On this day each of the last two years, I’ve talked about Jackie Robinson’s football career and I’ve explored his basketball career. This year, for Jackie Robinson Day, we’re going to look at Robinson as a track star. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of information out there regarding Jackie’s track career, likely due to track season and baseball season both falling in the spring. But we’ll take a look at what we can find.
As many well know, before Jackie Robinson made history by breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, he had been a four-sport star at UCLA, playing baseball, football, basketball, and participating in track and field. He remains the only four-letter athlete in the school’s history. But his athletic achievements certainly didn’t begin there.
Inspired by his older brother Matthew (a.k.a. “Mack”), who won a silver medal in the 200-meter dash at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Robinson had been a four-letter athlete even before college. He attended John Muir High School in Pasadena, California, earning varsity letters in those same four sports he would continue competing in through college. As part of the track and field team, Robinson competed in the long jump.
After graduating high school, Jackie attended Pasadena Junior College for two years, where he continued to have success in all four sports. In track and field, Robinson broke school records in the long jump previously held by his older brother Mack. A brief story in the June 26, 1938 issue of the Los Angeles Times made reference to Robinson’s talents as he headed to Buffalo, New York for the National AAU Track and Field Championships:
Following his two years at Pasadena Junior College, Jackie Robinson went on to enroll at UCLA. He missed most of the 1940 track season because of his baseball duties, but still went on to win the Pacific Coast Conference and NCAA titles in long jump with leaps of 25’0″ and 24’10”.
Had the 1940 and 1944 Olympics not been canceled due to World War II, some contend that Robinson likely could have competed at the Olympic level. Unfortunately, while he would go on to play football, basketball, and (of course) baseball at the professional level, the end of Robinson’s time at UCLA also seems to have marked the end of his track and field career.
Last year for Jackie Robinson Day, I took a closer look at Robinson’s career as a football player. This year, I decided it would be fun to take a look at his career as a basketball player. In addition to playing professional baseball and semi-professional football, I was impressed to learn that Robinson also played a season of professional basketball.
As many know, Jackie Robinson was, and remains to this day, the only four-sport varsity letterman in the history of UCLA, lettering in football, baseball, basketball, and track. He played forward with the school’s basketball team and was a tremendous leaper, having also set the collegiate broad jump record. In 1940 and 1941, Robinson led the Pacific Coast Conference Southern Division (now Pac-12) in scoring (12.4 average in 12 league games in 1940; 11.1 average in 12 league games in 1941). In addition to his scoring, Robinson was known as a quick player with excellent ball handling skills.
After his basketball career at UCLA had ended in 1941, Robinson abandoned his senior year spring track season and left college to pursue outside athletic interests. After some time playing semi-professional football, Robinson found himself drafted into the Army as the United States entered World War II. Following the war, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, eventually being signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1946 to play for the club’s minor league franchise, the Montreal Royals.
After completing the season with Montreal, Robinson returned home to Pasadena, California. In October 1946, Robinson signed a professional basketball contract with the Los Angeles Red Devils, a racially integrated professional basketball team. The Red Devils only lasted two seasons, but with a lineup that included forwards Jackie Robinson, Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame member George Crowe, and Pasadena City College standout Irv Noren; guards Everett “Ziggy” Marcelle, a former Harlem Globetrotter, and USC All-American Eddie Oram; and Stanford star Art Stoefen at center, the team was a force to be reckoned with.
The Red Devils had been organized seeking to join the National Basketball League (NBL), which, in its merger talks with the NBA, wanted a West Coast franchise. The team played home games at the Olympic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. During the 1946-47 season, with Robinson on their roster, they crushed the Sheboygan Redskins of the NBL, on two occasions. They also defeated the New York Renaissance, which had a lineup that included future New York City Basketball Hall of Fame member Clarence “Puggy” Bell and future NBA player Hank DeZonie. Like the Sheboygan team, the Red Devils defeated the Renaissance twice.
