A few weeks ago we took a look at the rookie cards of the first black baseball players for each of the original 16 Major League Baseball teams. Pro football, too, had its pioneers and made their appearances in the first bubble gum card sets after World War II.
The war is historically viewed as a catalyst for collegiate and professional sports reintegration. For the first time in their lives, black and white men were on the same team on the battlefield, fighting a common enemy.
Even though black and white soldiers were segregated in war, white soldiers came to respect the courage and bravery of their black peers. When young black soldiers returned home as veterans, there was no denying their place on the courts or ball fields – at least not in the North or West Coast.
It was only a matter of time before the first African-American would suit up to play pro football in the modern era. An unofficial color line created in 1933 saw no black man play in the NFL for 12 seasons.
Kenny Washington broke football’s color barrier when he signed a contract to play for the Los Angeles Rams on March 21, 1946. Woody Strode, a teammate of Washington’s at UCLA, signed with the Rams two months later.
Washington generally receives the title of the “first” because he was the first black player in the modern football era to sign a contract. But both he and Strode debuted together.
Washington and Strode’s regular-season NFL debut on September 29, 1946, preceded Jackie Robinson’s by nearly seven months. Though he was 27 and far from his prime due to several knee injuries, Washington played three seasons in the NFL, leading the league in yards per carry in his second season.
Strode played ten games in his lone season in 1946 before embarking on a successful acting career that included a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1960.
The Cleveland Browns had also integrated their roster in 1946 with the signings of Hall of Famers Marion Motley and Bill Willis. The Browns would win four straight the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) championships from 1946-49. The AAFC was a rival to the NFL from 1946-49 before merging in late 1949 with the NFL.
The 1948 Bowman and Leaf football cards are considered the first modern football card sets. Both are loaded with rookie cards of legendary players like Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Steve Van Buren, Pete Pihos, and many others. But those sets are also significant because they featured the first black players in modern NFL history.
Kenny Washington and Bob Mann from the Detroit Lions appear in the 108-card Bowman release. Leaf also featured Washington and Mann and then-college players Levi Jackson (Yale) and George Taliaferro (Indiana).
The 1948-49 Exhibit Sports Champions featured Motley and New York Yankee Buddy Young cards.
The cards mentioned above reflect a changing time in the sporting landscape that shows integration beyond baseball’s Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby. Professional basketball was only a few years away from being integrated with the 1950 Boston Celtics.
In this issue, we’ll look at the rookie cards of the first black football players in modern NFL history. Strode didn’t play long enough to be included in the Bowman or Leaf sets. Bill Willis, remarkably, didn’t appear in any national releases throughout his career.
In 1950, several black players featured prominently in the Bowman set after a lackluster release by the Leaf company in 1949. Rookie cards in 1950 Bowman include those of “Tank” Younger, Joe Perry, and Wally Triplett. Below are the first six African-American players with trading cards in the modern NFL era – all predating the iconic 1950 Bowman release.
- Kenny Washington, Los Angeles Rams
Pro Debut: Sept. 29, 1946
Rookie Cards: 1948 Bowman and Leaf
Washington was a national star at UCLA, where he was teammates with Woody Strode and Jackie Robinson. Washington played for the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast Professional Football League from 1940-45, but only after George Halas of the Chicago Bears couldn’t sign him in 1940 because of the NFL’s segregation policy.
Finally, he received his opportunity with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams in 1946. He finished his three-year career with 859 rushing yards, 6.1 yards per carry, and eight touchdowns.
Washington’s rookie card appears in the 1948 Bowman and Leaf sets, with the two providing a stark contrast in styles. The 1948 Bowmans, widely regarded as the first modern football card set, comprises 108 cards in black and white. The 1948 Leaf collection is full of colors reminiscent of comic book illustrations with red, blue, and yellow backgrounds. The Leaf version has two variations–one with his name in white text and the other in black.
The Bowman Washington card is typically a bit cheaper than the Leaf issue.
- Marion Motley, Cleveland Browns
Pro Debut: Sept. 9, 1946
Rookie: 1948-49 Exhibit Sports Champions/1950 Bowman
Motley – and Willis – made their professional debuts before Washington and Strode but in the lesser-known AAFC. It may have been one reason he wasn’t featured in the 1948 Bowman or Leaf sets. He played with the Browns in the AAFC until 1949, when the league merged with the NFL.
Motley was a two-way player, finishing with a career of 5.6 yards per carry as a halfback and playing dominating defense as a linebacker. He led Cleveland to four straight AAFC championships and an NFL championship in 1950. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1968 as one of the few players who could stake a claim to the “greatest ever.”
After his playing career, Motley sought coaching positions with the Browns, approaching former coach Paul Brown for an opportunity but was turned away. He approached former teammate Otto Graham when he became head coach with the Washington Redskins but was also turned away. Motley never coached in the NFL, blaming racist front offices.
Motley’s first trading card is in the 1948-49 Exhibit Sports Champions. This is a generally difficult card to get a hold of.
