Jackie Robinson was born a few months before UCLA was. In honor of the centenary of his birth, here are some of the most important facts, experiences and accomplishments that are associated with the legendary Bruin, Dodger and civil rights leader.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born in Cairo, Ga., the youngest of five children. The following year, his mother and her children moved to 121 Pepper Street, Pasadena – a white neighborhood, where the family encountered many acts of racism. Not one to turn the other cheek, young Jack fought back.
Robinson and his siblings excelled in sports; older brother Mack won a silver medal
in the 200-meter dash at the 1936 Olympics, finishing second to Jesse Owens. At
Pasadena Junior College, Jack broke school broad jump records held by Mack.
In the fall of 1939, Robinson enrolled at UCLA, where the student population was less than 1% African American and there was not a single black faculty member. He became the first Bruin to letter in four sports and was a genuine star in three of them - football, basketball and track. Baseball was his worst sport at UCLA.
In the spring of 1941, a few units short of completing his degree, Robinson withdrew
from UCLA because, he said, his mother needed him to go to work.
In 1945, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League as a shortstop. He fought against the discrimination the team experienced, standing up to a filling station owner in Oklahoma who refused to let players use the restroom. From that point on, the team only frequented establishments that let them use the facilities.
It was far from the first time that Robinson had refused to accept racist treatment. The war years were combative for him, though he spent them stateside. In 1942, after being drafted and sent to Fort Riley, Kan., Robinson applied to Officer Candidate School, but was initially rejected. With the help of heavyweight champion Joe Louis, with whom he was stationed, he was eventually accepted and commissioned as 2nd Lt. At Fort Riley, he was not allowed to play baseball because the coach refused to integrate the team.
In 1944, after being reassigned to Camp Hood, Texas, Robinson’s refusal to move
to back of an Army bus at the camp led to his being court martialed. Segregation
of this type had been outlawed by the military and Robinson refused to allow a civilian
to dictate to him where he should sit. After MPs were called, he was arrested and
charged with insubordination for threatening a private who had insulted him. He
was acquitted, but, angry and disillusioned, he asked for and was granted an honorable
During the fall of 1940, his senior year at UCLA, Robinson met 17-year-old nursing student Rachel Isum. “I expected him to have a big ego and be an impossible person to talk to,” she said. However, “he related to me quickly and easily and I had to rethink my view of him. I encouraged him to court me; we used to park in the same lot and I would get there early so I could see him.” They married in 1946.
When Robinson was selected as the man to break the color barrier in professional baseball, Rachel was an essential part of the package: Dodger executive Buzzie Buvasi reports back to Rickey after meeting her, “If Jackie was smart enough to pick her for his wife, he’s the guy you want.” Many decades later, Michelle Obama concurred: “It’s a sign of his character that he chose a woman who was his equal. I don’t think you would have had Jackie Robinson without Rachel.” After Robinson retired from professional baseball, Rachel became an assistant professor at the Yale School of Nursing and director of nursing at the Connecticut Mental Health Center.
Rachel Robinson received the UCLA Medal in 2009. “I have never lost contact with
the campus,” Robinson, who is now 96, said at the time. “I have always felt very
close to the university. It’s really the place where I grew up.”
Brooklyn Dodger President Branch Rickey was determined to right what he considered a moral wrong – the “gentlemen’s agreement” that had prevented African Americans from playing professional baseball since the 1880s – and turn the Dodgers into a pennant contender. He and his front-office team identified Robinson as the ideal candidate – in terms of ability, character and temperament – to re-integrate professional baseball.
Robinson agreed to Rickey’s requirement that he not fight back for three years,
signed to play for the Dodgers’ farm team in Montreal and attended spring training
in 1946 in Daytona Beach, Fla. Rachel, providing moral and emotional support, was
the only wife allowed to accompany a player to Florida. Robinson made the team,
led them to a championship and was named AAA International League MVP.
Some Brooklyn Dodger players objected to playing with Robinson, but management supported him. He joined the club in 1947 and led them to the World Series, earning the respect of his teammates and being named the first Rookie of the Year — an award that, in 1987, was named in his honor. In a radio poll that year, he was voted second most popular American, behind only Bing Crosby.
Robinson played 10 years in the majors, compiling a lifetime average of .311, playing in six World Series and six consecutive All-Star games. His statistics, though impressive, do not come close to describing his impact on the game. One other fact begins to tell that story: eight of the 10 National League MVPs in the 1950s were African American.
His impact on the country as a whole was even more profound. Former teammate Don Newcombe recalled
what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had said to him about baseball’s integration
pioneers: "He said, 'Don, you'll never know how easy you and Jackie and Roy (Campanella)
and (Larry) Doby made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field.'”
