This piece by Yusef Komunyakaa was published originally in Magic City in 1992. It serves as a nod to black baseball as well as a depiction of baseball as play in juxtaposition to the working lives of black Americans. Life is hard for these young men, but the game provides them with an outlet to help them get through it all.
Most were married teenagers
Working knockout shifts daybreak
To sunset six days a week–
Already old men playing ball
In a field between a row of shotgun houses
& the Magazine Lumber Company.
They were all Jackie Robinson
& Willie Mays, a touch of
Josh Gibson & Satchell Paige
In each stance and swing, a promise
Like a hesitation pitch always
At the edge of their lives,
Arms sharp as rifles.
The Sunday afternoon heat
Flared like thin flowered skirts
As children and wives cheered.
The men were like cats
Running backwards to snag
Pop-ups & high-flies off
Fences, stealing each others’s glory.
The old deacons & raconteurs
Who umpired made an Out or Safe
Into a song & dance routine.
Runners hit the dirt
& slid into homeplate,
Cleats catching light,
As they conjured escapes, outfoxing
Double plays. In the few seconds
It took a man to eye a woman
Upon the makeshift bleachers,
A stolen base or homerun
Would help another man
Survive the new week.
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.”
When I look back at what I had to go through in black baseball, I can only marvel at the many black players who stuck it out for years in the Jim Crow leagues because they had nowhere else to go.
Last weekend, I finished 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story by Ed Henry. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this book, going into it. I don’t consider myself a religious individual, and the thought of a book — even one about baseball — trying to shove faith down its readers’ throats was not an appealing possibility. But I’m glad I gave the book a shot in spite of my hesitation, because it really didn’t do that at all. Yes, it talked about religion quite a bit, but more from an objective, this-is-how-religion-factored-into-these-events kind of approach.
This book isn’t just about Jackie Robinson, but just as much about Branch Rickey and about the rest of the Brooklyn Dodgers team during Robinson’s time with them. It serves a biographical purpose when it comes to the lives of both Robinson and Rickey, while also, of course, highlighting the role of religion and faith for both men, both in their everyday lives and in the steps they took in breaking baseball’s color barrier.
His religious convictions, Henry writes, are a big part of what prompted Branch Rickey in his determination to bring a black player into the big leagues. Based on his research, Henry insists that Rickey was not as certain about his decision to break the color barrier as history now suggests, but rather his faith provided him with the resolve to move forward with the undertaking. And it was Robinson’s faith that sustained him through the slings and arrows flung at him on the diamond, even as he kept his promise to Rickey not to fight back.
The scope of the book doesn’t stop with these two men. Most notably, Henry also takes a long look at Ralph Branca, a devout Catholic and good friend to Jackie Robinson on the Brooklyn Dodgers team. Branca, fans might recall, also happens to be the pitcher who gave up the “Shot Heard Round to the World” to Bobby Thomson in the 1951 National League pennant race. Ed Henry delves into the role Branca’s religious beliefs played in his friendship with Robinson and in how he responded to the aftermath of the 1951 pennant race.
Ed Henry references Robinson’s unpublished memoirs to a great extent in this book. In his research, he also drew from previously uncovered sermons and traveled to perform interviews with Robinson’s and Rickey’s family and friends. Overall, I’d say this book is worth the read. True, it is another Jackie Robinson book in an already-large collection of Jackie Robinson books, but I think that Ed Henry does a great job looking at this story from a different angle, even talking about faith and religion without getting preachy.
This poem, published by the New York Daily News in 1958, was written from the perspective of a Dodgers fan. Understandably, she’s feeling a bit conflicted about the team’s move to the west coast.
The Bums are gone; good, I’m
O’Malley used to make me
Those old short fences, ciggie
And bright beer signs were
That winning spirit couldn’t
When Robby’s playing days
The ecstacy of
When Podres kept our hopes
Are locked with scorecards,
Forgotten — with the million
Of bleacher days. But who
I’ll never miss them,
But, then — a bulletin comes
A flash from
It’s Campanella! And they
That Roy was nearly
Paralysis! The tragic
Of Campy’s ever-winning
Who can forget the impish
Accompanying every Dodger
Assuring fans that all is
Thrice MVP, the catching
Who figured in each pennant
Was loved by each and every
Who rooted for that Brooklyn
And now, the world has tumbled
The prayers of a united
Today are flooding heaven’s
For Brooklyn’s favorite
We never thought we’d feel this
When first they took out for
But Campy’s crash has taught
We’re Dodger fans still,
Spring to Fall.
No matter where they choose to
The hearts of Brooklyn are
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!
A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.