№42: 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 very specific lens. Let’s try to see him not as the great Jackie Robinson, American hero, baseball pioneer, man who changed American sports.

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

Writers have written more words about Jackie Robinson’s life than any baseball player with the possible exception of Babe Ruth, so you probably know the basics. He was 1-year-old and living in Georgia when his father left the family. His mother, Mallie Robinson, had a deep belief in God. 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 mostly tied up in being the younger brother. Mack Robinson was five years older than Jackie. He was a brilliant track star; he made the 1936 Olympics at 200 meters and won the silver medal; he finished four-tenths of a second behind Jesse Owens’ world-record time. Track and field was a big deal in America then, and Mack Robinson was often in the news for winning NCAA and AAU races. Newspapers in those mostly referred to in the papers as “the younger brother of Mack,” or “Mack’s kid brother.”

Jackie Robinson was, by legend, a good high school baseball player but only in the same way that the great running back Jim Brown was an excellent bowler. He played every sport, played them all brilliantly. The sportswriter Vincent X. Flaherty — who later wrote the screenplay for Jim Thorpe, All American — called Robinson the “Jim Thorpe of his race.”

Football and track were his best sports; he and Kenny Washington (who was 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 of his seasons. He signed to play football for the Los Angeles Bulldogs and then the Honolulu Bears after dropping out of UCLA for financial reasons. Robinson left Honolulu two days before Pearl Harbor.

Robinson also won the NCAA long jump — and did so without even trying. If circumstances had been different, Jackie Robinson might have been a great track star. When Robinson signed with UCLA, the news was reported like so by United Press: “UCLA’s faltering track and field hopes were bolstered today by the promised enrollment this week of Jackie Robinson, Pasadena Junior College’s national AAU junior broad-jump champion.” But Robinson decided to quit the long jump after the 1940 Helsinki Olympics were canceled. He went back to the long jump halfheartedly; he still won the NCAA title.

But Robinson wasn’t a pure football or track star any more than Da Vinci was only a painter. Jackie Robinson was an athletic genius. He was a good enough basketball player to twice lead the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring. Sportswriters sometimes called him the “Ebony Luisetti” in the papers (Stanford’s Hank Luisetti innovating the running one-handed shot that led to today’s jump shot). One coach called him “the best basketball player in the United States. Robinson is often overlooked as a basketball player in part because he played for a dreadful team and in part because coaches left him off the first, second and third all-conference teams as a senior. This bit from the Oakland Tribune’s Art Cohn — comparing Robinson to USC’s Ralph Vaughn, who had been on the cover of Life Magazine — more or less sums it up:

“Now that all the picture mags have glorified Ralph Vaughn of USC as ‘America’s №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.”

His genius did not end with basketball. According to Jules Tygiel’s classic “Baseball’s Great Experiment,” Robinson also won the conference championship in golf. He won swimming championships. He did not only win the conference championship in tennis but also reached the semifinal of the what was then called the National Negro Tennis Tournament. Robinson did not even play much tennis.

It is legend that baseball was his worst sport at UCLA — and for once the legend matches up somewhat with reality. Robinson played one year of baseball at UCLA. He had a miraculous first game at UCLA. Again, to our Oakland sportswriter Art Cohn:

“Jackie Robinson, the №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 remembered many 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, 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. That seems utterly impossible to me. How in the world could Jackie Robinson, no matter how raw he might have been, go three for 69 against college pitching? He could have BUNTED .400, for crying out loud. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Also, I discovered a short newspaper story that seems to dismiss the whole thing. On April 5, before the UCLA-St. Mary’s game, there was a preview story. The season was almost a month old. The story read: “Jackie Robinson, football and basketball flash who leads the college league in hitting and base stealing will be be seen in action for the first time at Seals Stadium.”

How could he have been leading the conference in hitting on April 5 and still hit .097? It’s not possible.

Trouble is — the St. Mary’s story is almost certainly fraudulent. In those days, newspapers would print press releases verbatim — especially press releases designed to draw fans to games. Jackie Robinson was a huge star in California. I have little doubt the author had him “lead the college league in hitting” to spur interest.

Anyway, there are other details. 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 many unrelated sources for many decades. It’s likely true

Robinson also tied for the team lead in errors. It wasn’t a good season.

I would love to write about Robinson’s baseball season at UCLA. I don’t think enough has been written about that. My sense is that there is a much larger story here — a story about Jackie Robinson as a man.

The image of Jackie Robinson has been sanitized through the years; in truth he was a tough character. He wrote of himself that if things had gone slightly different for him as a child, “I might have become a full-fledged delinquent.” He had various 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 were a bit less innocent (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.

