A GIANT ON AND OFF THE FIELD
TEAMMATES RECALL JACKIE ROBINSONíS LEGACY
BY B.J. VIOLETT/UCLA Today Staff
Believe it or not, baseball was not Jackie Robinsonís favorite or best sport when he attended UCLA.
While his stint on campus from fall 1939 through winter 1941 was marked by brilliance on the gridiron, hardwood and broad jump pit, his one season of baseball was not particularly memorable. Still, he became the only Bruin ever to letter in all four sports.
"He really could do everything," recalled football teammate Don McPherson. "He broad jumped 26 feet and was the highest scorer on the basketball team. He was a great open-field runner, very elusive, and a great opportunist; if he saw an opening heíd take it and go."
Much has been written about Robinson on this 50th anniversary of his breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, but thereís been little focus thusfar on his time at UCLA.
Robinson came to Westwood in 1939, transferring from Pasadena Junior College. There were only a handful of African Americans on the UCLA team that fall, including his friend and Pasadena teammate Ray Bartlett and UCLA Hall of Famers Kenny Washington and Woody Strode.
Black athletes constantly were confronted by the harsh realities of the times. Ned Mathews, another football teammate, recalled an incident at Stanford: "A group of us, including Woody, Kenny, Jack and Ray, went into this restaurant and the fellow says ĎWe donít serve blacks.í And we said ĎOK, letís go.í If they didnít fit, we didnít fit and thatís the way it went."
While race was not a significant issue on Bruin teams Ė "We didnít worry about what color a player was," McPherson said. "They were just players to us, important players" -- much of the rest of the country wasnít as accepting.
"We couldnít play in Texas because we had black guys on our team," McPherson said. "They couldnít stay in the hotels or eat in the restaurants, so we didnít travel there." Mathews remembers it was rough for black athletes. "One game, some redneck Missouri players were riding Washington pretty good and they would take chalk from the sidelines and rub it in his face. But Kenny was terrific at just playing on through. He was amazing."
"Sometimes Jackie had a little bit of a chip on his shoulder," McPherson said. But maybe that was what drove him to succeed; he would ultimately carry the weight of his race on his shoulders, a pivotal figure in integrating sports -- and society.
After leaving UCLA, Robinson served a short time in the service before returning to baseball, playing his first major league game on April 15, 1947. He was a fierce competitor, daring and dazzling on the basepaths, stealing home an incredible 19 times in his career. Robinson was voted Rookie of the Year in 1947 and National League MVP two years later. He was the first African American inducted into baseballís Hall of Fame.
UCLA never forgot the legacy he left behind here. He served as Grand Marshall of the Homecoming Parade in 1951, received the Alumni of the Year Award in 1962 and was a charter member of the UCLA Hall of Fame in 1984.
After retiring, Robinson continued to fight for civil rights, writing a nationally syndicated column, giving speeches and participating in marches in the south. He died of a heart attack on Oct. 24, 1972.
While Jackie Robinson may have been the greatest athlete in UCLA history, his legacy extends far beyond the sports fields and arenas. His courage and integrity, determination and drive, make him one of the most important figures in 20th century America.