Legend Of The Fall: Before Breaking Baseball’s Barrier, Jackie Robinson Excelled In Football at UCLA

By Shav Glick
Updated: April 14, 2005

Jackie Robinson at UCLA

LOS ANGELES — Ten years before Martin Luther King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and became an icon in the civil rights movement, Jackie Robinson was already a trailblazer, opening doors for black Americans by integrating major league baseball.

Seven years before that, before he’d taken the field as a Brooklyn Dodger on April 15, 1947, he was a nationally known football player at UCLA, electrifying fans at the Coliseum with his spectacular broken-field running, a star halfback on the school’s first undefeated team.

The Coliseum Commission and UCLA honored his memory Friday by placing a plaque in the Coliseum’s Memorial Court of Honor. It will honor his accomplishments in breaking the racial barrier in baseball, his work as a civil rights exponent and his days as a Bruin, when he became the only athlete in the school’s history to win letters in football, baseball, basketball and track in the same year.

He will join a diverse group of 46 others, from President Kennedy, Pope John Paul II and Billy Graham to Kenneth Hahn, Jim Murray, Jesse Owens and Kenny Washington, Robinson’s teammate at UCLA.

Friday was also the Dodgers’ turn to honor one of their greatest players by wearing Brooklyn uniforms in their game against the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium.

Robinson, who died in 1972 at age 53, earned his greatest fame in baseball, yet “Jackie Robinson” is the answer to one of baseball’s most amazing trivia questions: What player who batted .097 in college later became National League most valuable player and was voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot?

That was his conference batting average when he left UCLA after playing only one season of baseball, although he certainly made a lasting first impression. In his first game as a Bruin, he had four hits and stole four bases, including home once.

In football, he had a 12.2-yard-per-play average from scrimmage and set an NCAA record for punt returns in a season; in basketball he led the Pacific Coast Conference twice in scoring, and in track he won the NCAA long jump championship — then called the “running broad jump.”

Contrasted with that .097 average at UCLA, he had a lifetime average of .311 with the Dodgers from 1947 to 1956, was major league rookie of the year in 1947, National League MVP in 1949 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962. He never played for the Dodgers in the Coliseum in 1958, having retired after the 1956 season, but it was in the Coliseum that he first caught the nation’s attention.

Football brought him into focus at Pasadena City College. His dazzling running helped put 30,000-40,000 people in the Rose Bowl on Friday nights, where before attendance had been more like 5,000-6,000. His two high-scoring seasons got him a scholarship at UCLA, where he attained the credentials of “a college man” that Branch Rickey set as one of the standards for finding the right black player to bring into professional baseball.

It was inevitable that someday the color barrier would be broken, but Robinson’s background made him the chosen one for Rickey’s “Noble Experiment,” as his signing was called at the time.

Robinson was the David Copperfield of football. What you saw was an illusion, not to be believed. After a night game in the Coliseum against Washington State in 1939, Bob Ray wrote in The Times: “I still marvel at the way Jackie Robinson evaded three Cougar tacklers who apparently had him cornered on his first touchdown run. They all wound up falling flat on their faces, grabbing nothing but night air. Jackie has more than a change of pace — it’s a change of space.”

In that game, a 34-26 Bruin victory, Robinson ran for three touchdowns, passed for another, set up a fifth with an interception and kicked four extra points.

Hank Shatford, then sports editor of the Daily Bruin, who became a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, wrote a column headed, “Jackie Robinson — Better than Red Grange,” comparing him to the legendary Illinois back of the 1920s who scored five touchdowns against undefeated Michigan, four of them on runs of more than 40 yards.

When Robinson enrolled at UCLA, the Bruins had never had a season with fewer than two defeats.

Joining the veteran Washington, in his senior year as the Bruins’ career-leading running back, Robinson played wingback in Babe Horrell’s offense in 1939, giving the Bruins the most feared twosome in college football at the time.

Looking back, it seems amazing that Robinson, who averaged more than 10 yards on every run, had only 10 carries in the first five games.

Against Oregon, in a 16-6 win in front of 45,000 in the Coliseum, Robinson caught a 66-yard pass from Washington for one touchdown and ran 83 yards for the other.