Of course, we look at Robinson (and the times when he lived) through a different prism now. Now we understand him, understand the rage and pride that whirled inside him, understand the unfairness of the world around him. At the time, though, people did not understand or see that. We see the pioneer. They saw the troublemaker, the rebel, the difficult young man. Yasiel Puig critics would have torn him apart.

And 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 into pitch with his team ahead and darkness descending. “I can’t see the plate,” Robinson reportedly moaned repeatedly and, to prove his point, threw wild pitch after wild pitch until the umpire finally called the game. That story suggests two things. One: Jackie Robinson was going to win. And two: Jackie Robinson did not care much about baseball.

Robinson was drafted into army three months after he finished playing football for the Honolulu Bears. He wanted to play baseball in the army but was not allowed; baseball in the army was segregated. He played some football, but that too was complicated by segregation and he quit — the most significant athletic thing that happened to Jackie 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 try to stay focused on the baseball thing — let’s see where we are here. On November 28, 1944, Jackie Robinson was honorable discharged from the army after winning his court-martial case. He was 25 years old, almost 26. He’d played one season of college baseball and had hit .097. He had a bum ankle. He was a very angry person. The army had almost ruined 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 saw a baseball pitcher throwing good curveballs. In the version Robinson told in his autobiography “I Never Had It Made,” he saw a pitcher named Ted Alexander pitching on a field at Camp Breckenridge in Kentucky. In another version, one often told around Kansas City, Robinson actually met the Hall of Famer Hilton Smith, who was famous for his curveball. In either case, the pitcher encouraged Robinson to send a letter to the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues asking for a job.

Robinson sent a letter to Thomas Baird, who was the partner of Kansas City Monarchs founder J.L. Wilkinson. Baird was obviously interested — Robinson was one of the most famous African-American athletes in America. And the Negro Leagues were always in need of players who could bring out the fans; this was particularly true during the war. Robinson and Baird haggled over money in a series of letters, and then a deal was struck. Robinson worked as a physical education teacher in Texas for a couple of months until spring training.

When Robinson showed up for spring training he was — to say the least — underwhelmed. Robinson came to spring training with a healthy distrust of Negro Leagues baseball; he would say that at 17 he had played for a Negro Leagues team and was never paid. Then, there was some hassle of his contract — namely if he even needed one. The Monarchs seemed to believe the letters sent back and forth constituted a binding contract. To Jackie Robinson, it just felt small-time.

And for the rest of his life, he would talk about how miserable that season was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. There were extenuating circumstances. It was during the war so many of the best players were gone. And this was before Jackie had married Rachel; he was lonely. Even so, it has always struck me how Buck O’Neil saw the Negro Leagues and how Jackie Robinson saw them. Buck would often talk about how wonderful the conditions were, how great the games were, how delicious the food and music and nightlife.

And Jackie Robinson wrote this 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.”

The different viewpoints, I believe, explain the different men. Buck’s genius was is seeing the good in people and seeing the good in situations. That allowed him to overcome so many disappointments. Jackie Robinson’s genius was different though. His genius was a sense of justice. His genius was fearlessness. And so it really came down to this:

Buck O’Neil saw the Negro Leagues as a beautiful baseball league with wonderful players that was built in defiance of an America that insisted African Americas could not play.

Jackie Robinson saw the Negro Leagues as a second-rate baseball league with some good players that only existed because of the racism of the time.

They were both right, in their own ways. You have perhaps heard Buck O’Neil’s story about Jackie Robinson and the bus. It is the story that led off 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 loved to imagine what was happening in the owner’s mind. On one side of the brain, there was the part of him that believed in segregation. On the other side, there was the realization that this bus had tanks on both sides and that 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.”

Buck O’Neil would say that in a million years it would never have occurred to him to challenge the owner the way Jackie Robinson did that day. He had been to that very gas station dozens of times, and he liked the owner. The owner was nice to them, didn’t hassle them … “We were conditioned,” Buck would say. “We were conditioned to simply accept what was happening no matter how unfair it was, conditioned to accept that we couldn’t change things. But Jackie wasn’t conditioned like that.”

Jackie Robinson played a few months for the Monarchs and then the story becomes very familiar. Dodgers executive Branch Rickey sends out scouts to see him. Rickey pretends he is starting an all-black team. Rickey meets with Robinson — the famous “I want someone with guts NOT to fight back” meeting. Everything changed.

Jackie Robinson could not wait to leave the Monarchs. He got into a bit of a fight with the club management and he just went home before the season ended. The Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson was outraged when he found out that Robinson had signed with the Dodgers. Rickey had not volunteered to compensate the Monarchs — in fact, Rickey disdainfully refused to even acknowledged that the Negro Leagues existed as a baseball league.

Wilkinson eventually let it go. Some said he let it go because he knew that it was right for black players to play in the Major Leagues — that was always Buck’s taken. Some, though, said he let go under duress; the black press would have attacked him mercilessly if he had tried to get in the way in baseball integration.

