Labriola On

Labriola on Bill Nunn the journalist

There are names that long have been associated with Bill Nunn and the work he did, and we've been hearing them a lot lately as his candidacy for the Pro Football Hall of Fame roared down the homestretch and across the finish line on Saturday, Feb. 6 when he was announced as a Contributor in the Class of 2021.

Roosevelt Brown. Willie Davis. Buck Buchanan. Deacon Jones. Leroy Kelly. Tank Younger. Willie Lanier. Otis Taylor and Claude Humphrey are just a few. And for Steelers fans: John Stallworth, Mel Blount, Donnie Shell, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, Frank Lewis, Joe Gilliam, Sam Davis, Ben McGee and many others.

But there is another list of names that deserve to be associated with the work Nunn did, and you don't even need to know whether a football is blown up or stuffed to recognize these.

Jesse Owens. Sonny Liston. Cassius Clay. Willie Mays. Roberto Clemente. Jackie Robinson. Roy Campanella. Henry Aaron.

Because before Bill Nunn was changing the face of the NFL as well as the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was a journalist. A sports writer and then the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most respected and influential Black newspapers in the United States, a newspaper that once boasted a circulation of 500,000 nationwide.

"The Courier was a crusading paper," recalled Nunn of his journalistic roots. "We fought against what we called 'injustices,' and not only in sports, but also in the workplace, in the educational system, and so on. As a result, I was just proud I was a part of that newspaper. What happened with the Courier, though, was that because we were a crusading newspaper, it affected us with advertising. We could get the beer advertisements and things like that, but the big department stores and some of the big companies wouldn't advertise because we were fighting against job discrimination, and many of those things were happening at some of those places."

As respected as Nunn was in the college football community and then within the ranks of the NFL, he was just as much a force as a journalist. After the seventh game of the 1960 World Series at Forbes Field, a game won by Bill Mazeroski's home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, popular lore had it that Pirates rightfielder Roberto Clemente left town immediately after the game in a huff because Dick Groat was voted the National League MVP instead of him.

Whenever that narrative was repeated in his presence, Nunn always would chuckle and shake his head, because the night after the seventh game – which was played in the afternoon – Clemente had met up with Nunn and the two of them spent hours at the bar of a few different clubs in Pittsburgh's Hill District commiserating about any number of things.

That's the access Nunn had as a journalist, and those are the kind of people who talked to him, who trusted him, who told him things, who became the subjects of "Change of Pace," which was Nunn's column on the sports pages of the Pittsburgh Courier.

What follows are some excerpts from "Change of Pace:"

Feb. 11, 1964

"The billing beside the name of Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. is that of prizefighter. While this is the universally accepted occupation of the brash youngster they refer to as the 'Louisville Lip,' a large segment is convinced he has more talent as an entertainer than as an authentic representative of the muscle trade he pursues.

"There are those among the fistic fraternity who scoff at the mere mention of Clay's name. They look upon him as a grass-green neophyte who has moved up the heavyweight ladder on nothing but average ability.

"'I'd put him in a cage, and he'd draw more laughs than the monkeys,' is the way one skeptical prizefight manager sizes up Cassius. 'The guy might be a good battler if he would concentrate on the ring. But he's been so busy being a clown, he hasn't taken the time to learn how to fight.' …

"Clay has talked so long and so loud about what he'll do to Liston that there is every indication that this bout will turn out to be the richest in boxing history. Estimates of the gate, from every avenue of revenue, could run the gross up to between six and ten million dollars. The jury is still out as to whether most fans are coming to witness Cassius' coronation or annihilation."

March 7, 1964
"The tumultuous shouting had subsided and word from Florida was to the effect that Cassius Marcellus Clay, the pompous new overlord of the heavyweight division was no longer taunting his sheepish subjects with his arrogance.

"This was the day after the fight, and Clay, still basking in the sunlight of his stunning upset victory over the supposedly invincible Sonny Liston, was meeting with the press.

