It’s Jackie Robinson’s birthday today. Happy Birthday, Jackie!

Jackie RobinsonJackie Robinson, who had David Thompson-like
hops, drops 20 in action against Cal.

Did you know that Jackie Robinson was much better at basketball than he was at baseball?

In fact he may have been the finest basketball player of his time.

Jackie Robinson

Robinson was so good on the court that in 1946 he played for a little known racially integrated professional basketball team called the Los Angeles Red Devils.

The Red Devils were organized seeking to join the National Basketball League (N.B.L.), which, in its merger talks with the N.B.A., wanted a West Coast franchise.

They played home games at the Olympic Auditorium in downtown L.A.

Robinson was already famous as U.C.L.A.’s first (and still only) 4-sport letterman, in football, baseball, basketball, and track.

Jackie RobinsonRobinson, bags packed,
ready to go. Standing here,
outside the U.C.L.A. door.

He was exceptional as a forward for U.C.L.A.’s basketball team, leading the Pacific Coast Conference Southern Division (now Pac-10) in scoring in 1940 and 1941.

“But scoring is the least of the dusky marvel’s accomplishments,” noted the Chicago Defender. “A lightning dribbler and glue-fingered ball handler, his terrific speed makes it impossible for one man to hold him in check.”

Robinson was a tremendous leaper, who had set the collegiate broadjump record.

“The first player who I ever saw dunking as part of his game was Jackie Robinson,” says former Rens player John Isaacs.

In early 1941, Robinson abandoned his senior year track season, a move that reportedly “broke the heart of track coach Harry Trotter, who had counted on him for the broadjump.”

Olympic AuditoriumOlympic Auditorium.

Robinson then reported for military duty during WWII.

He was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1946 and played for the minor league Montreal Royals.

That fall, Robinson signed with the Red Devils after a spectacular summer of pro baseball in Montreal.

Though they only played two seasons, the Red Devils were gooood while they lasted.

Red Devils v. Rens ad

Their lineup included forwards Jackie Robinson, Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame member George Crowe, and Pasadena City College standout Irv Noren, guards Everett “Ziggy” Marcelle, a Southern University grad and former Harlem Globetrotter, and U.S.C. All-American Eddie Oram, and Stanford star Art Stoefen at center.

Crowe, a sharp-shooting African American player who starred at Indiana Central College (now Indianapolis University), is enshrined in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. He went on to play pro basketball with the New York Rens, Dayton Rens, and Harlem Yankees, then played baseball in the major leagues for 10 years.

Marcelle went on to play baseball in the Negro Leagues like his father Ollie Marcelle, who had starred for the Brooklyn Royal Giants, Atlantic City Bacharach Giants, and Baltimore Black Sox.

Red Devils headline

Noren wound up playing alongside Mikan for the Chicago Gears in the N.B.L., then played major league baseball for 11 years.

To appreciate how good the Red Devils were, look at who they beat that season.

They crushed the Sheboygan Redskins of the N.B.L., twice.

George CroweGeorge Crowe.

They crushed the New York Renaissance (“Rens”), with a lineup that included future New York City Basketball Hall of Famer Clarence “Puggy” Bell and future N.B.A. player Hank DeZonie. Twice.

The Rens flew out to L.A. for the games, the first ever airplane trip for an African American barnstorming team.

They split with the N.B.L. champion Chicago Gears featuring the great future Hall of Famer George Mikan, with only 4 points separating the 2 teams.

Robinson left the Red Devils in January, just after a Branch Rickey visit to L.A., possibly at Rickey’s suggestion.

A few months later, on April 15, 1947, Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

He was named the 1947 M.L.B. Rookie of the Year after a spectacular season.

Jackie Robinson headline

Pro basketball teams still had a Jones for Robinson. Abe Saperstein offered Robinson a pro contract worth $10,000 with bonuses to play for his Harlem Globetrotters. Robinson made $5,000, the major league minimum, with the Dodgers, but declined.

Eddie OramEddie Oram.

Robinson also got an offer from the Canton Cushites, an all-black team that featured future Football Hall of Fame member Marion Motley and future Baseball Hall of Fame member Larry Doby. He declined that offer too, but did sneak in 2 games with the professional all-black Detroit Wolverines.

After leaving baseball, Robinson remained a basketball fan and followed the N.B.A. as it considered adding a Western team.

He was in favor of pro basketball in California, but doubted it could succeed.

“Though Los Angeles in particular has proved to be one of the great sports cities in the world,” Jackie wrote, “I still can’t forget the time ten years ago that pro basketball attempted to break in there.”

Robinson carried fond memories of the Red Devils.

“There were some exceptionally good basketball players with name value on the squad,” he reminisced. “We had, I think, a really fine team.”

Red Devils ad
Did Bud and Lou do a hoops version of their
“Who’s On First” routine?

The Red Devils had plenty of off court entertainment too. Abbott and Costello did a half-time routine during one game, and the Kilgore Rangerettes, which were “54 lovely Texas gals,” were advertised for another.

