From the Archives: Jackie Robinson: Simply a Great Athlete

Special to The Times

In today’s sports world, fans thrill to Eric Dickerson cutting-back off-tackle and Jerry Rice making fingertip catch behind a startled secondary.

They applaud Ozzie Smith as he darts into the hole for a backhand stop and Kevin Mitchell when he clouts the ball into the upper deck.

And they marvel as Magic Johnson drives by a muscling Moses Malone. The black athlete is an obvious force. It was not always so. At one time the black man was welcome only in track and boxing.


Then a husky, superlative athlete signed a Montreal baseball contract in 1945. Jack Roosevelt Robinson turned it around in an adventure that aroused the spirit of his race and opened the eyes of whites throughout the nation.

The country came out of World War II looking for escape from the four-year torment of global war. The black was looking for a chance to better his lot. And Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was looking for a pennant. Rickey had scouts beating the bushes in Puerto Rico, Central America and throughout the Negro leagues. No black had played in the major leagues since 1888. They were an untapped source of talent.

Dodger scouts thought the great Satchel Paige and power-hitting Josh Gibson were too old. Roy Campanella and Monte Irvin lacked the maturity.

The scouts agreed Robinson, a four-sport letterman at UCLA before the war, was the man to face the unbelievable pressure of breaking the color barrier. Scout Wid Matthews watched Robinson play with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League.

“Jackie Robinson can protect the strike zone better than any other young ballplayer I’ve ever seen,” Matthews reported.

That helped to sell Rickey, who met with Robinson in Brooklyn on Aug. 28, 1945. It was a rough one-on-one conversation.


The executive explained he planned to break the color line and wanted Jackie to be his man.

“But do you have the courage?” Rickey asked. “When the opposition calls you ‘black son-of-a-bitch’ and ‘black bastard’; when they try to spike you; when they throw at you, do you have guts enough not to fight back?”

Jackie listened, stunned.

“Let me ask you this,” Rickey continued. “What would you do if a ballplayer made sexual remarks about you and your mother?”

“I’d kill him!” Robinson exclaimed.

“No, No!” Rickey bellowed. He emphasized the only way to succeed was by Jackie “turning the other cheek.

“A fight is what the bigots would want,” Rickey said. “They’d claim whites and blacks couldn’t play on the same field without the threat of a riot and it would be years before we could try again.”

The two men agreed on the path of non-violence and Jackie signed with the Dodger farm club at Montreal.


For the fiery, competitive Robinson, it would be his toughest battle. But for Jackie, it was never easy.

He was born in Cairo, Ga., on Jan. 31, 1919, the youngest of five children. His father deserted the family when Jackie was 6 months old.

In the spring of 1920, his mother headed to California with her brood. There she would support the family on the $8 a week she earned as a maid.

The Robinsons lived on Pepper Street in Pasadena, where Jackie became am athletic legend.

Actually, it was Jackie’s older brother, Mack, who was the family’s first sports star. Mack finished second to Jesse Owens in the 200- meter dash at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Jackie was a heralded all-around athlete at Muir High school in Pasadena, winning letters in football, basketball, baseball and track.

He was the catcher on Muir’s baseball team in 1937. Jackie joined outfielder Ted Williams of San Diego Hoover and third baseman Bob Lemon of Long Beach Wilson on the Pomona tournament all-star squad.


At Pasadena Junior College he led his football team to 11 consecutive victories in 1938. Jackie scored two touchdowns and passed for another in a thrilling win over Compton College at the Rose Bowl. Edwin (Duke) Snider was among the 40,000 fans in attendance that day.

The Duke, later to be Jackie’s teammate with the Dodgers, recalled with a chuckle of admiration Robinson’s exploits at Pasadena JC.

“Jackie was great in football, basketball and baseball,” said Snider. “He could have been a pro in all three sports.

“On a punt return against Compton, he reversed his field three times. Everybody on the field took a shot at him, but nobody could touch him. He was something else.”

On May 8, 1938, Robinson performed two feats usually reserved for pulp fiction.

At a track meet in Claremont he won the long jump with a leap of 25-6 1/2 to break his brother Mack’s national junior college record.

Jackie then hustled to a waiting car, which headed for a Glendale baseball diamond. He arrived in the third inning, entered the lineup at shortstop, and paced his Pasadena Junior College team to a 5-3 victory for the Southern California junior college baseball championship.


Besides the long jump at Pasadena City College, Robinson ran a 9.7 100, a 21.5 220, a 48.5 440; he pole-vaulted 13 feet, had a 23.7 mark for the 220 low hurdles and ran on the 440 relay team.

