Legendary jockey in horse racing; attended Fifth Avenue High School
It’s important that I start this story with a bit of drama by bringing to your attention several things that I didn’t know. And I am going to bet the $39.27 I have in my savings account that you didn’t know, either! (What…times have been tough, surely you didn’t mistake me for Dwight Law, did you?)
Anyway, did you know that the very first Kentucky Derby was won by an African American jockey by the name of Oliver Lewis on May 1, 1875, and the winning thoroughbred was trained by renowned African American trainer Ansel Williamson.
Add to that 15 of the first 28 Derbys were won by Black jockeys. By the 1890s racism and segregation “reared” its ugly head via threats, intentional violence during races, a lack of payment and promotion, and eventually an unfair and unlawful effort barring Blacks from racing.
Now, I know you didn’t know all that. But a very few of you Pittsburghers know this bit of Pittsburgh Black history. That a young man by the name of Ronnie Tanner, who hails from the Hill District and attended Fifth Avenue High School, went on to become a world-class jockey and ascend to the heights of glory in the prestigious sport of horse racing!
It was around 13 years of age when Ronnie weighed in at 75 pounds and was working his side hustle by shining shoes and selling newspapers in Downtown, that his two uncles living in Corona, New York, Booker T. Morgan and Roger Morgan, suggested to Ronnie’s parents that there might be a better future for their nephew. They felt very strongly that given his size and natural God-given athletic talent of speed and quickness, becoming a jockey was a real possibility. Add to that a tremendous confidence, high intellect, a competitive desire to succeed and an upbringing that taught him to give respect and demand respect in kind.
The respect aspect was notable because, in 1963 when Tanner began his “ride” to glory, he was subjected to various levels of racism including “White and colored only” signs and locker rooms. But the thing that Ronnie credits to his early success as a horse farmhand, groomer, trainer and eventually rider was that he had “no fear,” and with a strong belief in God, he knew that he had what it took to become a top-level jockey. So much so that being subjected to blatant racism, having broken virtually every bone in his body, and out-and-out threats didn’t dampen his spirit. One of Ronnie’s ways of dealing with the in-race threats was that, “If they couldn’t catch him, they couldn’t hurt him!”
Catching him proved to be a problem that many jockeys had during his career of over 5,000 races and more than 500 wins. (That didn’t include the early years when “they” didn’t keep the stats and records.)
There were numerous things that Ronnie looks back on that shaped his career and enormous success. Being able to develop friendships with the likes of Jackie Robinson, Brook Benton, Muhammad Ali, “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier, Count Basie, and Adam Clayton Powell tops the list. But along with that was his honor and celebration at the famous “Harlem Derby Celebration.” Also, having ridden at some of the greatest tracks in the United States, such as the Belmont, Aqueduct, and Saratoga, never hurts a career. And being invited to the Ed Sullivan Show was the icing on the cake.
All of these accolades and awards certainly live up to the living legend status he achieved. But none may have hit home as clearly as being nicknamed “The Money Man,” and that obviously because he was winning so many races…But he does admit that tag brought him a little more attention than he may have wanted when one of his fellow jockeys informed him right before a race that the notorious and infamous crime boss John Gotti had placed $10,000 on him to win. Did he win, you might ask? Well, he’ll be here on Saturday, May 27, so yeah he won!
I strongly encourage any and everybody to come out to the 49th Annual Willie “Pops” Stargell and Connie “the Hawk” Hawkins Summer Basketball League Hall of Fame Inductions on Saturday, May 27, sponsored by UPMC, Key Bank, Goodrich and Geist, Flaherty, Fardo Law Firm, and Frank Fuhrer Wholesale Company. Come meet this legendary Black history hero and welcome him back home. As you well know, “That’s What the Hill Do”…It produces champions on every level.
Along with Mr. Tanner, the following awardees for the Willie Stargell Award are Qiana Buckner, Maura Wade, Paul Jones, Carlton Perry, Paul Seneca, Dionna Westry, and Duane Barber.
This year’s Connie Hawkins League Hall of Fame Inductees include Carl Grinage, Reggie Wells, Steven Reid, Raymond Reid, Jennifer Bruce, James Middleton, the late, great Donny Wilson, Rudy Seneca, and the voice of the Hawkins League, Mike Nichols.
Tickets to the event are $65 for adults and $45 for youth 12 and under, and must be purchased in advance. The event at the DoubleTree Hotel in Monroeville begins with a cocktail reception at noon, luncheon at 1 p.m., and awards at 2 p.m. For additional information, contact the Achieving Greatness office at 412-628-4856, Mon-Sat, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.