The First Black Packers

While recent research reported on by Cliff Christl on the Packers’ web site indicates that tackle Walt Jean may have been an African-American passing for white when he played for Green Bay in 1925-26, the team’s color barrier wasn’t officially broken until after Curly Lambeau left.  On November 25, 1950 the Packers claimed end Bob Mann from the New York Yanks, and a day later he became the first black to play for the Packers in a league game against the 49ers at City Stadium.

However, Mann was not the first black player to try out for the team or appear in a preseason game. Two Ohio State Buckeyes and World War II veterans beat him to it a few months before. Fleet halfback Jim Clark (born 5/17/1923) and stout guard James “Shag” Thomas (born 8/11/1924) both starred for the 1950 Rose Bowl champions from Columbus, Ohio and then signed with Green Bay on July 21st as free agents. Two days later, the Toledo Blade ran the photo below depicting Clark, Thomas and another former Buckeye also getting a tryout with the Packers, Ray DiPierro, as they looked at a road map for the route to Green Bay.

Although Clark and Thomas played in preseason games for the Packers, both were cut on September 7, just three days before the final exhibition game. Neither would ever play in the NFL. According to the Tod Maher’s Pro Football Archives site linked on the right side of this page, the 6’ 185-pound Clark spent the 1950 season playing for the minor league Erie Vets alongside former Packers Tom O’Malley and Lou Ferry as well as future Boston Patriots quarterback Butch Songin. The 5’7” 225-pound Thomas would try out unsuccessfully for the Montreal Alouettes, but would find his greatest success as a wrestler.

Shag “King Toby” Thomas was known for his headbutting in the wrestling ring, so much so that promoter Dean Silverstone joked in The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: Heroes and Icons by Johnson and Oliver (ECW Press, 2012), “We used to say that he played football without a helmet and that’s why his head was so hard.” The goateed Thomas was prominently featured in the Northwest circuit in the 1960s, while he finished his education at the University of Oregon, opened a bar called Shag’s Arena and worked as a high school teacher in Portland for several years before his death by heart attack in 1982.

clark and thomas

1950bjclark  1950bsthomas

Clark and Thomas custom 1950 Bowman cards are colorized.

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