COLOR BARRIER: When the Rams moved to L.A. the first time in 1946 (they’re coming back again this year), they integrated the NFL, which had banned black players since 1933.
A year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, the Rams, having exited Cleveland, signed two of Robinson’s UCLA football teammates, running star Kenny Washington and end Woody Strode.
But the man behind integration of the Rams was a Los Angeles journalist named Halley Harding. The Rams, having decamped from Cleveland because of low attendance, needed a place to play in L.A., and the giant Coliseum fit the bill.
But when Rams officials came to meet with the Coliseum commission in January 1946, Harding stood up to protest. If the Rams were granted use of the publicly owned stadium, wasn’t it only fair for the team to hire black players?
He pointed out the sacrifices black soldiers had made during the just-ended World War II, according to a 2009 L.A. Weekly article by Gretchen Atwood.
He spoke of the early black players in professional football before the shameful unwritten agreement by NFL team owners in 1933 not to play blacks. In the midst of the Great Depression, the league was struggling. After all, all-white major league baseball had banned black players since the turn of the century, and it was prospering as the “National Pastime.”
As I wrote in my book Pro Football Hall of Fame, people are surprised to learn that before turning to a career as a singer and actor, Paul Robeson played end for pro teams in Akron, Ohio, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the 1920s.
At 6’3″ and 217 pounds, he was a Walter Camp All-American and Phi Beta Kappa at Rutgers.
Tackle Duke Slater was also famous, having played at the University of Iowa, and he went on to join the Chicago Cardinals, was named all-pro, and had a 10-year career. Famed Red Grange called him “the greatest tackle of all time.”
UCLA’s Kenny Washington was a brilliant broken-field runner with a strong passing arm. He led the nation’s colleges in total offense in 1939. He was chosen for the annual College All-Star Game, but somehow there was no place for his talents among the pro teams.
Faced with reporter Harding’s demands, the Rams and Coliseum commissioners had little choice but to agree. The Rams didn’t want to mar their West Coast debut with controversy. But it was clear: If the Rams wanted to play there, they had to integrate. And they did.
Soon after, Paul Brown of the fledgling Cleveland Browns signed Marion Motley and Bill Willis, who went on to become enduring stars and are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But the gridiron careers of Washington and Strode with the Rams were brief. At 28, Washington was a shadow of his prewar form, his knees battered by years of semipro football. Strode was 31, his best years behind him.
After playing in the Canadian leagues and barnstorming as a professional wrestler, Strode found himself in movies. He, Laurence Olivier, and Kirk Douglas battled in Spartacus.
But who was this Halley Harding, the man who almost singlehandedly integrated the Rams and the NFL? As a sportswriter for the black Los Angeles Tribune, he and fellow African-American journalists were activists. They and others picketed the all-white L.A. Angels of the Pacific Coast League. According to one published report, Harding challenged the manager of the Coast League Oakland Oaks to fight after he’d said he’d quit before he’d give a tryout to a black player.
Harding had been an actor, a baseball player in the Negro leagues, a basketball player with the Harlem Globetrotters, and manager of legendary pitcher Satchel Paige. But his greatest role was his speech to the L.A. Memorial Coliseum Commission.
After 49 seasons in L.A., the Rams packed up their pads and cleats after the 1994 season, and owner Georgia Frontiere took them to St. Louis, of all places.
This year they’ll be back in the Coliseum after years of losing seasons. They’re scheduled to play in a glitzy new stadium in Inglewood for the 2019 season.
When they left, I lost my enthusiasm for pro football. I couldn’t even find the heart to cheer for my old Monsters of the Midway, the Chicago Bears. But hey, it’s a new season. Go, Rams.