Applauding Two Pioneers of Sport

The Boston Sports Museum inducted Willie O’Ree and Bobbi Gibb to its pantheon of lifetime achievers at the tenth “Tradition” on June 28, 2011.  Their inclusion was especially fitting and gratifying.  The evening’s other honorees are much better known around Boston – Larry Bird, Mike Lowell, Micky Ward, and Ty Law.  “Sports heroes” all they are, and we needn’t go into their stories here.

Willie and Bobbi were not quite as accomplished as those four, and certainly not as heralded, in their respective fields. But they deserve much more than a polite smattering of applause; those who take pride in being members of the sporting community in Boston should know their stories.

Willie O'Ree

O’Ree, from New Brunswick, Canada, was brought up by the Bruins during the late 1950s. He played a total of 47 games – most of which came in 1961 – in the “Original Six” National Hockey League. He broke the “color line” in the league, and in so doing endured racist taunts and slurs in much the same way that Jackie Robinson did in baseball.  In articles that you can find on the web about Willie, he mentions the steadfast support of Milt Schmidt, the Bruins’ coach at the time, and general manager Lynn Patrick. His team mates were always ready to rally round him as well – something that we’d just expect from hockey players.

Two more things on Willie. He wasn’t quite good enough, apparently, to stick in the big league permanently. The Bruins brought him up from the Quebec Aces of the American Hockey League. Most of his lengthy pro hockey career was played in Los Angeles and San Diego, out in the Western League. The high minors of those days were easily the caliber of today’s National Hockey League. If O’Ree was good enough to almost make it back then, one can only imagine how much of a star he’d be nowadays. The six-team NHL was probably the toughest society of all to crack as a full-time player, and O’Ree came very close to doing so.

Most remarkable, though, was his physical handicap. Two years before the Bruins brought him up, O’Ree was blinded in one eye by an errant puck. He never told anybody, and no one ever asked. Can you imagine playing hockey at any level, let alone in the National Hockey League, without sight in one eye? Simply amazing.

Bobbi Gibb

Bobbi Gibb was a child of the Sixties, and she still looks the part with wildly unruly locks that are right out of Haight-Ashbury.  I’d never heard her story, even though I’ve been fairly close to the BAA and the Marathon over the years. Early in her life, she discovered the joy of running. It was not the thing for girls to do, back then, so she tried to be as unobtrusive as possible about it as she trained herself to go longer and longer distances.  Women’s running, and girls’ athletics more generally, were on the outer fringes of society’s comfort zone.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, who introduced Gibb at The Tradition, tells a similar tale of her days as a young runner in Maine. When out for her roadwork, she’d pretend to be picking flowers or looking for recyclable bottles if strangers happened by. Gibb was told that the marathons didn’t allow women because running such long distances would be hazardous to their health.

Gibb was undaunted. She decided to run in Boston anyway, and rode the bus across country from San Diego in a four-day stretch to do it. She made her way to Hopkinton, wore a hooded sweatshirt, and hid in some bushes near the start line. Once she got into the race and the guys around her realized that she was a woman, she received a warm welcome. She was soon able to doff the sweatshirt and run along with them all the way to the finish. She had no official number, of course, but finished in a little over three hours and was in the upper one-third of the field.

It took a few years for the BAA to recognize Gibb and retroactively acknowledge her achievement. The better-known joust between Jock Semple and Katherine Switzer was yet to come. But Bobbi Gibb deserves the credit for being the Boston Marathon’s first woman finisher.

I don’t know about you, but these are the sporting stories that I like best. Sure, I applaud the singular achievements of Bird, Lowell, Ward, and Law. They all gave us championships. But O’Ree and Gibb gave us something more. They showed us what courage and determination, those over-used but right-on words, truly mean. Gibb and O’Ree didn’t get appropriate recognition at the time – no pioneer does. But it’s never too late, and the Sports Museum did itself proud last night in honoring them

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