He averaged more than 25 points a game in basketball during his two years at Pasadena City College.

The first time he attempted golf, 1,000 people watched Robinson break 90 at Pasadena’s Brookside Park.

In tennis, badminton and Ping-Pong, Jackie competed aggressively against Pasadena’s Dave Freeman, who became the world’s badminton champion.

And Robinson was a quick and talented boxer.

Jackie was awarded a partial scholarship to UCLA when he decided to attend college near his family.

He remains UCLA’s only four-sport letterman with monograms in football, basketball, baseball and track.


Robinson was college football’s leading ground gainer in 1939, averaging 11.4 yards-a-carry and returning punts for a 16.4-yard average.

Teamed with Kenny Washington, he drove the Bruins to within two yards of victory over USC and a trip to the Rose Bowl. The 1939 USC-UCLA game ended in a 0-0 tie, however, and the Trojans received the bowl bid.

The late Cotton Warburton, one of USC’s famed backs of yesteryear, called Robinson the most exciting back he ever saw. And he watched most of the Trojan greats, including Frank Gifford, Jon Arnett, Mike Garrett and O.J. Simpson.

“Jackie was quick and fast,” Warburton said. “Coach Jones (USC Coach Howard Jones) would put his best defensive man on Robinson telling the defender to tackle him whether he had the ball or not.”

On the basketball court, Jackie led the southern division of the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring for two years.

He hit the winning basket in an upset of Cal, and scored 23 points against highly ranked Stanford during the 1940 campaign.


In 1941, Jackie closed out his college career with 20 points against USC, but the Bruins dropped a 57-52 decision.

Robinson won the 1940 NCAA long jump with a leap of 24 feet 10 1/4 inches indoors at the University of Minnesota field house.

Oddly, baseball was his weakest sport. He batted under .200 as a Bruin.

Undoubtely the highlight of Jackie’s college life was meeting Rachel Isum, the woman who would become his wife. She was an honor student majoring in nursing at UCLA.

A refined, pretty woman, Rachel had no interest in sports . . . until she dated Jackie.

Years later he remarked, “Rachel was the most important, helpful and encouraging person I met in my whole life.”

They were married shortly after Jackie signed with Montreal.

When his college athletic eligibility ended, Jackie left school and took a job with the National Youth Administration to help support his mother. He also played professional football with the Los Angeles Bulldogs.

With the outbreak of World War II, Robinson entered officer candidate school at Ft. Riley, Kansas. Actually, OCS was closed to blacks at Ft. Riley. But through the intervention of Joe Louis, Jackie was accepted.


In the service his biggest battle was against bigotry. After Robinson was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant, he became morale officer of a Negro truck battalion.

In that capacity he phoned the provost marshall, Major Hafner, and stated a half-dozen seats in the PX were not enough for blacks.

The major told him things would remain as they were.

Hafner than reportedly asked Jackie over the phone, “Lt. Robinson, how would you like your wife sitting next to a (black)?” Except Hafner didn’t say “black.” He used a racial slur.

Jackie exploded. The battalion commander supported Robinson. Hafner was reprimanded, Jackie commended and the PX seating arrangement changed.

Robinson quit the Ft. Riley football team when he was suddenly granted a two-week leave before a game with the University of Missouri.

Missouri had notified military authorities it would not compete against a squad with a black athlete. Robinson wanted no part of a team that would bow to racial prejudice.


At Camp Hood, Tex., Jackie refused to move to the back of a bus. The custom was in direct violation of a federal ruling against segregated buses on army posts.

The incident led to court-martial proceedings against Jackie with charges that he was insolent and impertinent to a military police officer. Robinson was acquitted, but it was a needless and humiliating incident.

After his discharge, Jackie became basketball coach at Samuel Houston College in Austin, Tex.

He missed competing himself, however, and signed on as shortstop with the Kansas City Monarchs for $400 a month.

Robinson batted .345 for Kansas City in 1945. It was here he was so carefully scouted by the Dodgers.

When he donned a Montreal uniform in 1946, Jackie captivated the sports world.

In his first game he became an instant star. Jackie led the Royals to a 14-1 victory over Jersey City. He played second base and batted second in the Royal order.


Robinson banged out four hits in five trips to the plate with three singles and a home run.

He stole second twice and scored four runs--two of which came when the pitcher balked after becoming unnerved by Robinson’s dashes down the third base line.

