Jackie Robinson, Professional Football Star

Jackie Robinson played integrated professional football before baseball. Social Distancing Included.

If not for Branch Rickey’s beta test in equality, we might be calling Super Bowl Sunday Jackie Robinson Day. Before Jackie Robinson broke barriers on the diamond, he helped pave the way on the gridiron.

Robinson’s brief tenure in professional football is often overlooked.

The Los Angles Bulldogs fully anticipated having a healthy Jackie Robinson back on the field in 1945 after he finished his first season with the Kansas City Monarchs. Robinson’s mangled right ankle cut his second stint with the integrated Pacific Coast Football League franchise short in 1944, but not before allowing fans to briefly recall why he was the best football player in the country. “Jackie Robinson would be the main breakaway threat of the Los Angeles team,” a California newspaper said on October 5, 1945.

Three-weeks-later, the sports world changed forever. Every scribe in the country had a reaction to Jackie Robinson signing with the Montreal Royals of the International League, the MLB Brooklyn Dodgers’ top farm team.

“Jackie Robinson, through the medium of reams and reams of news stories and comment over the press wires, has been introduced to the nation’s sports fandom,” said Rube Samuelson of Jackie’s hometown Metropolitan Pasadena Star-News. “The irony of it is, that while he is called by Satchel Paige as the finest colored baseball player he has ever seen, Jackie has heretofore won the least attention in that sport … Time Marches On!”

Until Branch Rickey came calling Jackie Robinson was first-and-foremost a football player. It was a flash, but the UCLA gridiron star spent two-seasons over the course of four-years in the PCFL. Interrupted by war and injury, his stint in the PCFL was brief, but fans on the West Coast got a glimpse of Jackie Robinson playing, perhaps, his best sport.

In December 1941 Jackie Robinson made headlines in California when their prodigal son came home to play for the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the Pacific Coast Football League. Wrote Leslie Shoemaker in the Daily News:

“Jackie (Jitterbug) Robinson, probably the greatest open-field runner ever developed on the coast, yesterday signed a contract with the Los Angeles Bulldogs and will be in the lineup against the San Francisco Packers tomorrow at Gilmore stadium: Shortly after his arrival aboard the Lurline from Hawaii, where he has been treating the natives to an unaccustomed sort of hip-swaying during the last few months, Jackie became a Bulldog.”

That hip-swaying was on the football field where he donned number-85 for the Honolulu Bears alongside UCLA teammate Ray Bartlett. It was a semiprofessional league, but Robinson often put on a show in front of 20,000-plus fans.

Even the recaps are almost super-human. He played both sides of the ball. Robinson intercepted a pass and ran it back for a 60-yard touchdown, then drove the Bears’ 70-yards downfield on four plays. After completing a 45-yard bullet pass, he faked a run reversed field and threw a six-yard-jump-pass while hanging in the air for a score. In another highlight, Robinson drops back to his own end-zone and heaves the ball 50-yards in the air for an 80-yard touchdown pass. All was going well until someone rolled his ankle in early December. He left before the final game but recovered in time to join the PCFL late in the 1941 season.

Robinson, who lived blocks Pearl Harbor, sailed on December 5, 1941 two-days before the bombing. In fact, his ship was still on the Pacific when Japan attacked. One week later, Robinson was on the field with the Bulldogs. The PCFL was considered one step from the NFL.

His triumphant return to the Southern California gridiron was a flop. Wearing number 44, Robinson was not himself. He didn’t know the plays and was nursing what was upon inspection by Army doctors diagnosed as a broken ankle. Shoemaker noted that an inured Robinson was mishandled, suffering from “sea legs and also bomb ears” against San Francisco.

The next week Robinson’s Bulldogs faced the league’s best player, his old teammate Kenny Washington and the Hollywood Bears. Robinson, Washington and his Hollywood teammate Woody Strode shared the backfield to form the vaunted “Gold Dust Trio” at UCLA. Football was a different game, and they did it all while often playing on defense too. Though Washington and Robinson were both listed as halfbacks they often made plays with their arms.

The much-hyped game, played in the shadow of a national crisis, war, had a familiar 2020 ring. Tickets to the game at 18,000-seat Gilmore Stadium, (now the site of CBS Studios) were limited to 10,000 “to hold down the crowd,” at the request of Army officials. This was a national emergency. For security purposes, crowd sizes on the West Coast were limited.

