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On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson trotted out to play first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, ending Major League Baseball’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” that no Black player would play anywhere in pro baseball — not at the major league level, nor in any of MLB’s farm systems. Robinson’s debut was one of the most important events of the 20th century, which is why we still celebrate it every year, well into the new millennium.
However, there’s a lesser-known track to integration in the NFL that happened more than a year before Robinson’s first game.
From 1934 through 1946, the National Football League had in place an unofficial but absolute ban on Black players. Not one African-American athlete was allowed to crack the racist glass ceiling put in place primarily by Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, and were it not for the Cleveland Rams’ move to Los Angeles in 1946, the ban may have lasted years longer. As it was, the two factors that finally reversed the ban were public pressure and stadium rights.
On January 15, 1946, the newly-relocated Rams were in Los Angeles, trying to convince the nine-member public commission of the benefits to the city should the defending NFL champions, just in from Cleveland, were to ply their wares at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum via a long-term lease.
Members of the media were in attendance for the meeting, and several were going to have their voices heard. Most notable was Hailey Harding of the Los Angeles Tribune, who refused to allow the Rams, and the league by proxy, to shake the ban on their way to their new home.
Harding argued to the commission that to allow any team part of a league that banned Black players, officially or unofficially, would essentially be a retreat from democracy. He brought up former UCLA star Kenny Washington (who once appeared in the same college backfield as Jackie Robinson) specifically, and asked why a college player who had created so many great moments at the Coliseum had never received a tryout for an NFL team. Harding accused the league of “ingratitude” toward Black pioneers like Fritz Pollard, Duke Slater, and Joe Lillard.
Rams general manager Charles “Chile” Walsh, unprepared for this onslaught, stuttered his way through a response. Walsh insisted that there was no ban, written or otherwise, though he was unable to explain why no Black men had played in the league since 1933.
Commission member Roger W. Jessup asked Walsh if the Rams would really refuse to play alongside “our Kenny Washington,” which told Walsh all he needed to know. The Rams were going to break the door down, or they were not going to play in the Coliseum.
“We will take any player of ability we can get,” Walsh responded. “Kenny Washington is welcome to try out for our team anytime he likes.”
Two weeks later, and with no word on Washington, the Coliseum Commission assembled to vote on the Rams’ tenancy. Before that vote took place, a local radio broadcaster named Theodore Bentley asked whether the Rams would integrate.
“Here is one of the greatest football players of all time sitting around and never signed.” Bentley said of Washington. “If they are sincere in their intentions to sign Negro players, why do they permit that?”
Leonard J. Roach, the Coliseum Commission president, said that while the Commission was “very much opposed to any discrimination,” legally, the Commission had no power to integrate.
The contract was approved unanimously and contained not one word about integrating the team. But in March, the Rams announced the signing of Kenny Washington at the Alexandria Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
In a three-page statement regarding the Washington signing, Rams publicity director Maxwell Stiles set aside the implications, saying that “The National League has never had a rule against the use of Negro players, though for one reason and another members of that race have not played in the league since about 1933.”