Afterward, Joe Bostic summed up the event by writing in the New York Amsterdam News: “The most significant sports story of the century was written into the record books today as baseball took up the cudgel for democracy and an unassuming but superlative Negro boy ascended to heights of excellence to prove the rightness of the experiment. And prove it in the only correct crucible for such an experiment--the crucible of white-hot competition.”

Ironically, Al Campanis was Jackie’s double-play partner at Montreal. Campanis, who three years ago was forced to resign as Dodger vice president/general manager as a result of his remarks about blacks, recalled vividly Robinson’s skills.

“Jackie had great athletic aptitude,” said Campanis. “I was playing shortstop, but I had experience at second base and knew the position.

“The baserunners were going for Jackie as he came across the bag on a double play. I worked with him on the rocker step. That’s where you hit the bag with the left foot, step back on the right and throw to first.


“Jackie picked it up in a half-hour. We had another second baseman who needed weeks to learn the move.

“Robinson was a big man,” Campanis continued. “He weighed 195 at Montreal and well over 200 with the Dodgers.

“But he was amazingly fast and agile. If he were caught in a rundown, the odds were in Jackie’s favor to get out of it.”

Robinson took an incredible amount of verbal abuse during the year with Montreal, and there was always the beanball.

“You never saw anything like it,” said Dixie Howell, the catcher who was Robinson’s teammate at Montreal and later in Brooklyn. “Every time he came up, he’d go down!”

The pressure mounted and Jackie was close to a nervous breakdown during the season. But as always, he sucked it up.


He went on to hit .349 and win the International League batting title and most valuable player award.

Jackie then paced Montreal to the Little World Series flag as the Royals downed Louisville, four games to two.

Courage is like love--it must have hope for nourishment-- Napoleon Bonaparte

Robinson was promoted to Brooklyn for the 1947 season. With Eddie Stanky at second base for the Dodgers, Jackie opened National League play at first.

Now he faced major league pitching as well as big league bigots.

They called him every slur in the book.

They yelled remarks about his odor. There were hyphenated expressions about his mother.

Fans threw watermelon rinds in his path. Pitchers threw at his head, knees and groin.

Baserunners came in with spikes flashing. Infielders tagged him viciously.

It was a 200,000-1 shot for a young man to make it to the major leagues and succeed. Jackie Robinson became a star with hatred ringing in his ears.

Young blacks of a later era criticized him for not fighting back. He couldn’t. His hands were tied. “No fights . . . no brawls” was the agreement with Rickey.

Above all, when the pitcher flipped him, Jackie had to get up out of the dirt and face the fast ball again, always the tight fast ball.


That first year some of his Dodger teammates asked to be traded. Popular Fred (Dixie) Walker was swapped after the 1947 season.

Walker and Hal Gregg went to Pittsburgh for left-handed pitcher Preacher Roe and third baseman Billy Cox. It was a great trade for the Dodgers.

The St. Louis Cardinals threatened to strike if Robinson played. They backed down when league president Ford Frick warned he would suspend any trouble-makers.

There was a particularly ugly incident of bench-jockeying in a series with Philadelphia. Alabama-born manager Ben Chapman and his Phillies were all over Robinson.

Stanky couldn’t take it and shouted at the Phillies’ bench, “You’re all a bunch of cowards, picking on a man who can’t fight back!”

It might have been the turning point in the season as the Dodgers rallied around Robinson.

During that first year--1947--Robinson won the rookie of the year award, as the Dodgers took the National League pennant.


He batted .297 with 12 homers in 151 games. Robinson garnered his first of two stolen base titles with 29 thefts.

In 1948 Jackie replaced Stanky at second base and batted .296. Robinson’s top year was 1949, when he won the National League’s most valuable player award.

He batted .342 with 203 hits, 38 doubles, 12 triples, 16 homers, 124 runs batted in, and 122 runs scored.

Jackie’s .342 average and 37 stolen bases were league highs.

It was the first of six straight seasons in which he batted over .300.

The Brooklyn club of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s was loaded with talent.

Catcher Roy Campanella, who possessed “bleacher power” and outstanding defensive skills, was named National League most valuable player in ‘51, ’53 and ’55.

Gil Hodges, a fine fielding first baseman, hit the long ball, particularly in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. From 1949 to 1955 he recorded 100 or more RBIs a season and averaged more than 32 home runs a year.

Talented Junior Gilliam broke into the lineup at second base in 1953. Thereafter, Robinson split his time between third base and the outfield.


