Today, many African Americans contribute to the success of great professional sports franchises. Seventy-five years ago, however, the first African Americans were breaking the color barrier in professional sports. Jackie Robinson is widely known as the first African American to play a sport at the professional level, but that is actually incorrect.
Kenny Washington of the Los Angeles Rams broke the National Football League (NFL) color barrier in 1946, one year before Robinson entered Major League Baseball (MLB). Nevertheless, the first Black players to break the color barrier in the four major sports, the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL, paved the way for significant opportunities for minorities going forward.
National Football League (NFL) – Kenny Washington
In 1918, Kenny Washington was born in Los Angeles, California. Edgar Washington, his father, played in the baseball Negro leagues on many teams, including the Los Angeles White Sox and Kansas City Monarchs. Kenny Washington attended Lincoln High School and would later enroll at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
He played football and baseball at UCLA, alongside friend Jackie Robinson. Washington rushed for over 3,000 yards in college, a school record for 56 years. He became the first Bruin ever to receive a full consensus All-American in 1939.
After college, Washington competed for the Hollywood Bears, a team in the Pacific Coast Professional Football League. This was one of the only professional leagues during World War II. The Chicago Bears were interested in Washington, but the NFL would not allow integration in 1940. Once the war came to a close, Washington signed an NFL contract with the LA Rams, playing for three years. It was a short career hindered by injuries, but he rushed for 859 yards and eight touchdowns in those years. He required surgery prior to his first season, but he came back strong and was a fan favorite. When Washington retired in 1948, 80,000 supporters attended his last game and gave him a standing ovation. Although he has not been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1956.
Washington became an officer for the Los Angeles Police Department in his later years. He also acted in movies and was a part-time scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was a staunch supporter of Richard Nixon. After Nixon’s 1950 Senate loss, he spent the night at Washington’s house trying to relax.
Major League Baseball (MLB) – Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson was born into a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia on Jan. 31, 1919. He moved to Pasadena, California a year after he was born. Before going to UCLA with Kenny Washington, he attended John Muir High School and played football, basketball, track and baseball.
At UCLA, Robinson continued his four sports at the collegiate level. He played football all four years, won the 1940 NCAA championship in long jump and developed in baseball. In fact, he batted .097 in his only baseball season. After college, he played semi-professional football for about a year and enlisted in the military following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. While in the military, Robinson boarded a bus and refused to sit in the back, against the wishes of the driver. He was accused of multiple offenses and sent to court. An all white panel of officers acquitted Robinson, signifying some progress in race relations within the military.
Following his military service, Robinson became an athletic director at Sam Huston College for a year. Then, he was offered a contract with the Kansas City Monarchs for a year. In 1946, he became a minor league player for the Montreal Royals. Finally, a year later, the Dodgers called up Robinson where he played for 10 years. Dealing with racial slurs throughout his career, many players encouraged him, most notably teammates Pee Wee Reese. “You can hate a man for many reasons,” said Reese. “Color is not one of them.” He compiled an impressive stat line from his career as Dodger, including a .311 batting average, 734 runs batted in, 197 stolen bases, six All-Star appearances and a World Series championship. He was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame as a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1962.
Prior to his career in baseball, he became the vice president of personnel for Chock Full O’Nuts, an American coffee brand. Similar to Kenny Washington, he was a strong supporter of Richard Nixon but stepped back from the Republican Party after the rise of Barry Goldwater, who Robinson disliked. The number 42, Robinson’s number, has been retired for all teams in the MLB today.
National Basketball Association (NBA) – Earl Lloyd
Born in 1928 in Virginia, Earl Lloyd grew up in an era of intense segregation in the South. He attended a segregated high school but was a standout on the court where he earned All-State honors three times. These accolades contributed to a scholarship from West Virginia State University, a historically black, public college. In college, he was named All-Conference three times and All-American twice, leading his team to an undefeated season his sophomore year.
Standing at 6’ 5”, Lloyd was drafted to the Washington Capitals in the ninth round of the 1950 NBA Draft. On Halloween night in 1950, Lloyd made history as the first African American to play basketball professionally. Two Black players, Chuck Cooper and Nat Clinton, appeared days after, but Lloyd played first. Years later, he helped win the 1955 NBA Championship with the Syracuse Nationals. In 1961, he retired from the league, ending his career on the Detroit Pistons. His NBA statistics and accolades are not the most impressive, but his legacy is everlasting.
While in the NBA, Lloyd was rejected service and spit on multiple times. Nevertheless, he persevered and said that these racist incidents only pushed him to work harder. “My philosophy was: If they weren’t calling you names, you weren’t doing nothing,” said Lloyd. “If they’re calling you names, you were hurting them.”
After basketball, he worked in the Detroit public school system. Then, he served at a Detroit manufacturing company. Lloyd is known as venerable today, and he was crucial in desegregating schools in Detroit and Virginia.
National Hockey League (NHL) – Willie O’Ree
In the midst of the Great Depression, Willie O’Ree was born in 1935. He would later become the first Black player to appear in the National Hockey League.
After two seasons in the minor leagues, he was called up from the Quebec Aces to the Boston Bruins in order to replace an injured player. He made his debut on Jan. 18, 1958 against the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the “Jackie Robinson of hockey.” He was moved back down to the minors after that year and played one other season in the major leagues (on the Bruins). For most of his career, O’Ree bounced around the minors, playing for teams such as the Los Angeles Blades, San Diego Gulls and Fredericton Capitals. In 2018, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
O’Ree said he encountered racism in many of his games, with fans shouting racist remarks at him. “Those things did not really bother me,” said O’Ree. “I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they could not accept that fact, that was their problem.”
There are not many people of color involved in the sport of hockey. There was a long period of no Black players, but Mike Marner was drafted to the Washington Capitals in 1974. O’Ree was named the NHL’s Diversity Director in 1998, in which he traveled around the U.S. and Canada promoting diversity in the sport.