In my review of the “Forgotten Four” documentary, one of the few things I credited the documentary for was that it, surprisingly, didn’t dwell on Kenny Washington’s weak credentials for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Folks who follow this site know how hard I’ve been campaigning to get Duke Slater (an early African-American pioneer who absolutely had a Hall of Fame career and who has been shockingly and disgracefully overlooked) into the Hall of Fame. So I think some people might expect that I’d be a big supporter of Kenny Washington for the Pro Football Hall of Fame as well.
No, actually. Not at all. In fact, as a Slater supporter, the Washington supporters’ rhetoric has rubbed me the wrong way for a long time now, and it’s time to speak out.
Who Are You Calling “Forgotten”?
Obviously, I didn’t care for the documentary “Forgotten Four” overall, and one of things I didn’t like about it was the title! Calling Washington, Strode, Willis, and Motley the “forgotten four” is misleading at best…Willis and Motley are Hall of Fame players who are as famous as any late-1940s/1950s NFL player can reasonably expect to be in this day and age. Perhaps Woody Strode has been forgotten, but that wouldn’t be overly surprising considering that the man only played one season in the NFL.
In truth, the “forgotten” part of the “forgotten four” clearly seems to be a reference to Kenny Washington. Washington’s supporters have claimed that Kenny has been unfairly forgotten for years now. But really, has Kenny Washington been forgotten?
Over the last five years, Washington’s story has been featured in Sports Illustrated, USA Today, NFL.com (twice), “Fields of Glory,” the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, among other outlets. In addition, Washington got a huge amount of air time in the recent “Third and Long” documentary that aired on NFL Network. Now this EPIX documentary comes along. A lot of players (including my boy, Duke Slater) would love to be that “forgotten.” Seriously, how much more recognition do Washington’s supporters want?
In all honesty, they want him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Washington’s supporters have been on a crusade to get him enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for years…ostensibly as a way to “remember” him. Unfortunately for them, this campaign has failed to gain a whole lot of traction for one simple reason…it doesn’t have much merit.
Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson
A big part of the EPIX documentary hinges on the statement that the so-called “forgotten four” broke the color ban in pro football a year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball. It’s a theme they hammer away at over and over and over again, both in the documentary itself and even more prominently in the promotion of the film.
It’s understandable. It’s a way of trying to take some of the (well-deserved) adulation over Robinson’s accomplishment and ascribe some of it to the “forgotten four”, Kenny Washington in particular. This whole Kenny Washington comparison to Jackie Robinson started about five years ago, when Alexander Wolff wrote an article for Sports Illustrated about Washington titled, straight-out, “The NFL’s Jackie Robinson.” Since then, dozens of ill-informed articles have picked up the torch, calling Washington (or even the “forgotten four” collectively) pro football’s Jackie Robinson.
This is one of those things that I can’t believe I actually even have to say, but since there’s so much misinformation out there, I’ll just go ahead and say it:
KENNY WASHINGTON WAS NOT THE NFL’S JACKIE ROBINSON.
For goodness sake, people. Yes, Washington and Robinson were college teammates at UCLA. Yes, Washington was (one of) the first players to re-integrate pro football, while Robinson broke baseball’s long-standing color line. But that’s where the comparisons should end.
There are three major, unavoidable differences between Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson that should throw all these misleading comparisons out the window.
1) Baseball’s color ban had been in place for over half a century; a dozen black football players played in the NFL in the not-all-that-distant past.
This is another issue I touched upon in my review of “Forgotten Four”. The documentary lamented that the breaking of the color barrier in pro football hasn’t been regarded, historically, with as much acclaim as Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball. I noted that there’s a good reason for that…they aren’t treated the same because they weren’t the same.
“Forgotten Four” producer Ross Greenburg rightfully notes that the breaking of baseball’s color ban was seen as a more seminal event in sports history than the re-integration of pro football. However, Greenburg suggests that this is because baseball was a much more popular sport at the time than pro football.
That’s a true statement, but it’s only part of the story. The real reason that Robinson breaking baseball’s color ban in 1947 was such a national story is because baseball’s ban was well-established for decades and decades. When Robinson broke in with the Dodgers in 1947, no African-American player had played in the major leagues since the 1880s. African-Americans had suffered through over a half-century of exclusion at that point. Black baseball players had to form their own Negro Leagues because the ban had been in place for so long.
When Kenny Washington and the rest of the “forgotten four” re-integrated pro football in 1946, they were the first black pro football players since 1933. That’s a long time, but it’s a fraction of how long baseball’s ban had existed. Moreover, a dozen players had played in the NFL from 1920-1933, and a couple of them – Duke Slater and Fritz Pollard in particular – had earned considerable acclaim during their careers.
