The Amazing Jackie Robinson

The story of Jackie Robinson has been deconstructed a million different ways … let’s try something a little bit different. Let’s try to look at his familiar and well-worn story through a specific lens. Let’s see him not as the great Jackie Robinson, American hero, baseball pioneer and the man who changed American sports.

Let’s see him, if we can, as one of the craziest baseball stories — one of the craziest sports stories — in American history.

Writers have spilled more words about Jackie Robinson’s life than any baseball player (with the possible exception of Babe Ruth), so you probably know the basics of that story. He was 1 and living in Georgia when his father left the family. Jackie's mother, Mallie Robinson, was deeply religious and a powerful force. She moved the family to California in search of a better life.

For the first 18 or 20 years of his life, Jack Robinson’s identity was tied up in being the younger brother. Mack Robinson was five years older than Jackie and was a brilliant track star. He won the silver medal in the 200 meters at the 1936 Olympics ... four-tenths of a second behind an American hero named Jesse Owens. Mack Robinson, like Owens, stood tall under Germany's Nazi flag.

And, so, Mack Robinson was something of a star in those days when very few African Americans were stars. He ranked with Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Satchel Paige and a handful of others. As such, Jackie was generally referred to in the papers as “the younger brother of Mack,” or “Mack’s kid brother.”

Jackie Robinson was a good high school baseball player, but only in the same way that the great running back (and lacrosse legend) Jim Brown was an excellent bowler (which he was). Jackie was first and foremost a track star and a football star. Baseball was perhaps third. But he was also a fantastic tennis player, a championship level golfer and a fantastic swimmer. The sportswriter Vincent X. Flaherty — who later wrote the screenplay for Jim Thorpe, All American — called Robinson the “Jim Thorpe of his race.”

Football was the big game for the young Jackie Robinson. He and Kenny Washington (the first African American to sign an NFL contract after World War II) made up the most devastating backfield in America at UCLA. Robinson averaged 11 yards per carry in one season. He signed to play pro football for the Los Angeles Bulldogs and the Honolulu Bears* after dropping out of UCLA for financial reasons.

*Trivia: Robinson left Honolulu two days before Pearl Harbor.

But he was just about as sensational in track. Robinson won the NCAA long jump competition— and did so without even trying. He had quit training for the long jump after the 1940 Helsinki Olympics were canceled. Then, for the heck of it, he decided to jump for the UCLA track team and won that NCAA title.

But, again, to reduce the young Jackie Robinson to any one sport would have been like saying Da Vinci was only a painter. As a basketball player, Robinson twice led the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring. Sportswriters called him the “Ebony Luisetti” (Stanford’s Hank Luisetti innovated the running one-handed shot that led to today’s jump shot). One coach called Robinson “the best basketball player in the United States." He was underrappreciated because his team was terrible. The Oakland Tribune’s Art Cohn summed it up by comparing Jackie to USC’s Ralph Vaughn, who had just been featured on the cover of Life magazine :

“Now that all the picture mags have glorified Ralph Vaughn of USC as ‘America’s No. 1 basketball player,’ it is interesting to note that he wasn’t even the best player in Los Angeles. Because Jackie Robinson of UCLA, playing on the Coast’s weakest team with NO support even remotely comparable to that which Vaughn received from a championship team, has just won the Conference individual scoring title.”

You want more? According to Jules Tygiel’s classic “Baseball’s Great Experiment,” Robinson won the conference championship in golf. As mentioned, he won swimming championships. He won the conference championship in tennis and also reached the semifinal of what was then called the National Negro Tennis Tournament. Again, he did all of this without even practicing tennis.

It's a legend that baseball was his worst sport at UCLA ... and it does seem that in this case, the legend matches up with reality. Robinson played one year of baseball at UCLA. He obviously flashed great talent. According to our Oakland sportswriter Art Cohn. he had a miraculous first game:

“Jackie Robinson, the No. 1 running back and conference basketball scoring champion, played his first baseball game for UCLA the other day. … Handled five chances at short without an error, figgered in two double plays, clouted four hits (including a home run) and stole three bases. Wonder how he is shootin’ dice?”

That first game is actually remembered different ways. Some say he stole four bases. Some stay one of those steals was of home. The UCLA website has him stealing home twice. Cohn is the only source I’ve seen that credits him with a home run. Anyway, we know he had a great first game.

