White Lions: The Integration, Segregation and Re-integration of the Detroit Lions

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The following is a sample chapter of the book I am currently writing about the history of Detroit, Michigan from roughly the end of World War Two (1945), through 1960. If you like this chapter, please read the previous chapter which is entitled, Black, White and Red All Over.

And please stay tuned to WaketheHerd.com for more information as the book builds to completion.

Chapter Ten: White Lions

At the end of the 1951 season, there were a total of seventeen black players in the National Football League. Those seventeen players had found homes on six of the NFLs thirteen teams. The members of that exclusive club included:

Cleveland Browns: Marion Motley, Bill Willis, Len Ford, Horace Gillom, Emerson Cole

Los Angeles Rams: “Deacon” Dan Towler, Paul ‘Tank’ Younger, Bob Boyd, Harry Thompson, Woodley Lewis

New York Giants: Bob Jackson, Emlen Tunnell

New York Yanks: Buddy Young, George Taliaferro, Sherman Howard

San Francisco Forty-Niners: Joe “The Jet” Perry

Green Bay Packers: Bob Mann

As you can see, ten of those seventeen players were on either the Cleveland Browns or the Los Angels Rams – the teams that squared off for the 1950 and 1951 NFL championships.[1]

The Detroit Lions, who had been a member of the league’s integrated club from 1948 through 1950, were once again segregated in 1951. The Lions would remain virtually all-white through the 1956 season.

With both Mann and Mel Groomes gone from the Lions’ roster by the start of the 1950 season, the Lions had only one black player on their roster, Wally Triplett. As a result, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Triplett’s isolation within the team that season became more acute.

“I was the only Negro on the Lions in 1950,” Triplett remembered, “and most of the guys wouldn’t talk to me. The Notre Dame guys and the Michigan guys would speak, but most of the others wouldn’t.”[2]

Two teammates who made Triplett feel welcome right away upon his arrival in 1949 were team captain John Greene and superstar halfback Bill Dudley. It was a gesture that Triplett fondly recalled more than sixty years later when Greene passed away at the age of 90.

“I want to say ‘thank you’ to John because what we have now in the NFL would not have been possible had it not been for him and others like Bill Dudley,” said Triplett in a Lions’ press release upon Greene’s death. “John was a star and a captain for the Lions. So, when he and Bill came over to me in the locker room, shook my hand and welcomed me to the Lions, it made a huge impact in my acceptance on the team and in the League.  I will always appreciate what John and Bill did for me.”[3]

While Greene, a former Michigan Wolverine, was still on the 1950 squad, Dudley was long gone. As a result, by 1950, those friendly gestures were fewer and farther between for the lonely Triplett.

While Triplett disliked head coach Bo McMillin, the man who had drafted him, he did like McMillin assistant, George Wilson. Wilson had joined the Lions’ staff in 1948 after a long stint as a player and assistant coach for the Chicago Bears.

“George Wilson’s influence kept me with the team,” Triplett said in a 2005 interview.[4]

However, Triplett didn’t have the same feelings for Buddy Parker when he joined the staff as an assistant in 1950.

“We didn’t see eye-to-eye,” Triplett said of Parker. “I was one for speaking my mind rather quickly. I guess Parker, who was from Texas, didn’t like that. I only had one conversation with him the whole time I played for Detroit.

“By the end of the 1950 season, I think (Buddy) Parker wanted to trade me,” he added.[5]

Nevertheless, Triplett would excel when he got on the field in 1950; most notably during a record setting performance in a 65-21 road-loss to the L.A. Rams on October 29.

Triplett, who got plenty of chances to return kicks that afternoon because of a porous Lion defense, rolled for a then-NFL record 331 total yards, including a 97-yard kickoff return for a score. Astonishingly, Triplett’s yardage total came almost exclusively on returns. In addition to the 97-yarder, he had kickoff returns of 74, 81 and 42 yards, respectively.[6]

Triplett’s total yardage record would stand until a rookie comet from Kansas named Gale Sayers gained 336 on a muddy field in Chicago in 1965.[7]

Triplett’s performance in the Ram loss, coupled with his lack of every-down playing time all season long, prompted Michigan Chronicle sports editor, Bill Matney, to call the Lions onto the literary mat three days later in his weekly column:

THE DETROIT LIONS won’t like this warm column. . . . But it’s time somebody wrote something, and since the daily guys refuse to do the job, I’ll do it myself. . . . There’s been a lot of talk about the Lions becoming a real winning ball club. With this thought in mind, the owners spared no dollar in bringing highly-touted in big name stars. . . . It may be factitious to say that “there’s something wrong with the Detroit Lions.” Okay, but we’re still saying it. First of all, a lot of real football fans were mad as you know what when the Lions pulled that beautiful deal that sent the league’s most elusive receiver (Bob Mann) to the New York Yanks. . . .

Another puzzling case is that of little Wally Triplett, whose talent has been wasted thus far. . . . A glance at the record books will show that Triplett was the second best ground gainer on the Lions last year, and in limited service as a runner this season, compiled the best running average on the squad.

The book will also show that Triplett holds the team record for the longest run from scrimmage – an 80-yard touchdown jaunt against Green Bay last year.

YET, Triplett has warmed the bench this season, seeing action only when the other team punted or kicked off. . . . By his brilliant performance against the Rams Sunday, Triplett again demonstrated that his unusual ball carrying ability has been wasted by a team which is sorely in need of backs who can move the ball.[8]

Sadly, Triplett would not play again that season. On November 1, 1950, just three days after his incredible performance in Los Angeles, the same day as the Chronicle article hit the streets, he was ordered by Uncle Sam to report for induction into the U.S. Army. Wallace H. Triplett III was sworn into duty on November 15. He was the first NFL player to be drafted into service during the Korean War.[9]

The National Football League’s decision to rescind their 1934-to-1946, self-imposed, color line began when a twenty-eight year old New York stockbroker named Dan Reeves bought the Cleveland Rams in 1940. Reeves struggled for the next five years to win games and make money in Cleveland. Then in 1945, with rookie quarterback and former UCLA star, Bob Waterfield, leading the way, the Rams won their first NFL championship.

But they still lost at the box office. When purchasing the club, Reeves had let it be known that his dream was to move the Rams to Los Angeles at the earliest opportunity. His fellow owners, most of whom had struggled to pay bills throughout the league’s first two decades, didn’t like the idea of incurring the travel costs of a yearly road game to California. So, for the first six years of his ownership, Dan Reeves bided his time.[10]

The end of World War II brought new optimism and opportunity to America. In addition, with the emergence of the rival AAFC in early 1946, Reeves and his fellow owners didn’t want to cede the west coast to AAFC upstarts the Los Angeles Dons and San Francisco Forty-Niners. So in early 1946, Dan Reeves got the green light from his fellow owners to take his Rams to Hollywood.[11]

In 1946, there was not a bigger or better located venue in Los Angeles to play football than the L.A. Coliseum. The facility was controlled by the progressive L.A. Coliseum Commission. On January 15, 1946, the commission stated flatly that if the Rams were to take up residence in their stadium, they would need to integrate their roster.

The Rams, to their credit, agreed right away and soon signed former UCLA standout, Kenny Washington, and former Illinois halfback, Woody Strode.[12]

The Rams didn’t stop there. Reeves next hired Green Bay Packers’ assistant coach, Eddie Kotal, to be the NFL’s first full-time talent scout. Kotal was soon on the road 200 days a year. On January 2, 1948, he made a trip to Birmingham, Alabama to scout a game between historic black college rivals, Central State (Ohio) and Grambling University.

After the game, Kotal met Grambling’s star fullback, Paul “Tank” Younger, who he signed to a free-agent contract two months later. Younger became the first player from a historically black college to sign a contact with an NFL team.[13]

By the following season, the Rams were winning and winning big. With Kotal providing the talent and T-Formation mastermind, Clark Shaugnessy, coaching, the high flying, high scoring Rams made the first of three-straight trips to the NFL Championship game.

They lost in 1949 to the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles, 14-0. The Eagles got an assist on that day from a rare California downpour, which turned the Coliseum field into a muddy mess the morning of the game. Younger would later lament the Los Angeles’ loss by labeling the storm a “Louisiana frog strangler.”[14]

In 1950, the Rams lost to the Cleveland Browns, 30-28, in a thriller on Christmas Day in Cleveland. In 1951, the Rams would beat the Browns in a rematch, 24-17, giving Dan Reeves his first championship since moving from Cleveland five years earlier.

The Rams would remain, along with San Francisco, powers in the NFL’s Western Conference through the much of the coming decade. Both teams would stage many a classic battle with the Detroit Lions as the Honolulu Blue and Silver made their climb toward NFL dominance.

Wally Triplett returned stateside in November 1952 after his two-year Army stint. At that time, the Lions were in a tight division race with the Rams and Niners with just six games to play. The Michigan Chronicle heralded Triplett’s return with a headline story in their sports section on October 25:

Wally Triplett, speedy halfback of the Detroit Lions, is scheduled to arrive in Detroit Nov. 5, and rejoin his old teammates in time to help them in the bitter National Football league title race. . . . In a letter to a friend in Detroit, Triplett indicated that he would arrive in the city two days later in hopes of rejoining the squad immediately.[15]

In that same edition of the Chronicle, Bill Matney welcomed Triplett’s return. “Wallace H. Triplett III should be a welcome addition to the home forces,” Matney wrote. “Local fans still remember his tremendous parting performance against the Los Angeles Rams in 1950.”

Matney also penned a bit of info that would prophesy Triplett’s future.

Strangely enough, the Lions almost peddled Wally to Green Bay a few weeks ago. General Manager Nick Kerbawy told reporters that Trip had been traded to the Packers in return for a draft choice in 1953. But the deal was nixed a few minutes after being made when word of Lion injuries came through.[16]

Despite the eminent return of their explosive NFL record-holding return man, the Lions signed a former Arkansas and Navy halfback by the name of Clyde “Smackover” Scott, who was released by the Philadelphia Eagles after getting no carries in two games earlier in the season.[17]

When Triplett got back to the Motor City, Buddy Parker and the Detroit Lions’ promptly placed him in limbo:

Coach Buddy Parker said he will give Triplett three weeks to get into shape and learn the Detroit offense before it has to be decided whether to cut a man from the squad to make room for the 25-year old Negro.[18]

At the time, the Lions stood at 4-2 and were battling the 5-1 Forty-Niners and 3-3 Rams in the standings. The Lions were also banged up in the offensive backfield. Doak Walker has been sidelined since October 12 with a leg injury. Veteran Pat Harder was playing with his always banged-up knee. That left just Bob Hoernschemeyer, the just-signed Scott, and former Packer, Earl “Jug” Girard, as the Lions’ only healthy running backs.

Why did the Lions try to trade Triplett, sign Eagle cast-off Scott off the street, and then put Triplett on their inactive list? It was a question posed by many, including the ever vigilant Bill Matney on November 29:

As this column is being written, it appears that Wally Triplett will not appear this year in a Detroit Lions’ uniform. It is fairly definite that he will be placed on the reserve list and asked to sit out the remainder of the season as a paid employee. . . . We are sorry to see the Triplett situation handled so shabbily by the Lion management. If the club did not intend to use Trip this season, it would have been a simple matter to tell him that when he first reported on Nov. 5.[19]

At the time of Triplett’s return, the always superstitious Parker was guiding his Lions through a three-game winning streak – including a 17-6 win over Cleveland on November 2. The now 5-2 Lions had started the season 1-2, with both losses coming at the hands of San Francisco.

Would Parker have brought Triplett back if the Lions had lost to the Browns? As it stood, Doak Walker was supposed to return in December and the gritty Harder was kicking, running, blocking, and producing despite the gimpy knee. In spite of the injuries, the Lions would continue to win with a depleted backfield. On November 9, with Hoernschemeyer running for 107 yards, Detroit beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road, 31-6. The following week, Harder scored 17 points with a touchdown, 5 PATs and a field goal as Detroit trounced the winless Dallas Texans, 45-13. On November 23, the Lions lost to the Bears at Wrigley Field, 24-23, as George Blanda came off the bench to lead the Bears on a 68-yard TD drive in the final seconds.[20]

After the Bear loss, the Western Conference standings were now deadlocked in a four way tie, with the Lions, Rams, Forty-Niners and Packers all sitting with 6-3 records. Surely the last-second Bears’ loss would cause the superstitious Parker to call up Triplett?

It didn’t happen. The Lions, with Triplett still on the taxi squad, would beat the Green Bay Packers, 45-21, on Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, the Rams would down San Francisco three days later, 34-21, leaving the Lions and Rams tied at 7-3.

The following Thursday, December 4, with Doak Walker now cleared to play, the team traded Wally Triplett to the Chicago Cardinals.[21]

Triplett would play in the Cardinals’ final two games of 1952 and just four games in Chicago the following season before being released on October 21, 1953.

“My heart was never really in the game because of the attitudes and obstacles we faced,” said Triplett in 2005. “Overall, the fans in Detroit treated me well. I never got to be a ‘fan favorite,’ and I heard all of the racial remarks. But most of the fans were white and that was the tenor of the times. I think the big difference between the NFL today and when I played was the camaraderie . . . we didn’t have enough of the team spirit, the togetherness.”[22]

Would the Detroit Lions have found a roster spot for Wally Triplett in 1952 if he had a different skin color? Would they have found a roster spot for Triplett if Bob Mann hadn’t left the Lions’ organization on such bad terms two years before?

Without being able to ask then-head coach Buddy Parker, G.M. Nick Kerbawy and Lions’ President Edwin Anderson, all long deceased, that question personally, it’s impossible to say for certain. But nevertheless, the record shows that for the first six years of Buddy Parker’s head coaching tenure in Detroit (1951-56), only two black men would play in the regular season for the Detroit Lions. The first was defensive end, Harold “Bulldog” Turner, who would suit up for three games in 1954. The second was another defensive end, Walter Jenkins, a Detroit native and Wayne State grad, who suited up for two regular season games in 1955. [23]

The fact that the Detroit Lions fielded an all-white lineup in 71 of the 76 games of Buddy Parker’s tenure as head coach serves as the only blemish on the greatest period in franchise history.

By the beginning of the 1952 season, the Steelers, Eagles, Cardinals and Bears – all teams that had been a part of the original “gentleman’s agreement” had integrated. Only the Lions and Washington Redskins remained segregated. The Lions would remain so until 1957. The Redskins would remain Whiteskined until 1962.

On the other hand, the record shows that Buddy Parker made efforts to obtain black players during this period. He tried to trade for Cleveland Browns’ backup fullback, Emerson Cole, before the 1951 season. The trade fell through when Paul Brown wanted Doak Walker in return.

“You know, Buddy, your team is a little thin at tackle too,” said Brown. “Suppose we make a deal and give you Cole and one of our first string tackles. You can give us a halfback – say Doak Walker?”

