Yesterday was the 115th birthday* of Edgar “Blue” Washington, movie actor and father of Kenny Washington, who broke the NFL’s color line with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. Check out Mark V. Perkins’s recent SABR biography of Washington, to which I contributed research on his baseball and boxing careers.
He was a childhood friend of Frank Capra and appeared as John Wayne’s sidekick in Haunted Gold (1932), but it wasn’t always clear he was headed for Hollywood. He played professional baseball in the 1910s and 1920s for two of the most glamorous African American teams in existence, and for a time it must have seemed obvious that this was his vocation. In the end he chose a different path. It certainly wasn’t easier—Hollywood at that time was only marginally more accepting of black contributions than the white major leagues.
It is frankly hard to know what to make of Blue Washington and his legacy. He was, in many ways, a walking contradiction—the same man who served as the first baseman and cleanup hitter for the Kansas City Monarchs in their very first Negro National League game also acted in both Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind.
Washington grew up in Los Angeles as a neighbor and friend of the young Frank Capra, and it was Capra who actually nicknamed him “Blue.” He first came to prominence as a teenaged boxer, but found greater success on the diamond. As a young pitcher, Washington was signed by Rube Foster in 1916 during the American Giants’ spring training tour on the west coast; the Chicago Defender called him “the most promising youngster that Foster has picked up in years.” Only 18, he was mentioned as a possible opening day starter, but didn’t make it back to Chicago with the team: he was caught, the Defender reported, “with a couple of questionable characters (white, at that), and too much King Alcohol under his belt.” Foster immediately released him.
One result of Washington’s short tenure as an American Giant was the only known photograph of him in a baseball uniform, from a team photo taken in Vancouver in April, 1916, spotted by Mark on the Robert Edward Auctions site.
L to R: Pete Hill, Harry Bauchman, Steven Dixon, Tom Johnson, Judy Gans, Bruce Petway, Rube Foster, Leroy Grant, Edgar Washington, unknown (possibly C. Bernice Wood), John Henry Lloyd, unknown (possibly Clarkson Brazelton), Frank Duncan. C. Bernice (pronounced “Burnis”) Wood was an L.A. White Sox pitcher who was released by Foster along with Washington, and spent his baseball career on the west coast.
Returning to California, Washington continued as an outfielder and pitcher for the White Sox until he joined his sometime teammates George Carr (also an actor), José Méndez, and John Donaldson on the Kansas City Monarchs in 1920. According to the Kansas City Sun, Monarchs manager Méndez called him “a find, a hard hitter and a player with lots of pep” (May 1, 1920, p. 12). He spent about five weeks in the Negro National League, hitting fairly well in just 24 games. The Defender called him “a grand fielder” and “one of the heaviest batters in the game today” (May 22, 1920).
Even as Washington played for the Monarchs, he was already becoming known for his screen work. One of his films, a Harold Lloyd short called Haunted Spooks in which Washington portrayed a butler, was released on March 14, and was in theaters during the first weeks of the NNL season. Aside from one more interlude with the Los Angeles White Sox and Alexander Giants (another L.A. club) in the 1920/21 winter season, he had decided to cast his lot with Hollywood.
Over the next several decades he appeared in dozens of movies, including several Tarzan and Charlie Chan films and a number of westerns, usually in peripheral, stereotyped roles (cooks, slaves, porters). He received favorable notices for his “vivid and spontaneous acting” in The Blood Ship (1927), and landed what the Baltimore Afro-American called “the most important Negro screen role of the year” in Beggars of Life (1928). According to some accounts he had to endure hazing and practical jokes from white co-workers, and often appeared in the credits as “handyman” instead of actor.
Edgar Washington’s best-known role was opposite a young John Wayne in Haunted Gold (1932); Mark writes that in this film he portrayed “one of only two black cowboy sidekicks ever featured in B-westerns” (image courtesy of Mark V. Perkins).
His son Kenny was born in 1918, but Edgar, often absent on movie shoots, did not play much of a role in his upbringing. Instead Edgar’s brother, Roscoe “Rocky” Washington, the first black lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department, took responsibility for the boy. (Kenny did, however, follow in his father’s footsteps both as an athlete and as an actor.)
Though it’s impossible to say for sure how good a baseball player he was, Blue Washington certainly had talent. Maybe he could have carved out a brilliant career—both Rube Foster and the Kansas City Monarchs thought he could play for them. Apparently the man could act, too. But in a sad irony, as his movie career wound down Washington found himself playing a doorman in the original Angels in the Outfield (1951) and a railroad porter in The Kid from Left Field (1953).
*—Blue Washington’s birthday has been given as February 6, February 12, and February 26; although February 12 is on his death certificate and has thus been canonized as the official date, I’ve chosen to go with February 26, since it’s on the earliest document known to be signed by Washington himself, his World War I draft registration card, filled out in September, 1918.