While the pathbreaking accomplishments of his college teammate Jackie Robinson are known even to casual sports fans, Kenny Washington is not a familiar name even though he was the first African American to play in the modern-day National Football League (NFL). The difference in recognition may be due to the fact that baseball was the undisputed king of sports in the late 1940s, while professional football was just beginning its climb to popularity. But the historical injustice done to Washington was significant: he was one of the top college football players in the United States in the late 1930s, but by the time he broke into the pros he was injury-ridden and past his prime years as a player.
Kenneth S. Washington was born in Los Angeles on August 31, 1918. He inherited his athletic prowess from his father, Edgar "Blue" Washington. The elder Washington played with the Kansas City Monarchs and Chicago American Giants of baseball's Negro Leagues, and also worked as an actor; his small parts included one in Gone with the Wind. These activities kept him away from home much of the time, and Washington was raised by his father's brother, Rocky, whom Washington considered his real father. Rocky Washington was the highest-ranking black officer in the Los Angeles Police Department.
Completed Bomb as
Playing football at Lincoln High School in Los Angeles, Washington demonstrated his abilities early on by throwing a 60-yard touchdown pass in 1935. He graduated in 1936 and was admitted to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). At the time, black football players outside the orbit of historically black colleges numbered only in the dozens, but Washington won a place on the squad. Over three years at UCLA he consistently improved. Washington was a left half-back, a position that in the era of the single-wing offense cast the player in the role of both runner and passer.
In 1939, with Jackie Robinson (a transfer from Pasadena City College) as his new receiver, Washington raised his career passing total to 1,300 yards and rushed in that single season for 1,915 yards, both long-time UCLA records. He led college football in total offense, and he completed one pass that traveled 72 yards in the air. His career total offense of 3,206 yards and his six pass interceptions in 1939 were also UCLA records.
Another impressive feat, of which Washington himself was especially proud, was that he played all but 20 minutes of the 1939 season; he took the field on defense as well as offense, as a safety. "Records are made to be broken," Washington was quoted as saying by USA Today, "but when somebody breaks my endurance record, let me hear about it." On top of all these gridiron accomplishments Washington also played baseball, notching batting averages of .454 in 1937 and .350 in 1938. "Next to me, Jackie [Robinson] was the best competitor I ever saw," Washington was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Sentinel."But when he became a baseball star it kind of shook me. I outhit him by at least two hundred points at UCLA."
Snubbed in All-American Balloting
Soon, overt discrimination marred Washington's career. Although he was certainly one of the top college players in the United States in 1939, he was named only to the second team in the annual official All-American selection. A Liberty magazine poll then asked college players themselves to select an All-American team; out of 664 nominees, Washington was the only one to receive the votes of every player who had taken the field against him. He won the Douglas Fairbanks Trophy, awarded to America's top collegiate player. The six-foot-one-inch, 200-pound Washington was dubbed "the Kingfish."
In the early days of professional football, with small competing leagues scattered across the country, a few African Americans had played for various small teams. In 1933, however, National Football League owners imposed a ban on black players. In August of 1940, Washington played on a team of college all-stars in an annual exhibition game at Chicago's Soldier Field against the NFL champion, that year the Green Bay Packers. Although the Packers won the game, Washington scored a touchdown and played well, inspiring speculation that an NFL owner might try to break the apartheid rule. Speculation intensified when Chicago Bears owner George Halas asked Washington to stay on for a week in Chicago, and NBC radio sports anchor Sam Balter supported his cause. But Halas did not succeed in persuading his fellow NFL owners to lift the ban.
So Washington headed for the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast League, where he was so popular that tickets for the team's games billed them as "The Hollywood Bears with Kenny Washington," Washington's teammate, Woody Strode, told football historian Charles Kenyatta Rose. Washington was paid on a par with NFL players of the day, but part of his salary was diverted to his uncle Rocky to disguise the fact that he was taking home more than his fellow players. He also worked as a Los Angeles police officer on the side. Two serious knee operations slowed Washington down and kept him out of World War II. He played for the San Francisco Clippers of the American Football League in 1944.
Led to Signing
After the war, which led to gains for the idea of integration in many areas of American life, Cleveland Rams owner Dan Reeves announced plans to move his team to the rapidly growing city of Los Angeles. A city anti-discrimination ordinance, however, threatened to block the team from using the publicly owned Los Angeles Coliseum. Largely as a result, Washington was signed by the Rams on March 21, 1946. As he prepared to undergo a third knee operation, his uncle Rocky negotiated a no-cut clause for his contract. There was still resistance from other NFL owners—"all hell broke loose," Rams backfield coach Bob Snyder was quoted as saying in USA Today —but Strode was also signed to the Rams, and two other black players, Marion Motley and Bill Willis, joined the new Cleveland Browns. By the time baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson in 1947, pro football was on the road to integration.
At a Glance …
Born Kenneth S. Washington on August 31, 1918, in Los Angeles, CA; died June 24, 1971 in Los Angeles, of circulatory failure; son of Edgar "Blue" Washington, a baseball player and actor; raised by uncle Rocky Washington, a Los Angeles police officer; children: Kenny Jr. Education: University of California at Los Angeles, BA, 1940.
Career: Hollywood Bears, Pacific Coast League, professional football player, 1940-43; San Francisco Clippers, American Football League, professional football player, 1944; Los Angeles Rams, National Football League, professional football player, 1946-48; worked as liquor public relations executive and baseball scout later in life.
Awards: Douglas Fairbanks Trophy, given to top U.S. collegiate player, 1939; inducted into National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, 1956.
With Washington's knees ailing, white NFL players made things worse with physical attacks. "When he first began to play, they'd tee off on him," Snyder was quoted as saying in the Chicago Sun-Times. "They'd drop knees on him." But Washington performed well over three seasons in the NFL, averaging over six yards per carry and leading the league with a 7.4 yard-per-carry average in 1947. He gained 859 yards for the Rams before retiring in 1948, including one thrilling 92-yard run that still holds the Rams record for longest run from scrimmage. In 1950, he still had enough raw athletic ability that he was given a tryout by baseball's New York Giants.
Later in life, Washington worked as a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers and did public relations work for a Scotch whisky distillery. He also became a skillful golfer. He had one son, Kenny Jr., who played professional baseball. Inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 1956 but not, at this writing, into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Washington suffered from circulatory problems in later years. Over a thousand of the many fans he retained in the Los Angeles area turned out for a celebration of his career at the Hollywood Palladium in 1970. On June 24, 1971, he died at UCLA Medical Center. "I'm sure he had a deep hurt over the fact he never had become a national figure in professional sports," Jackie Robinson wrote in a Gridiron magazine essay quoted in USA Today.
Levy, Alan H., Tackling Jim Crow: Racial Segregation in Professional Football, McFarland, 2003.
Chicago Sun-Times, June 24, 1996, p. 25.
Los Angeles Sentinel, September 22, 1999, p. B3.
Los Angeles Times, January 8, 1956, p. B7.
Sporting News, March 19, 2001, p. 7.
USA Today, September 20, 1995, p. C1.
Washington Post, June 26, 1971, p. B3.
—James M. Manheim
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