Let me put this another way: when Robinson suited up for the Dodgers in 1947, practically no one in the sporting public had ever, ever seen a black major league baseball player before. It had been about sixty years since the last time a black man had played in the majors…so long ago that the American League didn’t even exist back then. A black ballplayer in white baseball was something virtually no one in the American sporting public had ever seen before.
With all due respect to the “forgotten four”, the 12 men who played before the NFL established its ban were the first trailblazers. In fact, when Hallie Harding made his compelling argument to re-integrate the NFL in 1946, he used the careers of Duke Slater and Fritz Pollard to help make his case. People hadn’t seen a black pro football player in some time, but it’s not like it hadn’t ever been done before.
One of my favorite quotes from my book on Duke Slater comes from Spike Claassen, an Associated Press writer from New York, who reacted to a 1946 story on Washington “breaking pro football’s color barrier.” Claassen asked, “What was Duke Slater with the Chicago Cardinals in the 1920s? A cheerleader?” I love that quote, because, well, that’s pretty much how dismissive most of Washington’s supporters are of Duke Slater’s career. Slater’s career doesn’t count, apparently, because it was before the “modern era.” But more on that in a minute.
Anyway, it had been so long since a black player had competed in major league baseball that Robinson’s achievement can almost be viewed as a true integration, while Washington and the “forgotten four” merely re-integrated their sport. There’s a fundamental difference there.
2) Jackie Robinson stood alone in 1947; Kenny Washington was one of four.
This should be self-explanatory, and it’s one that “Forgotten Four” actually addresses. With respect to Kenny Washington, he isn’t generally put on the same plane as Robinson because, like it or not, Washington was one of four while Robinson stood alone.
What amusing to me is that Kenny Washington supporters often try to get in on some of what Khalil Gibran Muhammad called the “exceptionalism of one” by separating Washington from his fellow “forgotten four”. They tend to dismiss the accomplishments of Washington’s fellow trailblazers by focusing on nuances to argue that Washington was the key figure in the sport’s re-integration and put him on par with Robinson.
In pro football, Marion Motley, Bill Willis, Woody Strode, and Kenny Washington re-integrated the sport in 1946. Motley and Willis played for the Cleveland Browns of the All-American Football Conference (AAFC). The Browns eventually joined the NFL and retained all of their records from the AAFC era, and you can make a very strong case that from 1946-1949, it was the Browns and not the annual NFL champion that was the strongest team in the sport.
Furthermore, Willis and Motley actually took the field for the Browns weeks before Washington and Strode did so with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. Yet Washington’s supporters say that Washington is the true barrier-buster, because the Browns were in the AAFC…Willis and Motley’s achievement is somehow lessened in comparison to Washington’s, because the Rams were officially an NFL team and the Browns (at that time) weren’t. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not you buy that logic.
Well, what about Woody Strode? He was right alongside Washington with the Rams in 1946. Shouldn’t they both get equal credit as being the first black players to re-integrate the NFL?
Actually, according to Washington’s supporters, no. Kenny Washington signed his contract with the Rams on March 21, 1946, while Strode signed his contract 47 days later. So even though they took the field at the exact same time, Washington supporters have used the fact that Washington signed his contract first to suggest that he deserves to be put ahead of Strode.
You can see how absurd that argument is. It’s like suggesting that Strode should be considered the first black player to break the color ban (and Washington second) because Strode arrived at the Rams’ first practice ten minutes before Washington did. That makes just as much sense.
And then, of course, we have the sticky issue of those 12 players who played in the NFL before the ban came down. Washington supporters conveniently get around that by labelling Washington as the first African-American football player in the “modern” NFL…a designation that even the Pro Football Hall of Fame has nauseatingly gone along with. Naturally, this leads one to ask how pro football in 1946 was inherently more “modern” than in 1933 when African-Americans had last graced the NFL gridiron. Let me offer this opinion: the NFL in 1946 was a heck of a lot more similar to the “pre-modern” NFL of 1933 than the “modern” NFL of 2014, I can promise you.
It’s almost a self-fulfilled prophesy, the kind of logic that can drive you mad:
“Kenny Washington was the first black player in the modern NFL.”
“Really? When did the modern NFL begin?”
“1946…the year Kenny Washington started playing.”
As a Duke Slater advocate, this particular device is agitating to me. It reduces Slater’s contributions to the NFL to something slightly more relevant than, as Claassen wrote, a cheerleader. Not only that, but you can imagine how calling Kenny Washington “the first black player in the modern NFL” could mislead people. After a while, one word in that phrase gets dropped…guess which one?