* * *

So, one more time, it’s good see where we are: The Dodgers had signed a 27-year-old player with fantastic athletic ability, an unquestioned drive and almost no baseball experience at all. Robinson had hit .345 for the Monarchs, but nobody knew what that meant. Competition during the war was shaky. Robinson’s actual batting average was a mystery even to him — he admitted that he never knew what games counted and what games did not.

Beyond the batting average, there were many different opinions about Robinson’s game. Newt Allen, Robinson’s teammate with the Monarchs, believed that Robinson’s arm was too weak for the left side of the infield. Some 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 any inside pitch.

And, remember, the guy had hit .097 at UCLA.

Here we should point out of one 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 … Faith in himself, faith in God, he was by all accounts deeply faithful and devoted to Rachel. Most of all, though, he had this faith in destiny. His destiny. He believed deeply that he was the one to cross the color line. He believed deeply that God would not have led him down this path to fair.

Jackie Robinson believed that failure was not an option. But it was more than that. Jackie Robinson believed failure was not possible.

His first flight to spring training was a trip through hell. He and Rachel got bumped from their flights in New Orleans. Were sent to a dismal black hotel. Refused food service. Rerouted through Pensacola. Pulled off the flight. Sent on a 16-hour bus trip. During that bus trip, they were moved to the very back seat of the bus even though they were already sitting near the back in the open section. They were efused service again and again until Rachel was in tears and Jackie was 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 nothing close to the terrible reality.

But … destiny. Robinson got into a terrible slump during spring training; even some writers generally supportive of the cause began to believe he simply wasn’t a good enough baseball player. He did not have the arm for shortstop. His somewhat odd-looking swing did not look even minor-league ready. But … destiny. Robinson believed in it. What’s more, Branch Rickey believed in it too.

And slowly people began to see things.

Al Campanis (who later in life would get fired from the Dodgers and shunned nationally 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 was a friend. He watched Robinson move to second base for the first time in his life almost instantly learned the details of turning the double play. After a half hour, he looked as natural there as if he had grown up at second. “He was the most adaptable player I ever saw,” Campanis would say.

Others noticed how smart he was about baseball — he had a keen level of anticipation; he seemed to know what was going to happen before it happened. He adjusted at the plate like no one. Robinson did not only learn how to hit the curveball, but 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. Imagine a famous 27-year-old former college player and track star showing up today, someone who hit less than .100 his one year in college, did not play any organized baseball for five years and then had a little bit of success in a short season in independent league. What chance would that player have to make the Major Leagues? Not long ago, I asked my youngest daughter what percentage chance there would be that she would order fish at a restaurant. “Minus 1,000 percent,” she said. That is the percentage you would give such a player.

But … destiny. Buck O’Neil often talked about it. If there had been no cause, if Jackie Robinson had come up in a different time, he almost certainly would not have played baseball. He would have run track or played football or maybe even been a star point guard. But Buck believed something even more. He believed Robinson in another time, without the cause, Jackie Robinson COULD NOT have played baseball at that level. He believed that what transformed Jackie Robinson into one of the game’s greatest players was that cause. He devoted himself to the game as few ever have — he devoted his mind, his body and spirit to baseball. He had to be quicker than anyone, had to be smarter than anyone, had to be more driven than anyone. Because … that was his cause. And that was his destiny.

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 on 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 base. That won him the MVP.

One thing about Robinson’s career that has puzzled some of the sabermetrics folks is how phenomenal Robinson’s defensive numbers are. Robinson was not viewed as a defensive star when he played. The Dodgers kept moving his position he played second; he played third; he played first; they put him in the outfield for a while. And yet, year after year, his defensive WAR as figured by Baseball Reference, his defensive WAR as figured by Fangraphs, his defensive contribution as figured multiple ways by Bill James, all of them are spectacular.

There are countless possibilities for this; I’ll throw one out there. I don’t think any player in baseball history every cared as much as Jackie Robinson did. There have always been driven players — those driven by demons like Cobb or driven by competitive fury like Rose or driven by a desperate desire to dominate, like Bonds or Clemens.

But Robinson was driven by an ideal. It wasn’t just the ideal that baseball players should be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their baseball character. That was part of it. There was also the ideal that he was chosen for this task. It was his burden, but it was also his honor. Jackie Robinson couldn’t take a play off. Jackie Robinson couldn’t forget how many out there were. Jackie Robinson couldn’t go into any pitch unprepared. He was playing for history.

I think this is a big reason why I so deeply love the Jackie Robinson story. Yes, of course, there’s the big story, the one of men changing America just a little bit through baseball. But I also love the small story — the one of a 27-year-old man with an aching ankle and a quirky swing and a deficient arm and little experience making himself into a great ballplayer because that was what was needed. Human beings really are capable of extraordinary things.