Jackie Robinson was an exceptional athlete and a civil rights leader. On April 15, 1947, he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball when he trotted out to first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Major League Baseball celebrates the 72nd anniversary of that groundbreaking day in 2019.
Robinson died in 1972 at the age of 53, but his legacy has lived on for decades. Every MLB team has retired his No. 42 jersey, and on the anniversary of his first appearance for the Dodgers, every MLB player wears the number for “Jackie Robinson Day.”
In his 10-year career in pro baseball, Robinson was the Rookie of the Year, the National League MVP, the NL batting champion, a World Series champion, a six-time All-Star and twice led the league in stolen bases. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
But before Robinson was breaking records and barriers in the pro ranks, he was a star at the University of California, Los Angeles. Here's a look at his college career.
Jackie Robinson begins at a junior college
Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia, but his family moved to Pasadena, California in 1920. After high school, Robinson enrolled at Pasadena Junior College — now Pasadena City College — and was a four-sport star in baseball, football, basketball and track and field. According to the California Community Colleges website, Robinson batted .417 with 43 runs scored in 24 games for the school in 1938. On the football field, he still owns a school record for the longest run from scrimmage, 99 yards.
Baseball struggles at UCLA
Robinson enrolled at UCLA in 1939 and again was a four-sport letter-winner in football, basketball, track and field and baseball. But in the sport he would become famous for, Robinson struggled. According to the school’s website, Robinson posted a .097 batting average for the Bruins in 1940. Despite his pains at the plate, Robinson remained in the lineup due to his fielding expertise and quickness along the base path. As a pro, Robinson stole home plate 19 times in his career. Robinson’s best college baseball game might have been his first at UCLA, where he had four hits and stole four bases.
A gridiron star
While most folks are aware of Robinson’s accomplishments on the baseball diamond, they might not know that he was a pretty phenomenal football player too. In fact, football might have been his best sport as a college athlete. In 1939 and 1940, he led the nation in punt return average. In 1940, he led the Bruins in passing (444 yards), rushing (383 yards) and scoring (36 points).
The student newspaper for rival Stanford called him “Lightning Jackie Robinson” and he was known for big plays. According to the New York Times, he returned a punt 64 yards in an Oct. 7, 1939 game to help the Bruins beat the Washington Huskies. Three weeks later, he caught a touchdown pass that went 66 yards for a score to help UCLA top Oregon. In addition to starring on offense and special teams, Robinson also played safety on defense.
On that 1939 team, Robinson was one of four African American players for the Bruins, which made it the most integrated major college football team at the time. That team went undefeated with six wins and four draws. Coached by Babe Horrell, they were seventh in the final AP Poll. Robinson earned All-Pac-10 honors.
Stellar in hoops
Robinson was a solid basketball player too, despite being shorter than many players at 5-foot-11. Robinson was West Coast Conference MVP in basketball for UCLA. In one game, on Feb. 12, 1940, he torched Stanford for 25 points. He averaged 12.4 points per-game in 1940 and 11.1 points per-game in 1941.
Record-setter in track and field
Robinson remains the only UCLA athlete to ever letter in four sports. He missed most of the 1940 track season because of his baseball duties, but won the Pacific Coast Conference and NCAA titles in long jump with leaps of 25-0 and 24-10. Had the 1940 and 1944 Olympics not been canceled due to World War II, Robinson likely could have competed.
Name lives on in stadiums
Between the end of his college days at UCLA and the beginning of his pro baseball career, Robinson was drafted and served in the Army. Robinson was stationed in Fort Hood, Texas for a bit, and in 2016 the base named its softball field after him. In 1981, UCLA opened its new baseball park, Jackie Robinson Stadium, and a statue of him can be found near the entrance. There is also a stadium in Daytona Beach, Florida named after him, Jackie Robinson Ballpark. Robinson played in the city during spring training in 1946 with the Montreal Royals. Today, the baseball team at Bethune-Cookman University plays there.
Mitchell Northam is a graduate of Salisbury University. His work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Orlando Sentinel, SB Nation, FanSided, USA Today and the Delmarva Daily Times. He grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore and is now based in Durham, N.C.