Los Angeles and the Reintegration of the NFL

Bob Timmermann, Senior Librarian, History & Genealogy Department,
The University of California at Los Angeles after trailing California at Berkeley through the first quarter, finally came into its own at the Memorial Coliseum. In this photo, Kenny Washington, brilliant Bruin halfback, is away to a smashing gain as his teammate, Woody Strode, effectively blocks out the California secondary defense. Dated November 4, 1939
Kenny Washington runs behind a Woody Strode block for UCLA in a 1939 game against Cal at the Memorial Coliseum

In 1995, after playing in Southern California for nearly 50 years, the Los Angeles Rams left the West Coast for the Midwest, to become the St. Louis Rams. They would stay there for 21 years, winning one Super Bowl title and losing in a second, before coming back to the Southland last year. With that, L.A.’s original NFL team had returned to the city.

However, what many may not remember, is that this was the second time that the Rams had left the Midwest for Los Angeles. In 1946 the then NFL champion Cleveland Rams moved west to become the Los Angeles Rams, bringing the NFL to Southern California for the first time, while also bringing integration to the growing league for the first time in more than a decade.

Progress can sometimes happen in the most unexpected places and in unexpected ways. In the case of integrating the National Football League, progress took place during a meeting of a government agency that few people knew existed. And while the principals in the integration of the Los Angeles Rams didn't make much of a direct impact on the field, the results off the field were far more important.

In its earliest days the NFL (the league started in 1920) had a handful of African-American players (including Fritz Pollard, the league's first African-American coach, and Paul Robeson, the actor/singer, who would later run afoul of the U.S. government for his political views), but by the end of the 1933 season, all African-Americans were out of the league. There were several reasons for this: the then very small league wanted to improve its stature among sports fans by becoming an all-white league (as baseball had done in the late 19th Century), also George Marshall, the highly-influential owner of the NFL’s Washington team, was resolutely against signing any African-American players. 

While the NFL had become an all-white league, some college teams still had African-American players. Most notably was UCLA, which in the late 1930s was finally developing into a team that would be able to compete with its more established and older rival on the other side of town, USC. UCLA had three African-American stars: Jackie Robinson (who would go on to some renown), Kenny Washington, a skilled passer and runner who grew up in Lincoln Heights, and Woody Strode, an end from Jefferson High in South Los Angeles, who excelled at both pass catching and blocking. Despite having one of the strongest teams in the school's young history, the best that UCLA could do with this trio of stars was a 0-0 tie against USC in 1939 before a crowd of 103,303 at the Coliseum.

Portrait of four members of the UCLA football backfield including Jackie Robinson (left) and Kenny Washington (right)Kenny Washington (right) was a college teammate of Jackie Robinson (left) at UCLA. The duo helped to form what Herald-Examiner columnist Mel Durslag called "the best backfield twosome of that era" before going on to help integrate the NFL and Major League Baseball. 

After their service in World War II, Washington and Strode played pro football in the Pacific Coast Professional Football League for the Hollywood Bears at Gilmore Stadium (now the site of the CBS Studios). The PCPFL lacked the prestige and the money of the NFL, which was an astonishing feat, given that during World War II, the NFL barely stayed afloat due to losing players to military service, with some teams forced to combine (like the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh Steagles of 1943) in order to continue playing.

In 1945, the NFL championship was won by the Cleveland team, known as the Rams. They beat Washington 15-14 in the title game behind the play of rookie quarterback Bob Waterfield, who had followed Robinson, Washington, and Strode at UCLA. (Waterfield's 1942 Bruins squad was the first one to defeat USC and also the first to play in a Rose Bowl). After the championship game was over, the Rams announced that they were moving to Los Angeles. Owner Dan Reeves had long wanted to move to the West Coast and with the war over and travel restrictions lifted, the time was right. Also, the NFL wanted to stake a claim on the West Coast as a rival league, the All American Football Conference, was going to have two teams on the West Coast, in Los Angeles and San Francisco beginning in 1946.

But the Rams could not just walk over to the Coliseum and dictate when the stadium would be theirs for home games. Then, like it is today, the Coliseum was controlled by a commission with members from three different government organizations: the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the Los Angeles City Playground and Recreation Commission, and the Sixth Agricultural District of the State of California. Additionally, USC and UCLA both used the stadium for their home football games… And there was the team from the AAFC (ultimately called the Dons)... And the Hollywood Bears were even asking for home dates.

The Rams had to get in line with everyone else to ask for permission to use the facility on certain dates. With that task in mind, the organization came to the Coliseum Commission meeting on January 26, 1946.

There were several African-American newspapers (the Sentinel, the California Eagle, and the Tribune) in Los Angeles at the time and the sports editors of those publications got together and appointed Los Angeles Tribune sports editor Halley Harding to ask at the meeting of the Coliseum Commission for the Rams to sign an African-American player. If the team did not acquiesce to that request, Harding would inform the team that it would face legal action because, since the the Coliseum was taxpayer-supported, it could not host a segregated for profit sports team.

