Even young sports fans know that Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era, when the Brooklyn Dodgers plugged him into the lineup on April 15, 1947. Blacks had been shut out of the majors since the 1880s.
What these fans may not know is that, one year earlier, the National Football League’s color line was breached, but it was less of an integration than a re-integration–and Robinson was involved along the way in that as well.
In 1939, Robinson played as one of four blacks on the UCLA Bruins football team, along with Woody Strode, Kenny Washington, and Ray Bartlett. Robinson eventually abandoned the gridiron for the diamond–he hit .097 as a freshman at UCLA–but Strode and Washington went on to make history of their own. The Rams, transplants to Los Angeles from Cleveland, signed first Washington and then Strode in 1946, making them the first two African-Americans to play in the NFL in over a decade.
After three years in the NFL, Washington, a staunch Republican, followed his uncle, a uniformed lieutenant, into the LAPD. Strode, whose NFL career lasted only a year, had served in the Army during World War II and went on to movie stardom, earning a Golden Globe nomination for his role in 1960’s Spartacus.
The stories of Washington and Strode make up half of the thrust of a new documentary called Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football, featuring former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb as a creative consultant.
Airing Tuesday, September 23, on premium cable channel EPIX, the film also profiles NFL Hall of Famers Marion Motley and Bill Willis, who became the first African-Americans to play for the new All-America Football Conference, as part of the Browns–the team that replaced the Rams in Cleveland–under coach Paul Brown.
Forgotten Four had its Los Angeles premiere at Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA on September 9. Following the screening, a panel discussion–click here for a story that has full audio of the panel–featured executive producer Ross Greenburg, UCLA alumnus and Olympian Rafer Johnson, USA Today NFL columnist Jarrett Bell, and UCLA professor Paul Von Brun. Los Angeles Times reporter Kurt Streeter moderated.
In his introduction to the film, UCLA Chancellor Paul Block said, “Woody Strode and Kenny Washington were proud Bruins. They played here. In 1939, they helped UCLA’s football team to an undefeated season. It was a good year.
“That year, there were only a dozen black football players in all of college football, and UCLA’s football team fielded four black players: Strode, Washington, Jackie Robinson, and Ray Bartlett.”
It may surprise viewers that Washington and Strode preceded Robinson as groundbreakers by a year, but what may surprise them even more is that the film begins in 1919, when Brown University All-American halfback Fritz Pollard, an African-American, came back from service in World War I to join the Akron (Ohio) Pros of the newly founded American Professional Football Association, which later became the NFL.
Although, at 5’9″ and 165 pounds, Pollard was tiny by today’s NFL standards, he helped lead his team to an undefeated season and the league’s first championship. He also became the NFL’s first black head coach in 1921, when the Pros hired him as co-coach. In 2005, he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
But ultimately, says Greenburg, this couldn’t be just Pollard’s story.
At the panel discussion, he said, “I went to Brown, to give them a plug, and that’s where I learned about Fritz Pollard. There’s a lot more meat on the bone to discuss 1904 to 1933. We could have spent a lot more time in that world, but I felt like we had to move the film along, and we wanted to center it on our four principal characters.”
The era of black players in the NFL came to an end in part because of the attitudes of George Preston Marshall, who became one of the owners of the Boston Braves in 1932. Renamed the Redskins after the team moved from Braves Field to Fenway Park, the team migrated south to Washington, D.C., in 1937. Marshall refused to integrate his team until 1962, the last organization in the league to do so.
Said Bell, “The Washington Redskins are still making news, from a racial perspective. It’s quite compelling. He was the most influential owner…. He came up with a lot of innovations, as we pointed out in the film, to help market the team and the league. He came up with the playoff system and the divisional formats, things like that, but also the color line.”
As for Washington, Strode, Motley, and Willis, Bell says, “You cannot write the history of pro football without telling this story and having this chapter…. Now the NFL is about 70 percent African-American, and there just has to be an appreciation for the turning point.”
And, Greenburg hopes, there will also be more appreciation for Paul Brown, professional football’s counterpart to the Dodgers president and general manager who signed Robinson.
“I wanted to draw the analogy,” Greenburg said, “between Paul Brown and Branch Rickey, because Paul Brown was known for so much in the National Football League, but never got any credit for being the Branch Rickey of professional football. And that’s not fair.”
Here’s the Forgotten Four trailer: