Socci’s View From The Booth: Slater’s story reminds us why ‘The Forgotten First’ should be remembered
Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater. (Photo by Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports)
About a mile from the campus where Matthew Slater studied political science sits a ballpark, home of his alma mater’s baseball team and named for one of the most important citizens in American history. There, at Jackie Robinson Stadium, as you’d expect, the legacy of the man who broke major league baseball’s color barrier in 1947 is marked in several ways.
An in-ground plaque greets you outside the main gate; a bronze “42,” the number universally retired in the majors since 1997. A statue overlooks the first-base line; of Robinson as a Dodger. And a mural rests a few feet away; featuring Jackie in UCLA Blue and Gold.
You’ll also find another number, 13, on the outfield wall in straight-away left. It’s there to honor Kenny Washington, the shortstop who in 1938 became the Bruins’ first Black baseball player, preceding Robinson on the diamond by two years.
UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Field honors the men who broke color barriers in Major League Baseball and the NFL. (Photo by Bob Socci)
Washington excelled for two seasons, batting .454 and .350, but gave up the sport before Robinson’s first spring at UCLA in 1940. Therefore, they never took the same ball field. They did, however, shine in the same backfield.
In the fall of 1939, Robinson enrolled in Westwood as a transfer from Pasadena College and soon-to-be four-sport athlete. He played his first season as a Bruin in football, teaming with stars Washington and Woody Strode in Coach Babe Horrell’s single-wing offense to lead UCLA to a 6-0-4 record.
Within eight years, they would lead the way for generations, ending color bans in both our National Pastime and America’s Game.
As long taught in our national curriculum and recognized in our cultural consciousness, Robinson did it with Brooklyn in baseball. Much less celebrated, even inside the smaller world of football, Washington and Strode did it with Los Angeles in the NFL.
For a dozen years, starting in 1934, league owners had not signed a Black player until Washington joined the Rams on March 21, 1946, a year before Robinson’s debut as a Dodger on April 15, 1947. Strode soon joined Washington in L.A., just as Cleveland of the All-America Football Conference added Marion Motley and Bill Willis.
They were the first four to reintegrate pro football. Only now, 76 years later, their importance to the sport and society is finally and rightfully being remembered, largely due to the book, “The Forgotten First.”
The Forgotten First and The Black Bruins document the impact UCLA’s 1939 backfield of Jackie Robinson, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode on sport and society. (Photo by Bob Socci)
Published last fall and co-authored by Newsday reporter Bob Glauber and ex-receiver Keyshawn Johnson, it tells a history told to too few in the past, of the men who changed the complexion of the NFL for the better. The book’s led the league to acknowledge Washington, Strode, Motley and Willis for their courage and contributions.
In February, family members were spotlighted on field before Super Bowl LVI. This past weekend at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, they were presented the Ralph Hay Pioneer Award. But a momentary pregame announcement and one-time honor should be just the beginning.
Not long ago, while speaking with a member of the Patriots in a Brooklyn Dodgers cap, a mention of Robinson sparked another of Washington and Strode. Neither was known to this player, though he expressed interest in learning more.
Even Johnson was unaware of The Forgotten First, as he recently told The New York Times, until Glauber brought them to his attention.
“You know, when you think about it growing up, when you talk about African American communities or Black schools, there’s only four Black people talked about in history: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman,” Johnson said to reporter Ken Belson. “I mean, it’s pretty basic. Jackie Robinson in sports. Jesse Owens in sports and a little bit of Arthur Ashe sprinkled in. There’s no real deep dive into the history. And when we get to college, it’s rinse and repeat all over again. They’re going to teach us all about white history.”
Hall of Famer Jackie Slater and his wife, Annie, at the 2017 NFL Honors. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Last Monday, as Slater reflected on the life of Bill Russell and path Black athletes of past eras paved for modern-day successors, he also spoke about his less-heralded, trail-blazing predecessors at UCLA.
“For whatever the reasons might be, right, wrong, indifferent, there’s certain figures history has taught us to kind of cling to, revere a little bit more than others,” Slater said. “But there are so many men or women, whether it be those gentleman at UCLA or others, they just kind of get overlooked.
“But I do think if you really go back and you look at history, over the course of history, it was more than just one or two people. It took a collective. And it took people on both sides. I always say this, Black Americans at that time could only advance themselves so far. We needed the help of our white brothers and sisters. We just weren’t going to do it on our own. I think there are countless people whose names we’re never going to know, whose stories we’re never going to know, that really helped us get to where we are today. It’s hard and it’s unfortunate that we don’t get a chance to celebrate all of them, but I think that we should celebrate as many of them as we can.”
Slater’s historical perspective is informed by his own family’s experiences. In every Hall-of-Fame worthy fiber of his being, Matthew is the son of Annie and Jackie Slater, a 20-year tackle for the Rams and gold-jacketed inductee in Canton’s Class of 2001.
The oldest of five boys, Jackie Slater was a child of the deep South of the fifties and sixties. He grew up in Jackson, Miss. and didn’t attend an integrated school until high school.
“They began busing white kids into our school, Jim Hill High,” Jackie recounted to Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman in 1995. “They had a rough time. Then in my junior year they bused the Black kids over to Wingfield. There were five or six of us on the (football) team. My first day at practice I got into two fights, normal football fights, but they just added to the edginess of the situation.
“Actually the black kids mixed in a lot better on the football field than they did in school. You always felt the pressure. I know Black kids who were completely driven out of school.”
Jackie stayed home for college, recruited in part by Walter Payton, to attend HBCU Jackson State.
“Then he gets drafted by the Rams and he goes to California, and he said he was scared to death,” Matthew remembered. “He didn’t know what it was going to be like, what he was going to be treated like, hadn’t had white teammates since high school, and that experience was not a good one, I can assure you that. So to look at guys like Russell and (Wilt) Chamberlain, (Muhammad) Ali, Jim Brown, guys like that — Jackie Robinson, obviously — who pushed the needle for Black athletes and broke barriers, he was certainly an immediate beneficiary of that.
“His rookie year was in 1976, so I know how thankful he is for all those men for making the situation what it was for him. To see that type of change in his lifetime has really blown him away. He never expected it, especially with the way he was brought up.”
Like the names Johnson and Slater mention, it’s imperative to look back at the men we now know as The Forgotten First and what they endured.
So that we never turn back to a time when the once unexpected becomes so again.