Robinson a Baseball Star? That’s Only a Quarter of Story
Years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, he was an athletic icon in Southern California, setting records that caused many observers to call him the world’s finest all-around athlete.
In two years at Pasadena Junior College and two years at UCLA--from 1937 to 1940--he earned letters all four years in football, basketball, track and baseball with accomplishments some of which had never attained before or nor have since.
None of the great all-around athletes, from Jim Thorpe to Glenn Davis to Bo Jackson to Deion Sanders, have shown the ability at such a high level in so many sports.
TRACK AND FIELD
Because baseball and track seasons coincided, Robinson competed in the broad jump (before it became the long jump) almost as an afterthought. Yet at Pasadena, he set a national junior college record of 25 feet 6 1/2 inches, and at UCLA he won the NCAA championship.
How he won tells a lot about Robinson’s competitive nature.
On May 7, 1938, the Southern California JC track championships at Pomona College in Claremont were scheduled the same day as a championship baseball game in Glendale involving Pasadena.
Pasadena track Coach Otto Anderson obtained permission for Robinson to take three jumps in a row, before the other competitors. Robinson’s series was 23-5 1/4, 24-7 and 25-6 1/2, breaking his brother Mack’s national record by an inch.
Then he jumped into a waiting car and was driven to Glendale by close friend Jackie Gordon--changing into his baseball uniform on the way--and arrived in the third inning to help Pasadena clinch the conference championship, 5-3. Contrary to reports in several of his biographies, he did not hit a late-inning home run to win the game.
Duke Snider, later to become a teammate on the Brooklyn Dodgers, enjoyed recalling one of Robinson’s double-duty days:
“Five or six of us kids from Compton watched him play a baseball game, leave [between innings] with his uniform still on, trot over to compete in the broad jump in a track meet and then run back and finish the baseball game as if nothing unusual had happened.”
At UCLA, in 1940, the baseball season was over when Robinson decided to enter the Pacific Coast Conference track meet at the Coliseum. Each school was allowed only three entries in any event, and the Bruins were loaded with jumpers, so Robinson entered a jump-off against Bill Lacefield, the AAU champion; Jack Schilling, the West Coast Relays champion; and Pat Turner, a 25-foot jumper.
Robinson knocked Schilling from the team and then, with little practice during the season, won the event and went on to win the NCAA title.
Had the Olympic Games not been canceled because of World War II, Robinson would have been one of the medal favorites in the broad jump.
Football was the sport that first put Robinson in the spotlight, and Robinson made junior college football in the Rose Bowl one of the area’s most-watched events.
In 1938, Robinson’s running style, a football version of his “you-can’t-catch-me” baserunning tactics, made crowds of 30,000 to 40,000 a weekly occurrence at Pasadena’s home games in the Rose Bowl. And he never failed to excite.
He scored 17 touchdowns and 131 points as Pasadena averaged 33.5 points for 11 games in an undefeated season. Among the high points were a 104-yard kickoff return against Caltech, a 99-yard run from scrimmage, an 83-yard punt return and an 85-yard run from scrimmage on the final play of the game against Glendale.
He also passed for seven touchdowns and kicked three field goals and 20 extra points.
Hank Ives, founder-editor of JC Grid-Wire and the nation’s foremost authority on community college football, still has Robinson in his all-time backfield, along with Hugh McElhenny of Compton, O.J. Simpson of San Francisco and Roger Staubach of New Mexico Military.
At UCLA, the excitement continued.
Only twice have the Bruins had an undefeated football season, and the first was in 1939, when Robinson teamed with Kenny Washington. The only thing that kept them from their first Rose Bowl appearance was four ties, including a scoreless game against USC.
One of the ties was 14-14 against Stanford, and Robinson’s 37-yard interception return set up the tying touchdown. In a 14-7 victory over Washington--UCLA’s first at Seattle--Robinson’s 65-yard punt return with two minutes to play was the game’s big play.
On his magical 81-yard run down the sideline against Oregon, no fewer than eight tacklers had a shot at him and all wound up with nothing but air.
Robinson led the nation in punt returns with a 21-yard average and also averaged a record 12.2 yards rushing.
