Monday, May 8, 2023

Review: The Forgotten First (2021)

By Keyshawn Johnson and Bob Glauber

In hindsight, it's interesting to look at how the various major league sports in America handled the issue of ending the color line. 

The story is straight-forward in baseball. Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, and reached the major leagues in the spring in 1947. Just like that, a barrier that had been up since the 19th century crumbled. Others soon followed, but Robinson received and deserved credit as the first African American to integrate the sport. 

The other sports knocked down the wall in different ways. The NBA, which essentially began in something resembling its current form after World War II, waited until 1950 to integrate. The credit was split among three men. Chuck Cooper was the first Black to be drafted by an NBA team. Nate "Sweetwater Clifton" was the first to sign with the pro league. Earl Lloyd was the first to play in an actual regulation NBA game. There were a few African American pioneers who popped up in the National Basketball League in 1945-46, but the NBA still chooses not to recognize them ... even though the NBL merged with the Basketball Association of America in 1949 to form the NBA. 

Pro football integrated in an even more diffuse way in 1946. Maybe that's a big reason why we don't hear a great deal about those who crossed that line. Maybe it's also a good reason why we should learn about those who did it. Keyshawn Johnson and Bob Glauber take care of that last matter with the book, "The Forgotten First." 

The odd part of the story centers on the fact that pro football did have a line to cross, but it wasn't always that way. A handful of blacks were on rosters when what we know as the National Football League was in its formative years in the 1920s. Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall were the pioneers in that sense in 1920, and seven others had played in games by the end of 1926. But soon the NFL started to contract, and the number of black players started to drop. The last two, Joe Lillard and Ray Kemp were done after 1933. 

The reason for the establishment of an informal color line still aren't clear, and Johnson and Glauber don't pin it down either. (It would have been nice to learn more about that part of the story.) Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall was extremely racist, and wanted no part of blacks playing for his team. He didn't integrate the roster until he had to do so in 1962 in order to play in a new stadium. It's tough to know whether Marshall was so influential that he could single-handedly impose his wishes on the league in the matter, or if the color line just sort of fell into place informally. In any event, the line was drawn.

That was, of course, a terrible idea. It kept some great players out of the pro ranks for more than a decade, and that's when Johnson and Glauber's story kicks into high gear. They begin with the story of the 1939 UCLA football team. The Bruins went from poor to very good almost overnight that season, and the major reason why was the play of three Black players: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode and Robinson (years before he signed with the Dodgers). Washington probably was the most exciting player in the country in college football at that point, a man who could do almost anything on the football field. Strode was a top end. Still, they went undrafted by NFL teams after that season. 

Meanwhile, a couple of other top Black players were waiting for their chance. Bill Wlllis was an exceptional lineman at Ohio State in the 1940s, while Marion Motley was a star at the University of Nevada. Any opportunity they had of continuing on to the pros was delayed by World War II.

But events after the War started to change the dynamic of African Americans and pro football. A new team in Los Angeles, the Rams, was essentially ordered to integrate if it wanted to play in the Coliseum. Washington and Strode, who were playing semipro ball in the Los Angeles area, were easy picks to join the team. Meanwhile, the All-America Football Conference was starting in 1946, and coach Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns needed good players of any color. He signed Willis and Motley. The barrier came down that fall.

The authors make the point that circumstances were a factor in why these four men didn't become more famous for their actions. Washington had knee problems by this point in his life and only lasted a few years. Strode's marriage to a Hawaiian woman didn't thrill Rams owner Dan Reeves, who cut the end the first chance he had. Motley and Willis played in the "other league" in the 1940s, and so their exploits weren't that well known nationally. Both broke through in terms of attention after the 1950 merger of the two leagues, and both are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Johnson, himself a very good football player in his time, and Glauber mostly stick to the stories of the four men as well as Brown, who ranks as perhaps the greatest innovative force in the history of pro football. The players had to battle discrimination and other issues that are typical of the era, but their stories about such circumstances are still tough to swallow.  

While the five central characters receive most of the attention and pages here, the authors do spend a little time on their legacy. In other words, how are we doing in pro football in terms of equality these days? The biggest problem probably concerns the number of black head coaches - three as of this writing. Since 70 percent or so of the players in the NFL are Black, that's seems quite low. The numbers in management aren't much better. 

Meanwhile, Johnson - usually associated with the electronic media, so it's nice to see him branch out a bit - and Glauber do a good job of telling the story and moving it along. There is a little redundancy along the way, but that's nothing that will disturb the typical reader very much.

The book fills a nice void in the subject of football history, giving a reasonably complete story of the four pioneers. In other words, "The Forgotten First" aren't as forgotten as they were before the book came out ... and that's a good thing.

Four stars

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