After that game though, by all accounts, he went into a death-defying slump. Every source I can find has Robinson hitting .097 for the season, though I cannot make any sense of that. There are only so many mathematical possibilities for an .097 average in a 39-game season.

Possibility 1: He went 2 for his next 58 (6 for 62 total).
Possibility 2: He went 3 for his next 69 (7 for 72 total)
Possibility 3: He went 5 for his next 89 (9 for 93 total)
Possibility 4: He went 6 for his next 99 (10 for 103 total)
Possibility 5: He went 7 for his next 109 (11 for 113 total)
Possibility 6: He went 8 for his next 120 (12 for 124 total)

You can keep going, but remember this was a short season and Robinson was also competing in track. I suspect that if he hit .097, he probably went 6 for 62 or 7 for 72. And that means for six weeks or so, Jackie Robinson — one of the greatest athletes in America and soon to be a Baseball Hall of Famer — could not hit mediocre college pitching AT ALL. How in the world could Jackie Robinson, no matter how raw he might have been, go 3 for 69 against college pitching? He could have BUNTED .400, for crying out loud. It just doesn’t make any sense.*

*I did discover a short newspaper story that seems to dismiss the whole thing. In the April 5 preview story, before the UCLA-St. Mary’s game: “Jackie Robinson, football and basketball flash who leads the college league in hitting and base stealing, will be seen in action for the first time at Seals Stadium.” That suggests that Robinson didn't really hit that badly, but to be honest that story is probably made up. In those days, newspapers would print anything to get fans to come to games. Jackie Robinson was a huge star in California. I have little doubt the author had him “leading the college league in hitting” to spur interest.

But the bulk of evidence points to Robinson being overmatched. According to Jackie Robinson: A Biography, Robinson was so helpless at the plate that some wise guy sportswriter at the school paper referred to a poor-hitting team as “colder than Jackie Robinson’s batting average.” The .097 average has been repeated by so many unrelated sources that it’s likelier true than not.

Robinson also tied for the team lead in errors.

We have to come to grips with the basic point: Jackie Robinson was not a good baseball player in college.

He was also a tough character. The image of Jackie Robinson has been sanitized through the years -- the whole "I want a player with the guts not to fight back" thing -- but Robinson himself admits that if not for sports, “I might have become a full-fledged delinquent.”

He had numerous clashes with the law while growing up in Pasadena. Some of these were relatively innocent (he was taken to jail because he was caught swimming in the city reservoir), some a bit less so (he was a member of the Pepper Street Gang, which by most accounts kept its illegal activities to petty crime and relatively minor troublemaking).

While he was in junior college, he spent the night in jail after getting into an argument with a police officer. At UCLA, he got into a fight with a racist who had insulted him (not for the first time and not for the last) and was arrested and taken to jail for resisting arrest.

Robinson is the only athlete in UCLA history to letter in four sports – baseball, football, basketball and track.

Of course, now we see that Jackie Robinson was lashing out at the prejudice of the times, and we can not only appreciate his rage and pride and unwillingness to give in, we can also admire it. But that's not how people saw it then. We see the pioneer. They saw the troublemaker. We see the man who changed things. They saw the difficult young man who refused to live by the rules.

That is the only way I can make any sense of the Robinson .097 average at UCLA. There are so few stories that I can find from that season, but the few that survive suggest he was tough to deal with. In one story, Robinson was brought in to pitch with his team ahead and darkness descending. “I can’t see the plate,” Robinson reportedly moaned repeatedly and, to prove his point, he threw wild pitch after wild pitch until the umpire finally called the game. That story suggests two things. One: Jackie Robinson refused to lose. And two: Jackie Robinson did not care much about baseball.

Jackie Robinson was drafted into the army three months after he finished playing football for the Honolulu Bears. In one of those great ironies, Jackie Robinson was not allowed to play baseball in the army because army baseball (unlike other sports) was segregated. He did play football, but that too was complicated. The most significant athletic thing that happened to Robinson in the army was that he badly hurt his right ankle. It would bother him the rest of his life.

