Even casual baseball fans know that Jackie Robinson became Major League Baseball’s first black player, that he had a stellar career with the Brooklyn Dodgers that included Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards.
But Robinson’s life before and after Brooklyn was also rewarding. Too few people remember Robinson’s collegiate achievements and his civil rights activism.
Last year, Major League Baseball incorporated the statistics and history of Negro League Baseball into its own. Blacks, Latin Americans and Caribbeans played baseball long before 1920, the year that the Negro League was formed. The league lasted until 1948 when black fans could watch their favorites as they too slowly, but eventually, were called up to play for the then 16 big league teams.
Professional football, not baseball, was Robinson’s first experience as a paid athlete. Robinson excelled at football as a UCLA undergraduate. While at UCLA, Robinson became the first athlete of any race to win varsity letters in football, baseball, basketball and track. At age 16, Robinson won the Junior Boy’s Single’s title in the annual Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament.
In 1939 and 1940, Robinson led the nation in punt return average, and had a career 18.8 yards per return. As a senior in 1940, Robinson led UCLA in rushing, passing, total offense, scoring and punt returns. On the basketball team, Robinson led the Pacific Coast Conference Southern Division in scoring during the 1940 and 1941 seasons. The only season that Robinson played baseball for the Bruins, he hit .097, but that same year won the NCAA broad jumping title. Sports reporters agreed that Robinson was the best amateur athlete in Southern California.
After Robinson left UCLA, he became a professional football player. In 1941, Robinson played semi-professional football for the racially integrated Honolulu Bears. In his first play as a professional, Robinson scored on a 41-yard run. After the Bears’ short season, he joined his hometown Pacific Coast Football League’s Los Angeles Bulldogs, an integrated team.
When the U.S. Army drafted Robinson in 1942, his football career was interrupted until his 1944 honorable discharge. In Robinson’s first game back after his discharge, he threw two touchdown passes. A week later he rushed for 101 yards on only eight carries in a victory over the Hollywood Wolves. By 1945, however, baseball beckoned. Playing for the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs, Robinson batted .387 and appeared in the 1945 Negro League All-Star Game where he caught the attention of Brooklyn Dodgers President and General Manager Branch Rickey.
At age 28, Robinson started at first base on April 15, 1947, a historic moment. Robinson’s baseball achievements, achieved even though he endured taunts and spiteful comments, are numerous. One that is unlikely to be topped is his record 19 home plate steals, shared with the St. Louis Cardinals’ Frankie Frisch. At age 35 in 1954, Robinson became the first National Leaguer to steal his way around the bases since 1928, and a year later he became one of only 12 men to steal home in the World Series.
After his 1958 trade to the rival New York Giants, Robinson retired to become Chock Full o’Nuts Vice President of personnel, and the Freedom National Bank board chairman, an institution that provided loans to minorities that establishment banks ignored. By 1960 and through 1968, Robinson was widely considered the most influential black Republican in the country.
In his essay “Jackie Robinson, Republican,” Jeff English wrote that in the 1960 presidential election, Robinson supported Vice President Richard Nixon over then-Senator John K. Kennedy who had voted against the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Robinson’s support was short-lived, however. When Nixon refused to call for Rev. Martin Luther King’s release from an Atlanta jail, Robinson said he “doesn’t deserve to win.” King, along with 51 others, had been arrested for organizing a sit-in at a department store lunch counter.
Although he always denied it, Robinson may have been the first insulin-dependent diabetic to play major-league baseball, despite his claim that the disease hadn’t been diagnosed while he was active. Ravaged by diabetes, Robinson suffered a fatal heart attack in his Stamford, Conn., home on October 24, 1972. On the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s 1947 debut, MLB permanently retired number 42 for all players.
Robinson and Babe Ruth are baseball’s most influential players. Ruth took baseball from the Dead Ball era to a power game. Robinson paved the way for countless black baseball stars like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente.
Copyright 2022 Joe Guzzardi, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers’ Association member. Contact him at [email protected]