Freed of the requirement to not fight back, Robinson had his best individual season in 1949, leading the league in hitting (.342) and stolen bases (37) and earning the MVP award. For the years 1949-54, he averaged 16 home runs, 87 RBIs, 100 runs and 20 stolen bases per season, compiling an aggregate batting average of .327 with an on-base percentage of .428 and a slugging percentage of .505. In those six years, he struck out a total of 168 times. In 2018 season alone, 10 players struck out at least that many times.
As his stature in the game and in American culture continued to grow - and the push
for social justice started to gain momentum - Robinson demanded that he and his
teammates be given full access to all the facilities – lobbies, bars, swimming pools,
etc. - at the hotels where they stayed.
Unbeknownst to the Dodgers, Robinson had decided to retire from baseball following the 1956 season, having accepted an executive position at “Chock full o’Nuts,” a chain of coffee shops in New York City. Before he announced his retirement, he was traded to the rival Giants, but declined to report.
In 1959, Robinson began writing a newspaper column in which he discussed many of
the social issues of the day; it was the first attempt at national syndication for
a black writer. For the rest of his life, he continued to use his stature to advocate
for social justice. Rachel Robinson: “Baseball was a bridge to the civil rights
movement for him.” Without the fame that baseball gave him, she says, “he wouldn’t
have had the chance to move toward Dr. King and others, so he could assist them
in what they were doing.”
In 1962, he was elected to Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Since he had asked voters to consider only his on-field accomplishments, his plaque did not mention his impact on the game:
"A player of extraordinary ability renowned for his electrifying style of play. Over 10 seasons hit .311, scored more than 100 runs six times, named to six All-Star teams and led Brooklyn to six pennants and its only World Series title, in 1955. The 1947 Rookie of the Year, and the 1949 N.L. MVP when he hit a league-best .342 with 37 steals. Led second basemen in double plays four times and stole home 19 times."
In 2008, a new plaque was installed, adding the line "Displayed tremendous courage
and poise in 1947 when he integrated the modern major leagues in the face of intense
In 1963, as the fight for civil rights really began to heat up, Robinson traveled to Birmingham, Ala., to see the racial strife for himself. He was accused of being a being an outside agitator but responded, “Whenever and wherever in the south the leaders believe I can help just the tiniest bit, I intend to go.” Later that year, he participated in the March on Washington, at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
To lifelong Democrat Rachel’s disappointment, Robinson had supported Richard Nixon
in the 1960 presidential election. He railed against Barry Goldwater’s non-support
for civil rights legislation in 1964, but continued to support a Republican, joining
Nelson Rockefeller’s campaign for the nomination. He was sometimes accused of being
out of touch with the movement because of his support for Republican candidates
and his insistence on non-violent forms of resistance, in contrast to the philosophy
espoused by Malcolm X and other more radical activists. Rachel Robinson: “Jack opposed
any form of violence – even the rhetoric that goes with violence, so it was hard
for him to support Malcolm X when he was saying ’by any means necessary.’”
In 1964, Robinson helped found “Freedom National Bank” in Harlem (and later in Brooklyn) as a protest against white financial institutions that discriminated against African Americans by denying them loans or setting interest rates artificially high.
In a letter he wrote Malcolm X in 1963, Robinson said, "America is not perfect by a long shot, but I happen to like it here and will do all I can to make it the kind of place where my children and theirs can live in dignity."
Within three years, Freedom National Bank was the most successful black-run bank
in the country.
In 1965, Robinson became the first African-American TV sports analyst, broadcasting for ABC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week telecasts. In 1972, he worked as a part-time commentator for the Montreal Expos.
Robinson made his final public appearance, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch
before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. He gratefully
accepted a plaque honoring the 25th anniversary of his major league debut,
but also commented, "I'm going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when
I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in
Weakened by heart disease and diabetes, Robinson died of a heart attack at his home in Connecticut on Oct. 24, 1972. He was 53. His last words, spoken to Rachel, were “I love you.”
At Robinson’s funeral, Jesse Jackson delivered the eulogy. The pallbearers were
basketball legend Bill Russell, Doby, who integrated the American League, and Dodger
teammates Newcombe, Jim Gilliam, Pee Wee Reese and Ralph Branca.
The Dodgers retired Robinson’s uniform number, 42, a few months before his death. On April 15, 1997, number 42 was retired throughout Major League Baseball, the first time any jersey number was retired throughout one of the four major American sports leagues. He did not wear number 42 as a Bruin, but, because the number is so closely identified with him, in 2014 UCLA retired uniform number 42 across all of its intercollegiate sports.
UCLA is commemorating the 100th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's birth with a series of events, including a concert, with Rachel Robinson and daughter Sharon scheduled to attend, a panel discussion and a blood drive.
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