“We’re not interested in trading a layer cake for two doughnuts,” laughed Parker.[24]

In 1952, the Lions entered training camp with four “Negro” players, including the aforementioned Harold Turner, (drafted 333rd overall) and Ray Don Dillon, a back from Prairie View A&M (drafted 357th overall). Dillon was released by the Lions at the end of training camp and would become an All-Pro in the Canadian Football League later that year. [25]

Turner would spend two years in the military before joining the Lions. He would be traded to the Cleveland Browns during the pre-season in 1954, released by Cleveland and then re-signed by Detroit in December 1954. Turner would suit up in the Lions’ final three games of the season, including the 1954 championship game versus Cleveland.[26]

In the 1954 draft, Detroit selected UCLA All-American defensive back Milt Davis in the 8th Round (97th overall). [27] Davis spent two years in the Army before joining Detroit for their 1956 training camp and was cut after two exhibition games. [28] Years later, Davis said he was told by the Lions at the time of his release, “We don’t have a black teammate for you to go on road trips, therefore you can’t stay on our team.” Davis would hook on with the Baltimore Colts as a 28-year old free agent in 1957. He would have 10 interceptions and make the Associated Press All-Pro team as a rookie. He would help the Colts win back-to-back NFL titles in 1958 and ‘59 alongside a Detroit native, former U.S. Marine and L.A. Ram named, Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb. [29]

In 1955, the Lions would draft tackle Elijah Childers in the 6th Round (72nd overall) and Walter Jenkins in the 9th Round (108th overall). Childers, from Prairie View A&M, was cut in camp and would make his way to Canada. [30] Jenkins meanwhile, played in the Lions first two games before being slipped onto the waiver wire and then shuffled back onto the taxi squad. It was a move that again aroused the ire of bulldog journalist, Bill Matney, in his weekly “Jumping the Gun” column:

Charges of discrimination involving the Detroit Lions have been revived in certain opinion areas of the community. . . . Jenkins’ 11th hour release came only one week after the promising rookie had made a key play against the Green Bay Packers that resulted in a touchdown for the Lions. . . . Club officials knew Jenkins was slated to go, but waited until the last hour to announce his release on waivers so other teams would not pick him up. Green Bay reportedly was ready to give him a job. . . . Jenkins has sat on the bench in street clothes for the past two Sundays as his former teammates lost to Los Angeles and San Francisco. . . . While we do not at this time charge the Lions with rank discrimination, we feel there is substantial basis to charge the club with minimum effort in the acquisition of Negro players of high calibre. . . . One cannot argue with the record. It stands for itself.[31]

In Buddy Parker’s defense, it is of note that in early 1954, following Pat Harder’s retirement, Jet Magazine reported that Parker was seeking a trade to acquire Los Angeles Rams’ “fullback Paul “Tank” Younger’s contract.” [32] Younger was the first black player to play in the Pro Bowl and one of the great fullbacks of the era. Parker’s efforts failed in 1954. But four years later, in 1958, Parker – who was then head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers – acquired Younger in a trade with the Rams. [33] Younger played his final NFL season for Pittsburgh in 1958 before retiring.

In his first year in Pittsburgh, Parker purchased the contract of guard, John Nisby. [34] Nisby would play with the Steelers through 1962 and earn two Pro Bowl nods (1959, ‘61).

In 1960, Parker traded Pittsburgh’s 1960 and ‘61 first-round picks to Detroit to get John Henry Johnson into a Steeler uniform. Of course, Parker earlier traded for Johnson in one of his last major personnel moves as Lions’ coach in early 1957.[35]

In July 1961, Parker traded three players, including Steelers’ star receiver Jimmy Orr, to the Colts to acquire talented but troubled defensive tackle Big Daddy Lipscomb.

Two months later, Parker traded a draft choice to the Colts to acquire another talented black athlete, defensive back Johnny Sample. Sample, who was among the new breed of minority athlete unwilling to accept second-class status, would have a troubled relationship with the old-school, Texas-bred, Parker.

After a nine-interception, All-Pro season in 1961 with the Steelers, Sample and Parker battled over a new contract. Sample, who had made $14,000 in ‘61, sought an $8,000 raise. The Steelers countered with a $1,500 boost.[36]

According to Sample’s 1970 autobiography, Confessions of a Dirty Ballplayer, Parker related his thoughts on the contractual worth of black players during a particularly heated exchange.

“I know you had a great year, Sample. But black athletes don’t deserve that kind of money and I won’t pay it,” Parker said. The two exchanged heated words before Sample stormed out of Parker’s office.[37]

Sample eventually settled for a $6,000 raise for 1962. By 1963, Parker had traded Sample to Washington, making him a member of George Preston Marshall’s first integrated roster.

Buddy Parker’s longtime “hex team” member, Wallace “Boots” Lewis, had followed Parker to Pittsburgh. Art Rooney Jr., former Steelers’ executive and son of team founder, Art Rooney Sr., viewed the Parker/Lewis “partnership” in less than flattering terms.

“Buddy Parker was the only coach in the NFL who had his own personal valet . . . Their partnership was an odd one if you took into account Parker’s typically Southern racial views,” Rooney wrote in his 2008 autobiography, Ruanaidh, “In a way it harkened back to the ante-bellum plantation days, with Boots as Old Black Joe and Parker in the role of benevolent white massa.”[38]

Parker’s only child, Robert, who knew Boots Lewis, first as a young boy in Detroit and then through his teenage years in Pittsburgh, remembers the man fondly and has a much different view of the relationship between Lewis and his father.