Not to call out Kirk Washington, Kenny Washington’s grandson, but the linked video is a good example of what I’m talking about. In it, Kirk Washington makes an all-too-easy error, calling his grandfather “the first African-American in the NFL.” That’s insulting to the memories of the 12 men who played in the NFL before Kenny Washington, but again, that’s exactly what happens when you try to use nuances and caveats to over-exaggerate Washington’s contribution to the sport. It’s the same over-simplification that allows Greenburg to characterize the plight of the “forgotten four” by saying, “This was the initial struggle.”
Yeah…no, it wasn’t. But that’s an inconvenient truth for them, as it were, so let’s just ignore it.
3) Jackie Robinson had one of the greatest careers of any major league baseball player, ever; Kenny Washington, not so much.
Something that is too often and tragically lost in the Jackie Robinson story is that he was, you know, kind of a good baseball player. Robinson was a six-time All-Star who played in six World Series. He was the sport’s Rookie of the Year, an NL MVP, an NL batting champion, and a two-time NL stolen base champ. He was a tremendous talent, and while it’s understandable that so much of his legacy is tied up in shattering baseball’s color ban, it’s also sad that his baseball talent is overlooked at times.
(I tend to think Robinson probably felt that way, too – he famously requested that his Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown list only his on-field accomplishments and not his role as a racial pioneer. I still cringe at the fact that the folks at baseball’s Hall of Fame decided a few years back – well after Robinson died – to deface Robinson’s Hall of Fame plaque and alter it to include his breaking of baseball’s color line, something Robinson was clear in his lifetime that he didn’t want. He specifically requested that it not be listed, probably because it was something he didn’t care to relive, but they altered it anyway. Way to deliberately defy the clearly-stated wishes of a deceased icon, Cooperstown.)
Anyhow, Kenny Washington was a skilled player who had a terrific college career. But in the NFL, Washington played just three pedestrian seasons. He never made an all-pro team and was a reserve most of his career, starting just five total games in the NFL.
Washington’s supporters have a few excuses fired up and ready to go – most notably that Washington lost several years of his career to the color ban and that he suffered from chronic knee injuries that resulted in five surgeries. All of that is true and unfortunate, of course. But this hard-hearted historian has to be the one to ask the question…so what?
The most compelling argument is that Washington had, in his grandson’s words, six seasons robbed from the beginning of his career due to the color ban. Well, Joe Lillard played two seasons in the NFL in 1932 and 1933 and was, by all accounts, a standout player. But in 1933, he was kicked off his team (largely as a result of the fights that erupted due to his race) and the color ban was enacted. Lillard never played in the NFL again, and he was robbed of several seasons at the end of his career by the color ban. Should Lillard be in the Hall of Fame?
Better yet, I can name half a dozen outstanding African-American college players who graduated in the midst of the NFL’s color ban who never took a snap in the NFL due to the prevailing prejudice. My favorite example is Ozzie Simmons, an All-American back who graduated college in 1936, three years before Washington. It’s said that Simmons’ exclusion from the NFL was what personally disheartened Fritz Pollard and made him realize that the color ban was here to stay.
Ozzie Simmons graduated three years before Kenny Washington. While Washington made it through the ban long enough to play three seasons at the end of his career, Simmons’ entire career was swallowed by the ban. Simmons played just three years of semi-pro ball before retiring to life as a teacher. Should Ozzie Simmons, a man who never played a snap in the NFL, be enshrined in Canton?
I could go on and name five more guys who had their whole careers taken away from them by the ban. All of them – plus Lillard and Kemp and Strode and who knows how many others – have just as much of a complaint about the color ban as Kenny Washington, if not more so. How can we let Washington slide because the ban robbed him of the beginning of his career and not give Lillard a pass when the ban robbed him of the end of his? Or the people who I feel most sorry for, the guys who never get any press, the truly “forgotten” men, the great black players of whom the ban robbed them of their entire NFL careers? Frankly, you can’t.
(I’m not usually one for empty sentimental gestures, but I have an appreciation for how MLB a few years ago held a special “draft” of Negro League players. Every MLB team “drafted” a Negro League player who never had a chance to play in the majors. Then these players, who were all very old by then, could technically go down in the history books as major leaguers. A bit meaningless, but kind of a nice tribute. I’d love to see these eternally banned African-American pro football players who never got a shot in the NFL due to the 1934-1945 ban – Ozzie Simmons, Willis Ward, Bernie Jefferson, and several others – one day get such a nice sentimental moment. Not holding my breath, though.)