The court-martial of Jackie Robinson is a fascinating story that later became a play. But let’s stay focused on the baseball thing: On Nov. 28, 1944, Jackie Robinson was honorably discharged after winning his court-martial case. He was 25 years old, almost 26. He had played one season of college baseball four years earlier and had hit .097. He had a bum ankle. He was angry. The army had come close to breaking him. And there was an unspoken agreement in baseball that no one would sign a black player.

I think you could say that what followed was the most unlikely series of events in the history of baseball.

* * *

Here’s how it began: Robinson either saw a baseball pitcher named Ted Alexander throwing good curveballs on a field at Camp Breckenridge in Kentucky or he met a different pitcher with a legendary curveball named Hilton Smith. It's possible that both happened. Either Alexander or Smith (or both) encouraged Robinson to send a letter to the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro leagues and ask for a job.

Robinson sent his letter to Thomas Baird, who was a partner of Kansas City Monarchs founder J.L. Wilkinson. Baird was interested —heck, it was always a challenge to draw fans, and Robinson was one of the most famous African American athletes in America. Robinson and Baird haggled over money in a series of letters, but finally, a deal was struck.

When Robinson showed up for spring training he was — to say the least — underwhelmed. He came to spring training with a healthy distrust of Negro leagues baseball; he often said that he had played for a Negro leagues team when he was 17 and had never been paid. And when he arrived, there was a big fight over his contract. The Monarchs didn't want to give him one; they thought the letters sent back-and-forth were good enough. Robinson felt like the whole thing was small and unworthy of his time.

He never stopped feeling that way. Robinson talked often about how miserable that season was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. To be fair, he didn't play in the Negro leagues at its best. There was a war going on. The Monarchs' best players -- including Buck O'Neil -- were overseas. And this was before Jackie married Rachel; he was lonely. Still, yes, it was hard to play ball in the Negro leagues. Robinson saw it as a two-bit league, and he said that he was never even sure which games counted and which games did not.

He wrote it this way in his autobiography:

“The teams were poorly financed, and their management and promotion left much to be desired. Travel schedules were unbelievably hectic. … This fatiguing travel wouldn’t have been so bad if we could have had decent meals. Finding satisfactory or even passable eating places was almost a daily problem. There was no hotel in many of the places we played. … Some of the crummy eating joints would not serve us at all. You could never sit down to a relaxed hot meal. You were lucky if they magnanimously permitted you to carry out some greasy hamburgers in a paper bag with a container of coffee.”

It was during his one year with the Monarchs that Robinson's famous "pull the hose" story happened -- you might have seen it at the beginning of the movie 42. The Monarchs were traveling through Oklahoma when they stopped at their usual gas station. While stopped, Robinson headed for the rest room. “Where you going, boy?” the gas station owner asked. “You know you can’t go in there.”

To which Robinson replied: “Pull the hose out of the tank.”

Buck was told that story after he got back from the war, and it made him realize that Jackie Robinson was different from players of his generation (even though Buck was only about seven years older than Jackie). "We were conditioned to accept things as they were," Buck said. "Jackie was not."

After Robinson demanded that the gas station owner pull the hose out of the tank, the owner obviously did some quick math. He saw that there were two tanks on the bus. If he lost the Monarchs' business, it would take a bite out of his earning and his life.

“OK, go ahead,” the owner told Jackie Robinson. “But make it fast.”

After Jackie Robinson played a few months for the Monarchs, the story becomes very familiar. You know it by heart. Dodgers executive Branch Rickey sends out scouts to see him. Rickey pretends he's starting an all-black team. Rickey meets with Robinson for the famous “I want someone with the guts NOT to fight back” meeting.

And Robinson could not wait to leave the Monarchs. He got into another fight with club management and he went home before the season ended. Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson was outraged when he found out that Rickey would not compensate the Monarchs for Robinson's contract; in fact, Rickey disdainfully refused to even acknowledged that the Negro leagues existed as a baseball league.

Wilkinson eventually let it go. Why? Some said that he didn't want to stand in the way of major league integration. Other said that he understood that Rickey had him beat; the black press would have attacked Wilkinson mercilessly if he had fought too hard, and he couldn't afford that. So he stood down.

* * *

So where are we now? The Dodgers had signed:

-- A 27-year-old player (for context, Tim Tebow was 28 when the Mets signed him).

-- A fantastic athlete with great drive.

-- A poor college baseball player.

-- A guy whose only baseball experience in six years had been hitting .345 in a Negro leagues stripped down in talent by the war.

