“Georgia on My Mind” was a song that was made famous by Ray Charles, a native of Albany, Georgia. He recorded it in 1960 for his album The Genius Hits the Road. In 1979, the state of Georgia designated it the official state song. But it wasn’t until April 24, 1979, that the Georgia General Assembly officially adopted it as the state song. How appropriate that a Georgia native’s accomplishment be recognized in such a manner. There are three athletes from the state of Georgia that also should be highlighted.
From Atlanta, Georgia came a young man that was the oldest of nine children, Walter “Clyde” Frazier. He grew up playing quarterback in football and catcher in baseball in high school. He also played basketball, primarily at the playground. He went on to attend Southern Illinois University (SIU) on a basketball scholarship. That might seem odd since he was a quarterback in football. He said, “There was no black quarterbacks, so I played basketball”. He seemed like he made the right choice. He was one of the best players in college. He led SIU to the Division II National Invitational Tournament (NIT) finals his sophomore year. In his senior year he led them to a Division I NIT finals victory as the MVP. Frazier was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1967, and played there until 1977. He won two championships (1970, 73) with the team. In the historic Willis Reed game 7 performance, it was Frazier who had 36 points and 19 assists. He was the leader on the court, the go to player. His vision and size made him absolutely impossible to guard. His defense and quickness also made him the ultimate competitor. He was an NBA All-Star and All-Defensive First Team seven times. He finished his career with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1980 after being traded. Apparently making bad decisions is nothing new with the Knicks. I digress. Frazier would have his number 10 jersey retired with the Knicks, and be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1987. Not bad for a young guy from Atlanta.
Walker Smith Jr. was born in Ailey, Georgia. Ailey is located 50 miles south of nowhere and 75 miles east of huh. By now I’m sure you are wondering not only where is Ailey but who is Walker Smith Jr. Allow me to properly introduce him, Sugar Ray Robinson. He was the youngest of three children. His mother and sisters ended up moving to Harlem when he was twelve. He dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and decided he wanted to be a boxer. Since he wasn’t eighteen he couldn’t box in the AAU circuit. He borrowed a birth certificate from his friend Ray Robinson and got in. Rumor has it, that a lady saw him fight and said he was “sweet as sugar”, and the rest is history. During his amateur days, he was 85-0 with 69 knockouts. Of those 69, 40 were during the first round. Almost half of his undefeated boxing matches were knockouts in the first round! He made his professional debut in 1940 and it went like normal, a win. He went 6-0 that year. He would go 40-0 before losing his first fight to Jake LaMotta in a re-match. Robinson had to put boxing on hold for a year and a half as he served in the military. Ironically enough, he served alongside his boxing hero Joe Louis. When he returned to boxing he had an outstanding 73-1-1 record in the Welterweight (140-147 pounds) division. He moved up to the Middleweight (154-160 pounds) division and found he was just as good there. He made the term “pound-for-pound” famous because it didn’t matter what weight class he was in, he dominated. He finished with a 173-19-6 career record with 108 knockouts.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia. Everyone knows him as Jackie Robinson. Time doesn’t permit to give this man the adulation and recognition he deserves. He is the gold standard for breaking down the color barrier in sports. There were more talented baseball players but it was something about his character that allowed him to become the first. Baseball was the most segregated game in the country and it took this youngest of five children sharecropper’s to see that integration was necessary. Robinson’s family later moved to Pasadena, California. That’s where he begin his sports career, lettering in football, basketball, track, and baseball. After high school, he attended Pasadena Junior College and UCLA. After playing in the Negro League and earning $400 a month, he was recruited by Brooklyn Dodger’s general manager Branch Rickey. Rickey was looking for someone that could handle the racial insults and abuse and not fight back. After negotiations, he realized that Robinson was his man. He gave him $600 a month. He had to first play in the minor league system. That’s where he had to eat and sleep separately from his teammates. After being the league’s MVP, he moved up to the big time. On April 15, 1947, he made history. Although he didn’t get a hit, he did draw a walk and score a run for the Dodgers. Robinson endured racial tension initially from teammates and obviously from opposing teams. He endured it all and became a six-time All-Star. He was named NL MVP in 1949 and was a World Series Champion in 1955. He was a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1962. He is the only player to have his number (42) retired by the entire MLB.
February is regarded as Black History Month, even though history is history and should be talked about year round. This month, we will set aside more than the usually amount of time to recognize the accomplishments and give recognition to the achievements of blacks in the areas of art, social activism, music, literature, education, and especially sports. So continue to reflect on their daily struggles to compete and play the sport they loved. The next time you hear “Georgia on My Mind”, reflect on the past while advancing the future.