Speculation vs. Results
Here’s the reality: the Pro Football Hall of Fame is based on a simple premise, that players are judged by the careers they actually had and the accomplishments they actually achieved. No one has ever made the Hall of Fame based on speculative accomplishments, in other words, on the claim that he would have achieved such and such if not for such and such. It just doesn’t work that way.
The Hall of Fame is consistently unforgiving in this regard. Take the case of Mac Speedie, who dominated pro football during his career from 1946-52. He has been rejected multiple times for the Hall of Fame, largely because of longevity issues…the notion that he didn’t have a long enough career. Well, in the mid-1940s, he was serving his country in World War II. Seems wrong to punish him for that, doesn’t it? But the Hall of Fame is clear – they only care about the career you had on the field, and they don’t care why you missed time. Speculative accomplishments need not apply.
Speedie isn’t the only one. Pat Harder and several others can make the same claim that serving in World War II shortened what otherwise could have been a Hall of Fame career. But the Hall doesn’t take that into account. Color ban, military service, injuries…it’s all about what you actually achieve, and it always has been. The Hall doesn’t speculate, and it shouldn’t compromise on that. Because if it does, it will open the floodgates.
Washington’s supporters are quick to claim that Washington was a star and that he would have dominated the NFL if he had been allowed to play in 1940. And for all we know, maybe he would have. Or maybe he would have had those knee injuries that ultimately held him down in 1948 crop up even sooner. Maybe he would have had a racist coach misutilize him in 1940, same as they claim Washington suffered through in 1946.
We’ll never know, and it’s interesting to speculate. To me, Washington’s case is no different than a great college player who had three promising seasons in the NFL before suffering a career-altering injury and speculating what his career would have been like had it never happened. At the end of the day, the Hall of Fame is supposed to let people in based on what they actually accomplished…and even Kenny Washington’s grandson has to admit that Kenny didn’t put up Hall of Fame numbers in the NFL.
Why am I even bothering to publicly take a stand like this? Well, because I hate revisionist history, for one. If you polled NFL fans about who the greatest early black NFL player was (prior to World War II), once you weeded through the “I don’t know”s and the clearly incorrect answers – and there would be a lot of them – the overwhelming majority who gave a qualifying answer would land on the name Fritz Pollard.
And you know that’s infuriating to me, because that’s only been the case for the last decade or two. If you actually look at the history, look at the stats, look at the contemporary accounts as late as the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s…Duke Slater was recognized as the greatest African-American player of his era. It wasn’t even close. It’s only in the past decade or two, through the accounts of lightweight “historians” and a well-placed media barrage, that the historical narrative has been skewed to suggest that Pollard – who, make no mistake, was a good player well worth remembering – should be elevated to “gold standard” status. That’s factually wrong, but more importantly, that’s disrespectful to Slater and what he achieved. And when I see that happen, yeah, I’m going to speak up about it, even if I’m seen as somehow “attacking” an African-American icon.
Ultimately, that’s what bothers me about the Kenny Washington Hall of Fame argument. I have been strongly promoting Duke Slater for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His omission is egregious…there’s no other way to say it. But I’m not saying, “Duke Slater would have had a Hall of Fame career had he not been discriminated against,” which is essentially Washington’s candidacy in a nutshell. No, Duke Slater had a Hall of Fame career, period. That’s what he achieved. A seven-time all-pro, recognized by his contemporaries as one of the most dominant linemen (of any race) of his era, and a player whose durability, consistency, and longevity merits him a place in Canton.
Duke Slater did all of this despite the discrimination he faced, prejudice that was just as harsh as anything the “forgotten four” witnessed. (The “forgotten four” broke into pro football a year before Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers? Duke Slater broke into the NFL 25 years before Jackie…when Robinson was three years old.) The fact that Slater endured such rampant discrimination while putting together an unquestionably Hall of Fame career just makes his story all the more remarkable. And I’m still waiting for his story to get a fraction of the national attention the “forgotten” Washington’s has received. Jealousy? Probably…but it’s not ill-founded.
But make no mistake – it’s Duke Slater’s record, not his race, that should get him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That’s how it should be for Slater, and that’s how it should be for everyone else as well.
Tagged with: African-Americans in Pro Football • Bernie Jefferson • Bill Willis • Duke Slater • Forgotten Four • Fritz Pollard • Jackie Robinson • Joe Lillard • Kenny Washington • Kirk Washington • Mac Speedie • Marion Motley • NFL color ban • Ozzie Simmons • Pro Football Hall of Fame • Ross Greenburg • Spike Claassen • Willis Ward • Woody Strode
Filed under: General
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