Jackie Robinson left the Red Devils abruptly in January 1947. At the time, few people understood why. In retrospect, the reason becomes clear: Robinson parted ways with the Red Devils just after a Branch Rickey visit to Los Angeles. A few months later, on April 15, 1947, Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbetts Field and went on to be named the 1947 Rookie of the Year.
In spite of his success on the baseball diamond, basketball still reached out to Robinson from time to time. Abe Saperstein offered Robinson a pro contract worth $10,000 with bonuses to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. Though this amount was double what Robinson made with the Dodgers, he declined the offer. He also received a pro basketball offer from the Canton Cushites, an all-black team that featured future Football Hall of Fame member Marion Motley and future Baseball Hall of Fame member Larry Doby. Robinson declined that offer, also.
Though the Red Devils ultimately did not last, it does seem Robinson had some fond memories of his time with the team. “There were some exceptionally good basketball players with name value on the squad,” he reminisced. “We had, I think, a really fine team.”
Before Jackie Robinson made his mark by breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, he was a four-sport star at UCLA, playing baseball, football, basketball, and running track. He remains the only four-letter athlete in the school’s history. In his final year playing football for the school, Robinson led the Bruins in rushing (383 yards), passing (444 yards), total offense (827 yards), scoring (36 points), and punt return average (21 yards). You can see a bit of footage from Robinson’s football days at UCLA here:
Robinson even went on to play a bit of semi-pro football. In September 1941, he moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he played football for the semi-professional Honolulu Bears for $100 a game. His career with the Bears was cut short, however, when Robinson was drafted into the Army during World War II.
After World War II, Robinson briefly returned to football with the Los Angeles Bulldogs. He then was offered a job as athletic director at Samuel Houston College in Austin, and as part of that role, he coached the basketball team for the 1944-1945 season.
It was in early 1945 that the Kansas City Monarchs offered Jackie a place on their team in the Negro Leagues. Robinson then signed with the minor league Montreal Royals following the 1945 season.
The rest, as we know, is history.
Happy Jackie Robinson Day!
The Sixth Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns explores the national pastime during the 1940s, which was quite the tumultuous decade in American history. It was a decade of war as the United States recovered from the Great Depression and found itself in a position of having to enter World War II. It was also the decade of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, of women’s professional baseball, and of Jackie Robinson.
In a chronological sense, the Sixth Inning was an easier one to follow along with than any of the Innings that preceded it. The first part of this disc was dominated by two of the game’s greatest hitters. 1941 was the summer of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, whose hitting performances captivated the baseball world. Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six game hitting streak and Ted Williams’s .406 season average have both remained unmatched ever since.
The 1941 World Series resulted in a devastating loss for the Brooklyn Dodgers to the New York Yankees. At the end of the season, Dodgers general manager Larry MacPhail , drunk and belligerent, threatened to sell off all his players. The Dodgers instead opted to let go of MacPhail and brought in Branch Rickey, thus setting the stage for the breaking of the color barrier in the coming years.
When the United States entered the war, Franklin Roosevelt insisted that baseball ought to continue. The country would be working longer and harder, and thus recreation became more important than ever, he said. However, this didn’t shield players from the draft, and baseball still suffered as a result. Players like DiMaggio and Bob Feller joined the war effort. Meanwhile, baseball turned to signing players (and umpires) who didn’t meet the usual caliber of play just to keep going.
As the war also drew away a number of minor leaguers, Philip Wrigley came up with the idea of starting a women’s professional baseball league in order to fill the baseball void as minor league teams fell apart. Women from all over, particularly softball players, were recruited. They had to be able to play ball, but they were also required to remain unequivocally feminine. Off the field, any time they were in public, they were required to be in skirts, heels, and makeup — a requirement that I, for one, would find very difficult to swallow.
