This article was originally published in the SABR Black Sox Scandal Research Committee’s June 2022 newsletter.
They were high school teammates, one White and one Black, whose paths converged in part because of their famous fathers who played professional baseball. They each went on to play in the minor leagues, but their careers were brief and frustrating because of forces out of their control.
One returned home to live out a quiet life in California. The other became a reluctant civil rights pioneer and one of the most important, yet underappreciated, athletes in American football history.
Before Kenny Washington re-integrated the National Football League with the Los Angeles Rams, before he and Jackie Robinson teamed up at UCLA to form the most exciting tandem in college football, he was a long, lanky, gregarious but occasionally awkward teenager at Abraham Lincoln High School in east L.A. As a freshman, Kenny was considered “too weak” to try out for football, so he focused on baseball instead.1
Baseball had been his father’s favorite sport. Edgar “Blue” Washington was a teenage pitching phenom when he was signed out of the Los Angeles sandlots by Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants in 1916, two years before Kenny was born. In 1920, Blue joined the Kansas City Monarchs and played in the first game in Negro National League history. His excessive drinking and carousing drew Foster’s ire and he was quickly driven out of the league. Blue returned to California to play semipro baseball before launching a successful career as a Hollywood actor; he appeared in more than 80 films, including Gone With the Wind and King Kong.2
By then, young Kenny was being raised across town in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood by his uncle, Roscoe “Rocky” Washington, the first Black lieutenant at the Los Angeles Police Department, and aunt Hazel, a socialite and hairdresser to the stars.3 Kenny’s athletic prowess quickly became obvious to anyone who watched him play, regardless of the sport.4
In the fall of 1932, Kenny entered Lincoln High School — a campus dominated by working-class Italian families, along with a mix of Black, Hispanic and Asian students — and joined the baseball team in the spring. His throws from third base across the diamond were usually caught by a thin, left-handed first baseman named Bill McMullin. The two teammates could not have been more different, in personality or temperament. McMullin, a quiet 16-year-old junior, was able to hold his own competing in semipro leagues with former major and minor-league players; he knew real talent when he saw it, and Washington had it.
Bill’s eye for baseball was enhanced by hearing stories from his father, Fred McMullin, who had risen up from the L.A. sandlots to star in the Pacific Coast League and then with the Chicago White Sox. The house on Baldwin Street where Fred and his wife Delia raised their three children — just a mile east of where Kenny Washington grew up on Avenue 19 — was a small bungalow that Fred bought with his winner’s share from the White Sox’s 1917 World Series championship.5
Fred’s baseball career ended in disgrace after he and seven teammates conspired to fix the 1919 World Series, resulting in his permanent banishment from the major leagues. He returned to California and stayed mostly behind the scenes in baseball circles, content to cheer on his old friends in local leagues and to teach son Bill and daughters Ionia and Delia to love the game.
Bill McMullin was not a star at Lincoln High School, but he was a solid, dependable player. Surviving newspaper accounts show he usually batted in the lower half of the lineup and was occasionally recognized for his strong fielding. No complete records or statistics can be found to show how the Tigers fared in McMullin’s two seasons together with Kenny Washington on the school’s baseball team.
Their first season together in 1933 was interrupted on March 10 by a massive earthquake centered in nearby Long Beach, which killed more than 100 people and damaged nearly 140 schools in Southern California.6 Lincoln students later spent time attending class in tents set up on the tennis courts while their school buildings were repaired or rebuilt.7
McMullin graduated in the winter of 1935 — just as Kenny Washington was about to become a household name in Los Angeles for his sensational exploits in both football and baseball. McMullin spent the next two years playing in top-tier semipro leagues around Southern California. He also held a job as a sheet metal worker during the week between games.8
In 1937, McMullin’s baseball prospects finally became serious. The 21-year-old was offered a tryout with one of his father’s old clubs, the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. He made a good impression during spring training and was farmed out to the Lewiston (Idaho) Broncs of the Class B Western International League.9 Lewiston manager Don Rader — who had been a minor-league teammate of Swede Risberg and appeared in four games with the Chicago White Sox back in 1913 — told a reporter that McMullin was “recommended by several major league scouts.”10
Bill McMullin was not the only relative of a Black Sox player to play high-level baseball, but he was the only one of their children or grandchildren to play professionally. Two of Swede Risberg’s sons later played in college, Robert at Santa Rosa Junior College and Gerald at Chico State University in California. Eddie Cicotte’s great-nephew, Al Cicotte, gained fame in the 1950s when he was invited to spring training by the New York Yankees.11 He appeared in 102 major-league games with six teams over five seasons. Long after Shoeless Joe Jackson died, his great-great-great nephew, also named Joe Jackson, reached the Double-A level as a catcher and outfielder in the Texas Rangers organization after he was drafted out of The Citadel in 2013.12
In 1937, Bill McMullin appeared in 12 games with Lewiston, hitting .250 with three doubles and a triple, but striking out in nine of his 36 at-bats.13 He was released in midseason, but Pittsburgh Pirates scout Joe Schultz Sr. invited him to spring training in 1938 with the Carthage (Missouri) Pirates of the Class D Arkansas-Missouri League.14
McMullin impressed the Carthage staff as an outfielder in early workouts and he was scheduled to start in an exhibition game on April 15 in Manhattan, Kansas, against the major-league Pirates, who were tuning up for their upcoming Opening Day game in St. Louis. But McMullin’s chance to showcase his skills against big-league stars Paul and Lloyd Waner, Arky Vaughan, and manager Pie Traynor was shattered when he suffered a leg injury in practice the day before.15
McMullin made Carthage’s Opening Day roster but struggled at the plate, recording just three hits in 27 at-bats (.111) over seven games. In mid-May, he was released by the Pirates when teams were forced to cut down to a 14-man roster.16 His short-lived professional career was over.
