One Man's Mission
Sixty years ago, black pro Bill Spiller wanted to play on the pro tour. When the PGA said no, he set the wheels of change in motion
At a glance, Richmond CC, just north of Oakland and directly across the bay from San Francisco, appears no different than most other private clubs in the United States. There is a sturdily built stucco-and-brick two-story clubhouse in the Tudor style; rich green, kempt grounds; a quiet, unhurried air. In the men's locker room, however, there are photographs on the walls indicating that in this place a bit of golf history was made. They are pictures of Sam Snead, Toney Penna, George Schoux and E.J. (Dutch) Harrison when they won the Richmond Open, a tournament played from 1945 through 1948 as part of the pro tour's winter West Coast swing. Then again, if a picture that was never taken also dressed the wall, it would peg the club as the site where a considerably more significant historical event took place than the likes of a Sam Snead winning a golf tournament. It would show two black pros who were denied the chance to compete in the 1948 Richmond Open because of the color of their skin. And as a result, it was there where one of those two men, Bill Spiller, opened the struggle to change that order of things.
Among those in the U.S. black community, Spiller was particularly unwilling to go slow in the struggle for equal opportunity. He wanted what should have been his, now. He wanted to play on the pro tour, the real pro tour, the one the white guys played. He finally did, but by the time his singular effort took root to end black discrimination in American golf, and in particular on the U.S. pro tour, he was well beyond his playing prime. It was a personal loss he felt more and more heavily, even tragically, as he ended his days. What is more, although every African-American who has played the PGA Tour since 1948 owes Spiller a great debt, he has yet to get the large portion of recognition he earned. Spiller embodied the theory that one individual's action can alter the course of history. But there are times, it seems, when that catalyst for change gets lost between the pages.
Sixty years ago, in January 1948, Bill Spiller and Ted Rhodes traveled to Richmond, Calif., to play in the Richmond Open. They had finished in the top 60 in the Los Angeles Open two weeks earlier and, according to tour regulations, were automatically qualified into the field at Richmond. The tour was then under the jurisdiction of the PGA of America (not today's PGA Tour, an entity that did not exist at the time), whose main reason for being was (and is) to train and certify club professionals. It began overseeing the pro tour in the mid-1930s because the growing circuit needed an organizing arm. After finishing a Tuesday practice round at Richmond CC, Spiller, Rhodes and local black amateur Madison Gunter were told by George Schneiter, the PGA's on-site tournament representative (and himself a competitor), that they would not be allowed to play in the tournament. The reason? They were not members of the PGA of America, a requirement for competing in tournaments it co-sponsored. Catch-22! Spiller and Rhodes could not join the association, because a clause in its constitution allowed membership only to Caucasians. Spiller had heard through the rumor mill of this blatantly racist restriction but had never seen it in writing or in any other official form. He went to Richmond to find out if it was indeed the case. By virtue of his resolute curiosity, this well-kept secret was made public for the first time.
Upon the rejection of the trio's entries, Rhodes, a quiet, non-combative man, was prepared simply to pack his bags and head home without comment. Spiller was not so disposed. He located Jonathan Rowell, a progressive, white Bay Area attorney who had represented the NAACP on some discrimination issues. Spiller asked about suing the PGA of America. On an expenses-only basis, Rowell took the case and filed a $315,000 suit: $5,000 per man against Richmond CC for prize money and humiliation; $100,000 each against the PGA of America, which was Spiller's main target. Pat Markovich, pro/manager of the Richmond club and tournament director, had no problem with black players competing, but his hands were tied by a standard contract sponsors signed with the PGA that gave the association an absolute mandate on the makeup of the competitive field. It was a contract George S. May, who staged the Tam O'Shanter All-American and World tournaments in Chicago, did not sign, and in 1942 he became the first U.S. sponsor to integrate a tournament field. The Los Angeles Open sponsors followed suit as did those of the St. Paul (Minn.) Open. Those three events were the only ones on the pro tour in the U.S. in which black pros were given a chance to compete against their white contemporaries. The U.S. Open was not segregated, but black participation was not encouraged (another story, altogether).