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.”
Ted Williams won the American League Most Valuable Player award on November 14, 1946. The award was bestowed upon Williams after having finished second to the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio (1941) and Joe Gordon (1942). The Splendid Splinter missed the last three seasons due to serving in the military during World War II, but returned to baseball hitting .342 with 38 homers and 123 RBIs.
On September 9, 1945, Dick Fowler of the Philadelphia Athletics became the first Canadian to throw a major league no-hitter when he defeated the Browns, 1-0. It was Fowler’s first start in three years, having just returned from service in the Canadian Army during World War II. The no-hitter was also the first by an Athletics pitcher since 1916.
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!
Former minor leaguer Bert Shepard began his tryout with the Washington Senators on March 15, 1945 in spite of only having one leg. Shepard had his right leg amputated during World War II after his fighter plane had been shot down on a mission over Germany. Not only did Shepard have a successful tryout, he would go on to pitch one game for the Senators. In the appearance, which took place in August of that year against the Boston Red Sox, Shepard pitched 5⅓ innings of relief, allowing only three hits and one run, striking out his first batter. It made him the first man with an artificial leg to pitch in a major league baseball game.
On December 19, 1936, the Boston Braves purchased second baseman Eddie Mayo from the Giants. Mayo, however, would not see a lot of playing time with the Braves, hitting only .216 in the time he did get to play. After leaving Boston in 1938, Mayo would not appear in a major league game for five years, playing instead for the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League. When World War II broke out, however, and the league was depleted of players, Mayo became a productive player for the Tigers, being named the Most Valuable Player by The Sporting News in 1945.
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.