Shortstop Pee Wee Reese became one of Jackie’s closest friends on the club. Reese, who picked up his nickname for his childhood skill in marbles, ranked with contemporaries Marty Marion, Lou Boudreau and Phil Rizzuto as a shortstop.

Billy Cox, with the hands of a pickpocket, could be compared with Brooks Robinson as a defensive third baseman.

Sandy Amoros, Gene Hermanski, Andy Pafko and George (Shotgun) Shuba divided time in left field.

Center belonged to Hall of Famer Duke Snider, a highly talented fielder who hit .259 lifetime and 407 career home runs.

The late Carl Furillo was an outstanding right fielder. Furillo led the National League in batting in 1953 with a .344 average. His rifle arm was the most accurate in baseball.

On the mound were fireballing Don Newcombe, Ralph Branca, Preacher Roe and Carl Erskine, whose overhand curve was the best since Tommy Bridges’.


The bullpen boasted hard-throwing relievers Clem Labine and Joe Black.

But Robinson was the catalyst. His alert mind, level swing, sure hands and agility and daring on the basepaths helped propel the Dodgers to six National League pennants from 1947-1956.

Before the 1949 campaign, Rickey and Robinson had another meeting. The executive said it was time to no longer “turn the other cheek.”

There were other blacks in the majors now--Larry Doby at Cleveland and Roy Campanella with the Dodgers. Don Newcombe and the Giants’ Monte Irvin were coming up in ’49.

“He’d been quiet long enough,” Rickey said. “Jackie had to show his courage to men who only know courage in a physical sense.”

Robinson joined Ty Cobb and Pepper Martin as the most exciting and competitive players to perform between the white lines.

On the basepaths there might never have been anyone so unnerving. As a runner he had a quick start--a carry-over from his days as a track star.


Jackie had dancing moves off the bag. By the third step he was in full stride. He had the ability to look back over his shoulder without losing speed.

What was really a show was when Jackie reached third base. He stole home 19 times, and once in World Series play (Sept. 28, 1955 against the Yankees).

On third, he’d be a constant threat to the pitcher. He’d dash halfway home during the windup and still hustle back to third to beat a throw from the catcher.

Robinson even amazed his teammates with his daring. Once he scored all the way from first base on a sacrifice fly by Gene Hermanski. And he was a master of the slide.

At bat Jackie overcame “football shoulders,” once pointed out by Bob Feller, who claimed Robinson couldn’t get around on the fast ball.

Jackie held the bat uncommonly high with wrists not far from his right ear. Hall of Famer George Sisler taught him to hit to right field during the ’49 campaign.


During his later years with the Dodgers he batted clean-up. He had average power, but he was a true clutch hitter with fine bat control on the bunt. The threat was always there that he would put the ball down.

In 1949 the Dodgers were back in the World Series. Once again they were beaten by the Yankees as they would be in five of the six World Series in which Jackie competed.

Robinson played only one game--in 1953--at shortstop in his major league career. His arm wasn’t strong enough for the position.

He played 197 games at first, 751 at second, 256 at third and 152 in the outfield.

The one thing that impressed everyone was Jackie’s constant hustle. And nothing pointed that up more than the Dodger nightmare year of 1951.

Brooklyn blew a 13 1/2-game lead and lost the flag to the Giants in a playoff.

Few remember, though, that the Dodgers were fortunate to get in that playoff.

The Dodgers and Giants were tied on the last day of the campaign and the Dodgers were at Shibe Park in Philadelphia for a game with the Phillies.

The scoreboard showed the Giants beat Boston, 3-2, to move one-half game ahead. The Dodgers needed a win to make a playoff necessary. And it was Robinson who almost single-handedly got it for them.


He made a diving catch over second base of a liner off Eddie Waitkus’ bat to get Don Newcombe out of trouble in the 12th inning of an 8-8 tie. In the process, Jackie’s elbows were jammed into his body and he lost consciousness for a few minutes.

Jackie refused to leave the game and with two out in the 14th inning, he clouted a home run off Robin Roberts to earn Brooklyn a 9-8 decision.

The Giants and Dodgers split the first two games of the playoff. Bobby Thomson’s dramatic 315-foot, three-run homer off Ralph Branca in the last of the ninth of the third game gave the Giants an unbelievable pennant.

The Giant fans in the Polo Grounds went wild. The Dodgers walked slowly off the field.

Only Jackie remained. With hands on hips he watched to see that Thomson touched every base. Then Robinson turned and in his familiar pigeon-toed gait moved toward the dugout.