“Boots was like, my caretaker, when we would go away on trips and away games and stuff. And I would just run him ragged,” laughed Parker. “He was like, I think, in his mid to upper fifties. He had a hard time controlling me.

“He and my Dad were just great buddies,” Parker added. “He would help out at training camp and practice. He would come out to the house in the summertime and have dinner and stuff. He would help out around the house. He was just always around.”[39]

However, Johnny Sample, like Rooney Jr., believed that Buddy Parker treated Lewis as little more than a slave.

“Bootsy would wake Buddy up in the morning,” Sample wrote, “shine his shoes, get him coffee, and so on, for which he was paid next to nothing and treated like a dog.”[40]

“I certainly don’t agree with that,” Robert Parker said of Sample’s assessment. “I mean Boots was almost a part of our family.

“You know, my Dad was a southern guy and, ya’ know, there may have been a little bit of bigotry or racism or something in there,” Parker added, “but never anything that had anything to do with Boots.”[41]

Rooney Jr. claimed in his book that on a Saturday night before a 1962 Steelers’ road game in Dallas, Buster Ramsey – who Parker had hired in Pittsburgh months earlier after Ramsey was fired as head coach of the Buffalo Bills – had egged Parker on when Big Daddy Lipscomb, John Henry Johnson, Sample and the other black Steelers had not returned for a rare Parker-issued curfew. For the record, Rooney’s account comes second hand from longtime Steelers’ trainer, Raymond “Doc” Sweeny:

In Dallas the night before the game, the blacks had gone off to a blacks-only night club and were late getting back to the motel. Ramsey, in charge of bed check, was “egging Parker on,” as Sweeney related it to me, letting him know every few minutes that the black guys were not in their rooms.

“Buddy was drinking,” Doc said, “and Buster was getting him upset. They came into my room and pounded on the door. When I opened it, Buddy says right away that he wants his hands taped. ‘Like a boxer.’ I ask him what for. ‘I’m going to punch out Johnson and Lipscomb,’ he tells me

“Buddy and Buster were blaming John Henry Johnson and Big Daddy Lipscomb for keeping the rest of the black guys at the night club.”

According to Rooney Jr., Sweeney taped Parker’s hands as instructed, but intentionally taped them so tight that the blood would eventually stop circulating, hoping that the coach would reconsider.

He’s running up and down the hallway, punching his fist into his open hand and yelling, ‘I’ll beat the hell out of that black son of a bitch Lipscomb, and then I’ll beat the hell out of John Henry.’[42]

Incredibly, Sample also related same incident in his book:

Buddy never had bedcheck, neither in training nor during the season. We arrived in Dallas about four or five in the afternoon, checked into the hotel and had dinner. . . . Buddy told us to come in at eleven, but because we never had bedcheck, no one bothered. I got in about twelve, jumped immediately into bed and was just about asleep when the door burst open.

There stood Buddy in his shirt sleeves, his hands taped like a fighter’s. I knew he had been drinking because the smell of whisky was all over him. Buster Ramsey, his assistant coach and chief henchman, was right behind him.

“I came in here to see were you’ve been,” Parker said in a growl, meaning me and Brady Keys, my roommate.

We told him, and he answered:

“I also came in here just in case you wanted to fight, because I know I’m going to have some trouble from both of you. Now what do you want to do?”

It was obvious that the best thing to do was to try and pacify him and let it go. So I told him:

“I want to go to sleep and that’s just about what I was doing until you came busting in here like that.”

He [Parker] turned around and walked out without saying another word, and nothing more came of it.[43]

One could only imagine what Lipscomb and Johnson may have done if they had arrived to see what Sweeny and Sample claimed to witness. However, the two players remained at large until, according to Rooney Jr., Sweeney’s tape job had the desired effect. Soon Parker, according to the trainer, was asking him to “cut the damn’ tape off.”

It is clear in their respective books that neither Sample or Rooney Jr. thought much of Parker or Ramsey.

Conversely, Buster Ramsey’s son, Gary, says that his father, who died in 2007, was no fan of Johnny Sample.

“Dad would tell you to this day that he did run off Johnny Sample. Johnny Sample had a chip on his shoulder.”

But Gary, who spent plenty of time around Lions, Bills and Steelers growing up the son of an NFL coach, vehemently denies that his father was racist.

“My Dad had some of his black players from Buffalo come visit him on the farm in Tennessee after he retired. And they’d come a thousand miles to do that,” Ramsey said. “Big Daddy Lipscomb had his best year in the NFL under my dad in Pittsburgh. So did Brady Keys. So did Big John Baker. They had their best years in the NFL playing for Dad.

“My Dad used to say, ‘I treat the black guys just like the white guys. If they are going to be troublemakers, it doesn’t matter what color they are.”

Like Robert Parker, Gary Ramsey also disputes Rooney Jr. and Sample’s account of the relationship between Buddy Parker and Boots Lewis.

“Now remember, Boots was in Detroit the whole time too,” Ramsey said, “I never saw Boots get mistreated. I never saw Boots get yelled at. I never saw anybody be mean to Boots. We all loved Boots.” [44]

While Sample disliked Parker immensely on a personal level, he did respect him as a football mind.

