At the beginning of baseball season each year in April there are no shortage of tributes to Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color barrier in professional baseball. Jackie Robinson was also a four-sport athlete at UCLA in the late 1930s. Not only did he play basketball and football, but he also ran track, and of course was a star on the baseball diamond. He probably could have chosen a professional career in any sport. He was that talented. The war sidetracked his sports career temporarily, as Robinson received a second lieutenant’s commission in the U.S. Army in 1943. When the war ended, we all know how Robinson overcame opposition from major league owners and players to become the first black MLB player for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
What is less well-known is that Robinson’s black UCLA football teammates Kenny Washington and Woody Strode helped break the color barrier in pro football, when they became two of the four black players to suit up for the NFL in 1946, one year before Robinson broke into MLB. Black players had been in the NFL during the 1920s-30s, but owners colluded to exclude them beginning in 1933. Strode and Washington reestablished a black presence with the Los Angeles Rams. The fact that these three men played for UCLA in the 1930s is in itself a big deal, when you remember that college football was segregated in the south until the 1970s.
In my novel Above the Water, I capture an exchange between Marine officers, who also happened to be college football fans:
Ozzie chimed in, “You should have seen the team my UCLA Bruins had in ’39. Boy, they were something. We had three colored players that were dynamite. There was one, Kenny Washington, who was one of the best players I’ve ever seen.”
“Sure, I remember. Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, and Jackie Robinson, right?” Frenchy asked. “Yup. The ‘Gold Dust gang.’ The three fastest football players to ever play the game.”
Photos: US Army archives, UCLA archives