The scoreless game against USC before 103,000 in the Coliseum still rankles Robinson rooters, and some old Bruins. At that time, UCLA had never beaten USC and had never been to the Rose Bowl game.
With four minutes remaining, and UCLA needing a win to get the Rose Bowl bid away from the Trojans, the Bruins had a first down on the USC four-yard line.
Washington was stopped for no gain, fullback Leo Cantor gained a yard and then lost two. On fourth down, Washington threw an incomplete pass.
Robinson, who had averaged more than 12 yards every time he handled the ball, was never given a chance by Coach Babe Horrell. A field goal, and Robinson had kicked them before, would have sent them to the Rose Bowl.
In those days, players went both ways, and Robinson came up with the Bruins’ most important defensive play.
Grenny Lansdell, USC’s All-American quarterback, appeared headed for a touchdown in the first quarter when Robinson hit him on the one-yard line so hard that Lansdell fumbled the ball away. It was the Trojans’ only serious threat.
USC got the bowl bid because the Trojans, also undefeated, had only two ties.
After the 1940 season, Robinson was named to the College All-Star team, which lost, 37-13, to the world champion Chicago Bears the next summer--the same Bears team that had demolished the Washington Redskins, 73-0, in the NFL championship game.
Robinson scored one of the collegians’ touchdowns on a pass from Boston College’s Charlie O’Rourke. After the game, Dick Plasman, the Bears’ end, said, “The only time we were worried was when that guy Robinson was on the field.” The All-Stars included All-Americans Tom Harmon of Michigan, Norm Standlee of Stanford and George Franck of Minnesota.
At Pasadena, Robinson led the Bulldogs to the state basketball championship in the 1938-39 season with an 18-4 record. He was named to the all-state team at forward. The high point came when Robinson and Les O’Gara led the Bulldogs to a 43-36 upset of the USC freshmen, ending an 83-game winning streak by the Trobabes.
In each of two seasons at UCLA, Robinson was the leading scorer in the Southern Division of the Pacific Coast Conference. Later, although professional basketball was in its infancy, he played in 1947 with O’Gara and former USC star Eddie Oram on the Los Angeles Red Devils. Among their victories was one over future Hall of Famer George Mikan and the Chicago Gears.
Curiously, several of Robinson’s coaches considered baseball his weakest game, even though he had been an all-star catcher at Muir Tech High in 1936 and MVP of the Metropolitan JC Conference as a shortstop in 1938, when he batted .417 and stole 25 bases in 24 games.
Jimmy Dykes, a major league manager for 21 years, was one of the first to be impressed by the skinny Pasadena youngster. Dykes managed the Chicago White Sox when they trained at Brookside Park in Pasadena, a baseball diamond later named Jackie Robinson Park.
One day in March 1938, the White Sox played a benefit exhibition with the Pasadena Sox, a group of young players from the city’s Department of Recreation baseball school. It was a fund-raiser for the program.
Robinson, then 19, played shortstop and was the team’s leadoff batter. Pasadena batters got only six hits off major league pitching and Robinson had two of them.
On his second at-bat, he singled. Immediately, he darted off first, daring the pitcher the way he would dare them a decade later in the National League. After a couple of tosses to first, the pitcher finally threw to the batter and Robinson was off. The catcher’s throw to Hall of Fame shortstop Luke Appling was so late that Robinson went in standing up.
Later in the game, with a runner on first, Appling hit a shot toward left field, only to have Robinson make a diving catch and somehow whirl and throw to second base. Instead of a single, the 1936 American League batting champion had hit into a double play.
After the game, Dykes told a group of writers, “If that Robinson kid was white, I’d sign him right now. No one in the American League could make plays like that.”
That was seven years before Branch Rickey began the “Noble Experiment” in signing Robinson to a baseball contract, nine years before he became a Dodger. The idea of a black playing major league baseball was so foreign to thinking in 1938 that no one wrote of Dykes’ remarks except a reporter for the Pasadena school paper.
The game makes a great trivia question: “When was the first time Jackie Robinson played against a major league baseball team?”
Answer: Not March 18, 1946, the day Jackie and the Montreal Royals played the Dodgers at Daytona Beach, Fla., in his first spring game after signing with Rickey, but March 13, 1938, in Pasadena, against the Chicago White Sox.