Feb. 19, 2007
February is Black History Month, and nowhere in major-college athletics is that history richer than at Michigan State University. From Gideon Smith, the first African-American football player at Michigan Agricultural College in 1913, to Steve Smith, an All-American basketball player whose contributions have a major impact today, it would take many months to tell the full story. In a series of profiles, longtime Michigan State beat writer and columnist Jack Ebling will highlight some of the greatest of the great. The fifth of those stories is world-record sprinter and business success Herb Washington.
He broke from the starting blocks as well as anyone. But what Herb Washington did best was break down barriers.
After setting world records in track and being drafted in pro football, "Hurricane Herb" made breakthroughs in baseball, business and banking.
By the time he received the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award for achievement 25 years after his college career ended, Washington was known for more than the most exciting race in Jenison Field House history.
Born in Belzoni, Miss., he moved to Flint when he was barely a year old so his parents could work in the auto plants. Washington worked there, too, for two summers and learned the one thing he didn't want to do for a living.
As a youth, all he wanted was to compete for the Flint Northern Vikings. But after 10th grade, he was ruled ineligible for a semester due to a boundary issue and was forced to attend fierce rival Flint Central. There, he met track coach Carl Krieger and learned how good he could be.
"I had raw speed and bad form," Washington said. "But my world was about to take on new dimensions. Coach Krieger had a vision and got me to believe. He said the only thing holding me back was me."
After running 9.3-second 100-yard dashes, Washington had hundreds of scholarship offers for football and track. Instead, he chose to run for the Spartans.
"I knew Michigan State had a lot of blacks on its football team," Washington said. "I'd seen Stan Washington play basketball and Gene Washington play football. And you couldn't live in Michigan and not know `Kill, Bubba, Kill!' But when they hired Coach (Jim) Bibbs as an assistant in track, that's what really did it."
As a high school senior, he was a tenth of a second off the world record for 50 yards - in the school's hallway without spikes. So when he tied that mark in a dead heat with Olympian Charlie Greene in Milwaukee, it wasn't a shock to those who knew him.
Before he competed in the Golden West high school showcase in Sacramento, Calif., track's equivalent of the McDonald's All-America Game, Washington spent a week in San Jose with soon-to-be world-record holders Bob Beamon, Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
And as a freshman, Washington was caught by Carlos in the final yards of the NCAA indoor 60. But just as when Joe Frazier beat Muhammad Ali, there would be a more famous rematch.
"I'd never been run down from behind." Washington said. "I'm in tears. And Carlos comes up to me and says, `Schoolboy, you just stopped running.' I never forgot that."
No one who saw their next encounter has ever forgotten the 47th Michigan State Relays, when Washington won the pre-race psyching, then scorched Carlos in a jammed-and-jubilant Jenison.
"It was circus environment," Washington said. "He had this crazy hat that he'd lost. And he was mad about that. When we went to the blocks, he said, `I'm coming into your own house to whip you!' I said, `Los, I'm not a freshman any more. You'll be second tonight - unless you lose your concentration. Then, you'll be third or fourth.'"
After a clenched-glove salute on the victory stand at the 1968 Olympics, Carlos was a lightning rod for scorn. But no one could criticize his record times. And they didn't have to. All they had to say after 1970 was "Washington is clearly the better short sprinter."
"I got a beautiful start," he said. "After the first 40, I couldn't feel my legs touch the ground. It was almost like I was in flight. When I crossed the line, Coach Krieger and Coach Bibbs grabbed me. It was pandemonium. I'd beaten the great John Carlos."
Washington took part in a protest at Jenison at a basketball game in 1972, joining other black athletes and activists in a demonstration that stretched halftime to new lengths.
"We wanted some people who looked like us as teachers, coaches and officials," he said. "We were tired of being ignored. And when you affect the flow of capital, you get people's attention. A lot of teams used to play four or five blacks on the road and two at home. Michigan State has actually been way ahead of the curve in terms of diversity."
On the straightaway there was no one better. Washington set world indoor records in the 50- and 60-yard dash, was a NCAA champion, a repeat All-American and a seven-time Big Ten titlist before barely missing the '72 Olympic team.
After dabbling in football, he thought he could be another Bob Hayes. But after he was drafted by Baltimore and wooed by Toronto, he got a surprise call from Chicago, where Oakland A's maverick owner Charles O. Finley did business.
"I was doing sports at Channel 6 in Lansing," Washington remembered Sunday. "And when I got the message, I thought it was a joke. Then, I got paged. He said, `Herbie, I want you to play baseball and be a pinch-runner.' I said, `Mr. Finley, I'm going to need a no-cut contract. I know sometimes you just get rid of people.' He said, `A no-cut contract? The only players who have those are Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson! Are you telling me you're in the same league as those guys?' I said, `No, but none of those guys can outrun me.'"
When Washington called Finley's bluff and began to leave, he was summoned back and offered a one-year, no-cut contract worth $45,000, plus a $20,000 signing bonus. With a $35,000 World Series share, Washington became the only player in baseball history to make $100,000 without swinging a bat or throwing a pitch.
The tricky part was a bizarre clause that he had to grow a mustache by Opening Day. As hard as he tried, the baby-faced Washington could barely sport a stubble. So he colored the holes with an eyebrow pencil and passed the test for another $2,500.
Washington finished with 31 stolen bases and 33 runs scored. But he will long be remembered for being picked off first base in Game Two of the 1974 World Series. Leave it to ex-Spartans Mike Marshall and Steve Garvey to combine on a perfect play for the Dodgers - or a balk, depending on the colors you wore.
After baseball, Washington opened six McDonald's restaurants in Upstate New York, was named to fill Cyrus Vance's seat and was re-elected to the Federal Reserve Board, then acquired 19 more McDonald's franchises in Ohio.
As always, Washington is all about challenges. And few people know, he is part of a group with a minority interest in the Cincinnati Reds, the owner of the Youngstown Steelhounds minor-league hockey team or the proud father of a current Spartan sprinter, Terrell Washington.
A member of the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame, he is also part of a new group of "Flintstones," who plan to upgrade athletic facilities in their hometown. If it's a race to the finish, there is no one better than Washington to have on that team.