Following the war, the disc goes into the story of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. The story from Rickey’s time coaching at Ohio Wesleyan University, checking into a hotel in South Bend, Indiana to play Notre Dame, is absolutely heartbreaking, and certainly explains a lot regarding his determination to integrate baseball.
Branch Rickey certainly did his homework when choosing a player to break the color barrier, and clearly, he choose well. Promising not to retaliate and turn the other cheek for three years (three years!), Jackie Robinson signed with the Montreal Royals.
Burns breaks from the Jackie Robinson saga long enough to cover the 1946 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox. Though the Sox were the heavy favorites to win, the Cards employed the “Williams shift” to prevent Ted Williams from having much success at the plate. Thanks in part to this strategy, the Cardinals won that year’s Series. Roger Angell says it well when he explains that baseball is not a game about winning, like we think it is, but rather, it is a game about losing.
Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 was certainly an event, one that we continue to celebrate today. As expected, he endured an endless stream of taunts, threats, and even attempts at actual bodily harm. Through it all, he bit his tongue. Instead, he let his performance on the field speak for him. Not only was he named Rookie of the Year at the end of the season, he was also determined to be the second most popular man in America, after Bing Crosby. Robinson’s efforts eventually allowed other black players, including the great pitcher Satchel Paige, to break into the majors as well.
Ken Burns does a good job of pointing out that, for all the virtues that surrounded Robinson’s trek into Major League Baseball, it was a devastating event for the Negro Leagues. The Brooklyn Dodgers became the team of black America, and attendance at Negro Leagues games declined. As we know now, the Negro Leagues would eventually meet its end as a result.
The disc ends with the death of Babe Ruth in 1948. It’s only appropriate that the Sultan of Swat would receive this kind of nod (and convenient that he would die at the end of a decade — not to be morbid or anything). Burns never touches on what Ruth thought of Jackie Robinson, nor on what Robinson thought of Ruth. Perhaps nobody knows. But as Buck O’Neil points out, both men were giants in the game. Each of them, in their own way, changed baseball forever.
Seventy years ago today, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers made his debut at Ebbets Field. This historic moment marked the first time in the twentieth century that an African-American played major league baseball.
Fifty years later, on April 15, 1997, President Bill Clinton paid tribute to Jackie Robinson in Shea Stadium, and Major League Baseball retired his number 42 throughout the league. “No man is bigger than baseball,” commissioner Bud Selig said, “except Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson is bigger than baseball.”
By signing Jackie Robinson, the Dodgers had ended the institutionalized racial segregation in baseball that had existed since the 1880s. Robinson endured the slings and arrows of racial slurs bravely and stoically, proving through his play on the field that blacks were just as capable as whites of playing outstanding baseball. Whether you are a baseball fan or not, there is little doubt that Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier impacted the history of America. As the world continues to face issues of hatred and discrimination today, perhaps Robinson’s example is one we should all keep in mind as we continue to strive forward.
In honor of Jackie Robinson Day, this year I decided to simply go with a handful of basic facts about this celebrated ballplayer.
Birth Name: Jack Roosevelt Robinson
Born: January 31, 1919 in Cairo, GA
Died: October 24, 1972 in Stamford, CT
Married: Rachel Issum on February 10, 1946
Children: Jackie Jr., Sharon, and David
Height: 5′ 11″
Weight: 204 lb.
College Education: UCLA
Professional Team: Brooklyn Dodgers
Debut: April 15, 1947
Years Played: 1947-56
President Theodore Roosevelt, who died 25 days before Robinson was born, was the inspiration for his middle name.
He was the youngest of five children and grew up in relative poverty in a well-off community in Pasadena, California.
Robinson was the first ever four-sport letter winner at UCLA (football, track, basketball and baseball).
Robinson played Minor League Baseball for the Montreal Royals in 1946, until he was called up to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the Major Leagues in 1947.
He won Rookie of the Year in 1947 with a batting average of .297, 175 hits, 12 home runs, and 48 runs batted in.
