By Tammy Nunez, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
on May 16, 2013 at 4:27 PM, updated May 16, 2013 at 5:12 PM
There was one way Stephen Martin got through the backlash of being the first African American to play varsity sports in the Southeastern Conference in 1966. Martin, a former Tulane baseball player who died on Tuesday, insulated himself from angry fans yelling racial slurs at him during games.
He ignored detractors and kept pulling on his Green Wave uniform and trying to assimilate onto an all-white baseball team in an all-white conference in the deep South during some of the nation’s most turbulent racial times.
As a sophomore, Martin started the 1966 season opener against Spring Hill. He paved the way for Harold Sylvester, who also hailed from St. Augustine High School. Sylvester was Tulane’s first black scholarship athlete – he came to play basketball a few years after Martin enrolled at Tulane. Martin won an academic scholarship.
Sylvester said the two were the only black athletes on a campus that contained 80 African American students. They talked a lot about how to navigate their way through the unchartered waters of being some of the first black athletes in the SEC – the league Tulane was a part of then.
“The advice was not instructional,” Sylvester said. “It was always philosophical. He would say, … ‘You just got to do what you do, don’t let the rest of it affect you. Stay in your bubble.’ That’s the way he was and again, that’s my memory of him is that he always made sure that he was contained.”
No matter what fans screamed at him, Martin played on as if they were cheering for him.
“He had to go to Alabama and to Baton Rouge and into Mississippi and all those places – essentially alone,” Sylvester said. “He was the kind of guy, it was like water on a duck’s back. You know he must of internalized it but he was an absolute, total, complete gentleman. He was a really bright scholarly guy. But he went through a lot, no question about it.”
“Steve was a trendsetter and pioneer, who opened many doors for African-Americans, when he donned a Tulane uniform and took the field for the first time in 1966,” Tulane Director of Athletics Rick Dickson said. “Through his heroic determination, he helped break down a racial barrier and advance collegiate athletics. This is a sad day for the Martin family and the entire Tulane community, but I have no doubt his legendary actions will remain as one of the great moments in our University’s history.”
Stephen Martin was the first African American athlete in the SEC when he played baseball for Tulane in 1966.
At St. Augustine, Martin was one of the first few four year lettermen in football and was a key part of the school’s first-ever state championship in 1963.
Martin, who went on to get a CPA and MBA, was a bit of a marvel in other ways as well.
“One of the things that I remember about Steve that he was a consummate athlete in addition to being a consummate gentleman,” Sylvester said. “He was a guy who was probably a better football player than a baseball player but the world, the Southeastern Conference, wasn’t ready for a black football player at the time that he came through.”
Martin played intramural sports and excelled in the classroom in his college days. He earned his B.A. in Latin as a Rockefeller Scholar and M.B.A. as an Arthur Young Scholar from Tulane. He later served his country in the United States Army and retired in 2012 as the Chief Financial Officer for Tuskegee University.
He was always a forward-thinking businessman, Sylvester said. The two talked about opening up a sports agency in the early 1970’s – way ahead of what would become a big-bang industry.
But Sylvester says he feels a debt to Martin for paving a path for African Americans like himself in a college culture that didn’t include many blacks in the 1960s.
“He was out there in baseball. It’s a different sport from football or basketball,” Sylvester said. “They are in closer proximity so all the name-calling and isolation things that have happened – it’s a Jackie Robinson story. Everyone is up close. He went through an awful lot in those years. He is an actual pioneer in a major southern athletic conference.”
During his varsity career, he played in 61 career games and was a career .230 hitter with five home runs, 15 RBI and was a perfect 4-of-4 on stolen base attempts. He was coached by Ben Abadie and Milt Retif during his career.