Attendance for Red Devils games ranged from 1,200 to over 3,000.

“There was a reasonable amount of publicity as well, and yet the promoters took a real bath in the this venture,” Robinson confessed. “Our games just didn’t draw.”

Still, Robinson pushed the idea.

Jackie RobinsonRobinson (at the Harlem Y.M.C.A.) loved
basketball and was very active with kids.

“Whichever way it happens – whether by expanding the present NBA or actually setting up a new league – I’d like to see it tried again on the West Coast.”

Jackie Robinson could have played professional basketball for any team. He could easily have starred for the Rens, or the Globetrotters, and he would have speeded up the integration of pro basketball.

He certainly would have ended up in the N.B.A. and likely would have beaten out Earl Lloyd, Nat Clifton, and Chuck Cooper for the honor of breaking that league’s color barrier.

However, basketball on a whole had already broken through.

Black teams had been playing white teams since before 1910 on a routine basis.

Since the early 1940s there’d been many instances of racially mixed independent teams (including the Red Devils). And there was already a trickling of black players into the N.B.L., including William “Dolly” King with the Rochester Royals and William “Pop” Gates with the Tri-City Blackhawks.

But baseball was America’s game.

Jackie Robinson knew that his role in baseball would have a bigger, broader, much more far-reaching cultural and social impact.

His court sense was impeccable.

His vision was massive. He had a definite major purpose.

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21 Responses to “Jackie Robinson, Pro Basketball Star”
  1. Ken Sargeant says:

    Thank you, Claude, for another “choice” insight!!!

    Reply

  2. Chris says:

    Thanks for the post. Very interesting. I’m from the West Coast and had no idea about the other skills (4 sports at U.C.L.A) of Jackie Robinson. I have a lot of reading to do in the area of sports history.

    Reply

  3. Matt says:

    Wow, four sport letterman? That’s impressive. Reminds me of the story I heard about Willie Mays (I think from the book “The Boys of Summer”) where they talk about how Mays’ best sport was actually football, but since no southern colleges would allow a black quarterback on their team, he just kind of “ended up” playing baseball.

    Reply

  4. Claude says:

    Ken, you’re welcome. Nice to hear from you!

    Chris, thanks … some of this stuff just isn’t in print yet! This blog post is the most extensive coverage Jackie’s basketball skillz have ever gotten, and believe me, I checked all the usual sources!

    Matt, thanks. What strikes me is how amazing some of these early athletes were. And how specialized sports has become as an industry, where it’s almost unthinkable to be even a 2-sport star in college, let alone in the pro ranks.

    Reply

  5. Randy Miller says:

    Not only was Jackie Robinson a great basketball player, but he took a turn at coaching as well. After the infamous incident when he left the Army in late 1944, he served as basketball coach at Sam Huston College in Austin (which would merge with Tillotson later.)

    Reply

  6. Claude says:

    Yeah, Randy, I mean, it’s clear he really loved basketball even though none of his bios really get into it that much. Thanks for that reminder!

    Reply

  7. Roy says:

    Thanks for the info Claude. My father often tells me that many of the greats of his era excelled in many sports. My parents encouraged me to participate in various sports before I eventually decided on basketball (at 6′6″ and barely weighing 180lbs the choice was easy) but I played football and baseball too. My brother played baseball and football before choosing football (currently in the NFL).

    One thing that bothers me about the current mentality is that often times kids are encouraged (forced?) to chose a sport very early and don’t develop the variety of skills that playing different sports gives. While watching Lebron James fill the lane on a fast break, I can imagine how much of a beast he was on the football field. Or the skills that AI has to penetrate and dish or score, some of that has to be the result of being an option quarterback in high school.

    Any comments on why there aren’t multiple letters given in today’s culture?

    Reply

  8. Claude says:

    Roy, thanks for chiming in!

    I think there aren’t many multi-letter stars because it’s such a big money business for the colleges and for the N.C.A.A. that it’s simply not worth it for schools to encourage that. I wouldn’t be surprised if they actively discouraged it. I don’t think it’s because of lack of interest from student-athletes, but on the other hand the rigors and requirements of big-time programs are a year ’round gig now. Do you have any insights?

    Reply

  9. Roy says:

    It’s true that it’s a big-money business, which is another blog in itself. But it’s still possible. Look at Julius Peppers, Ron Curry, even Donovan McNabb played a little hoops, Tony Gonzalez (Go Bears!), more recently you’ve got Jeff Samardzija (I had to look up the spelling) who was a great college wide receiver and a baseball player. The possibilities are there.

    The trickle effect of this “year ’round gig?” If sports becomes that important then what happens to other commitments?

    Reply

  10. Dave's Football Blog says:

    Very nice article. I knew at least one guy in high school who played four sports — football, basketball, soccer and baseball — but he was never really great at any one of them.

    You’re probably right about young athletes being encouraged to focus on a particular sport early. I suspect a lot of top basketball players are discouraged from playing football because of the risk of injury.