The Rams general manager, Charles "Chili" Walsh, made his request for specific playing dates. Then, Harding asked his question, specifically mentioning Kenny Washington. Walsh replied that Washington was free to try out with the Rams anytime he wanted, and Harding shrewdly got the Coliseum Commission to pass a resolution on the spot, banning racial discrimination from any pro team using the venue. Chairman Leonard Roach along with John Anson Ford, both on the Board of Supervisors, pushed the matter through.

Walsh, along with his brother Adam who was to coach the Rams in 1946, thought that Washington would not try out because he was still under contract to the PCPFL’s Hollywood Bears. But, Harding had already planned for this and the Hollywood Bears were happy to let Washington out of his contract in order to sign with the Rams. After a few weeks of negotiations, the Rams signed Kenny Washington to a contract on March 21, 1946. Not long after, the Rams also signed his former UCLA teammate, Woody Strode, to a contract.

Rams running back Kenny Washington at practice in 1948Kenny Washington spent three seasons with the Los Angeles Rams before retiring from the NFL in 1948.

There was far less media coverage of the integration of the NFL than there was of Jackie Robinson playing minor league baseball in 1946. This reflected the importance of each sport at the time in the mind of the general public. Pro football in the mid-1940s was still something of a second tier sport, and the NFL didn't occupy the nation's consciousness to the extent it does today. Baseball was The National Pastime, and considered the most prestigious pro sport in the country by far.

This story would be better suited for Hollywood if Washington and Strode went on to become NFL stars. But that was not to be. Washington had to have knee surgery soon after signing with the Rams and he never got as much playing time as he wanted because his favored position, quarterback, was occupied by the younger Waterfield (who was also married to an up and coming movie star named Jane Russell). Additionally, the Rams played in an offensive style that Washington was not familiar with.

He would go on to play in 27 games over three seasons with the Rams over three seasons. His most famous game for the team came on November 2, 1947 against the Chicago Cardinals (who later moved to St. Louis, only to then move to Arizona, which allowed the Rams to move to St. Louis in 1995), when he had a 92-yard touchdown run. Despite the fact that the Rams would lose that game, Washington’s touchdown run remains the Rams franchise record for the longest run from scrimmage.

After the 1948 season, numerous knee injuries caused Washington to retire from football. Washington passed away in 1971.

Strode’s NFL career was even less sterling than Washington’s. He played sparingly in his one season with the Rams, catching just four passes in 10 games. Strode would play pro football in Canada for a few more years before transitioning to a successful career in movies. He passed away in 1994.

Although Washington and Strode were not NFL stars, they were accepted as legitimate NFL players and helped to break the league’s color barrier. NFL teams slowly began signing African-American players. In 1948, two years after Washington and Strode made their debuts with the Rams, the Detroit Lions signed a pair of African-American players, and one year later, George Taliaferro became the first African-American to be selected in the NFL Draft when he was selected by the Chicago Bears, though he would go on to play in the rival AAFC.

In 1950, the NFL merged with the AAFC, which had been dominated by the Cleveland Browns, who featured a pair of African-American stars: Marion Motley and Bill Willis, and by 1953, all but one of the NFL’s 13 teams – George Marshall’s Washington franchise – had integrated.

Following Kenny Washington’s retirement in 1948, the Rams signed the first NFL player from an Historically Black College, Tank Younger, who joined the team after starring at Grambling State. Younger, just 21 when he signed with the team and he went on to have a 10-year career with the Rams and Steelers, making four Pro Bowls and playing for the only Los Angeles Rams team to win an NFL championship, the 1951 squad that beat Cleveland 24-17. Younger played alongside "Deacon" Dan Towler, another African-American star, who played six years in the NFL, and lead the league in rushing in 1952.

Tank Younger carries the ball for the Los Angeles Rams.Paul "Tank" Younger became the first player from a HBCU (historically black college or university) to play in the NFL when he signed with the Rams in 1949. He was named to the Pro Bowl four times and helped the Rams win their only championship in Los Angeles in 1951.

Ten years after Towler was the NFL’s leading rusher, the league’s only holdout – Washington – was finally integrated. Marshall steadfastly refused to sign any African-American players, but relented in 1962 when the Federal Government threatend to cancel Marshall's lease at the Federally owned stadium he was using, leading him to trade for halfback Bobby Mitchell, who would be inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983.

So the Rams original tenure in Los Angeles began the process of reintegration in the National Football League thanks to a relatively mild, but well-prepared protest at a local government commission meeting. It would take more than 15 years for the entire league to be integrated, something that only happened when the Secretary of the Interior threatened to kick a team out of its stadium.

The path to progress can take many different routes.

If you would like to read more about the integration of the NFL, check out Gretchen Atwood's Lost Champions: Four Men, Two Teams, and the Breaking of Pro Football's Color Line. It was an invaluable resource and places the role of the integration of the Rams, as well as the Cleveland Browns, into perspective along with the civil rights issues of the era. The library's databases of the historical Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Sentinel were also helpful