What Perfect Timing: President Obama inaugurated on the same day we honored the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Watching TV, I could only reflect back to when as a boy I watched the Chicago Bears and the Cubs play and saw no black faces on either field.
A “gentlemen’s agreement” had swept them away, a tsunami of bias that lasted until after World War II. Until 1933, the National Football League had numerous black stars, the most famous being Paul Robeson, a Walter Camp All-America end and Phi Beta Kappa at Rutgers. Before turning to the stage, and film, he played in the NFL as a halfback.
One of the best-known pros of the 1920s, Fritz Pollard, a star at Brown, played in the pros and became the first black NFL coach. Red Grange called Duke Slater, a racehorse tackle at the University of Iowa, then all-pro with the Chicago Cardinals, “the greatest tackle of all time.”
But, as I chronicled in my book, Pro Football Hall of Fame: The Story Behind the Dream, “Other blacks played in the NFL, but after 1933, the music stopped.” Club owners stopped signing blacks, not matter how talented. But long before that, no men of color were allowed in major league baseball. Great players like Satchel Paige had to make do in the Negro Leagues. (Late in his career, he finally made it to the Bigs.)
During the 1930s the nation was locked in the Depression and segregation, with blacks banned from voting booths, restaurants, and public office in much of the nation. Jobs were scarce. But when World War II hit, blacks flocked north to good jobs as the nation became, as the expression goes, “the arsenal of democracy.” Blacks were drafted into the military, defending a democracy that didn’t care for the color of their skin but needed their help.
My former colleague at the News-Press Bill Downey wrote a book about his experiences. On a troop train with other black recruits, he encountered a white farmer who took one look at them and gasped, “Uncle Sam must be losing the war!”
When peace broke out, black men returning from duty took a new look at the nation and weren’t satisfied. The NFL color line was broken in 1946 when the L.A. Rams, newly moved from Cleveland, signed hometown UCLA football and basketball star Kenny Washington. A brilliant broken field running with a strong passing arm, he led the nation’s colleges in total offense in 1939, but the pros had no room for his talents. As a 28-year-old rookie, he was a shadow of his pre-war form, his knees battered by years of semi-pro football. A second black, Washington’s teammate at UCLA, Wood Strode, was also soon signed by the Rams.
But two other black players signed a few months later by Paul Brown of the fledgling Cleveland Browns of the new All-America Football Conference, hit the pros like a storm. Marion Motley was a pile-driving fullback and Bill Willis an all-pro linebacker. Both are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Their names are largely forgotten except for football buffs but not that of Jackie Robinson, Kenny Washington’s running mate at UCLA. He made not just baseball history but History when he trotted onto the field with the L.A. Dodgers in 1947.
The world has spun faster and faster since then, as blacks, other minorities, women, and gay people have fought for their rights. Dr. King gave his life for his dream. I wish he could have been on that stand today, side by side with President Obama. In spirit, he was.