With it being football season, I thought I’d feature some stories about former pigskin pros who also starred in baseball during their college years. And what better place to start than with the very first African-American to play for pay.
Though even today, few know of him and still even fewer knew him to be a “professional” football player until it was uncovered in a Shelby, Ohio newspaper account in1975, Charles Follis is recognized as the first black to sign a professional football contract.
Charles Follis grew up in Wooster, Ohio and as a high school junior helped organize the school’s first football team in 1899. Known as the “Black Cyclone”, Follis stared on local ball clubs and and then in Shelby (Ohio) for the Blues. His reputation was such, that in 1904, the Shelby club’s manager, fearful of Follis jumping to another team, signed him to a contract that included payment for his services.
For this reason alone, Charles Follis is recognized by the Professional Football Hall of Fame as the sport’s first African-American pro football player.
As good as Follis was in football, he was considered an even better baseball player.
While enrolled at the College of Wooster Preparatory School, Charles Follis played baseball on the college varsity nine in 1901 and 1902. The National Collegiate Athletic Association was still a number of years away from being organized and eligibility rules were still somewhat lax (one of the myriad of reasons the NCAA was ultimately formed). Follis never officially enrolled at the College of Wooster (known as the University of Wooster until 1914), but starred on its baseball teams as a catcher.
His reputation around the state of Ohio as a feared power hitter with excellent speed was well deserved and along with Branch Rickey of Ohio Wesleyan University (who would go on to become the Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager famous for signing Jackie Robinson to a pro baseball contract) were considered to be the two best catchers in all of Ohio college ball.
Ironically, besides facing each other on June 17, 1902 as opposing catchers at Wooster and Ohio Wesleyan, respectively, Charles Follis and Branch Rickey would end up playing football together for the Shelby Blues Athletic Club and Rickey would coach Ohio Wesleyan football in a game against Follis’ Shelby team.
After injuries cut short his football career, Follis played baseball, first in the Ohio State Colored League and then for the Negro professional Cuban Giants (also known as the “Genuine” or “Original” Cuban Giants). While catching for the Cleveland team in the Ohio State Colored League of 1908, Follis’ Columbus opponent that season featured a catcher named Charles Thomas (see my story on Charles Thomas, here) who starred on Branch Rickey’s Ohio Wesleyan University baseball teams of 1903 and 1904.
In 1910, Charles Follis contracted pneumonia while playing baseball in Cleveland and passed away on April 5th at age 31.