Until 1961 the PGA of America Constitution had a “Caucasians Only” clause. Considered the “Jackie Robinson of golf” Charlie Sifford began his golfing exploits as a caddie and by age 13 could shoot par. With the help of the California Attorney General Sifford broke down the Caucasian clause. He was the first black man to play on the PGA Tour and the first to get a full PGA membership.
Sifford recounts a discussion he had with Robinson, “He asked me if I was a quitter,” Sifford recalled. “He said, ‘OK, if you’re not a quitter, go ahead and take the challenge. If you’re a quitter, there’s going to be a lot of obstacles you’re going to have to go through to be successful in what you’re trying to do.’ “I made up my mind I was going to do it. I just did it. Everything worked out perfect, I think.”
Sifford’s autobiography, Just Let Me Play, was published in 1992 by British American Publishing (D&J S18910). As the late Arthur Ashe notes in the book’s foreward Sifford’s struggle was harder in many respect that Jackie Robinson’s, “Robinson had the powerful presence of Brooklyn Dodgers’ president Branch Rickey behind him. Sifford more likely than not suffered in silence.” Ashe also takes a shot at sports writers who have described Sifford as “surly”, “mean” and “aloof”. “They either didn’t do their homework or were just insensitive to Sifford’s real life circumstances.”
Appropriately, the cover of Just Let Me Play features Charlie with a cigar hanging out of his mouth. A habit he took up at the age of twelve!
The cover of the first edition, first printing shows Charlie wearing canary yellow pants and a pale blue sweater with the cigar dangling lightly out of this mouth (above on the left). In the newer jackets there is no missing the prominent cigar in Charlie’s mouth (above in the center and on the right).
When Sifford played in a tournament in Los Angeles, a $100,000 prize and a new car awarded for a hole-in-one disappeared off a course banner just minutes before Charlie teed off and sunk the shot, starting a lawsuit he would eventually win. He was regularly berated on the course, called the “N” word, not allowed in locker rooms or clubhouses and treated like, at best, a second class citizen.
The Associated Press calls Sifford, “A man whose autobiography defined his career.” The book is controversial because Sifford raises some uncomfortable subjects and takes direct aim at certain people and clubs.
Sifford had five goals in golf — to become a PGA Tour member, win a PGA event, play in the U.S. Open, play in the Masters and get inducted into the Hall of Fame. His only regret is never getting into the Masters. He won the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open but the Masters did not start inviting PGA Tour winners until a few years later. “One of the great disillusions of my life in golf is that the Masters has become a tournament so revered by golf fans and the media. As far as I’m concerned, it has long been the most racist and hateful spot on the golf globe”. When asked if he would attend the Masters as a special guest, at the tender age of 89, Sifford was quoted in the Los Angeles Times last year as saying, “’F Augusta”.
After reading many of the heartbreaking stories in his book I can understand his bitterness. The thing that struck me most was not that there was blatant racism in the 50s and 60s, but that right up until the book’s publication in 1992 Sifford suffered greatly and had limited support from the PGA.
In all, Sifford would compete in some 422 PGA tournaments, coming in second twice, registering five third-place finishes, and winning nearly $350,000 in prize money. On the senior circuit he was equally successful, winning the 1975 Senior’s Championship and collecting $930,000 in winnings. In 2004 Sifford became the first African-American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. His autobiography is a worthy addition to the library of every serious collector and golfer.