon park league football game between the Foshays and the Christian Lindsays at Parade field in Minneapolis knew they were watching one of the greatest American athletes of their time. Newspaper coverage of the game, which the Foshays won 26-0, noted only that Joe Lillard played fullback, led the interference on a touchdown run by a teammate, and kicked two extra points. Two weeks earlier, however, the Minneapolis Tribune reported that in the Foshays’ 19-0 win Joe Lillard had played in “his customary brilliant manner” leading the Foshays offense with “a series of spectacular runs.”

The year was 1928. There were no bleachers at the Parade football field, everyone stood. The sponsor of Lillard’s team was W.B. Foshay, whose company was nearing completion of a new business tower in downtown Minneapolis — the tallest building between Chicago and San Francisco. And, although none of the Minneapolis newspapers mentioned it, Joe Lillard was Black. On the football field, he did it all. He blocked, ran, passed, caught, defended, punted and drop-kicked extra points.

Joe Lillard in his brief tenure as a running back at the University of Oregon in 1931 — a whole ‘nother story.

Many sports fans then and later knew Lillard as different things, like the proverbial blind men coming to terms with an elephant. Iowans already knew Lillard as an all-state high school football, basketball and track star from Mason City, a small city about 150 miles south of Minneapolis.

Basketball fans in Chicago, and well beyond, already knew Lillard as one of the best basketball players in the country. He had been one of the stars of the newly formed Savoy Big Five playing at the Savoy ballroom in Chicago in the 1927-1928 season. After the Savoys had beaten the vaunted Pittsburgh Loendis twice that year, Cum Posey of the Loendis claimed Lillard was the best player on that superb Savoy team. In case the name isn’t familiar, Cumberland Posey has been enshrined in both the baseball and basketball halls of fame, so he knew something about players with skills. In his later years, Lillard played some for the Harlem Globe Trotters, but for several winters in his prime he headlined his own successful barnstorming basketball team.

Doc Spears, the corpulent head football coach of the universities of Minnesota, Oregon and Wisconsin in the 1930s, and a real doctor, once called Lillard the greatest all-around athlete he had ever seen. In slightly different language, Brooklyn Times-Union sports writer Irwin Rosee noted in 1934 that Lillard “has generally been recognized as the most versatile colored athlete.” Rosee was writing about Lillard not as a football or basketball player, but as a pitcher for the Chicago American Giants of the Negro League. Two years earlier a Madison, Wisconsin newspaper baseball writer asserted that Lillard “would be pitching in the major leagues if there were not a color ban.” By the way, Lillard could hit and field a little too; he played right field when he wasn’t on the mound for some of the best itinerant baseball teams of the 1930s.

Lillard did make the major leagues in his day in one sport: football. That might be the only reason we know of his athletic prowess. In 1932 the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals signed Lillard as a running back who also substituted as a quarterback thanks to his potent arm. Lillard followed in the footsteps of Fritz Pollard, Bobby Marshall, Duke Slater, Paul Robeson and only a handful of other African Americans who had integrated professional football in the 1920s and 1930s. But Lillard is known today as a football player primarily because he was the last Black man to play in the NFL for 13 years. After Lillard’s second season with the Cardinals, when he was among league leaders as a runner, passer and kicker, he wasn’t offered another contract. The league’s owners refused to hire another Black man from then until the new Los Angeles Rams were pressured into signing UCLA great Kenny Washington before they started playing in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1946.

Joe Lillard and Kenny Washington, the two men who stood on either end of that 13-year gap of whiteness in the NFL, knew each other well. In April 1945, as World War II was winding down, the USO (United Service Organization) arranged a tour of prominent Black athletes to visit American troops around the world. It was one of many tours featuring entertainers and athletes intended to boost troop morale. Incidentally, both men were coming off their own tours in the military during the war.

Joining Lillard and Washington on the tour were boxer Henry Armstrong and baseball and basketball great Bill Yancey. Armstrong was the most famous of the group because he had held world championship boxing titles in three weight classes at the same time. This was when boxing got more ink in the nation’s newspapers year round than any other sport. Boxing trainer and commentator Teddy Atlas last year selected Armstrong as the greatest boxer — ever. Yancey isn’t as well known today, but as a basketball player for the great New York Rens and a shortstop in the Negro Leagues he would have been known to sports fans, especially young Black soldiers.

The highly successful USO tour lasted three months and circled the globe. Led by sportswriter Dan Burley, the athletes visited Pacific islands, the Phillipines, China, Burma, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Jerusalem, Egypt, and, after crossing North Africa, finally jumped back across the Atlantic from Casablanca to New York.

Lillard visited Mason City, Iowa in 1945 shortly after his USO tour with Kenny Washington and Henry Arrmtrong.

I wonder what the old NFLer and the future NFLer talked about on those long flights. The two men, both policemen at the time, Lillard in New York and Washington in LA, probably wondered when a Black man would get another chance in the NFL. Just six months after their tour, Washington was signed to fill Lillard’s long-empty shoes. That was still more than a year before Washington’s football teammate at UCLA, Jack Robinson, broke the color barrier in baseball.

We would know a whole lot more about Joe Lillard if he had been white or had lived a few decades later. As it is, Minneapolis can lay small claim to Lillard as a resident and standout athlete in city parks for a couple years. He moved to Minneapolis after leaving Mason City high school in 1927 to be with his girlfriend from Minneapolis, Jewel Bannarn. They were married that year. Lillard’s name doesn’t show up in Minneapolis directories of that time, but he said later that he worked at the Nicollet Hotel on Washington Avenue and Rogers Cafe on South Fourth St. He apparently only played football in the Minneapolis park league for the 1928 and 1929 seasons before heading for the University of Oregon and later the Chicago Cardinals. The only time he was listed in a Minneapolis directory was 1930 when he and Jewell were listed as residing on East Franklin Avenue with her parents and brothers. His occupation was listed then as “ball player” — a more talented one, pick your sport, than many people appreciated at the time.

There is much more to the Joe Lillard story, but that will be a part of a larger work now in progress. I’ll let you know when and where that will be available.

David Carpentier Smith

© 2021 David Carpentier Smith 2021

5 comments so far

  1. […] the course of research that resulted in Joe Lillard Superstar in these pages a few days ago, I came across an anecdote that I thought was funny involving another […]

  2. John Helland on

    Thanks for a great story, Dave! I had heard his name, but didn’t know much about him. The black Jim Thorpe of his time. Very nice to end Black History Month with!
    John Helland

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks, John. Your mention of Thorpe is interesting because Fritz Pollard, an All America halfback at Brown University in 1916 and the first African American to play in the NFL, along with Minnesota’s Bobby Marshall, once claimed that Lillard was a better football player than Thorpe. He said he should know because he had played against Thorpe and had coached Lillard. Pollard was also the first African American coach in the NFL when he led the Akron team in 1921. To speak of Lillard in the same breath as Thorpe suggests how impressive Lillard must have been. Thorpe was voted by the Associated Press as the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th Century. Here’s a curiosity: Thorpe, whose Sauk name was Wa-Tho-Huk, “Bright Path,” and Lillard were both born in Oklahoma.

      • johnhelland on

        Thanks again, Dave. I’ve known about Fritz Pollard since I was a boy.
        His son, Fritz Jr., played for the U of North Dakota in the 1930’s when my father was attending No. Dak. State. They happened to meet at some event, and I admired the elder Pollard for being an All-American.
        Looking forward to your next post about Joe Lillard.

      • David C. Smith on

        More today on Pollard!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: