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.”
Like Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra, pitcher Satchel Paige was known for his one-liners . The “Rules for Staying Young” are a set of these one-liners that were quoted so often while he was alive they were carved into his gravestone.
Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood.
If you stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society — the social ramble ain’t restful.
Avoid running at all times.
And don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.
Monte Irvin and Ford Smith became the first African-American players to sign with the New York Giants on January 28, 1949. Irvin would only play five full seasons in the major leagues, but he is considered by many to be the best of the players who made the jump from the Negro Leagues to the majors. In 1973, Irvin was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, primarily for his play in the Negro Leagues.
Here’s a great tribute song to Satchel Paige, written by Fred Sturm and sung by Woody Mankowski. The slideshow of photographs that accompanies it is just as fun to watch as the song is to listen to. And the song is pretty great.
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.
Dan McClellan became the first black pitcher to throw a perfect game in professional baseball on July 9, 1903. The Cuban X-Giant hurler accomplished this feat in a Tri-State League contest against York, Pennsylvania.
This piece was published in 1996 in Avalanche, a collection of poetry by Quincy Troupe. It is not only a piece from a son to his father, but also a great tribute to the Negro Leagues.
for Quincy T. Trouppe Sr.
father, it was an honor to be there, in the dugout
with you, the glory of great black men swinging their lives
as bats, at tiny white balls
burning in at unbelievable speeds, riding up & in & out
a curve breaking down wicked, like a ball falling off a table
moving away, snaking down, screwing its stitched magic
into chitlin circuit air, its comma seams spinning
toward breakdown, dipping, like a hipster
bebopping a knee-dip stride, in the charlie parker forties
wrist curling, like a swan’s neck
behind a slick black back
cupping an invisible ball of dreams
& you there, father, regal, as an african, obeah man
sculpted out of wood, from a sacred tree, of no name, no place, origin
thick branches branching down, into cherokee & someplace else lost
way back in africa, the sap running dry
crossing from north carolina into georgia, inside grandmother mary’s
womb, where your mother had you in the violence of that red soil
ink blotter news, gone now, into blood graves
of american blues, sponging rococo
truth long gone as dinosaurs
the agent-oranged landscape of former names
absent of african polysyllables, dry husk, consonants there
now, in their place, names, flat, as polluted rivers
& that guitar string smile always snaking across
some virulent, american, redneck’s face
scorching, like atomic heat, mushrooming over nagasaki
& hiroshima, the fever blistered shadows of it all
inked, as etchings, into sizzled concrete
but you, there, father, through it all, a yardbird solo
riffing on bat & ball glory, breaking down the fabricated myths
of white major league legends, of who was better than who
beating them at their own crap
game, with killer bats, as bud powell swung his silence into beauty
of a josh gibson home run, skittering across piano keys of bleachers
shattering all manufactured legends up there in lights
struck out white knights, on the risky edge of amazement
awe, the miraculous truth sluicing through
steeped & disguised in the blues
confluencing, like the point at the cross
when a fastball hides itself up in a slider, curve
breaking down & away in a wicked, sly grin
curved & posed as an ass-scratching uncle tom, who
like old sachel paige delivering his famed hesitation pitch
before coming back with a hard, high, fast one, is slicker
sliding, & quicker than a professional hitman—
the deadliness of it all, the sudden strike
like that of the “brown bomber’s” crossing right
of sugar ray robinson’s, lightning, cobra bite
& you, there, father, through it all, catching rhythms
of chono pozo balls, drumming, like conga beats into your catcher’s mitt
hard & fast as “cool papa” bell jumping into bed
before the lights went out
of the old, negro baseball league, a promise, you were
father, a harbinger, of shock waves, soon come