African Americans, Black History Month, CFL, football, Jackie Robinson, Kenny Washington, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles Rams, National Football League, NFL, pro football, UCLA, USC, Woody Strode
The facade of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, site of SO many historic sporting events and where the NFL integrated in 1946. Photo courtesy of panoramio.com
HOW L.A. AND THE COLISEUM INTEGRATED THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE A YEAR BEFORE JACKIE ROBINSON’S HISTORIC DEBUT WITH THE DODGERS
After suffering from the only two atomic bomb attacks in history, the Japanese had officially ended World War II, surrendering on the USS Missouri the previous September and starting a jubilant atmosphere in the United States.
The Cleveland Rams had just relocated to Los Angeles, becoming the first major professional sports team based on the West Coast, and were all set to play their home games in the Coliseum, where UCLA’s and USC’s football teams had been playing and drawing large crowds for over twenty years.
There was only one issue as far as the Coliseum Commission, who ran (and still runs) that stadium, was concerned:
The fact that the Rams, and the rest of the National Football League, were all white, a color barrier much like their Major League Baseball counterparts having been in effect since 1933.
Which considering that the Coliseum was paid for by both African-American and white taxpayers would not do as the people on the commission told the Rams that if they intended to sign a lease and play in their stadium, they would have to have at least one black player because segregated teams would be forbidden to play on the Coliseum turf.
A trailer for the documentary film “The Forgotten Four”, regaling the story of how Washington and Strode (the two on the left) as well as the two Browns players integrated pro football. Courtesy of YouTube.
That forced the Rams’ hand as Kenny Washington, perhaps the best athlete that Southern California had produced to date and the biggest star to come out of UCLA at that time, being the school’s first All-American in football and setting a career rushing record as a Bruin that would stand for 34 years, was signed on March 21st, 1946.
Woody Strode during his pro football days. Photo courtesy of buffalo.com
Woody Strode, another standout Bruin as he, along with Jackie Robinson, was Washington’s teammate on their first undefeated team in 1939 as well as a star decathlete who would eventually go on to have a stellar acting career, notably in 1960’s Spartacus, was signed by the Rams on May 7th, thus – along with Washington and the Cleveland Browns’ (of the AAFL) Marion Motley and Bill Willis – having the distinction of breaking pro football’s color line a whole year before Robinson, who was playing for the Dodgers’ top minor league club in Montreal at the time, made history on April 15, 1947.
Washington and Strode, while undoubtedly facing the same racist hell that their ex-UCLA teammate faced in baseball, ended up having decent pro gridiron careers.
Washington spent three years on the Rams, averaging 6.1 yards per carry and scoring eight touchdowns before retiring due to injuries in 1948 and becoming a policeman for the LAPD, while Strode only played one year as a Ram before becoming a two-time all-star for the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders, winning a Grey Cup (the CFL championship) with them in 1948.
Strode (#27) and Washington (#13) flanking Jackie Robinson during their standout days as UCLA Bruins. Photo courtesy of theshadowleague.com
Everyone knows about how Jackie Robinson overcame racism in America’s national pastime, and his status as an iconic legend with all kinds of places bearing his name as well as his #42 not being worn by anyone in MLB is more than well deserved, but…
It’s a bit of a shame that Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, as well as Motley and Willis in Cleveland, are not given similar wide-spread accolades as they have been called the “Forgotten Four” in light of the emphasis on Robinson.
That is why I wanted to give Washington and Strode in particular – being that they are both L.A. natives, Washington having attended Lincoln High School while Strode went to Jefferson High – props on this site as Black History Month is commemorated and celebrated.
Here endeth what I hope was a very informative history lesson.
A nice aerial view of the L.A. Coliseum, home of the NFL’s first integrated team. Photo courtesy of terraoko.com