Joe Lillard 1934 Signed Letter to the Philadelphia Eagles – Last Man in the NFL Before the Color Line -Historically Significant PSA/DNA LOA

“On December 3, 1933, Joe "The Midnight Express" Lillard, of the Chicago Cardinals, became the last black man in the National Football League. After that Sunday, the slow-brewing effort to ban African-American players—led over eight years by George Preston Marshall, the owner of the Washington football team – was complete.”  - Patrick Sauer article from

Sauer’s article also stated, “Lillard dropped out of college (University of Oregon) and finished the year playing in professional all-star games. His touchdown runs of 55 and 45 yards in back-to-back games caught the eye of NFL scouts. In 1932, he joined the Chicago Cardinals, becoming the thirteenth black player—although the only one that season—to appear in the National Football League since it was formally founded in 1920. (Five other African Americans played professionally prior to the NFL.)

Lillard played in 18 of 21 games for the Cardinals in 1932 and 1933, rushing for 494 yards at nearly 10 a clip, and throwing for 372 yards, but the team's overall record was an abysmal 3-15-3. In 1933, the Cardinals won one miserable game, beating the Cincinnati Reds 3-0 on a Lillard field goal. (Kicking, for what it's worth, was not Lillard's strength. He had a habit of missing extra points, which cost the Cardinals two games.) Still, Lillard was the Cardinals lone bright spot. His season highlight was a newsreel-worthy 50-yard punt return touchdown in which he outran Bears superstar Red Grange. Lillard would finish that season accounting for 31 of the Cardinals' 52 points.”

The black newspaper Chicago Defender called Lillard "easily the best halfback in football" and it seems clear his athletic talent was off the charts. What truly sets Lillard apart from the players of his era, however, was his modern attitude. He didn't take shit from nobody.

"On the Cardinals, Lillard didn't have a Jackie Robinson approach," says Ross. "He got into a lot of fights on the field, retaliated when he thought others crossed the line, showed up late to team meetings, and got into it with his head coach in terms of discipline. But the Cardinals were so terrible, they had to put up with his antics."

After the 1933 season, Lillard was released by the Cardinals and he was run out of professional football, relegated to barnstorming with African American football, baseball, and basketball teams (Lillard was a multi-sport threat).

In this 3 page handwritten and signed letter to the Philadelphia Eages, he diplomatically states in the offered letter that his release was due to the club "reorganizing," the move was widely seen as racially motivated.  He is acting as basically his own agent asking to be given a chance to make the Philadelphia ball club. He writes that he played under Doc Spears (at Oregon); who is now the head coach at the University of Wisconsin and mentions he has several years experience in the league.  

He writes, “My position is left-half back, can run kick pass and think football, if there’s any doubt in your mind for references in writing Dr. Spears.  All I ask is to be given a chance.”

He signs the letter, “Smokey Joe Lillard formerly of the Chicago Cardinals”

Lillard was a super star before his time and one can only think of all the great accomplishments he would have been able to achieve, if it weren’t for the color of his skin.

Full LOA from PSA/DNA


Item: 12439

Price: $1.00
Joe Lillard 1934 Signed Letter to the Philadelphia Eagles – Last Man in the NFL Before the Color Line -Historically Significant PSA/DNA LOA