Undoubtedly, Buddy Parker was a brilliant coach when it came to the science of the game. I think that, like Paul Brown, he understood the complete picture of football. Unfortunately, however, he didn’t know how to handle men. And that’s half the business of coaching.[45]

Whether or not Sample and Rooney Jr.’s Pittsburgh recollections are accurate, it is no secret that Buddy Parker’s Pittsburgh tenure involved fewer wins – and more alcohol – than the halcyon days in Detroit.

“It was tougher than the Detroit years,” admitted Robert Parker.[46]

As the NFL approaches its 100 birthday, there has never been a smoking gun to emerge to substantiate the alleged “gentleman’s agreement” that barred black players from NFL rosters from 1934 to 1945. According to NFL Films historian, Chris Willis, both Art Rooney Sr. and George Halas tried to sign black players during that 12-year blackout. Rooney “wanted” to bring pre-ban Steeler star, Ray Kemp, back in 1934 “but didn’t.” Halas meanwhile, “tried to sign Ozzie Simmons (Iowa) in 1936” and UCLA star and future Los Angeles Ram, Kenny Washington, in 1939.[47]

Despite Willis’ claim, it’s hard to believe that if Art Rooney, let alone George Halas, had wanted to sign a black player badly enough they would have been stopped. Both men were highly respected amongst their peers during those early years and were well on their way to NFL immortality by the end of World War II. Nevertheless, it was the upstart and forward-thinking Rams’ owner Dan Reeves, along with substantial shoves from the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission and the rival and quickly integrating All-American Football Conference, that pushed the NFL toward re-integration in 1946.

Willis and many other historians point to the influence of Washington Redskins’ owner George Preston Marshall as the major force behind the NFL’s 1934-45 color line. A native of Grafton, West Virginia and the owner of a string of family laundries in Washington D.C., Marshall was the most accomplished business man among the league’s ownership fraternity. As a result, he often had a major influence on league policy.

He, along with Halas, promoted the liberalization of the forward passing game in 1930s by making it legal for a passer to throw the ball from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. Marshall also, prior to the 1933 season, devised the plan to split the league into two divisions, with a season-ending championship game. He was the first to implement big halftime shows and incorporate a team band. Marshall was also the first owner to embrace the power of television, as he created a television network of independent stations across the South to carry Redskins’ games during the 1950s.

George Preston Marshall was simply a man who could make things happen. He was also an unabashed racist.

When Marshall, who had purchased the newly-formed Boston Redskins in 1931, got permission to move the struggling team to America’s segregated capital city in 1937, he became the proud and defiant dictator of Dixie’s Team. Under Marshall, the Redskins remained Caucasian for their first twenty-nine years in business. He famously vowed never to integrate the Redskins as long as the Harlem Globetrotters also remained segregated.

By the early 1960s, public opinion, a massive negative media campaign, as well as pressure from Capitol Hill and the Kennedy Administration forced Marshall’s hand. The final straw came in early 1961, when the U.S. Department of Interior threatened to ban the Redskins from moving into the publicly financed D.C. Stadium, which was then under construction, and with which Marshall had signed a 30-year lease to begin play there that autumn.

With that move, a reluctant Pete Rozelle decided to step in and urge Marshall to integrate. A deal between the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, and Marshall was struck. The deal allowed the Redskins to play in D.C. Stadium in 1961, provided they would integrate by 1962, which they did. [48]

“I definitely don’t like to hear about it. But I do think you’ve gotta talk about the times that his all happened,” George Preston Marshall’s granddaughter, Jordan Wright, told Chris Willis in 2010. “For him it was a business decision. He didn’t want to lose his fan base. Now he didn’t triumph the cause of the underprivileged or the lower classes or other races. He did not. So I hate to have to defend him in that. It makes me very uncomfortable and it’s a legacy that I’m stuck with. I don’t like it. I just wish people would at least put it in the context of the period of the day and how it was for everybody. . . . He certainly bore the weight of those bad decisions. For us it was appalling.”[49]

Another sign of the times was that white folks and black folks were not supposed to date. The story of Pittsburgh Steelers’ second-year halfback, Henry Ford, during training camp in 1957 illustrates that sign quite clearly:

. . . The thing that got in the way was, they didn’t like the fact that I had a white girlfriend. They would listen in on our phone conversations. They told [Steelers head coach] Walt Kiesling and the others that I was dating a white girl and as a result they got rid of me. It was strange how it happened because the week before they got rid of me, we were playing the Detroit Lions and I was playing offense and defense and I thought I really had a hell of a day. I came back the next week to practice on Tuesday and I wasn’t on the offensive team, I wasn’t on the defensive team, I wasn’t on the punt return team, and I wasn’t on the kickoff return team. On Wednesday same thing . . . I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Thursday came, same thing. Friday, same thing. On Saturday I was home looking forward to the game on Sunday, getting myself prepared, getting my clothes packed for the trip and everything, and I get a phone call from the business manager. Not the head coach or even any other coach but the business manager. I couldn’t imagine what he was calling me about other than something about the travel arrangements, and he says, “That’s it.” I said, “What do you mean, that’s it?” He said, “They told me to tell you that’s it and they’ll take care of you when we get back from the game,” and he hung up. And that’s how I was cut, right after I had played a hell of a game against the Detroit Lions.[50]

