On March 26, 1984, President Ronald Reagan awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously to Jackie Robinson. Rachel Robinson accepted the award on behalf of her husband. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is considered the highest civilian honor given in the United States.
You can watch President Reagan’s remarks from that Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony in the video below. If you’d like to go straight to his remarks about Robinson, you can find them at the 16:03 timestamp.
This weekend I watched a short documentary produced by Major League Baseball, Pride and Perseverance: The Story of the Negro Leagues. While the time period covered in the documentary spans from Moses Fleetwood Walker playing major league ball in the 1880s on up to the induction of Negro League players into the Baseball Hall of Fame starting in 1971, the documentary focuses primarily on the story of the Negro Leagues.
Dave Winfield narrates the documentary, and it includes footage from Negro League games, as well as some Major League games. It also features interviews with Negro Leagues players, including Buck O’Neil, Bob Mitchell, Willie Mays, John “Mule” Miles, Cool Papa Bell, and Ted Radcliffe. The interviews highlight just how good many Negro Leagues players really were, especially compared to white Major Leaguers, and it’s a lot of fun to see how much these guys light up when they talk about the level of talent.
The documentary touches on the racial struggles faced by black players. For example, many players accepted the fact that they would have to go around to the backs of restaurants to get food, and it was not uncommon to sleep on the bus because the hotels in a given town would not give them rooms. Nevertheless, the players talk about how much fun they had traveling and playing ball. The eventual recruitment of Jackie Robinson by Branch Rickey to break the color barrier, of course, receives due attention.
Overall, Pride and Perseverance is a fantastic overview of the history of the Negro Leagues. For a documentary that runs less than an hour long, it manages to cram a lot of interesting information into the film. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Jackie Robinson passed away at the age of 53 on October 24, 1972 as a result of a heart attack. Robinson’s death came nine days after his appearance at the World Series, where he threw the ceremonial first pitch before Game 2 at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. Robinson died in his home in North Stamford, Connecticut following complications of heart disease and diabetes.
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.