Unassuming Bill Nunn, pioneering black journalist and Steelers scout, dead at 89
Bill Nunn Jr., a black sports reporter for The Pittsburgh Courier, could not sit in the press box at Forbes Field three years after Jackie Robinson started for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
But on a May night in 1950, the white members of the Baseball Writers Association of America finally relented: He could sit with them when a team with a black player came to town. The Pirates were all white.
“Strangely enough, upon entering the press box Tuesday night, no brass band struck up, ‘Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here,’” Nunn wrote that week. “Believe it or not, the seats didn’t catch on fire when I sat down. Actually no fanfare was involved. That’s the way it should have been.”
Later, as a scout for the Steelers in the late 1960s, Nunn identified and made connections with players from historically black colleges and universities who helped build Super Bowl teams. Throughout his life, Nunn played an often unceremonious role in breaking down racial barriers across sports and in American life.
Nunn suffered a stroke recently while evaluating college players in the Steelers’ South Side draft room that bears his name and likeness. He died late Tuesday at 89.
“He’s one of those sort of unsung heroes not only in sports, but in civil rights in sports,” said Samuel Black, director of African-American programs at the Senator John Heinz History Center.
Despite his accomplishments and first-hand accounts of American history, Nunn took no pleasure from the spotlight.
“I don’t even want to be talking about all of that,” he told a reporter two weeks ago. “Everybody is born. Everybody dies. And all that stuff in between is, you know. … There’s so much of it that you don’t even want to talk about.”
Players such as Mel Blount, Joe Gilliam, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, Chuck Hinton, Ben McGee and Frank Lewis were drafted after being scouted by Nunn.
His greatest moment might have come in the 1974 draft when the Steelers picked four future Hall-of-Famers with the team’s first five picks. Nunn found receiver John Stallworth at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, whom the Steelers took in the fourth round. Then when the draft ended, Nunn helped the Steelers sign strong safety Donnie Shell, an overlooked free agent from South Carolina State University.
“For the Steelers, Bill was that line into the black colleges and the tremendous amount of talent they had,” Stallworth said years later after he entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
When Nunn was growing up in Homewood, his father worked as managing editor at the Courier, which had 14 regional editions around the country. Nunn delivered papers and worked as a fly boy, climbing below the presses to muck out the ink.
As senior captain on Westinghouse High School’s basketball team, Nunn insisted the coach start the best players — even when that meant putting three black players in the lineup. One, Chuck Cooper, became the first black drafted into the National Basketball Association in 1950.
When Nunn’s father insisted he go to a black college, he attended West Virginia State University near Charleston. He was captain there when it had the only undefeated team in the country but never got to face the all-white national champion.
“All he asked for from our guys was that they just be decent people,” said teammate Earl Lloyd, who became the NBA’s first black player when he started one day before Cooper. “And when you come here, you come here to play. You got to play hard every night.”
When he graduated, Nunn had an offer to play for the Harlem Globetrotters and another to try out for the New York Knicks in the all-white NBA.
The son of a newspaper man chose instead to follow his father. Nunn became a sports reporter at the Courier and later took over the job of choosing its black college All-America football team.
That meant traveling up to 15,000 miles each fall. In the segregated South, he sat in the back of buses and stayed with college presidents and coaches when local hotels would not take blacks.
Nunn married a girl from across the street, Frances Bell Nunn. She went to Howard University in Washington and, after graduation, she worked for the Courier, too. The paper’s photographer, Charles “Teenie” Harris, shot their wedding photos.
The couple has two children, Lynell, a lawyer, and Bill Nunn III, an actor famous for his role as Radio Raheem in the Spike Lee movie “Do the Right Thing.”
When the Steelers first approached Nunn with a job offer, he turned them down. The team had too long ignored his All-America teams and made him feel unwelcome in the press box. But Dan Rooney, then the son of the owner, was persistent.
When Nunn joined the team, he helped break down the final barriers for finding players at black colleges.
“Bill was ahead of most everybody with the black schools,” said Dick Haley, who served as Steelers director of player personnel in the 1970s. “Bill knew everybody at every school, and very few teams were going to all those schools.”
When the Black College Football Hall of Fame inducted its inaugural class Saturday in Atlanta, Nunn was among the 11-member class that included coaching giants Eddie Robinson of Grambling and Jake Gaither of Florida A&M, and NFL players such as Deacon Jones, Walter Payton and Jerry Rice.
Even after he officially retired in 1987, Nunn kept going to work. He had an active role in scouting the players the team will pick when the draft starts on Thursday.
“His legacy will live on in the stories told, lessons taught and wisdom shared with those of us who remain,” Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin said in one of several statements issued by Steelers officials on Wednesday.
Nunn’s impact reached beyond the Steelers as other teams sought to replicate what he did, said Rod Doss, editor and publisher of the New Pittsburgh Courier, as the paper was renamed.
“It was historic and he played a significant role in shaping the NFL as it is today,” Doss said. “But if you tried to get him to talk about it and acknowledge a great contribution he made, he wouldn’t do it.”
Nunn is survived by his wife, two children and three grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are being made for next week at John A. Freyvogel Sons in Oakland.
Staff writer Alan Robinson contributed to this report. Andrew Conte is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320 7835 or [email protected].