Jackie Robinson, the grandson of a slave, a man who emerged from a small house on Pepper Street in Pasadena to become one of the nation’s greatest athletes and a symbol of hope for Black America, died Tuesday.
The 53-year-old Robinson succumbed of a heart attack in the 25th year since his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers shattered baseball’s color barrier.
Robinson collapsed in the hallway of his home in Stamford, Conn., and was pronounced dead at 7:10 a.m.
For a man whose life was distinguished by pride and competitive spirit, the last few years were veiled in tragedy.
The heart that had first motivated the young Robinson to athletic greatness at Pasadena Junior College and UCLA was scarred by an attack in 1968.
Diabetes destroyed his sight in one eye and was at work on the other. A son, Jackie Jr., 24, died in an automobile accident last year after having undergone drug rehabilitation.
“You don’t know what it’s like to lose a son, find him and lose him again,” said Robinson at the time. “My problem was my inability to spend much time at home.
“I thought my family was secure, so I went running around every place else. I guess I had more of an effect on other people’s kids than I did on my own.”
Only nine days before his own death, Robinson was honored in Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium and threw out the first ball prior to the second game of the World Series.
His wife, Rachel, was there, as were his daughter, Mrs. Sharon Mitchell, 23, and his son David, 20.
Robinson’s hair was mostly gray. The legs that had brought him All-America status at UCLA and then carried him to baseball’s Hall of Fame worked haltingly.
When a man asked Robinson to autograph a baseball, he said, “I’m sorry. I can’t see it. I’d be sure to mess up the other names you have on it.”
“There are no other names,” the man said. “I only want yours.”
It was not always that way. He was loved and he was hated.
A ballpark in Jacksonville, Fla., padlocked its gates to keep him from playing in an exhibition with the Dodgers. Hotels which housed the Brooklyn club in Philadelphia and St. Louis barred him. His life was threatened and there were threats of strikes by teammates and opposing players.
“The Negro Leagues are doing all right and Negro players should be developed and then remain as stars,” said Rogers Hornsby. “This thing won’t work out.”
“As long as the Pittsburgh club hasn’t signed a Negro there’s no need for me to worry,” said Spud Davis.
“He’s been signed for the Montreal club,” said Dixie Walker, “and as long as he isn’t with the Dodgers, I’m not worried.”
Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn president, the man who chose Robinson off the roster of the Kansas City Monarchs, warned him that it wouldn’t be easy.
Turns Other Cheek
“I want a man with guts enough not to fight back,” said Rickey.
“I’ve got two cheeks -- is that what you want to hear?” said Robinson.
Rickey nodded and later watched Robinson turn the other cheek often during his rookie season with the Dodgers, a season in which Robinson’s skill and desire won the admiration of those who had opposed him.
He played with flash and daring. He intimidated pitchers and fields. He said little during his first year, but spoke up often during the rest of his career.
“I’m a human being,” he said. “I have a right to my opinions. I have a right to talk.”
Career Average .311
He played in six World Series and six All-Star games. He stole 197 bases. He played every infield and outfield position. His career average was .311.
The taunts, the slurs, turned to praise. Baseball’s first black player became the first black elected to the Hall of Fame.
The year was 1962, six years after he retired upon refusing to go to the Giants in a trade.
In 1966 he was elected chairman of the board of the Hamilton Life Insurance Co.
“This position represents another first,” he said. “That’s well and good, but it isn’t important as such. The point is that it opens doors and further encourages the Negro in business.”
Born in Georgia
Robinson made money in restaurants and real estate. He could have turned his back as he had his cheek, but, during the 25 years of his retirement, the man who had opened the door for the likes of Larry Doby and Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella and Bob Gibson, constantly spoke on behalf of the black.
His mother, he said, had told him what it had been like for their family.
Robinson was born Jan. 31, 1919, in Cairo, Ga., the fifth child of Mrs. Mallie Robinson, daughter of a slave.
The father deserted his family when Jackie was a year old and the Robinsons moved to Pasadena.
A brother, Mack, ran second to Jesse Owens in the 200 meters of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but it was Jackie who would become the idol of Pepper Street.
He lettered in football, baseball, basketball and track at Muir High and he did the same at Pasadena Junior College, where he helped lure crowds of 50,000 to his team’s football games at the Rose Bowl. On one spring afternoon he set a national JC record in the long jump, drove from Pomona to Pasadena, and led his school’s baseball team to the Southern California championship.
Robinson received an athletic scholarship to UCLA and became the first player in the school’s history to letter in four sports.
He was the national long jump champion in 1940, a football All-America in 1941 and the basketball team’s highest scorer.
With his mother in need of money, Robinson left UCLA when his athletic eligibility expired and signed with the Los Angeles Bulldogs, a semi-pro football team.
Signs With Monarachs
He served three years in World War II as a cavalry lieutenant and returned to sign with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League.
It had been the promised land for such black stars as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, but when Rickey called in the fall of 1945, Robinson accepted his challenge.
He spent only one year in the minors, leading the International League in hitting in 1946. He was the National League’s rookie of the year in 1947, the first of 10 seasons with the Dodgers.
During that decade and ensuing ones, blacks and whites alike would consider Jackie Robinson a man for all seasons.
Funeral Services will be held Friday at Riverside Church in New York.