Remembering Robinson's Number - and Skill

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The number, 42, hangs in every major league ballpark, a reminder of a man who was as much a pioneer as an athlete - a superb athlete - talented, proud and courageous.

Sixty-five years now since that April day in 1947 when Jack Roosevelt Robinson integrated the majors.

When he became the correction to one of the game's great wrongs, one of America's great wrongs, the ultimate piece of what the book by history professor Jules Tygiel listed as "Baseball's Great Experiment."

Jackie Robinson Day is Sunday, April 15, an anniversary, a time to look back, contemplate, honor, admire.

It is understood Robinson broke what was known as the color barrier as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African-American in the big leagues.

We know the hardships, the insults, the struggles to retain his sanity and his dignity, issues recorded in word and film. What not many know is what a special athlete and person Jackie Robinson was.

Rookie of the Year, MVP, a hero who overcame taunts and slights to advance a cause. An advocate who spoke his mind and fought for equality.

Before that, at UCLA, he was a running back, a basketball player and a track and field star who might have gone on to the NFL instead of the big leagues were football not nearly as segregated as baseball.

It's been awhile since those end-of-the-century polls ranking the best movies, the best wine vintages and the best athletes, the latter in which the names Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali and Jim Thorpe appeared more often than not.

But it could be argued that in the 20th century, Jackie Robinson was the greatest athlete of them all.

At UCLA he led the Pacific Coast Conference, precursor to the Pac-12, in basketball scoring in 1940 and 1941.

He set an NCAA record for punt returns and averaged 12.2 yards per play in football in 1939. After Robinson scored three touchdowns against Washington on Oct. 7, 1939, it was written in the Los Angeles Times, "Jackie has more than a change of pace. It's a change of space."

He won the 1940 NCAA long jump, which in that era was called the "running broad jump."

He also played baseball for the Bruins. Observers said it was his least favorite and least effective sport. Who could have thought a man who batted .097 in college would be voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot?

Robinson is to this day the only athlete to letter in four sports at UCLA. Billy Kilmer, who later played quarterback for the Washington Redskins in a Super Bowl, gained letters for the Bruins in football, baseball and basketball. Robinson's fourth was in track.

Duke Snider, another Hall of Famer and Dodgers teammate of Robinson's in the 1950s, another of Roger Kahn's "Boys of Summer'' and like Jackie a Southern Californian, said when Robinson was at Pasadena City College in the late 1930s Jackie went to the jump pit with his baseball uniform on, took one jump, good enough for first place, then redressed for baseball to play the second game of a doubleheader.

Robinson later lived at home and commuted the roughly 20 miles in each direction from Pasadena to Westwood Village, where UCLA is located. An indifferent student, he quit school three months short of graduation in 1941, took a low-paying job and joined a minor league football team.

World War II brought him into the Army and, finally being allowed to study and train to be a second lieutenant, he remained until 1944, when he faced a court-martial for speaking out against being ordered to sit in the back of a bus at a Texas base. But forces were at work.

The Dodgers' general manager and president, Branch Rickey, had embarked in 1943 to integrate the major leagues, hoping to improve his team. He believed correctly that Robinson, in 1945 playing for the Negro leagues Kansas City Monarchs, had both the intelligence and talent required to fulfill the most difficult and historic of roles.

After a tumultuous and successful 1946 season at Montreal, then in the International League, Jackie arrived in the bigs for more tumult and much more success.

He started, on Rickey's advice, figuratively turning the other cheek to abuse. Then as he grew in confidence, he turned the sport into a mad dash toward excellence.

"When Jackie Robinson took the field 65 years ago,'' Commissioner Bud Selig said, "he transcended the sport he loved and helped change our country in the most powerful way imaginable."


As the last few years, every player on every team in every game on Jackie Robinson Day will be wearing No. 42. For a few hours they'll all be dressed like Jackie. They can only hope they'll all be playing like Jackie. He was one of a kind.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America. His columns appear in RealClearSports on Wednesdays and Fridays.

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