For the record, Buddy Parker, not Walt Kiesling, was head coach of the Steelers at the time of Ford’s release on September 14, 1957. Kiesling, who had coached the Steelers on three-different occasions from 1939 through 1956, had called Parker personally after he had quit in Detroit August 12. Kiesling urged both Parker to come to Pittsburgh and the Rooney’s to hire Parker to replace him. Rooney did so on August 27. [51] Kiesling, a longtime friend of both Parker and Rooney, remained on Pittsburgh’s staff. Henry Ford was cut just six days after the Steelers’ fourth exhibition game, a 20-14 victory over Parker’s former team, the Lions.[52]

Unlike John Henry Johnson, Tank Younger, Big Daddy Lipscomb and Johnny Sample, Henry Ford, who had played college ball for the Pitt Panthers, was a marginal NFL talent. He was a 9th Round choice of the Cleveland Browns in 1955 and played just two games for Cleveland before being released. Ford spent the rest of 1955 in Canada with the Toronto Argonauts before returning to the NFL in 1956 to play for his hometown Steelers.

Nevertheless, the abrupt and unusual dismissal of Ford by the Steelers, especially considering the factors in his personal life, should not be ignored. Ford never played in the NFL again and to him the reason is clear – he was in love with the wrong colored women. The woman was named Rochelle. She would one day become his wife.

“As to why I was cut, I know why,” Ford said. “It’s because of my love for Rochelle. Me loving her and her returning my love, that was apparently too much for Steelers management.”[53]

John Henry Johnson has a bust in Canton because Buddy Parker gave him enough carries in Pittsburgh to reach the 1,000 yard plateau in 1962 and ‘64. If not for his untimely and tragic death, Big Daddy Lipscomb would surely be in Canton too, in no small part to Parker and Buster Ramsey putting him on the field after the Colts had given up on him.

It is clear that Buddy Parker, throughout his career in Detroit and Pittsburgh, sought black athletes on the trade market and welcomed them into his training camps. It is also clear that, in most instances, a black player had to be of exceptional talent to make his regular-season roster. For all his faults, Buddy Parker was clearly no Walter Briggs or George Preston Marshall. Yet, the fact remains that the Detroit Lions were virtually all-white during Buddy Parker’s six seasons as head coach.

How much of an influence did Detroit Lions’ President Edwin Anderson, General Manager Nick Kerbawy and the Lions’ Board of Directors – who for a time included Walter Briggs’ son, Spike Briggs – have on the Lions’ nearly all-white lineup from 1951 through 1956 remains unclear, as most of the men who made up the board and leadership of the Lions during that period are long deceased.

How much of a factor did Henry Ford’s white girlfriend have on the Steelers’ decision to cut him just days into Parker’s tenure in Pittsburgh? Aside from Ford’s feelings, that question remains unanswered. Art Sr. and Kiesling are long deceased. Art Jr. has not had a leadership position with the franchise since 1987, when his brother Dan fired him. Dan Rooney’s record on providing minorities opportunities in the NFL is very strong. His current head coach is the two-time Super Bowl winner, Mike Tomlin. The leagues current minority hiring policy – enacted in 2003 – is called the Rooney Rule in honor of Dan Rooney’s efforts to integrate the NFL’s coaching and front office ranks.

What is certain is that in the United States during the 1950s, black Americans, and the whites who loved them, were often held to a different set of rules.

The July 3, 1954, edition of the Michigan Chronicle featured the front page story of 37-year old Anna Mae Doles, her teenage son Jack, and his stepfather Maurice Doles:

White Mother Fights State Ruling: Marries Negro, Is Refused Child

The story that followed read in part:

The refusal of the Michigan Children’s Institute (MCI) to return a 16-year old boy to his white mother because she is married to a Negro brought a sharp protest this week from the Detroit Branch NAACP and letters denouncing the action to the governor and other legislators.

MCI Superintendent, Robert Rosena, stated in a letter to sent to Mrs. Doles, that the decision to keep Jack away from his parents was only in the best interest of the child:

We cannot place Jack in a situation which would give him serious social problems to deal with, and we must pay attention to the fact that society in general does not accept mixed marriages.

Although Jack was in a foster home, he still visited his parents daily despite Rosena’s written warning.

If you continue to encourage Jack to visit you it might be necessary for us to get a court order restraining you from contacting him.

Maurice Doles, a Korean War veteran who married the widower Anna Mae in 1951, told the Chronicle of his relationship with his stepson Jack, whose birth-father had died in 1947:

Jack has a key to the apartment and considers this his home. Apparently he doesn’t like his foster home because when he leaves us, he says, ‘Well Pop, I guess I’ll get back to prison.’

Yes he calls me Pop and we get along fine.[54]

In Detroit, Michigan in 1954, a teenage boy and his widowed mother were denied their piece of the American Dream – a second chance at having a family – because they had the audacity to start one with the wrong colored man; a man who had served his country just a few years earlier on the blood-soaked Korean Peninsula.

It was unjust. It was un-American. It was un-Constitutional. Nevertheless, it happened.

It was a sign of the times.