    Reply

  11. Claude says:

    Roy, exactly. “What happens to other commitments?” All one has to do is look up the graduation rates of even the most respected D1 programs …

    Dave’s Football Blog, thanks for your comment; you can probably vouch for that, right?

    Reply

  12. Jimmie says:

    Had UCLA used him more on the football team, he would had shown some of his extremely rare and unique skills more often. Check out his effectiveness as a UCLA football player someday in the limited role they allowed him to play.
    Also, growing up in L.A. in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, we all were encouraged to play several sports (track and field being one of the most popular), which made childhood a lot of fun and enhanced the ability to play more than one sport at a relatively high level. Jackie is the personification of that culture.
    Most of us were not nearly as good at basketball as our brothers across the country in the midwest and east coast. But the extraordinary guys who did play basketball on the west coast, like Jackie, Bill russell (also a track star), etc. are truly legendary.

    Reply

  13. Claude says:

    Yeah, I’m amazed at his talents on the gridiron. I read one account in the Chicago Defender which said he ran for a full minute and a half from scrimmage, zig zagging across the field, until finally scoring on a 50+ yard run. Ran back lots of punts too. Didn’t he have to wait his turn behind Kenny Washington until his senior year?

    Reply

  14. Susan says:

    Thanks for the article, Claude! Sorry I missed Jackie’s birthday and this blog last week - I was out of town. I remember presenting a paper in 1995 at a conference in Dayton Beach, Florida on Jack’s involvement in basketball at the college and professional levels. Sponsored by Bethune-Cookman College, the conference celebrated Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League Baseball. Rachel Robinson attended, accompanied by Arnold Rampersad, and sat just a few feet away from me in the front row. It was a tremendous honor to meet Mrs. Robinson and give her copies of photos of her last husband (Jack playing basketball) that she had never seen before. Yes, Jack Roosevelt Robinson could have been a professional athlete in a number of sports. Though he was a great athlete, he was an even better person. I will always admire Jackie - I hold in high esteem for the personal sacrifices he made to better society.

    Reply

  15. Brandon Byrd says:

    Mr. Johnson, great article. I didn’t know Jackie Robinson played B-Ball and lettered in four sports. Thanks for the story….awesome!!!!

    Reply

  16. The Black Fives Blog » Support For Black Basketball Players In Ohio Goes Way Back says:

    [...] Max Rosenblum, a Jewish entrepreneur and the owner of a clothing store bearing his name, created the Rosenblum Professional Invitational Basketball Tournament in 1941. This tournament provided an opportunity for the Rens, who won the event in 1942.In 1947, the Canton Cushites, an all-black basketball team that featured Cleveland Browns star and future Football Hall of Fame member Marion Motley and Cleveland Indians star and future Baseball Hall of Fame member Larry Doby, almost signed basketball star Jackie Robinson. [...]

  17. The Black Fives Blog » Friday Free Throws says:

    [...] is a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. Crowe played for the New York Rens, the Los Angeles Red Devils (alongside Jackie Robinson), and the Dayton Rens. He was a 2-sport star with an All Star career in [...]

  18. The Black Fives Blog » September Birthdays, Black Fives Era Basketball Pioneers says:

    [...] was born September 1, 1916 in New Orleans.  Marcell played professional basketball with the Los Angeles Red Devils, alongside Jackie Robinson, and pro baseball in the Negro [...]

  19. Ron Thomas says:

    Hi Claude,

    After reading your blog about apologizing (a little late, Claude — where were you when I was married?) I saw the link to this Jackie Robinson article. This is a genuine contribution to hoops history. But here’s the amazing thing. I just finished the last week of teaching my News Writing class at Morehouse, which I devoted to black sports history. Both Monday and Wednesday, I spent much of those classes talking about Jackie’s impact on society, and I told my students that he may have been the greatest American athlete ever. In fact, in college, baseball was his worst sport! So it was exciting to read your article not only because you backed me up (which you always do) but also because I learned so much from reading it.

    As we used to say in the 70s, “Teach, brother, teach.”

    - Ron

    Reply

  20. R.I.P. Hank DeZonie, Harlem Rens Star, Among First Four Blacks In NBA | The Black Fives Blog says:

    [...] to Los Angeles in a chartered 4-engine Douglas aircraft to play Jackie Robinson’s team, the Los Angeles Red Devils — the first airplane trip for the Rens.  DeZonie also played with the Rens in World [...]

  21. Keith Ellis says:

    Entering a bit late to the discussion, but couldn’t let the comment about “instances of integrated independent teams since the early Forties” stand alone. In 1935 David DeJernett’s AllStars became perhaps the first independent integrated barnstorming ballclub. Later that year the Buffalo Bisons integrated the MidWest BasketBall Conference w/ Center Hank Williams. And in 1936-37 Big Jack Mann, as has been reported here in the Black Fives blog, played for the independent otherwise-white Art Imigs of Sheboygan, later to become the NBL/NBA’s Sheboygan Redskins.

    W/ all due respect to Bucky Lew (did he barnstorm?), the above trio cleared the lane for the Jackie Robinsons & George Crowes who famously followed.

    Reply

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