At Detroit's golf tourney, Joe Louis' legacy packs a punch

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Detroit — The idea with the replica Joe Louis fist was to hit people in the face, metaphorically speaking: Hey, you're in Detroit.

There's a scale model Spirit of Detroit statue inside the Rocket Mortgage Classic, in the Fan Zone. Not far from it stands a large Olde English D.

Paula Love, second from right, executive director of The First Tee of Greater Detroit poses with First Tee participants Keianna Smil, 15; Elani Troy, 15, and Saniyah Lay, 11, behind a replica of the Joe Louis fist statue in front of the clubhouse at the Detroit Golf Club.

But the Fist has the prime real estate at Detroit Golf Club, in front of the clubhouse. It's a miniature version of the sculpture at Woodward Avenue and Jefferson, and it's a fitting piece in the perfect place because Louis wasn't just a boxer.

He was a golfer — and not just a golfer, either. As the PGA Tour plays its first event in the city, it's the perfect opportunity to remember that he was a key figure in the integration of the top level of the sport.

That part of his story is little known, which is understandable. The Alabama native with the punishing fists made his impact on golf in the 1940s and '50s, and it stretched for decades until his death in 1981.

Former boxer Joe Louis pitches from the fairway of the Engineers Club in Roslyn, N.Y. on June 26, 1940. Louis played golf the day after his victory fight with Joe Walcott, which he announced as his last fight.

Beyond that, there was no Jackie Robinson moment, where an absurdly white sport suddenly wasn't. But today's tour pros come in all colors, and Louis helped — which came as news Friday to John Leidlein.

Leidlein, 79, is the volunteer chair of the Fan Zone entertainment area. He's been riding his bicycle the few blocks to the golf course from the house he has lived in for 50 years.

He's an avid golfer, a proud Detroiter, a comfortable minority in a majority black city, and old enough to remember when Louis was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. But did he know about their shared devotion to chasing small white orbs around a meadow?

"No," he said.

Likewise Andrea O'Donnell, 48, of Bloomfield Hills, who was posing for a selfie in front of the Spirit of Detroit with son Tommy, 14.

"I do not know the connection," she said, and she seemed almost apologetic. But again: no need.

Joe Louis shakes hands with Byron Nelson, right, at the Tam O'Shanter Open Golf Tournament at the Suburban Chicago Course on July 22, 1943.   Louis was on furlough from Army duties during World War II.

For all his ferocity — of his 66 wins against three losses, 52 came by knockout — Louis had a gentle touch with a golf club. At his best, he played to a 2 handicap, which would make him better today than about 96% of golfers.

He was a significant supporter of the United Golf Association, which held tournaments for black players, and ponied up $1,000 in prize money in 1941 for the Joe Louis Open at Rackham Golf Course in Huntington Woods.

After winning what was known as the Negro National in 1951, Louis was invited by the sponsoring Chevrolet dealers association to compete in the 1952 San Diego Open. One problem, aside from the level of competition: PGA bylaws limited its fields to "Any professional golfer of the Caucasian race over 18 years of age."

The world of golf being small enough sometimes to fit on a tee, the PGA president at the time was Horton Smith, club pro at Detroit Golf Club. He continued to balk at integrated events, and DGC didn't enroll a black applicant until Coleman Young was granted a social membership in 1986. Walter Elliott became the club's first African American president in 2003.

As for the San Diego Open, it was stuck between a left hook and a heavy bag. Louis was famous, beloved, and competent — and black. The PGA decreed that because Louis was an amateur invited by the host committee, he could play, though a black pro who had qualified was excluded.

The pro, Bill Spiller, said he was "disappointed in Louis" for playing, according to research by Louis countered that small steps were better than no steps.

As the first black competitor in a PGA-sanctioned tournament, he shot a solid 4-over-par 76 and an 82, missing the cut. Before that, he made his feelings known to reporters, again according to TheUndefeated.

“I want people to know what the PGA is,” he said. “We’ve got another Hitler to get by.”

And: "It's about time that it is brought into the open."

And, almost five years after Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers: “This is the last major sport in America in which Negroes are barred."

Louis played again in the PGA's next stop in Phoenix. Significantly, so did Spiller and two other black professionals, as invitees. And in short order, the PGA did ...

Joe Louis, far left, plays golf with Gerald Ford in 1975. Kneeling in front of Louis is  actor/comedian Flip Wilson.

Well, nothing. It wasn't until California Attorney General Stanley Mosk banned PGA events from courses in his state nine years later that the PGA eliminated its bylaw. But the long push was started by Louis, who in 2009 was recognized with an honorary membership by the PGA.

Paula Love knows that.

Love is the executive director of First Tee of Greater Detroit, which provides golf lessons and life lessons for kids. Louis' son, Joseph Louis Barrow Jr., spent 18 years as national CEO of First Tee, and the local chapter is one of six charity beneficiaries of the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Love was staffing First Tee's booth Friday at the country club. She spent a few moments with the replica Fist, seven feet long and swaying in a soft breeze.

She knew, she said, and the kids do, too — about the boxer and the golf and the fight.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn