CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31, 1919, into the large family and was the younger brother of Edgar, Frank, Mack, and Willie Mae. His parents gave the boy the middle name Roosevelt, after former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who died 25 days before Jack was born. Jack grew up in relative poverty surrounded and was deprived of many opportunities. This led him to join a local gang, but his friend, Carl Anderson, persuaded him to leave it.
In 1935, Robinson graduated from Washington High School and transferred to John Muir High School. There he began playing a variety of sports: baseball, basketball, soccer. Robinson played shortstop and catcher on the baseball team, quarterback on the soccer team, and fullback on the basketball team. Jack was also a member of the tennis and track teams, on which he won awards in the long jump.
In 1936 Robinson won the annual Pacific Coast Negro tennis competition and was selected to the All-Star team for the annual baseball tournament in Pomona. In addition to him, this team also included future National Baseball Hall of Fame members Ted Williams and Bob Lemon. The following year Robinson began playing for the high school basketball team, and his name first appeared in the pages of the Pasadena Star-News. The article stated that Robinson “has been the school’s outstanding athlete for two years “.
After graduating high school, Robinson enrolled at Pasadena College, where he continued to play baseball, American soccer, basketball, and track, and field. He played quarterback and safeties on the American soccer team and shortstop and first baseman on the baseball team. He broke the college record in the long jump, which belonged to his brother Mack, the famous athlete and silver medalist at the 1936 Summer Olympics.
As in high school, most of Robinson’s teammates were white. While playing American soccer, Jack broke his ankle, and complications from that fracture later affected his career in the armed forces. He also joined the student police organization on-campus patrol. In 1938, Robinson was named to the Southern College All-Star baseball team, and he received the award for the most valuable player in his region. That same year, Robinson was one of ten students to become a Knight of the Order of the Mast and Dagger, a student award “for outstanding service to the school and whose scholastic and civic achievements are worthy of recognition.”
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Toward the end of his college years, his brother, Frank Robinson (with whom Jackie had the closest relationship of any brother), crashed to his death on a motorcycle. The accident prompted Robinson to pursue his athletic career at UCLA, where he could stay close to Frank’s family.
ROBINSON AS A RACISM FIGHTER
On January 25, 1938, there was an incident at Pasadena College that showed Robinson as a fighter against racism, a trait that would be with him throughout his life. On that day, he openly spoke out against the arrest of his black friend by the police. He was arrested for it and received two years’ probation, but the incident and rumors of Robinson’s other run-ins with the police built his reputation as an aggressive fighter against racial antagonism.
EDUCATION AND FIRST JOB
In 1939 Robinson enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he became the first student to qualify for the university’s four-sport team: basketball, soccer, baseball, and track and field. On the Bruins’ university soccer team, Robinson was one of four African Americans (the others were Woody Strode, Kenny Washington, and Ray Bartlett. Strode, Washington, and Robinson were three of the team’s four quarterbacks, which was a huge rarity at the time because very few African Americans played college soccer. At the 1940 NCAA Championships, Robinson won the gold medal in the long jump, jumping 7 feet 56 inches. Robinson’s baseball performances, however, were not very successful.
In his final year of college, Robinson met freshman and his future wife Rachel Isum, who had heard about Jack’s athletic accomplishments when he was still at Pasadena College. In the spring of 1941, despite the objections of his mother and Rachel, Robinson left school before receiving his degree. At first, he took a job as assistant athletic director of the National Youth Administration in Atascadero. After the administration closed, he went to Honolulu in late 1941, where he played for the semi-professional, multiracial Honolulu Bears, but in December he returned to California and joined the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the Pacific Coast Football League (in one of the games he faced his former college teammate Kenny Washington, who had played at the linebacker position for the Hollywood Bears).
At the time, Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor, which was the beginning of the war between Japan and the United States and ended Robinson’s soccer career.
ARMY AND THE ACCIDENT
After being drafted in 1942, Robinson was immediately sent to a cavalry unit for colored men at Fort Riley military base in northeast Kansas. With suitable training, Jackie and several other black soldiers applied to join the officer training unit at the military base. However, even though black soldiers had been allowed to join the officer training school since July 1941, Robinson and his fellow soldiers’ application was delayed for seven months. It was only with the help of world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (who was also serving at Fort Riley at the time) and attorney Truman Gibson (who served as counselor to the Secretary of War) that the boys were finally accepted into the officer’s school. After that incident, Robinson and Louis became friends. In January 1943, after training in the unit, Robinson was promoted to the second lieutenant. Soon after, Robinson and Isum announced their engagement.
After receiving his rank, Robinson arrived at Fort Hood, Texas, where he joined the 761st Tank Battalion, Black Panthers. At Fort Hood, Robinson often spent weekends visiting the Rev. Carl Downs, principal of Sema Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson University), who had previously pastored Robinson at Scott United Methodist Church when Jack attended Pasadena College.
An accident in July 1944 ended Jack’s military career. While waiting for the results of a medical examination of an ankle he had injured in college, Robinson boarded an army bus with the dark-skinned wife of one of the other officers. Even though it was an unsegregated route, the driver, thinking Robinson’s companion was white, ordered Jack to take a seat at the back of the bus. But Robinson refused. The driver decided not to take any action himself and, after reaching the terminus, called the military police, who arrested Jack. Later, when Robinson refused to give answers to the officer’s and his aide’s racist questions, they decided to take the case to a military court. Robinson’s commander in the 761st Battalion, Paul Bates, refused to open a court case and transferred Robinson to the 758th Tank Battalion, where his new commander quickly accused Jack of numerous violations, including drinking in public, although Robinson was not drinking at all.
In August 1944, the court-martial reduced the charges against Jackie to two counts of insubordination during interrogation. Robinson was acquitted by nine white sworn officers. Although his former 761st Tank Battalion was the first all-black unit to take part in World War II, Robinson was never able to leave the country to take part in hostilities because of the trial. After his acquittal, he was transferred to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, where he served as a military physical trainer until November 1944, when he resigned honorably.
It was then that he met a former Kansas City Monarchs player from the Negro League, who suggested that Jack write a letter to the Monarchs and ask to participate in a tryout. Robinson took the advice and wrote to team owner Thomas Baird. Jack Robinson broke the ‘color barrier’ on April 15, 1947; that’s when the Brooklyn Dodgers put him on first base. It’s hard to overstate the importance of what the Brooklyn Dodgers did – Jack Robinson’s appearance on the field of play dealt another, extremely powerful blow to racial segregation. Jack, however, was not remembered for the color of his skin; he was an outstanding baseball player. In 10 seasons Robinson made 6 appearances in World Series games; in many ways, he helped the Dodgers win the World Series in 1955. Six straight times between 1949 and 1954 Jack Robinson was named to All-Star teams, and in 1947 he became the first player in the world to win the newly created MLB Rookie of the Year Award. In 1949, Jackie Robinson became the first black player in baseball history to be named National League Most Valuable Player Award. In 1962, Jack was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame; in 1997, Robinson won an even higher honor when the Major League Baseball officially certified him as number 42, forbidding other players on major baseball teams from wearing his uniform. Jack became the first professional athlete whose uniform was officially ‘retired’.
JACKIE ROBINSON DAY
He became the first professional athlete to have his uniform officially retired. Later, a holiday was invented in honor of Robinson and his uniform: on Jackie Robinson Day, all major league teams wore number 42 uniforms exclusively. Robinson struggled with racial segregation outside the baseball field as well, most notably by becoming the first black television commentator and the first black vice president of a major American corporation. In 1960, Robinson helped create the Freedom National Bank in Harlem, New York, one of the first exclusively African American financial institutions. Jack Robinson died on October 24, 1972, of a heart attack; his health at that time had been riddled with diabetes and numerous cardiovascular diseases.