Meanwhile, Kenny Washington had become a sports legend at Lincoln High School. As a single-wing quarterback on the football team, he led the Tigers to an undefeated season and their first (and still only) Los Angeles City Section championship in 1935. Then he followed it up by leading the league in batting and hitting a home run in the championship game to lead Lincoln to a regional baseball title in the spring of 1936.17
He accepted a scholarship to play both sports at UCLA and excelled in every season. During his two seasons of varsity baseball as the starting shortstop, he hit .454 and .350, earning the nickname “The Kingfish.”18 Future USC coach Rod Dedeaux later said that Washington had a better arm, more power, and more agility on the baseball field than his Bruins teammate, Jackie Robinson.19
Robinson transferred to UCLA from Pasadena Junior College in 1939 and struggled in his only varsity season on the baseball team, hitting a paltry .097. But his star shined brightly on the football field, where he and Washington teamed up to make the most integrated college team in the nation also its most exciting.
As a junior in 1939, Washington led the nation in total offense and won the Douglas Fairbanks Award as the country’s top player. He became the first Bruins player named as an All-American. In 1940, he and Robinson led the Bruins to a 6-0-4 record and, in his final college game against rival USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Washington was given a long standing ovation by the Trojans fans. “It was like the Pope of Rome had come out,” said teammate Woody Strode.20 Robinson later wrote that Washington was the best football player he had ever seen.21
But in 1940, there were few opportunities for Washington to continue his athletic career after college. Baseball’s professional leagues had been segregated since the late 19th century, long before Washington was born, and the National Football League, which employed several Black players when it was founded in 1920, had quietly established its own color line a decade later. The NFL had been strictly segregated since 1933, Washington’s sophomore year of high school.
When Washington was passed over by all 10 of the NFL’s teams in the 1940 amateur draft, his chances at any future athletic glory seemed dim. He began playing semipro football in Los Angeles, acted in Hollywood films, started a family, and then went to work for the L.A. Police Department like his uncle Rocky had done. But he soured on a job that consisted largely of giving talks to neighborhood youth groups and his marriage fell apart.22
In 1945, he was signed by the Hollywood Bears of the minor-league Pacific Coast Football League and led them to a championship. When the NFL’s Cleveland Rams made overtures about relocating to Los Angeles, an influential group of Black sportswriters led by Halley Harding pushed for the Rams to integrate their roster with the city’s best-known Black player — Kenny Washington, now 27 years old and slowed by knee injuries.
The publicity campaign worked, and Washington signed a historic contract with the Rams on March 21, 1946, the first Black player to sign with an NFL team in 13 seasons. Woody Strode, his former UCLA teammate, joined the team two months later and they made their debuts in the Rams season opener on September 29 against the Philadelphia Eagles.23 (The Eagles were coached by Earle “Greasy” Neale, who won a World Series title with the 1919 Cincinnati Reds before turning his talents to football.)
Washington showed flashes of his old brilliance in his three NFL seasons, finishing fourth in rushing yardage in 1947 and setting a Rams franchise record with a 92-yard touchdown run against the Chicago Cardinals at Comiskey Park.24 But his injuries and incidents of racist treatment on and off the field were a heavy burden for Washington to bear.25 Near the end of the 1948 season, Los Angeles mayor Fletcher Bowron declared December 12 as “Kenny Washington Day” in the city and he was honored with a halftime ceremony during the Rams’ final game.
Across the country in Brooklyn, his old teammate Jackie Robinson was honored with the National League’s Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in his first three seasons with the Dodgers. He made six appearances in the World Series, winning a championship in 1955, and earned induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His uniform number 42 was posthumously retired by Major League Baseball in 1997 on the 50th anniversary of his Dodgers debut.