"Something, however, was missing. There sat Cassius, but the words being spoken were softly subdued. Gone was the shrieking loudmouth who, only the night before, had ranted and raved like a wild man, after having been declared the heavyweight champion of the world.

"As he looked out over the battery of newsmen, who had assembled with full expectations of being subjected to a barrage of never-ending chatter, Clay pulled another of his unpredictable turnarounds.

"'Gentlemen,' the lordly king of boxing's biggest title said quietly, almost humbly. 'I don't have to talk anymore. All I have to do now is be a nice, clean gentleman.' The statement packed enough dynamite to have fractured Liston's good right arm.

March 21, 1964
"It seems former Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston has reached the age where he should be getting more sense. His latest escapade with a Detroit Policeman was uncalled for. Having been in trouble with the police more times than one cares to remember, Liston, of all people, should take special pains to avoid these situations that put more of a cloud over his already-damaged reputation … While his private life should be his own, he must learn that a man of his stature is always susceptible to roadblocks."

June 13, 1964

"The man who opened the door was Willie Mays, generally acknowledged as the greatest player in the game. It was early afternoon, and Mays was just welcoming the day, after a night encounter the previous evening with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

"While there was sleep in Willie's eyes, he came wide awake when the visitor asked him about a rumor about Willie taking over as the manager of the San Francisco Giants. …

"'You know as well as I do, I'm not thinking about managing this team. I figure on playing baseball for eight or ten more years. It's tough enough playing every day, without thinking about running a team.'

"Even though he venomously denied the rumor of his taking over the Giants, Mays didn't leave the door closed on the possibility of his managing someday. 'I'm not going to say I wouldn't like to manage, in the future. But the way I look at things now, I couldn't give the idea any serious thought for at least eight more years.' …

"When reminded he had told the visitor, on another occasion, that he was reluctant about being called a team leader, the veteran outfielder admitted this was so. He also admitted he might have changed some in this respect.

"'I still think it's the responsibility of the manager to make the decisions as far as the players are concerned,' Mays emphasized. 'Yet if a player asks me for help, I'm more than willing to give him any suggestion that might be helpful.'"

June 17
"Roy Campanella, speaking about the civil rights battle going on in this country.
"'Every Negro in the country is affected by what's going on. The black man all over the world is affected, too. Everyone has his eye on these civil rights bills and laws and demonstrations. Things are at a higher point than ever before. This struggle has mushroomed into something more powerful than the hydrogen bomb. This is the biggest explosive the United States has. They can't put a blanket and a knot around the head of it. That's exactly the way I feel about it.'

"Hank Aaron discussing the bean ball.
"'Pitchers have knocked me down a lot, and it goes through my head that they're throwing at me because I am a Negro. What makes me think so is that Eddie Matthews is just as much of a hitter as I am, and I've batted right behind him for nine years now and have never seen him knocked down. I've been knocked down too often. I've seen some of the white players knocked down some, but most of the time it's been the Negroes.'"

April 2, 1966

"When the count reached five, one television buff jumped from his seat and loudly proclaimed, 'Man, this is out of sight.'

"He was referring to the superbly talented Texas Western Miners basketball team that had just been introduced to the crowd prior to the start of the National Collegiate Basketball Championship Game against Kentucky last week. Strangely, numerous cage followers were caught with their trunks down as far as the Miners were concerned.

"Few individuals (not readers of this column it turns out), were aware of the fact that the Miners floored five Negroes on their starting five. Even less, gave the galloping Texans any sort of a chance against a Kentucky team that had been built up as some sort of supermen from another planet.

"Yet, when the dust of battle had cleared, there was Kentucky, tears and all, accepting the prizes that go to losers. The Wildcats had met their masters and were now as tame as kittens.

"In many respects this was a game that featured the Old South and the new. Several years ago when the color barrier tumbled, Texas-Western Coach Don Haskins was suddenly given a new lease on life.

