If times were different, Jackie Robinson could’ve been Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders.
Unfortunately, in the late ’30s and early ’40s, Jim Crow reigned, leaving him with few professional opportunities. The multi-sport star lived in a shameful era when a black man was fortunate to find a job, let alone make a living as an athlete.
But as Major League Baseball prepares to celebrate the 66th anniversary of Robinson breaking its color barrier, it’s also a good time to look back at this trailblazer’s prowess on the gridiron. For as good as Robinson was on the diamond, he may have been even better on the football field.
“When I had interviewed Rachel Robinson (Jackie’s wife) and also his brother, Mack Robinson, they both said the same thing – that he was a much better football player (than baseball player),” said Harvey Frommer, author of Rickey & Robinson: The Men Who Broke Baseball’s Color Barrier, in a 2006 interview.
Ray Bartlett, who played with Robinson at Pasadena Junior College and UCLA, believes that Robinson, once a fleet-footed running back, had the talent to play in the NFL.
“He just had the abilities to duck and dodge and stop quick and stop cold. It’s just amazing what he could do with his body if he had a little room to do it in,” said Bartlett, a former All-American himself, in a 2006 phone interview.
Born on January 31, 1919 in Cairo, Ga., Robinson migrated with his mother, Mallie, and four siblings to Pasadena, Calif., in 1920. The West was supposed to offer a respite from the racial prejudice of the South, but the Robinsons quickly discovered otherwise.
A member of the only black family on Pasadena’s Pepper Street, Robinson was subjected to frequent racial insults. In his biography, I Never Had It Made, he writes of a childhood incident in which a young white girl spewed taunts at him as he swept the sidewalk in front of his home. The feisty youngster countered with taunts of his own. Soon, the verbal spat elevated into a stone fight with the girl’s father. Robinson’s older sister, Willa Mae, has said that her little brother’s talent for tossing a baseball and football came “from throwing rocks at the other kids who threw rocks at him.”
Conveniently, Robinson grew up about a mile from the Rose Bowl, a facility he would sell hot dogs at as a youngster. His football stardom began at John Muir Technical High School (Muir Tech) in Pasadena. Also a standout in baseball, basketball and track, Robinson weighed around 135 pounds at the start of his first football season, notes Arnold Rampersad, in his 1997 biography of Robinson. With his slight frame, Robinson saw little action in his freshmen campaign, playing only a few games at quarterback late in the season.
But as his body filled out, Robinson evolved into the team’s first-string quarterback and punt returner in his sophomore year. The shifty star helped Muir Tech go undefeated until the last game of the season when a rival school employed a strategy to hit Robinson early and often. Rampersad writes that Robinson was forced to leave the game with cracked ribs.
By the end of his second season at Muir Tech, Robinson was considered one of the top football prospects in Southern California. Colleges across the country were showing interest but Robinson opted to attend Pasadena Junior College (PJC). Rampersad notes that of the close to 4,000 students attending PJC in 1937, only about 60 or 70 were black.
Heading into the 1937 football season, PJC had hired Tom Mallory, a former football star at Pasadena High School, to coach the team. Mallory had been coaching a high school team in Oklahoma and had brought along several white players who had never played with blacks.
“We had played with Caucasian guys here in Pasadena, so it wasn’t a problem for us (black players). It was a problem with them (the Oklahoma white players),” explained Bartlett. “But it seemed to kind of level itself out.”
Robinson was expected to be the quarterback that season, but he broke his ankle on September 14 and missed the first four games. The team lost all four contests. Upon his return, Robinson’s passing and running prowess allowed PJC to reel off five consecutive wins, and in the process, make him a hero on campus.
Robinson’s breakout year was 1938 when he was employed as a jack of all trades. He returned punts, quarterbacked the offence and evaded opponents as a running back. He rushed for 1,093 yards.
“Jackie always seemed to have extraordinary abilities as an athlete. . . . He could scoot and dunk and dodge,” recalled Bartlett.
In all, Robinson scored 17 touchdowns and accounted for 131 of the team’s 369 points, leading PJC to conference and state championships. Along with Bartlett, Robinson was also named a junior college All-American.
His heroics caught the eye of colleges who attempted to recruit him. In the end, however, he opted to stay close to home and enroll at UCLA. Few blacks attended the college when Robinson started in 1939. Rampersad reports that UCLA had no black instructors and black students were not expected at parties.
