First you have to see them. Not as they were at the end, but at the very beginning, in their first official game: Sunday, Oct. 13, 1935, in that bandbox stadium north of Harlem. � The day broke blue and unusually warm. The ground trembled as the elevated trains rolled across Dyckman Street, near the northern tip of Manhattan. Two thousand spectators settled warily into newly painted seats. Some were still dressed for church, which was fitting, since the upcoming contest had every chance of being a funeral. � On one side of the field stood the all-white visiting team, epitomized by the gleaming red hair and knightly visage of its star, Christian Cagle. The former West Point captain was a certified hero: three-time All-America halfback, 1928 college player of the year, TIME magazine cover boy and former National Football League standout. His independent team, known as the Cagle All-Stars, was almost as impressive as he was. In an exhibition game the previous month, it had nearly knocked off the NFL's defending champions, the New York Giants. On the other side of the field stood barely more than a dozen men, dark faces framed in leather and chin straps. Their shoulder pads were small and lumpy, some constructed of little more than beefed-up cardboard. They wore mismatched socks and copiously patched pants that resembled children's bloomers. They were college students, luggage porters and Negro leagues baseball players, engineers and tramp athletes. One of their running backs weighed 145 pounds. Some of the players appeared a touch skinny, even hungry.
They had no chance, right from the start. That's the thing you have to understand about the New York Brown Bombers: They were not a long shot, they were a no-shot. Going up against the Cagle All-Stars was the easy part. What the Bombers really wanted was to achieve the unthinkable: to break through the NFL's unofficial color line, a barrier the league's owners had quietly set in place the previous year.
Quietly—that was the problem. The NFL had been one of the few integrated U.S. sports leagues since its founding, in 1920. But in '34, as part of an attempt to remake the struggling league, NFL owners had stopped signing black players. Sports historians have termed the ban a "gentleman's agreement," but to black players little about it was gentlemanly. Their protests were met with mild shrugs; there was nothing they could do.
Or nearly nothing. Like Jackie Robinson more than a decade later, the Bombers attempted to prove that excellence and nonviolence could defeat prejudice. Unlike Robinson, however, they operated outside the power structure. They had little money, no league, little mainstream media support and few resources save what Harlemites called "spit, grit and mother wit."
Their coach was Fritz Pollard, a former All-America and NFL star who, like the country itself, had fallen on desperate times. Their best player was Joe Lillard, a volatile former NFL back who'd led the league in fighting and ejections in the days before the color line was imposed. Their stadium was run by a deposed Harlem gambling king named Alejandro (Alex) Pompez, who was walking his own tightrope, attempting to stay out of jail and in the good graces of his employer, the trigger-happy Dutch Schultz. The rest of the team had come from Iowa and Virginia, from New Jersey and California, from cities and farms and black colleges, and had practiced together for barely three weeks. The presumption that such a makeshift crew could compete with the near-mythic Red Cagle—to say nothing of Red Grange—seemed foolhardy at best. The Brown Bombers were, as one Harlem newspaper columnist put it, "a grand joke."
As kickoff approached, the Bombers swung into their warmup drills. The crowd heard the familiar shouting of signals, the thudding drumbeat of leather on leather and then another sound, less familiar: a low, almost mournful call that rose in time with the team's movements and echoed off the wooden grandstand, so unexpected that it took spectators a moment to understand. The Bombers were singing spirituals. Singing songs about work and trouble and walls that came tumbling down, songs about the heaven that lay above a world of hopelessness. The crowd listened; some began to sing along, their voices floating toward the distant downtown skyline.
Both the Brown Bombers and the Cagle All-Stars were tentative at first, feeling each other out. Then, toward the end of the first half, Lillard circled the left end, shook off three tacklers and raced 72 yards for a score. In the fourth quarter Lillard scored again, this time on a perfectly executed 34-yard reverse. The Bombers defense stifled Cagle and permitted only one rushing first down; the visitors' only score came on a pass from Cagle that was deflected by a Bomber and bounced off an All-Star's helmet before falling into the hands of another All-Star. The game ended with the scoreboard reading 28-6, and the Bombers' former doubters sputtering with delight. "One hell of a fine, smart, scrappy, heads-up ball club," Romeo L. Dougherty wrote in the New York Age, offering to "eat all the crow available."
For three remarkable full seasons the Bombers kept singing—and kept winning. They cut an impressive swath through the top minor league and independent teams of the day. But the Bombers' true impact can't be found in the box scores; rather, it's in the stories of Pollard, Lillard and Pompez. Together these men and their team helped lay the groundwork for the reintegration of the NFL before they were forced into obscurity.
Which was perfectly appropriate, since obscurity is where they started—specifically, with a washed-up quarterback walking down Broadway in the snow, hoping for some luck.
Fritz Pollard still looked like a hero in December 1932: movie-star handsome, with quicksilver eyes. But when he arrived in New York City that winter, his life was coming apart.