Don’t confuse the 48-49 Exhibit cards with the 48-52 Football Exhibit edition. Both sets have the same picture of Motley, but you can differentiate the two by the captions. The 48-49 Exhibit version has Motley’s name in script with “Cleveland Browns” beneath it. This card was released in 1948 and should be considered a rookie card because the set was a national release.
The 48-52 edition has Marion’s same exact name in script without the “Cleveland Browns” caption. This card was released in 1950. The 1950 Bowman is also generally regarded as his “official” rookie card and is among the most valuable cards in the set.
- Buddy Young, New York Yankees
Pro Debut: Aug. 31, 1947
Rookie Card: 1948-49 Exhibit Sports Champions
The 5’4″ Young made his pro debut in the AAFC with the Yankees after a sterling career at Illinois. He capped off his collegiate career by helping the Illini to a 45-14 win over UCLA in the Rose Bowl.
Young played ten seasons in pro football as a dynamic halfback who was a threat in the run-and-pass game. Young made the Pro Bowl in 1954 and finished his career with 2,727 rushing yards, 17 rushing touchdowns, 2,711 receiving yards, and 21 receiving touchdowns.
He spent only three seasons with the Baltimore Colts, but he was the franchise’s first player to have his number retired. He also became the first African-American executive hired by the NFL in 1966. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1968.
Young’s rookie is in the same 1948-49 Exhibit Sports Champions that features Motley. Like Motley, Young also has a card in the 1948-52 Exhibit Football set.
However, Young’s picture in the 48-52 set differs from the 48-49 version. His card from 1948-52 Exhibit Football is generally believed to have been circulated in 1950. His 1950 Bowman card is also his first traditional football card. Both cards are generally very iniexpensive.
- Bob Mann, Detroit Lions
Pro Debut: September 22, 1948
Rookie Card: 1948 Bowman and Leaf
Mann was a second-team All-American as a wide receiver after his senior year at Michigan. He signed with the Lions for $7,500 and finished a sturdy rookie campaign along with another black teammate, Mel Groomes. In his second year, Mann led the league in receiving yards and yards per catch.
Following the 1949 season, he was asked to take a pay cut by the Lions. When he refused, he was waived and landed with the New York Yanks, though he never played in a game for them. He played in the final three games of the 1950 season with the Green Bay Packers, the team he would finish his career with after retiring in 1954.
Mann finished his career with 208 receptions, 3,203 receiving yards, and 24 receiving touchdowns. He was inducted into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame in 1988. Mann enrolled in law school in 1966, after which he became a criminal defense lawyer in Detroit for 30 years.
The rookie cards of this Detroit Lions pioneer are found in the 1948 Bowman and Leaf sets and both are inexpensive.
- George Taliaferro, Los Angeles Dons (AAFC)
Pro Debut: September 2, 1949
Rookie Card: 1948 Leaf
Taliaferro was a pioneer at Indiana University. He was a First-Team All-American, a two-time Second-Team All-American, and a two-time First-Team All-Big Ten selection.
He was the first black player drafted by an NFL team when the Chicago Bears took him in the 13th round of the 1949 draft. But before the draft, he had signed a contract to play for the Dons of the AAFC. Despite wanting to play in the NFL, Taliaferro honored his contract with the Dons.
Taliaferro played for five teams in seven seasons, not so much because he couldn’t find a team, but because he had the misfortune of playing for poorly managed franchises like the New York Yanks (1950-51) and the Dallas Texans (1952).
In seven seasons, he finished with three Pro Bowl selections, gaining 2,266 rushing yards and 1,300 receiving yards on 95 receptions. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981.
Taliaferro’s rookie card is in the 1948 Leaf set before he signed any professional contract. The Leaf set came out during his senior year at Indiana. There are white and yellow background versions. All but higher grade examples can usually be found for under $200.
- Levi Jackson, Yale
No Professional Career
Rookie: 1948 Leaf
Jackson never played professional football but was one of the most respected football players in the country. He became the first black football captain in Yale history and broke several social and academic barriers at the Ivy institution.
After graduating, Jackson went to work for the Ford Motor Co., becoming the first African-American executive in the company’s history. He retired as Vice President of the company, leading the company and Detroit through riots in 1967.
Jackson’s rookie card is in the 1948 Leaf set. He also appears in the 1950 Topps Felt series. His inclusion in the 1948 set is remarkable, given that he was a junior at Yale (NIL, anyone?). He graduated in 1949. Respectable copies of Jackson’s Leaf rookie card can usually be found for under $25.
There wasn’t a national football card release until National Chicle’s landmark 1935 issue. By then, the ban on black players was in its second year, robbing fans of watching players future Hall of Famers, and robbing black players an opportunity to play on the biggest stage. The lack of pre-War releases also left collectors unable to find cards of the earliest pro football pioneers, including Duke Slater, Paul Robeson, Fritz Pollard, and Bobby Marshall. Some have been honored with cards produced in recent years by Panini America.