"Like a schoolboy who had just been told he no longer needed permission to visit the rest room, the 36-year-old cage mentor suddenly had free reign to get the type of team he wanted. As a result, word went out all across the country that Texas Western was interested in basketball players. The color of their skin didn't matter …

"For Kentucky and its thousands of faithful followers, the defeat must have been crushing. Not only did the Wildcats lose the opportunity to bring the school its fifth national cage title, the team missed out on the opportunity of proving that there are schools that can still win the big title without Negro players."

Sept. 5, 1964

"We hope there isn't a conspiracy brewing, but it seems strange that the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University, and Syracuse University won't have any Negro players on their freshman squads this year. A reliable source has informed this writer that school officials at Syracuse are alarmed at the amount of mixed dating going on among co-eds and athletes."

Dec. 19, 1964
"To those of us who have closely followed the Negro college sports scene over the years, it has been obvious that the so-called minority schools have produced some of the best athletic talent in the world. While certain segments of the Negro population have scoffed at the idea of our colleges turning out individuals who can compete with their white counterparts, others have insisted that the only thing these athletes needed was a chance to prove their merits.

"Today, possibly more than ever, it has become apparent that athletes from Negro colleges have 'arrived.' Unfortunately, it had to take full-fledged recognition from the rough, tough world of the professionals before some could see the light. Yes, a sleeping dog should be forgiven for having faulty vision.

"While track and field in Negro colleges long have been acknowledged as a breeding-ground for top stars, it has only been in recent years that football, basketball, and baseball have captured a place in the sun. And it is in these sports that the big money lies.

"Several weeks ago, the National and American Football Leagues held their annual drafts. Since then, the dickering for talent has been frenzied. Both leagues have pursued grid talent with a dedication seldom witnessed anywhere.

"Listed in this select group of stars being pursued were many athletes from Negro colleges. Having been seen and screened by some of the best talent scouts in the country, these youngsters found money, the likes of which they never dreamed, being offered for their services.

"Since the bidding for gridiron talent has started, I've had the opportunity to talk to various coaches and scouts about the money being paid out for football players. I've been informed, on good authority, of some of the bonuses and contracts certain individuals have received. While names won't be used because our sources don't want to be identified, the stories are authentic.

"There is, for example, the youngster from one Southern school who received a $10,000 bonus and a new Thunderbird for putting his name on the dotted line. Not only that, his contract calls for a salary of $15,000 a year. At the same time, his mother was handed $1,000 and his girlfriend $300.

"Another young man was so anxious to sign that he failed to dicker for the money he might have received. A Negro scout told me this lineman probably got in the neighborhood of a $10,000 bonus. 'But,' said the scout, 'he had to be off his rocker. I know for a fact our club might have gone as high as a $25,000 bonus if he had played his hand right.'

"Another highly sought lineman was about to get a $12,000 bonus, plus an Oldsmobile, for his signature. Not only that, the club went so far as to pay off the mortgage (amount undisclosed) on his mother's home and put enough money into a trust fund so the youngster can eventually finish his education.

"Then there is the well-known athlete from a Negro college who was given a deal no one could turn down. His is a three-year pact calling for him to receive in the neighborhood of $90,000. The ball club which signed him figures he is worth every bit of the money.

"There are other examples of big money, cars, and complete wardrobes floating around. In many instances, coaches have been rewarded for their 'efforts' in getting a youngster to sign with a particular club. This is something that has been practiced since long before the bidding went up for youngsters from Negro colleges.

"We point up these cases as vivid proof of the growing stature of football being played by Negro schools. When a college like Jackson State can have eight youngsters signed by the professionals off their 1964 team it becomes obvious there is no small abundance of top-notch football talent available.

"To a large extent, it is sad it took the professionals so long to wake up to this source of raw talent. Yet the fact that these men were eventually allowed to be discovered at all is to the credit of those farsighted Negro college presidents who believed all along that sports was a means for our young men to reach for the stars. To these men should go the undying gratitude of so many of these newborn 'bonus babies.' For without them, most of our college athletic programs would never have been able to blossom."

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