Tex Oliver, Oregon’s coach, said, “You need mechanized cavalry to stop him. He runs as fast at three-quarter speed as the average player does at top speed, and he still has that extra quarter to draw upon.”

Doug Fessenden, Montana’s coach, said before the Grizzlies’ 20-6 loss, “Robinson had been built up so high in Montana [players'] minds that they would not have been surprised to see him come out on the field riding a bicycle.”

The season’s final game, between undefeated teams in front of a record 103,352 in the Coliseum, would determine which went to the Rose Bowl game, UCLA or USC. The Bruins had been tied three times, the Trojans once, so UCLA needed to win to get the bid. They had never played in the New Year’s Day game.

With the score 0-0 and only a few minutes to play, the Bruins had a first down on the USC three-yard line. Robinson was not given the ball, though, nor was he called on to kick a short field goal, even though he had kicked them at Pasadena and had tied the Stanford game with an extra point.

The play sequence: Washington over left guard, no gain; fullback Leo Cantor over center, one yard gain; Cantor, one-yard loss; pass from Ned Matthews to Don McPherson batted down in end zone by Bob Robertson.

Thus, the game ended 0-0 and USC got the Rose Bowl bid.

Asked after the game why Robinson had not been called upon, Horrell said, “We were using him as a decoy.”

Later, at an alumni gathering, the coach was asked why the Bruins hadn’t kicked a field goal with the Rose Bowl bid at stake, giving Robinson an opportunity to return to the site of his earlier success.

“The game is over, it makes little difference, don’t you think?” he said nonchalantly.

In the dressing room, when the players realized what they had lost in not going for the win, Robinson said, “Let’s play it off in the Rose Bowl. Why give that $100,000 to some Eastern team?”

When the 1940 season began, it was with high expectations. Washington had graduated, but Robinson was back.

“His colossallness is almost universal knowledge among football fans all over the country,” Shatford wrote in the Daily Bruin. “The Bruins should be the greatest drawing card in the nation.”

Things didn’t work out that way. In the opener against Southern Methodist, in front of a Coliseum night-record crowd of 70,000, Robinson returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown but SMU won, 9-6. Robinson sat out two games because of injuries, but returned against Stanford to score on a 43-yard punt return, then threw a 20-yard scoring pass to Milt Smith. But the Bruins lost, 20-14, against the Frankie Albert-led team that finished undefeated.

The Bruins finished 1-9 and the only bright spot was Robinson’s 21-yard punt return average, a national record at the time. Shortly after that, Robinson left school and not long afterward was drafted into the Army. After the war, he joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League.

It was there that Rickey spotted him. Scouts said he was not the best player in the league, not even the best of the Monarchs, but had the ingredient Rickey sought — a college man who had played with and against integrated teams. Between the 1939 and 1940 football seasons, Robinson demonstrated the remarkable versatility that prompted many to call him the greatest all-around athlete in history, including Jim Thorpe, Bo Jackson, Glenn Davis and Deion Sanders. Busy with baseball, he did not go out for track until the season was over. With no practice all season, he won the PCC meet long jump with a then-record jump of 25 feet, and a week later won in the NCAA meet with a 24-10 1/4 leap in Minneapolis.

Robinson had hoped to compete in the 1940 Olympics in Helsinki, as his brother Mack had done in 1936 when he was a silver medalist behind Jesse Owens in the 200 meters at Berlin, but the Games were canceled after Russia invaded Finland.

Duke Snider, who became a teammate of Robinson with the Dodgers, loves to tell a story about Jackie when Duke was growing up in Compton.

“Five or six of us kids were watching him play a [junior college] baseball game when he left in the middle of an inning, trotting over to compete in the broad jump with his baseball uniform still on, and then running back and finishing the baseball game as if nothing had happened.”

The Coliseum plaque is the latest in a series of honors being bestowed belatedly on the young man who grew up on the west side of Pasadena, where he attended Muir Tech High.

On March 2, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the Capitol Rotunda attended by President Bush. In 1984, Robinson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Reagan. Time magazine named him one of the 100 most important people of the century in 1999.

Across from the Pasadena City Hall, he and Mack are memorialized with nine-foot bronze busts in Centennial Square that were dedicated in 1997.