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.
This infographic is not entirely baseball-specific, but still very relevant. I knew that betting on sports has been around awhile, but it still has existed far longer than I ever imagined. The development of television, internet, and other forms of media obviously revolutionized betting. There is no longer a need to actually be present at a sporting event — we can place our bets from afar.
Here’s a short, but interesting article from yesterday’s New York Times about Russia’s relationship to baseball — or, at least, its perceived relationship. It seems that Russia is now literally trying to beat America at its own game, baseball, the American pastime. There is a growing push to try to bring more popularity to the sport in hopes that Russia can defeat the United States in the 2020 Olympics, when the Russians hope baseball will make its return to the Games.
Even more fascinating is the assertion that baseball might, in fact, have Russian roots. The game of lapta is a centuries-old bat-and-ball game traditional to Russia. Archaeologists have dated the game back as far as the ninth to fourteenth centuries, as bats and balls have been discovered at excavation sites in Novgorod. Throughout Russian history, lapta has been played as a means of physical conditioning for Russian military soldiers.
Lapta isn’t quite the same as baseball, of course, as can be seen in this video:
The precise rules of lapta seem a bit murky (must have something to do with it being centuries old), but I’ll explain it as I understand it here. To play the game, you need two teams of at least three (and up to six, from what I can tell) players. It is played with a rubber ball (or tennis ball) and bats. The field is 30-40 yards wide and 40-55 yards long. After hitting the ball, a player of the offensive team runs fast down the length of the field, and then tries to return “home.” Each player who manages to make it back successfully gains one score for the team. If he is “tagged” with the ball, the team of batsmen shifts to tagging (defense), and vise versa. The game is won when all the members of one team have hit the ball and returned “home.”
Sergei Fokin of the Russian Lapta Federation was quoted in 2003 as saying, “Our theory is that Russian immigrants or Jews from Odessa brought lapta to America, and baseball evolved from there. Lapta is a much older game, and there are so many similar concepts: tagging runners out, hitting and catching fly balls, for example.”
What’s more, some Russians hope that not only will baseball make a return to the Olympics, but maybe someday, lapta will become a featured sport as well.