In 1955 Jackie was reduced to 105 games and he batted .256, but this was the year the Dodgers finally beat the Yankees in seven games for the World Championship. Johnny Podres spaced eight hits and the Dodgers topped the Yankees, 2-0, in the decider.

By 1956 Jackie was clearly slowing down. He batted .275 with 10 home runs.

Robinson was traded to the hated Giants for Dick Littlefield and $35,000 on Dec. 13, 1956.

But Jackie wanted to spend more time with his wife and three children and he announced his retirement on Jan. 5, 1957.


Once out of baseball his interests varied. Jackie worked for a restaurant chain in New York and was a major spokesman in the civil rights movement.

He became involved in politics and assisted New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. He also did frequent radio and television work including baseball’s Game of the Week.

In 1962, his first year of eligibility, Jackie was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Robinson was beset with personal problems. Jackie Jr. picked up a drug habit in Vietnam. When he had the addiction beaten, the young Robinson was killed in an auto accident.

Jackie himself suffered from diabetes and he had a heart attack in 1968. By this time the once great athlete walked with a cane and his sight was failing.

At the opening same of the 1972 World Series Jackie made a rare appearance when he was honored by the sport on which he left an indelible mark.

Only weeks later, on Oct. 24, 1972, he died at age 53. The diabetes and the inner conflict of his first three years in baseball took their toll.


During his lifetime he touched many people in many ways.

That first year in the majors--1947--he was voted runner-up to Bing Crosby as the most popular man in America in a poll. He had more than 5,000 social and commercial requests for personal appearances that year.

Columnist John Crosby called him “the blackest black man, as well as one of the handsomest, I ever saw.”

President Dwight Eisenhower crossed a crowded ballroom to shake Jackie’s hand at a black-tie affair.

Baseball people saw him as a multi-talented competitor.

“He was tough, intelligent and proud,” Dodger scout Clyde Sukeforth said.

Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner, who is now a broadcaster for the New York Mets, emphasized, “Robinson was the only player I ever saw who could completely turn a game around by himself.

“His ability to run the bases, to intimidate the pitchers, to take the extra base, to hang in there under the worst kind of pressure made him antagonize the opposition to the benefit of his own team.”

Campanella said, “I never saw a ballplayer who could do all the things Jackie could. He could think so much faster than anybody I ever played with or against. He was two steps and one thought ahead of anyone else.”


Although Willie Mays of the Giants and Robinson were fierce rivals, they were friends off the field. Mays recalled an incident in Ebbets Field when he crashed into the wall after catching a line drive.

“Jackie came running out,” Mays said. “He turned me over to see if the ball dropped out of my glove.”

Then there’s Duke Snider’s story about Sam (Toothpick) Jones, a fine black pitcher for the Chicago Cubs.

“Jackie was yelling at Jones from the on-deck circle,” Snider said. “Jackie kept yelling, “Sam, you’ve got no guts . . . I’m going to beat you.”’

“By the time Jackie stepped in, Sam was boiling.

“Jones hit Jackie with a pitch, then threw the ball into right field when he tried to pick Robinson off first.

“Now Jackie’s on third taunting Sam and dancing around. Jones was paying more attention to Jackie than the batter and he bounced a pitch.


“Jackie scored on the wild pitch to give us a 3-2 win. Sam nearly swallowed his toothpick.”

And there were always the confrontations between Giant Manager Leo Durocher and Jackie. They were so much alike--great competitors.

Rickey once maintained Durocher had the uncommon ability to make a bad situation infinitely worse.

Much of the bad feeling between Robinson and Durocher stemmed from a play at first base when Jackie barrelled over Giant second baseman Davey Williams.

Williams suffered a spinal injury which nearly ended his career. The Giants thought it was a cheap shot. Jackie maintained it was part of the game.

Durocher, always a dandy but all man, was married to actress Laraine Day.

Jackie would yell from the dugout in his unmistakably high voice, “Leo, lay off of Laraine’s perfume.”


Durocher would retaliate by holding his hands a couple inches from his head, alongside his ears, indicating Jackie had a swelled head.

Late in his career Jackie had ballooned up to 230 pounds. Leo was always yelling remarks about his size.

They almost went at it a couple of times.

Years later Durocher said of Jackie, “He beat me a thousand times in a thousand ways--getting a base hit, making a play, making the double play, hitting the home run, stealing a base, stealing home, upsetting my pitcher with his antics on the bases.

“The guy didn’t just come to play. He came to beat you.”

He did more than that. His accomplishments transcend baseball--he showed the way for his race.