Let’s not beat around the basepaths: my reaction was “damn right!” when informed Jack Roosevelt Robinson was voted in as the greatest of this list of Greatest Dead Angelenos, in part because victory was always Jackie’s goal.
“That’s the way I am about winning,” he once said, “all I ever wanted to do was finish first.”
To be perfectly clear I unabashedly idolize Jackie Robinson. How much so? In my head I have a picture I’ve mentally painted during his color barrier-busting rookie season 60 years ago with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Is it a melodramatic vision? Absolutely. Sentimental? Of course. Reverent? Hallelujah! It is of a young man who of his own choosing has agreed to carry the entire world upon his shoulders to a new place. A better place. Dwarfed by his tremendous burden but undaunted he journeys forward, hemmed in by surrounding multitudes who don’t want him to get to where he is going. They are teammates, opponents, spectators — idiots all — and they hurl insults and objects and epithets. They disparage his family, his manhood, his skills. They spit at him and they threaten to kill him and they tell him to go to hell or back to the cotton fields. Again and again, they test him but again and again they do not stop him from seizing such an opportunity for himself, his race, for society. They are helpless to do so in the face of such will and resolve and courage and strength.
Get it? Then enough about me. After the jump, here’s to you Mr. Robinson.
Born in Cairo, Georgia on January 31, 1919, Jackie was the youngest of five siblings. The next year his mother moved them to Pasadena after being abandoned by their father and the Robinson family grew up in relative poverty — word is young Jackie even joined a neighborhood gang for a time. Enrolling in John Muir High School in 1935, Jackie’s athleticism emerged. Lettering in four sports, he was shortstop and catcher on the baseball team, quarterback on the football team, a guard on the basketball team and won awards in the broad jump as a member of the track and field team. He also played a little tennis, capturing the junior boys singles championship in the annual Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament in 1936. For Jackie, it wasn’t just a matter of there being nothing he couldn’t do, it seemed there was nothing he couldn’t do well.
After graduating from Muir he entered Pasadena City College (then Pasadena Junior College) where he played shortstop for the baseball team and quarterback and safety for the football team, and participated in the broad jump as a member of the track and field team. From there his next stop was UCLA where he became the school’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, football, basketball and track where with a leap of 24′ 10″ he won the NCAA broad jump title at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum in 1940 (see picture at left).
At the end of his athletic eligibility, financial hardship forced Robinson’s withdrawal from college short of achieving his degree, and he went to work briefly for the National Youth Administration before embarking into his professional sports career in Hawaii with the Honolulu Bears football team. That came to an end with the outbreak of World War II for which he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and commissioned as a second lieutenant. But he never saw combat with the tank battalion he trained with in Texas because in 1944 he refused a white bus driver’s demand that he move to the back of a segregated bus. Robinson was subsequently court-martialed for insubordination but rightfully acquitted of all charges and honorably discharged. It’s generally held that Robinson’s actions on that bus and his subsequent exoneration were contributing factors leading to President Harry Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces in 1948.
Back in civilian life, Robinson joined the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs in 1945 and his skills at shortstop along with his .387 batting average and ferocious baserunning soon got the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers scouts and club president Branch Rickey who had decided it was high time to integrate baseball. From a list of prominent African-American players, Rickey ultimately picked Robinson to join the team and be part of his “great experiment,” not just because of his superior athleticism but also because of his resolve to continually turn the other cheek, at least for that first year.
Marrying his college sweetheart Rachel Isum in 1946, and now under minor league contract with the Dodgers, Robinson first went to Canada assigned to play for the Dodgers international league affiliate Montreal Royals that year, and his exemplary offense and defense as well as his selfless willingness to put up with all the hatred that would be focused on him without reacting back resulted in him being called up to play for the Dodgers the following season. And so it was on April 15, 1947, at 28 years of age that he made his major league debut, playing first base and going 0-3 against the Boston Braves. And in doing so became the first player in baseball’s modern era to break the sport’s color line. He made $5,000 that year, and while enduring an unfathomable onslaught of racial animus, harassment and verbal and physical abuse helped the Dodgers to a National League championship season by playing in 151 games, batting .297, and leading the National League in stolen bases (29). He also won the league’s first-ever Rookie of the Year award (now named in his honor). Two years later he was named the National League’s most valuable player. By 1950 he was being paid a $35,000 salary, the highest at that point in Dodgers history.
Ten seasons later his career was over. He retired prior to the start of spring training in 1957 after the Dodgers announced that he was to be ignominiously traded to crosstown rivals the New York Giants for $30,000 and some journeyman player named Dick Littlefield. Robinson’s lifetime batting average was .311, he stole homeplate more times (19) than anyone before or since, and he played in six world series (winning only one in 1955), and six all-star games. At the end of 1957’s season the Dodgers broke Brooklyn’s heart by playing their last game at Ebbets Field and moving to Los Angeles.
With his playing days behind him Robinson had hoped to manage or coach a major league team, but no offers came forth so instead he went into the private sector and opened another door that had long been closed by joining Chock Full O’ Nuts and becoming the first African-American to serve as vice president of a major American corporation. He also served on the board of the NAACP until 1967 and fought tirelessly to improve the quality of life for society as a whole. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 and 10 years later his uniform number (42; coincidentally known in certain intergalactic circles as the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything) was retired, not just by the Dodgers, but the entire league.
Robinson made his final public appearance on October 14, 1972, throwing out the first pitch at the second game of the world series. He died 10 days later from heart problems and diabetes complications at the far too young age of 53 in Stamford, Connecticut, and is buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Queens, NY. The following year, to perpetuate her husband’s legacy, Rachel established the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which advocates for young people with the greatest need by granting four-year scholarships for higher education.
In 1985 President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded Robinson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1997, Pasadena dedicated its Robinson Memorial consisting of two nine-foot-tall bronze busts of Jackie and Mack Robinson (who died in 2000) installed across the street from its City Hall. In 1999 he was named to Time magazine’s list of the top 100 most influential people of the 20th century. In 2003 Congress posthumously awarded Robinson the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest tribute it can bestow. And on April 15 of this year, the 60th anniversary of his major league debut Robinson’s number was unretired and more than 200 players wore the 42 on their jerseys, including the entire rosters of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, and Pittsburgh Pirates.
MR. ROBINSON’S NEIGHBORHOODS
Though torn down in the 1970s, there’s a plaque indicating where Jackie Robinson’s childhood home stood at 121 Pepper Street in Pasadena. The Brooklyn home he lived in from 1947 to 1950 was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976. But little is the recognition for the residence here in Los Angeles that Robinson listed as his home in the midst of that mad rookie year on a player questionnaire he completed for “The Sporting News.”
Three months ago I posted about discovering that during that season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, his home address was east of Western Avenue and south of Jefferson Boulevard: 1588 W. 36th Place to be exact. Since then I’ve biked past the modest craftsman bungalow several times, but there’s nothing in place to indicate its significance. I’ve thought about stopping and knocking on the front door to ask the current residents if they are aware of their legendary predecessor, but I haven’t. Instead I content myself with just knowing where my hero was in this city at times during the year everything changed and he changed everything.
See the rest of Blogging.la’s list of L.A.’s Greatest Dead Angelenos.