The hobbled Robinson was still far from 100-percent when he took the field against his former teammate in the championship game. Limited by his battered leg, Robinson used his arm, not his legs to wreak havoc on Washington and the Bears defense. He completed a 40-yard bomb to former Detroit Lion Elvin Hutchinson, followed by an 18-yarder and a 4-yard TD pass to give Robinson’s 11 a 10–3 lead. It was the Bulldogs only TD. Washington, in top form, proved too much. On the heels of a 20-yard scamper, Washington’s second TD pass of the day to Woody Strode gave Hollywood a 17–10 win.

Slated to play in an All-Star rematch two-weeks later against Washington and Strode, the game was canceled when crowds were limited to 5,000. Call it World War II’s version of social distancing.

Robbie, like Washington and many young men of their generation, went off to fight in the Second World War. Tapped for his ability to lead, Robinson became a Morale Officer where he resisted the rampant racism that pervaded the service. Robinson was going to play football in the Army, for Fort Riley, until the University of Missouri refused to play an integrated team. Robinson was sent on leave and they played the game. Robinson left the team. Even then Robinson was willing to put himself on the line for his principles. Told he could be forced to play, his answer was, yes, “but you can’t force me to play well.” Some things come full circle. This wasn’t the kind of blitz Jackie Robinson anticipated ducking just weeks before in 1944, but Robinson went from the battlefield to the playing field in a matter of weeks. In 1944 Robinson was headed to Europe when he was court-martialed but acquitted for taking another stand against racism.

The day after Robinson returned home from the Army, he signed with the Bulldogs. In November 1944, Jackie Robinson was back on the gridiron with the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the PCFL this time at 20,000 seat Los Angeles Wrigley Field (not that one but the home of the Los Angeles Angels of baseball’s Pacific Coast League and Home Run Derby fame)

Robinson’s return to the PCFL gridiron made headlines before he even arrived home. Three-years since his matchup with Washington, Robinson, wearing number-17, made his debut against the Hollywood Wolves at a packed Wrigley Field. Robinson quickly picked up where he left off, scampering for a 43-yard touchdown and hitting on a 65-yard touchdown pass, leading his team to a 21–13 win. He rushed 8-times for 102 yards, over 12-yards a clip, before his bad ankle forced him from the game.

Los Angeles’ matchup with San Diego was touted as a duel between Robinson and San Diego halfback Steve Bagarus from Notre Dame who joined the NFL in 1945. The hype never materialized. Robinson reinjured his bad ankle on the game’s first play and was forced to leave the game. Los Angeles fell to undefeated San Diego 41–14 in their final game of the season.

In March, he joined the Monarchs. Dodgers scouts were watching. His football career had quietly come to an end.

Robinson played in one-game against NFL competition. In September 1941, Robinson played in the annual NFL-College All-Star game against the Sid Luckman and the NFL champion Chicago Bears. Robinson, the star of the game and gave the NFL champions a scare. Three-minutes into the fourth-quarter, Robinson caught a 46-yard TD pass from Boston College’s Charlie O’Rourke to make it a 16–13 game. Charlie just dropped the ball in my arms and all I had to do was put on a little steam,” said Robinson who also completed a 40-yard pass. The Black press couldn’t help but notice the hypocrisy that was segregation. Though the NFL didn’t allow back players, “the Bears played against Robinson and marveled at his ability.”

“That Jackie Robinson is the fastest man I’ve ever seen in a uniform,” said Bears DE Dick Plasman. “The only time I was worried about the game was when Robinson was in there.”

Robinson brought a gridiron mentality to the baseball diamond. Rickey wanted a man who had Jackie’s intestinal fortitude, and “adventure,” in his game. It would be a partnership that changed America.

Jackie’s catch in the NFL-College All-Star Game

While Robinson was playing baseball in Montreal in 1946, the Los Angeles Rams, chosen to join the NFL over the Bulldogs in 1936 made Washington and Strode the first Black players to desegregate the NFL. If Mr. Rickey hadn’t come calling, who knows? Maybe the Rams tap Robinson to join Washington and Strode. Maybe Wellington Mara signs Robinson instead of Emlen Tunnel.

Said Pasadena scribe Rube Samuelson of Robinson in 1945:

The job he faces isn’t easy… The pressure is on Jackie… If he keeps his head, he can win, for when you come right down to it, Robinson is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, all-around athletes of all time. Others have shone brilliantly in one or two sports. But Robinson is far, far above the average in four sports — — baseball, basketball, football, and track and field (broad jumping).”

Robinson’s legacy shined brightest of all off the field.

“A life’s meaning is in the impact it has on other lives.”



J.M. Casper
Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball? And that Ain't All.

Professional writer covering sports, history and other subjects of interest. My mandate is to show how history and culture intersect.