In 1949, a virtually unknown Mexican-American named Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez startled the all-white country club tennis world by winning the United States National championship, which two decades later became the U.S. Open.
It was the first known major achievement by a Latino in American sports – celebrated by Hispanics in Gonzalez’ hometown in Los Angeles and throughout the Southwest that September during Mexican Independence festivities in the U.S.
Today Pancho Gonzalez’s triumph is just one of numerous such sporting accomplishments being commemorated by American Latinos during Hispanic Heritage Month.
But Gonzalez’s record-setting victory more than six decades ago was also the benchmark among handful of incredible feats by Latino athletes who made names for themselves against incredible odds.
Lee Trevino, U.S. Open Golf Champion, 1968
Like Gonzalez, Trevino was also largely self-taught in a sport that was almost exclusively for the country club set. He was a golf driving range pro, much like the fictional character in the romantic comedy film “Tin Cup” who went through the arduous process of qualifying for the U.S. Open in 1966 and 1967.
Then in 1968, at the Oak Hill Country Club, in Rochester, New York, Trevino made storybook history when he won the U.S. Open, finishing four strokes ahead of the legendary Jack Nicklaus.
He went on to win five more major championships in his career, including the U.S. Open again in 1971, the British Open in 1971 and 1974 and the PGA title in 1974 and 1984.
Trevino’s best year was 1971, winning his second U.S. Open when he defeated Nicklaus in a dramatic 18-hole playoff. Two weeks later, he captured the Canadian Open and the next week won his first British Open.
Winning those three titles in one year also was a first, and Trevino was awarded the Hickok Belt emblematic of being top professional athlete of 1971.
Jim Plunkett, Heisman Trophy Winner, 1970
Because of his non-Spanish surname, most people outside California weren’t aware that Plunkett was Latino. But he was born to Mexican-American parents, and his surname came from an Irish-German great-grandfather on his father’s side.
Plunkett rose to prominence as a quarterback at Stanford where in his senior year he beat out two high-profile quarterbacks — Notre Dame’s Joe Theismann and Archie Manning of Ole Miss – to win the Heisman, awarded annually to the top college football player in the country.
He also received the Maxwell Award for the nation’s best quarterback and was named player of the year by United Press International, The Sporting News, and SPORT magazine.
It was an unprecedented achievement for a young man who had grown up working odd jobs to help support a family in which his mother was blind and his father was afflicted with progressive blindness.
In 1980, Plunkett led the Oakland Raiders to the NFL Super Bowl championship, becoming the first and only Latino to quarterback win a Super Bowl and to be named the Super Bowl MVP.
Nancy Lopez, LPGA Champion and Hall of Famer
In the 1970s and 1980s, Nancy Lopez accomplished for Hispanics in women’s golf what Trevino had done for Latino men. She dominated women’s golf as few others have.
Lopez made history as a 12-year-old, winning the New Mexico Women’s Amateur and then the U.S. Girls’ Junior in 1972 and 1974, at ages 15 and 17, respectively.
When she turned pro in 1978, Lopez won nine tournaments in her first year, including at one stretch, five tournaments in a row to become LPGA Rookie of the Year, LPGA Player of the Year and the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year.
There wasn’t much in golf she didn’t win or succeed in doing.
In 1979, she won another eight tournaments and continued winning, slowed down only by childbirth.
Lopez won the LPGA Championship in 1978, 1985, and 1989.
Her only regret, she said in an interview was never winning the U.S. Women’s Open, finishing second four times.
Oscar De La Hoya, Ten Time World Boxing Champion
Known as “The Golden Boy,” De La Hoya became the most famous – and richest – Latino in boxing history who returned the sport to the glamor it had slowly lost after the retirement of Muhammad Ali.
De La Hoya came to prominence in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, where he used his mother’s death to cancer as personal motivation for an upset in winning a gold medal.
His good looks, Golden Boy image and talent helped television make him a major sports star when he turned professional. There had been other Latino fighters, some perhaps even better and fiercer, but De La Hoya epitomized the American Dream and openly embraced it as well.
In his career, De La Hoya defeated 17 world champions and won 10 world titles in six different weight divisions, gaining the kind of fame and recognition that only heavyweight champions had been able to do in the past.
De La Hoya also did what no other fighter, Latino or not, had done in a sport where so many ended up poor and broke. He generated more money than any other boxer in history, earning almost $700 million in pay-per-view income alone.