Bill Spiller: The Man Who Broke Golf’s Color Barrier | Golf News and Tour Information
There weren’t many opportunities for a young black man in Tulsa, Okla., at the turn of the 20th century. There wasn’t much peace either. Tulsa, site of this week PGA Championship played at the Southern Hills Country Club, also happens to be the site of one of the most violent attacks on African Americans, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and that’s where Bill Spiller came of age. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t stay too long in Tulsa.
These acts of violence and the lack of opportunities in the South led millions of African Americans to leave the agricultural economy of the South for better opportunities in America’s most industrialized cities. And that’s what a young Bill Spiller did. He left for Los Angeles hoping to find work in the defense industry. Instead, he ended up working as a porter at Union Station.
Young Bill Spiller was a decorated athlete at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa. He graduated from Wiley College, an HBCU just outside Shreveport, Louisiana, where he also excelled in sports like basketball. At 29, Spiller was already in Los Angeles when a fellow Union Station porter encouraged him to try golf. Within a few years, he broke away from regularity and turned professional. He got hooked on the game and the rest, as they say, is history.
Professional golf in the 1940s was a separate sport. African-American players found a place to play with the United Golfers Association, a tour where players competed for meager scholarships. Spiller dominated UGA, winning over 100 events. Spiller’s barnstorming life was funded by friend and boxing legend Joe Louis, who sponsored Spiller and a handful of other black players, including Ted Rhodes. Always a competitor, Spiller dreamed of bigger stages than the United Golfers Association could offer. He wanted to play with the best and the best players on the PGA of America’s Tour.
In 1948 the Los Angeles Open was played at the Riviera Country Club. It is important to note that the LA Open was not technically a PGA Tour event (just as the United States Golf Association’s US Open is not technically a PGA Tour event). All the top professionals showed up for the ’48 LA Open, which was run by a progressive tournament committee that ignored the PGA Tour’s “Caucasians Only” clause. Spiller performed well enough at the Los Angeles Open to earn a spot on the following week’s Tour stop – the Richmond Open near Oakland, Calif.
It was in Richmond that the walls began to crumble around the PGA of America’s Caucasians Only clause. But the PGA was not about to fall apart without a long, dirty fight.
Spiller arrived at the Richmond Open to be told he couldn’t play due to the Caucasians Only clause. Spiller, alongside fellow African-American golfer Ted Rhodes, retaliated by filing a lawsuit against the PGA of America, claiming the PGA was abusing its power. The PGA knew it was in trouble and promised Spiller it would end the discriminatory practices if he dropped the lawsuit. Spiller dropped the lawsuit against the PGA, but the PGA broke its promise. Instead of desegregating their “Open” tournaments, they started using the word “Invitationals”, and you can guess who wasn’t invited.
Fast forward to 1952. A new tournament, the San Diego Open, invited Spiller to participate. Horton Smith, a well-known racist who has won the Masters multiple times, was the new president of the PGA of America. Smith told the tournament committee that Blacks would not be allowed to play, including Spiller. Once again, Spiller would look to the courts for his justice. And, again, he dropped the suit before it got to court. The PGA of America has agreed to let black players invited by tournament committees to compete. And, again, the PGA of America sidestepped the issue and kept black players out of their events. Nothing had really changed.
Bill Spiller’s heyday had passed in 1960, but not his will to fight. His best playing days behind him, he was a caddy at Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles, where he would do the loop for California Attorney General Stanley Mosk. Suddenly, Spiller had a lawyer in Mosk, who told the PGA of America that they would not be allowed to use public courses if they continued discriminatory practices.
In 1961, the PGA of America finally dropped the Caucasians Only clause and Charlie Siford became the first African-American member of the PGA Tour. It would be Sifford, not Spiller, who has been credited with being the Jackie Robinson of golf. Tiger Woods once said, “If it hadn’t been for Charlie, I probably wouldn’t be here.” For his timing and talents, Sifford would be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004 and receive Barack Obama’s Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.
Spiller died in 1988, still bitter at having been denied the chance to compete at the highest level of golf simply because he was black. He was posthumously inducted into the PGA of America in 2009 and inducted into the Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame in 2015. When I asked his son Bill Spiller, Jr. how his father might have felt about those honors , he wasted no time in responding. “My dad probably would have said, ‘It was about time. “”
Today is a good time for us to honor and recognize Bill Spiller as the man from Tulsa, Okla., who fought for Pete Brown, Lee Elder, Charles Owens, Charlie Sifford, Jim Dent, Jim Thorpe, Calvin Peete and Tiger Woods could play.