Playing for Posterity
By Paul Sterman
Published Oct 1, 2009 8:00 AM
In 1939, Dave Gaston was a 200-pound lineman on the UCLA football team, blocking for the likes of Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson — two of the most magical names in Bruin lore. Gaston, who lives just a couple of miles from the Rose Bowl, has a pile of scrapbooks and a heap of stories. At 90, he still revels in the memories of that season and the teammates he played with.
It was indeed a memorable team, one with a legacy that looms large in UCLA — and college football — history. The '39 season was the most successful the Bruins had produced up to that point, but the team's mark extends far beyond the football field. Seventy years later, it's remarkable to realize just how far that squad transcended the racial barriers of its day.
In 1939 only a smattering of college football teams had an African-American player on their roster. The Bruins, coached by Babe Horrell, had four. And three of them were starters: Washington, Robinson and Woody Strode.
"Three African-American players out of 11 in the starting lineup was highly unusual for the time," says Kent Stephens, curator and historian for the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind. Even 20 years later, it wasn't common to see even two African-American starters on most college football teams, Stephens notes.
Ray Bartlett was the fourth black player on the UCLA club, and he was a distinguished athlete in his own right. He and Robinson, who were close and longtime friends, both transferred to Westwood in 1939 from what is now Pasadena City College, where they led the football team to the 1938 state championship. Bartlett was a four-sport star at the school.
At UCLA, he was a backup to Robinson at running back and a power-hitting catcher on the Bruins baseball team. Bartlett, who died last year — the last of the four men to pass away — introduced Robinson to the fellow UCLA student he eventually married: Rachel Robinson. "I grew up calling him 'Uncle Jack,'" says Bob Bartlett, Ray's son, recalling Jackie Robinson with affection.
After graduating from UCLA, Bartlett would forge his own pioneering path. The same year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, in 1947, Bartlett became only the second African American to join the Pasadena Police Department.
In the '39 season, the Bruins won six games, tied four and didn't lose any, the first time they had gone unbeaten in their then-20-year history. Led by Washington, Robinson and Strode — dubbed the "Gold Dust Trio" — the Bruins finished the year ranked No. 7 in the nation. They even fought USC to a scoreless tie in the season finale — the best the Bruins had ever done against their cross-town rival to that point.
Washington led the nation in total offense — he was both a superb passer and runner from his halfback position — while Robinson's average of 20 yards a punt return was the best in the country.
"That was a great chapter in UCLA football," says John L. Johnson, a freshman player for the Bruins that season, later a longtime assistant football coach at UCLA and now the 88-year-old coach of the Cal State Dominquez Hills golf team. "That '39 team was our first great team at UCLA."