Parade Route Traces Mixed Past of Jackie Robinson’s Pasadena


The Jackie Robinson story celebrated in today’s Tournament of Roses parade is well-known to millions: Robinson, the grandson of a slave, became a national hero in 1947 as the first African American to play major league baseball.

That piece of history is again being held high with his posthumous selection as one of four parade grand marshals representing the 20th century.

But a precious few know firsthand about frequently overlooked chapters of Robinson’s life growing up in Pasadena, some of which unfolded right along the parade route. The prologue to Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier is a complex tale, one full of triumphs and setbacks. Although Pasadena was relatively integrated for its time, for Robinson, his hometown would always be tainted by acts of bigotry that deeply touched his life.


On Colorado Boulevard, Robinson first won big-time athletic glory as a star of Pasadena Junior College’s track, football, basketball and baseball teams.

The boulevard is also where his brother Edgar was beaten by police in a 1939 fight over Rose Parade seats.

Such experiences left Jackie Robinson, who died in 1972, alienated from his hometown.

Now, as the city’s grandest pageant reaches back to honor him, it does so through surviving boyhood friend Ray Bartlett, who will ride in Robinson’s place during the parade.

For Bartlett, 79, the hometown recognition is better late than never.

“They’ve changed, and I give them credit for that,” he said of Pasadena and the once all-white Tournament of Roses organization.

The vivid memories of friends and former teammates like Bartlett are a window on the nearly forgotten world that shaped Robinson’s understanding of race.

Before he broke big league baseball’s color barrier, Robinson competed on integrated teams in the schoolyards and playing fields of Pasadena.


While the city was segregated in many ways in the 1930s, its sports teams were a kind of oasis, said Manny Perez, 78, who was born in Mexico and was two years behind Robinson at Muir High School and Pasadena Junior College, which is now Pasadena City College.

“You were accepted as an athlete,” Perez said, and teams included “Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, blacks, whites, rich and poor, everybody.”

The players learned not only how to get along, but also that others might resent them for it. Their teams sometimes met hostility in more segregated parts of the Southland.

Shig Kawai, 80, who played halfback with Robinson at the junior college, remembers frightening trips to places like Compton.

“It was scary. In those days Compton was all white, and, except for me, our backfield was all black,” said Kawai, a Japanese American.

Compton Junior College players taunted them with racial slurs, while fans did the same from the bleachers, Kawai said.


But classes and facilities at Pasadena Junior College were open to all students, and many social activities were integrated.

Warren Dorn, who would later become a Los Angeles County supervisor, said he remembered his college friends helping him with his run for class president without race ever becoming an issue. Speaking on his behalf at one assembly were Robinson and Billy Beedle, who changed his name to William Holden when he became a movie actor.

The college environment helped students overlook the racism they encountered off-campus. “I don’t suppose I was keenly aware of prejudice then; I saw it more as an adult,” Bartlett said.

Lyle Fagan, 80, who had known Robinson since the second grade, said that he was shielded from much of the city’s racism in his youth because he is white. “It was a wonderful place to grow up,” he said. “Once you love it, you always love it.”

Fagan said his eyes were opened while he served with Bartlett as a Pasadena police officer. Bartlett was repeatedly passed over for promotions, Fagan said.

Fagan’s bright childhood memories dim when he recounts other racist incidents that he saw as an officer. “That’s how prejudiced that city is, and I don’t think it’s changed much,” he snapped.


Robinson’s ambivalence toward Pasadena also deepened over the years, Bartlett said.

After Robinson’s 1947 rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, a group of friends held a dinner in his honor. It was open to everyone, and Dorn, who is white, helped organize the event.

But Bartlett remembered that “mostly blacks attended; there were hardly any whites. That really soured Jack.”

Although Robinson was a national figure by then, the local newspaper scarcely mentioned the event.

According to a Robinson biography by Arnold Rampersad of Princeton University, the police beating of his older brother was one of Robinson’s bitterest memories. Edgar was beaten after being accused of not having a required license for seats along the Rose Parade route, then denied treatment at the city hospital.

Edgar had $60 with him before his arrest, but only $36.55 was returned to him, and when he tried to complain at the police chief’s office, he was reportedly ordered to leave “before you are clubbed on the head.” Protests by the Pasadena chapter of the NAACP were ignored by city officials and covered only by the black-owned California Eagle newspaper.

After joining the Dodgers, Robinson would visit friends and family in Pasadena, but the city would never again be his home.


Pasadena’s contradictions apparently were too much for him. Robinson had said that he in some ways preferred the segregated South. According to Rampersad, Robinson said he would not move back because “in Atlanta, I know what I can do. In Pasadena, I never knew.”

Robinson never made his peace with Pasadena, and the city’s efforts to honor him have been spotty. A community center and park are named for him, but in downtown Pasadena, busts of Jackie and his brother Mack, an Olympic sprinter, remain unfinished. Bartlett is among those trying to raise $100,000 to complete the $500,000 project.

Robinson never led the Rose Parade when he was alive. Grand marshals are handpicked by the Tournament of Roses president; women and minorities were not in the top ranks of tournament organizers until 1993, after a series of protests.

Robinson’s friends said the city has moved forward since Robinson’s death.

Kawai’s daughter Leslie was the Tournament of Roses queen in 1981.

As mayor of Pasadena, Chris Holden, an African American, will have a prominent place in this year’s parade. Bartlett’s son Robert is the mayor of nearby Monrovia.

For Bartlett, riding in the parade will be “an enormous, tremendous honor,” he said. He will represent the fourth black grand marshal in the parade’s 110 years, after Hank Aaron, soccer legend Pele and track star Carl Lewis.

“I sure wish [Jackie] could have seen this stuff,” Bartlett said.

Times staff writer Shav Glick contributed to this story.