What were other people saying about him? Newt Allen, Robinson’s teammate with the Monarchs, believed that Robinson’s arm was too weak for the left side of the infield. Various Negro league pitchers said Robinson could not hit breaking stuff. Bob Feller (who had pitched against Robinson in a barn-storming tour) said that Robinson was too stiff in the shoulders to hit an inside pitch.

And, while that sounds crazy NOW ... the guy had hit .097 at UCLA.

Here we should point out perhaps the least appreciated aspects of the Jackie Robinson story: He was a man of faith. He got that from his mother. I don’t just mean he was religious, though he was — Robinson didn’t drink and was known to lecture teammates he thought were partying too much. He had faith … in God, in himself, in Rachel. Most of all, though, he had faith in his own destiny. He believed deeply that he was the one to break the color line. He believed deeply that God would not have led him down this path only to fail.

He was sure. That was the greatest of his many gifts. He was sure.

His first flight to spring training was a trip through hell. He and Rachel got bumped from their flight in New Orleans and were sent to a dismal black hotel. They were refused food service. Then they were rerouted through Pensacola. Then they were pulled off the flight. Then they were sent on a 16-hour bus trip.

And even during that bus trip, they were moved to the very back seat of the bus, even though they were already sitting near the back of the open section. They were continuously refused service until Rachel was in tears and Jackie found himself on the verge of hitting someone. Not long after they arrived at a home in Sanford, a mob threatened them and they left town.

Jackie Robinson had prepared for the worst, only to find that his vision of “worst” was not even close to the terrible reality.

But … he was sure. Robinson found himself in a terrible slump during spring training; even writers generally supportive of the cause began to believe he simply wasn’t good enough. He did lack the arm for shortstop. His odd-looking swing did not look even minor league ready.

But ... he was sure.

And slowly people began to see that.

Al Campanis (who later in life would get fired from the Dodgers for making various uneducated statements on television about African Americans lacking the necessities to be in management) was one of the first to see Robinson’s brilliance. Campanis was Robinson’s teammate in Montreal, and he watched how quickly Robinson picked up the intricate details of turning the double play as a second baseman. After a half hour, he looked as if he had grown up playing second. “He was the most adaptable player I ever saw,” Campanis would say.

Others noticed Robinson’s genius for anticipation; Jackie seemed to know what was going to happen before it did. A pitcher fooled him on a pitch once, perhaps, but never again. Robinson did not just learn how to hit the curveball, he became one of the best breaking ball hitters of his generation. He did not just adjust to inside pitches; he became lethal at turning on the ball. He went to Montreal under the most intense pressure and hit .349, walked 92 times, stole 40 bases, scored 113 runs and played a beautiful second base.

Now … explain that. Tim Tebow is a good example to use ... or Michael Jordan. Imagine if Tim Tebow or Michael Jordan showed up in their late 20s and just tore the league apart. It doesn't seem possible. It sounds fictional.

But … he was sure. Buck O’Neil often talked about this. He often wondered how good a baseball player Jackie Robinson would have been if there had been no cause, no principle, no fight worth fighting. Truth is, he wouldn't have played baseball. He would have become an NFL star or an Olympic track star or maybe even a star point guard.

Buck believed that without the cause, Jackie Robinson COULD NOT have played baseball as he did. It was the fight that transformed Jackie into a baseball legend. It was the cause that pushed Jackie to devote his mind, body and spirit to baseball. He had to be quicker, had to be smarter than anyone, had to be more driven because ... there was no choice. He was the first African American to play major league baseball. Jackie Robinson would sooner die than fail.

In his first year with the Dodgers, Robinson hit .297, walked 74 times, scored 125 runs, led the league in stolen bases and hit 12 home runs. That made him Major League Rookie of the Year (they did not give one in each league then). In his third season, he hit .342/.432/.528, scored 122 runs, drove in 124 and led the league with 37 stolen bases. That won him the MVP.

If you think about it that way, the baseball way, you realize: This is impossible.

Of course, we all celebrate the big story of Jackie Robinson. But I also love the small story — the one of a 27-year-old man with an aching ankle, a quirky swing, a deficient arm and an .097 college baseball batting average transforming himself into one of the greatest ballplayers ever because that was what was needed. Human beings really are capable of extraordinary things.