A movie was made about Robinson’s life, The Jackie Robinson Story, with the title character playing himself during the prime of his major-league career. Kenny Washington, whose star at UCLA had eclipsed Robinson’s as the best college football player in the nation, was hired to play the role of Robinson’s manager. His character was not even given a name.26
For decades after Kenny Washington retired, the NFL refused to acknowledge his role in re-integrating the league. Washington grew increasingly bitter about the official indifference for his monumental achievements before his death at the age of 52 in 1971. As football replaced baseball as America’s most popular pastime, Washington’s story was largely forgotten. In 2011, a small group of Lincoln Heights community members began the Kenny Washington Stadium Foundation to resurrect the memory of Lincoln High School’s most famous alumnus, and preserve the fields on which he once starred.27
After his minor-league career ended, Bill McMullin returned home to California and married Dorothy (Sally) Patterson in 1940. He enlisted in the US Army during World War II, served overseas in Europe, and was discharged as a sergeant. Sally moved in with her in-laws, Fred and Delia, at their house on Baldwin Street while Bill was in the military.
“All [Fred] ever cared about was playing baseball and his family,” Sally said in a 1986 interview. “When you sit across from someone you get to know them, but I could be wrong. Honesty and honor meant a lot to him.”28
After Bill returned from the war in 1945, he began working as a warehouse manager at a plumbing company in Redondo Beach. Their first son, Brian, was born in 1949 and another son, Gregg, followed in 1952, just a few months before Fred McMullin died of a stroke.
Bill and Sally separated in the early 1960s, but remained on friendly terms until his death in 1969. Sally remarried and became a celebrated author and local personality in her adopted hometown of Palm Springs, hobnobbing with the likes of California Angels owner Gene Autry, comedian Bob Hope, and President Gerald Ford.29
Sally was interviewed on multiple occasions late in life by the Palm Springs Desert Sun. She told the newspaper that following Fred McMullin’s death, his wife Delia reportedly “destroyed” a letter he had written and placed in a safety deposit box explaining his role in the Black Sox Scandal. According to Sally, Delia told her son Bill, “I won’t have anything in this house that tells of the games your dad threw. He ruined my life, your career, the game of baseball. I hate him for that.”30
Recounting the story to the Desert Sun in 2001, Sally said of Delia, “She wanted it all not to be true. Yet by throwing away the letter that could have cleared up some of the mess, she just screwed things up more.”31
4 Even in ping-pong. In 1933, Kenny Washington and future Wimbledon tennis champion Bobby Riggs teamed up to win a ping-pong tournament at the Lincoln Heights playground. See: “Playground Activities of this District,” Lincoln Heights Bulletin-News, March 30, 1933, 2.
6 “Earthquake Closes All Schools,” Los Angeles Record, March 13, 1933, 12.
7 The Lincolnian, 1934 Lincoln High School yearbook, via Ancestry.com.
8 1934-1942 Los Angeles city directories via Ancestry.com.
9 “Lewiston Adds Another Hurler,” Spokane Spokesman-Review, April 30, 1937, 15.
10 “Lewiston Adds Another Hurler.”
13 “Western International League Official Batting Averages,” Spokane Spokesman-Review, December 5, 1937, 42.
14 “Hands Itching For Baseballs,” Hutchinson (Kansas) News, April 1, 1938, 2.
15 “Faser Called Against Bucs,” Hutchinson News, April 15, 1938, 2; “Valiant Larks Defeated, 7-4,” Manhattan (Kansas) Morning Chronicle, April 16, 1938, 3.
16 Hutchinson News, May 19, 1938, 2; Northwest Arkansas Times, May 28, 1938, 6.
17 James W. Johnson, The Black Bruins: The Remarkable Lives of UCLA’s Jackie Robinson, Woody Strode, Tom Bradley, Kenny Washington, and Ray Bartlett (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2019), 25-27.
19 Wolff, “The NFL’s Jackie Robinson.”
21 Wolff, “The NFL’s Jackie Robinson.”
22 Neuman, “Why Isn’t Kenny Washington an American Icon?”
23 Neuman, “Why Isn’t Kenny Washington an American Icon?” Back in Cleveland, the newly formed Browns of the All-America Football Conference signed Marion Motley and Bill Willis for the 1946 season. Along with Washington and Strode, these four Black players integrated the nation’s two major professional football leagues seven months before Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947.
25 Wolff, “The NFL’s Jackie Robinson.”
26 Wolff, “The NFL’s Jackie Robinson.”
27 Jim Trotter, “Lincoln Legacy: How One L.A. Community Amplifies the Story of NFL Trailblazer Kenny Washington,” NFL.com, February 8, 2022.
28 David Zaslawsky, “Memories of Black Sox Scandal Recalled at World Series Time,” Palm Springs (California) Desert Sun, October 18, 1986, F1.
29 “Remembering Sally,” El Segundo (California) Herald, February 24, 2005.
30 Rick Davis, “Memories of 1919,” Palm Springs Desert Sun, August 26, 2001, 23-24. In her 1986 interview with the same newspaper, Sally said Fred McMullin’s scrapbook about his baseball career ended just before the 1919 World Series. See Zaslawsky, “Memories.”
31 Davis, “Memories of 1919.”