The 1952 and 1953 Detroit Lions remain the last two teams in NFL history to win championships without a black man on their roster.


[1] Ross, Outside The Lines, p. 167-68.

[2] Jim Sargent, “Wallace ‘Wally’ Triplett: Struggling for Success in the Postwar NFL,” The Coffin Corner, (Pro Football Researchers Association: Vol. 27, No. 4, 2005).

[3] “Former Lions’ Star in the 1940s John Greene Dies at 90,” DetroitLions.com, November 5, 2010, Website: http://www.detroitlions.com/news/article-1/Former-Lions-Star-in-the-1940s-John-Greene-Dies-at-90/163b164c-897b-4729-ac15-e58015cd5ee8

[4] Sargent, Wally Triplett, 2005.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Triplett Sets New NFL Record,” Michigan Chronicle, November 1, 1950.

[7] “Hunches Boost Packers, Bear Rookie Runs Wild,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 13, 1965.

[8] “Jumpin The Gun,” Michigan Chronicle, November 1, 1950.

[9] “Latest Triplett Sprint: To Army,” Windsor Daily Star, November 1, 1950.

[10] Michael McCambridge, America’s game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, (New York, Random House, 2004), p. 9-10

[11] Ibid, p. 16.

[12] Ibid, p. 17-19.

[13] Ibid, p. 55-58.

[14] Ibid, p. 64.

[15] “Lions Triplett Returns,” Michigan Chronicle, October 25, 1952.

[16] Jumpin’ the Gun, Michigan Chronicle, October 25, 1952.

[17] “Packers Hold Stiff Workout,” Associated Press, October 26, 1952.

[18] “Veteran Triplett Returns to Lions,” Holland Evening Sentinel, November 6, 1952.

[19] Jumpin’ the Gun, Michigan Chronicle, November 29, 1952.

[20] Green, Great Teams Great Years, p. 22-23.

[21] “Football Cards Sign 2 Backs”, New York Times, October 21, 1953.

[22] Sargent, Wally Triplett, 2005.

[23] Carroll, et. al., Total Football, p. 1359, 940.

[24] Green, Great Teams Great Years, p. 13.

[25] Carroll, et. al., Total Football, p. 1456.; “Ron Dillon Impresses in Camp,” Michigan Chronicle, July 1952.; “Jumpin, the Gun,” Michigan Chronicle, December 6, 1952.

[26] “Two Detroit Rookies Acquired By Browns,” Milwaukee Journal, September 1, 1954.; “Bulldog Turner now with Detroit Lions,” Washington Afro-American, December 7, 1954.

[27] Total Football, p. 1458.

[28] “Baltimore Colts add 2 more tan players; nine report to camp,” Washington Afro-American, June 4, 1957.

[29] “Davis, who helped Colts to pair of titles, dies at 79,” Associated Press, October 1, 2008.

[30] Carroll, et. al., Total Football, p. 1458.; “Detroit Lions Get End, Ask Waivers on Three,” Milwaukee Journal, October 4, 1955.

[31] “Jumping the Gun,” Michigan Chronicle, October 22, 1955.

[32] “Detroit Lions Seek Tank Younger,” Jet Magazine, February 4, 1954.

[33] “Tank Younger Traded To Pittsburgh Steelers,” Jet Magazine, July 31, 1958.

[34] “Steelers Trade Gaona To Eagles for Draft Pick,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 19, 1957.

[35] “Another Lion Now a Steeler,” Florence (AL) Times Daily, April 11, 1960.

[36] “Sample Says Rozelle Sides With Owners, Should Be Indicted,” Associated Press, December 15, 1970.

[37] Johnny Sample, Fred J. Hamilton, Sonny Schwartz, Confessions of a Dirty Ballplayer, (New York, Dial Press, 1970), P. 101-102.

[38] Art Rooney Jr., Roy McHugh, Ruanaidh: The Story of Art Rooney and His Clan, (Art Rooney Jr., 2008), p. 188.

[39] Charles Robert Parker interview, 2004.

[40] Sample et. al., Confessions, p. 104.

[41] Charles Robert Parker interview, 2004.

[42] Rooney Jr., McHugh, Ruanaidh, p. 182-83.

[43] Sample et. al., Confessions, p. 104-105.

[44] Gary Ramsey interview, March 2012.

[45] Sample et. al., Confessions, p. 99.

[46] Charles Robert Parker interview, 2004.

[47] Chris Willis, Joe F. Carr: The Man Who Built The National Football League, (Lanham, MD, Scarecrow Press, 2010), p. 329.

[48] Ross, Outside The Lines, p. 149-50, 153-54.

[49] Willis, Joe F. Carr, p. 329-30.

[50] Andy Piasck, Gridiron Gauntlet: The Story of the Men Who Integrated Pro Football in Their Own Words, (Taylor Trade Publishing, Boulder, CO, 2009), p. 221-222.

[51] “Parker Named Steeler Coach,” Associated Press, August 28, 1957.

[52] “Trading Steelers Grab Morrall,” Associated Press, September 17, 1957.

[53] Piasck, Gridiron Gauntlet, p. 222.

[54] “White Mother Fights State Ruling: Marries Negro, Is Refused Child,” Michigan Chronicle, July 3, 1954.

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