The 1939 Bruins football team boasted three black stars. Kenny Washington, who would later become one of the first black players to toil in the NFL’s modern era, was the team’s star halfback. Woody Strode, who later became a movie star, was a standout receiver. And Robinson himself was the highly touted rookie added to the backfield.
Coming off their best season, UCLA was poised to be even better in 1939. Although often used as a decoy for Washington, Robinson managed an impressive 11.4 yards per carry.
“They (UCLA) had a man in motion system. . . Jack was the man in motion and sometimes he’d get the ball and sometimes he didn’t,” recalled Bartlett, who was also a member of the 1939 UCLA squad.
Despite missing two games with a knee injury, Robinson established himself as one of the best punt returners in college history, averaging 16.5 yards per return. The 1939 squad would not lose a game all season (they had two ties). They battled the University of Southern California (USC) to a 0-0 tie in front of more than 100,000 fans at the Los Angeles Coliseum in the season’s final game. Because USC was also undefeated and had fewer ties, they advanced to the Rose Bowl.
With Washington and Strode no longer at UCLA, the 1940 squad was less formidable. The team won just one game – a mid-November matchup against Washington State that saw Robinson pass for one touchdown and run 60 and 75 yards respectively for two others. Robinson finished the season second in the conference in total offense and set a national record by averaging 21 yards per punt return.
Today, NFL teams would drool over a player of Robinson’s caliber, but back then, there were few professional opportunities for black athletes. Robinson dropped out of UCLA on March 3, 1941 because he wanted to help his mother financially. Knowing his chances of becoming a pro athlete were slim, he decided to work towards a career as an athletic director. He took a job with the National Youth Administration where he organized sports activities for teenagers at a camp in Atascadero, California. The program was shut down as the U.S. became involved in World War II.
In August 1941, Robinson was invited to suit up for a college all-star team that played an exhibition game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The fleet-footed Georgia native caught a 36-yard pass from Boston College’s Charlie O’Rourke to score a touchdown. The Bears won the game, but Robinson won respect. In his book, Rampersad relates that after the game a Bears’ defensive end said the only time his team was worried was when Robinson was on the field.
In a one-game deal later that year, Robinson toiled in his first pro football game with the Los Angeles Bulldogs. With about 10,000 fans on hand at Gilmore Stadium for a match against the Hollywood Bears, Robinson injured his ankle in the second quarter and watched the rest of the game from the sidelines.
One week later, Robinson signed a contract with the Honolulu Bears of the semi-pro Hawaii Senior Football League. Ampersad reveals that Robinson’s contract included a $150 advance against his salary that was $100 a game. As part of the contract, he also worked a construction job near Pearl Harbor during the week. Twenty thousand fans flocked to his first game with the Bears, and though he dazzled with his running abilities, he also had passes intercepted. Soon thereafter, he re-injured his ankle and his performance suffered. By the end of the season, Robinson was eager to return to California.
“I know that Jack wanted to get back home as soon as possible,” said Bartlett, who also played in Honolulu with Robinson.
Robinson boarded a ship back to California on December 5, 1941 – just two days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Upon his return, Robinson reported for military duty and was dispatched to Fort Riley, Kan., for 13 weeks of training. In Kansas, he was asked to play for the football team. After practicing with the squad, he was abruptly given a two-week leave to go home prior to the team’s first game against the University of Missouri. Robinson soon discovered that he was given the hiatus because the University of Missouri refused to play against a team with a black player. Once Robinson returned from his leave, he told army officials that he wasn’t willing to play for a team that would entertain such discrimination.
Robinson’s stint with the army was his last in football, but it’s clear to see that the diamond trailblazer was also an extraordinary talent on the gridiron. Bartlett believes that Robinson “definitely” had the skills to play in the NFL.
“I think he would’ve been topflight. I really do,” he said.
Rampersad thinks Robinson’s chronic ankle injury may have influenced the multi-sport star’s decision to play baseball. Frommer adds that the allure of being the first black player in Major League Baseball may have also contributed to Robinson’s decision. The veteran author also notes that during that era, professional baseball was likely a more stable career option.
“Baseball was probably much more established as a sport at that particular time,” he said.
So as Major League Baseball prepares to celebrate the 66th anniversary of Robinson breaking its color barrier, let’s not forget about this pioneer’s dominance on the gridiron. If times were different, he could’ve been Deion Sanders or Bo Jackson.
*This article has been adjusted from an article that I originally wrote in 2006.