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.
On January 3, 1943, 37 year-old Yankee right-hander Red Ruffing was drafted in to the Army, despite his age and despite the fact that he had lost four toes on his left foot in a mining accident in Coalton, Illinois when he was fifteen years old. The Army decided that Ruffing could serve in a non-combat role, where he pitched for the Air Transport Command’s baseball team and led the troops in physical fitness training.
The T-13 Beano hand grenade was an experimental hand grenade developed during World War II by what was then known as the “Office of Strategic Services” (OSS) which later became the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). I mention it in this blog because the Beano was designed to be a spherical grenade the size and weight of a common baseball. The idea, developers thought, was that any American boy should be able to properly throw the grenade with distance and accuracy. While I do like the concept of America’s Pastime permeating society so thoroughly as to inspire this kind of thing, it’s also awfully presumptive to design a weapon based on this thinking.
The Beano grenade was designed with a pressure trigger and intended to detonate and explode on contact with hard surfaces. American soldiers were taught to hold and throw the grenade like a baseball. The original design called for the grenade to weight approximately the same as a traditional baseball (a little over five ounces), however, the final model weight approximately twelve ounces.
Once the final design was approved, several thousand Beano grenades were shipped to Europe, and they were supposed used (in limited quantities) during the Normandy invasion in June 1944. However, several of the grenades detonated prematurely and, as a result, killed more American troops than enemy troops. At the end of World War II, the U.S. military’s supply of T-13 Beano Grenades was ordered destroyed and files pertaining to the weapon were classified. Some Beano grenades do remain in existence, and they continue to be coveted by military history buffs.
On February 17, 1943, Joe DiMaggio enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces without notifying the Yankees. Reportedly, DiMaggio requested that he receive no special treatment. In spite of this, he spent most of his time in the Army playing baseball, as did many other big league stars.