UCLA’s special chapter in the life of baseball great Jackie Robinson

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No. 42, Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers uniform, 1954.

Brooklyn earns a special place in the Jackie Robinson story. The borough’s mix of immigrants and progressive politics made for congenial fans when Robinson brought down the color bar in baseball.

But UCLA deserves a chapter, too.

Jackie Robinson, born in the segregated south, was just a few months old in 1920, when his family settled in Pasadena, California.  By his teenage years, Robinson was, by all accounts, the best all-around athlete at Pasadena’s John Muir High School. He played shortstop and catcher on the baseball team, quarterbacked the football team, played guard on the basketball team, and won the citywide junior boys singles tennis championship.

After similar athletic success at Pasadena Junior College, Robinson transferred to UCLA.  In 1940 and 1941, UCLA’s Robinson was probably the most versatile and accomplished college athlete in America. Baseball was actually his worst sport: he batted just .097 during the 1940 UCLA season. But he did well in other things. He won a national collegiate long jump title with a leap of 24 feet, 10 and ¼ inches. He was in the backfield of the country’s most conspicuously integrated major college football team in 1940 and led the nation in punt return average (21 yards) and led UCLA in rushing, passing, scoring, and total offense. Robinson also excelled at basketball, playing forward while leading the Pacific Coast Conference Southern Division in scoring both in 1940 and 1941.

So when Branch Rickey surrounded himself with scouting reports to choose the man he would suit up and send to break down the color bar in major

Jackie Robinson in his UCLA track uniform.
Jackie Robinson in his UCLA track uniform. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

league baseball, Jackie Robinson’s two years at UCLA conferred a lot of assets. Robinson had played sports at the major college level and excelled. He had won the admiration of white teammates and fans. He had learned how to cope with the questions and attentions of sportswriters. Integrating major league baseball would be an incomparable test of any man’s endurance and character. But Rickey knew that Robinson had already played superbly under the glare of national attention.

UCLA was also where Robinson, a senior and BMOC, had met Rachel Isum, a freshman who was studying for her Bachelor of Science in Nursing. She was smart, funny, startlingly attractive, spirited and wise (and still is). Jackie Robinson had started talking about marriage in their student days. But she said she needed to finish school, and then World War II intervened.

When Branch Rickey, the Dodgers general manager, first met Robinson in his office, he asked, “Do you have a girl, Jackie?”

“I think so,” was Robinson’s reply.

“The love of the right girl is so important,” Mr. Rickey told him.

They were married before he went to that first spring training. Rachel Robinson would give her husband strength, solace, and wisdom during their trails (and it really was their trials). She continues to embody and enlarge a legacy of courage and justice today, seven decades after her first encounter with Jackie Robinson in Southern California.

Scott Simon hosts Weekend Edition on NPR and is the author of several books, including “Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball” (Wiley: 2002). This piece was written for Zócalo Public Square. An expanded version can be found at www.zocalopublicsquare.org.