- By Jason Dougas Lewis
- In Sports History
Jackie Robinson’s best sport at UCLA was football, and before becoming a trailblazer by breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, Robinson was a professional football player.
Article originally published by the Los Angeles Sentinel. www.lasentinel.net
By Jason Lewis
Sentinel Sports Editor (2010-2013)
Jackie Robinson is known for breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947, but it is well known that he was talented in numerous sports, including football, basketball, track, and tennis. What is not so well known is that baseball, surprisingly, may have been Robinson’s worst sport.
Robinson was born into a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia, in 1919, but his family moved to Pasadena a year later. Growing up the youngest of five children, Robinson was not the athletic star of the family. His older brother Mack was. Mack Robinson took the silver medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, coming in second place to Jesse Owens.
Jackie Robinson decided to take up sports at Muir High School, where he lettered in football, basketball, track, and baseball. He also played on the tennis team. In 1936, Robinson won the junior boys singles championship in the annual Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament.
After high school Robinson attended Pasadena Junior College, where he played quarterback and safety on the football team, shortstop and leadoff hitter for the baseball team, and he broke the school’s broad jump record, which was held by his older brother Mack.
Robinson’s next move was to UCLA, where he became the first athlete, or any race, to win varsity letters in four sports: football, basketball, baseball, and track. He was one of four black players on the 1939 UCLA Bruins football team. Woody Strode, Kenny Washington, and Ray Bartlett were the others. Washington went on to break the color barrier in the NFL.
At the time there were very few black players playing Division I football. Having four on one team made UCLA’s football team unique for that time.
Football may have been Robinson’s best sport while at UCLA. He led the nation in punt return average in both 1939 and 1940. His career average of 18.8 yards per return ranks fourth in NCAA history. As a senior in 1940 he led UCLA in rushing, passing, total offense, scoring, and punt returns.
On the basketball team, Robinson led the Southern Division of the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring in both 1940 and 1941.
Robinson missed most of the 1940 track and field season while playing baseball, which was his worst sport at UCLA. His only season playing baseball at the school he batted .097. Legend has it that at times Robinson would compete in the broad jump at a track meet while waiting for his turn to bat during baseball games. Whether that is true or not, he was certainly a better broad jumper at that time than a baseball player. That year Robinson won the NCAA national title in that event.
After college Robinson began his professional athletic career as a football player. In 1941 he played semi-professional football for the racially integrated Honolulu Bears. After a short season he returned home to play for the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the Pacific Coast Football League (PCFL).
The PCFL was similar to baseball’s Pacific Coast League, which was a minor league because of its geographical distance from the major leagues. The major difference between the baseball and football Pacific Coast leagues was that blacks could play in the football league, but not the baseball league.
Robinson was about the sixth black player to play in the PCFL. Former teammate Kenny Washington was the star of the league, playing for the Hollywood Bears.
Robinson signed late in the 1941 season, and in his first game he scored on a 41-yard touchdown run. The following week Robinson's Bulldogs faced off against Washington’s Bears. The Bulldogs took a 10-3 lead into the fourth quarter behind Robinson’s efficient play at quarterback, but the Bears rallied to win the game behind two touchdown passes by Washington.
Robinson’s football career came to a halt when he was drafted into the army in 1942. After receiving an honorable discharge in 1944, Robinson briefly returned to the Bulldogs, and it appeared that he never missed a beat. In Robinson’s first game back he threw two touchdown passes in limited action, and a week later he rushed for 101 yards on only eight carries in a victory over the Hollywood Wolves.
Robinson’s football career ended a week later when he injured his ankle on the first play of the game against the San Diego Bombers. When the 1945 football season started, Robinson was making headlines as a baseball player for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. He batted .387 that season, appeared in the 1945 Negro League All-Star Game, and he caught the attention of Brooklyn Dodgers President and General Manager Branch Rickey.
Rickey met with Robinson in August of 1945, told him that he needed to have “guts enough not to fight back,” and Robinson’s football career was officially over. He was now on a path to blaze a trail for blacks in all of the major American sports.