Where the color barrier faded

Special to The Times

THE memory of Jackie Robinson has become so closely intertwined with the Brooklyn Dodgers that it is easy to forget he was a product of Southern California. Though born in Georgia, Robinson arrived in California as an infant. He spent his formative years in Pasadena. There he first experienced both discrimination and opportunity, and there he won his initial athletic fame. He enrolled at UCLA in 1939. When he left in 1941, six years before his fabled Dodger debut, he already reigned as perhaps the greatest of all sports legends in the region's history.

African Americans in California in the 1920s and '30s confronted patterns of discrimination common to the American West. Few hotels, restaurants or recreational facilities accepted them. Restrictive covenants barred blacks from living in most neighborhoods. Job discrimination impeded economic advancement.

Yet Southern California provided opportunities unavailable in most other places. The absence of tenements and the predominance of single-family houses allowed Robinson's mother, Mallie, to buy a home for her family. The lack of restrictions on black athletic participation opened an avenue of success to her sons.

Robinson's older brother Mack starred at the University of Oregon and at the 1936 Olympic Games. Following in his footsteps Robinson won renown as a four-sport athlete at Pasadena Junior College (later Pasadena City College), where he set a national junior college broad jump record. In 1938, with Robinson at quarterback, the Pasadena football team posted an 11-0 record. He scored 17 touchdowns, the last a 104-yard dash on a fake punt. The next year, Robinson transferred to UCLA, although not before winning the men's singles and doubles titles at the Western Federation tennis championships for African Americans. As a Bruin, he starred in basketball, twice leading the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring; track, winning the NCAA broad jump championship in 1940; and as a shortstop in baseball.

Football, however, again brought out the best in him. Robinson joined a squad that included fellow African Americans Kenny Washington, Woody Strode and Ray Bartlett. In his first season, he averaged more than 11 yards a carry. Sports Weekly called him "the greatest ball carrier on the gridiron today." Robinson and Washington, dubbed "the Gold Dust Twins," led UCLA to an undefeated season.

Dodgers President Branch Rickey tapped Robinson to break baseball's color line in no small part because of his background in interracial athletics. Robinson repaid that confidence by carving out a career that remains a symbol of American ideals and aspirations.

With his ascension to the Major Leagues, Robinson would move first to New York and later to Connecticut. But Southern California remained the cauldron that had forged his athletic brilliance and commitment to civil rights.

Jules Tygiel is a professor of history at San Francisco State University who wrote "Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy."

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