He was a six time All-Star between the years 1949 to 1954.
In 1982, Jackie Robinson became the first Major League Baseball player to appear on a US postage stamp.
Shortly before his death, Jackie Robinson was selected to throw out the first pitch at the 1972 World Series, the 25th anniversary of his breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier.
Fifty years after he became the first modern black player, Major League Baseball chose his number as the first one to ever retire for every team.
As the 105th day of the Gregorian calendar, April 15 brings with it a sense of apprehension and urgency for many United States residents. On this day, Tax Day, Americans must submit their individual federal tax returns or file for an extension. Stories of long lines at the post office will flood the news as procrastinators rush to avoid penalty for their negligence. But April 15 serves as more than just a deadline.
The ancient Romans observed the Fordicidia on April 15, a festival of fertility involving the sacrifice of a pregnant cow. On an international scale, World Art Day, first celebrated in 2012, promotes the appreciation of art and creativity. In the world of Major League Baseball, we celebrate Jackie Robinson Day.
Jackie Robinson played his first Major League game with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, making him the first black Major League ballplayer of the modern era. To this day, we celebrate the courage and resilience it took to step out on that field and endure a season full of mixed feelings, ranging from hopeful excitement, to cautious tolerance, to unadulterated hatred. While a myriad of books and movies strive to depict the tumultuous circumstances Robinson bore that day and that season, nothing could ever fully capture the turmoil felt by Robinson himself.
Imagine, for a moment, stepping out on a Major League baseball diamond for the first time. Your spouse sits in the stands, perhaps alongside a small group of other friends and family. Aside from them and your teammates, most people in that stadium have never seen or met you before. In spite of this, you brace yourself against the inevitable slings and arrows of abuse you inevitably know to expect, because to some people, your physical appearance means more than the years of hard work and the uncanny ability you have shown on the field.
Newspapers have written about you, scrutinizing your abilities, your resolve, your motivations. You have made headlines in the past, being arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus. Your temper, short and explosive, has created a reputation that precedes your person.
Your heart pounds violently as your cleats puncture the grass of the infield. Internally, your emotions vacillate between stubborn pride and a vague sense of fear and foreboding that you attempt to ignore. You try to keep your steps light, in spite of the heaviness of the burden on your shoulders and the weight of thousands of eyes staring directly at you. You make an effort to clear your mind and allow your baseball instincts to take over your actions, but you cannot disregard the staggering pressure to perform.
Jackie Robinson not only overcame this pressure, he did so in a way that, sixty-seven years later, we continue to remember and celebrate his influence upon the baseball world. In 1997, baseball commissioner Bud Selig mandated the retirement of number 42 across all of Major League Baseball. As a tribute to Robinson, however, every player across all thirty Major League teams will wear 42 during today’s games.
Prior to this evening’s Yankees-Cubs match-up in New York, members of Robinson’s family, Bud Selig, and members of the Steinbrenner family are expected to attend festivities at Yankees Stadium. Fittingly, as part of the event, the Yankees plan to unveil a plaque honoring Nelson Mandela, the late South African president who stood against apartheid.
In addition to the main event in the Bronx, teams across baseball will have their own methods for celebrating Robinson’s legacy. In Minnesota, for example, the Twins have dubbed this Celebrate Diversity Day. In Chicago, the White Sox will host a panel titled “Jackie Robinson: A Catalyst for Change in American Society,” in which White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, executive vice president Kenny Williams, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and historian Carol Adams will present their views on Robinson’s impact. And these are just a handful out of many examples.
At the end of the day, however, all of our tributes and celebrations will never provide us with the perspective to fully comprehend and appreciate what Robinson, himself, experienced in 1947. That experience will forever stay with Robinson alone. No doubt, his legacy remains more than deserving of all the honors we bestow upon his memory, but until the end of baseball history, there can only ever be one Jackie Robinson.