Serving Hawaii’s Architects, Builders & Homeowners
Wednesday - April 22, 2009
I love to read on my travels around the country. On a recent trip, I was enjoying Peter Golenbock’s outstanding baseball memory book Bums, a great tribute to the old Brooklyn Dodgers, when I saw a fleeting reference to Jackie Robinson playing professional sports in Hawaii. With April being the month in which fans pay homage to the legendary player who broke the baseball color barrier, it seemed fitting to find out more.
I called an old-time Hawaii sportswriter, former Associated Press news hound Jim Becker, whom I’ve run across many times at the Quarterback Club and at UH games. Becker’s book Saints, Sinners, and Shortstops, is a great trip down memory lane for local sports fans.
“I’m one of only two survivors left who worked the press box at Jackie’s first game,” says Becker, who was a 20-year-old AP reporter in Brooklyn when Robinson took to the diamond in a Dodgers’uniform at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947. “He was the greatest athlete who ever lived.”
Becker’s assessment isn’t just hyperbole. Robinson led the old Pacific Coast Conference (today’s PAC-10 minus the Arizona schools) in yards per carry as a running back for the UCLA Bruins during the 1940 season. “He was also a ferocious defender, a Deion Sanders-type,” says Becker, “and the best overall player that year.” To add to his all-around ability, Robinson also led the basketball conference in scoring, ran sprints for the Bruins’track team (his brother Mack was a silver medalist who finished second to Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics), set a conference record in the long jump, won two tennis tournaments and was a scratch golfer.
“Ironically, baseball was probably his weakest sport,”
It was his football skills that eventually sent Robinson to Hawaii. In the summer of 1941, still a credit and a half short of graduation and feeling pressures financially so that he would be forced to leave school, Robinson played in the old college football all-star game at Soldier Field in Chicago. His exploits, which included scoring a touchdown in the game, led to a contract offer from a fledgling pro team called the Los Angeles Bulldogs. Before the football season started, that team became the Honolulu Bears. Robinson set sail for Hawaii in early September 1941 for what would be $100 a game plus the promise of a construction job. He ended up playing football on weekends and working in construction around town during the week.
“It was a four-team league, and they played an 18-game schedule at the old Honolulu Stadium,” Becker says. “I’ve run into people who said they saw him play. He apparently got off to a great start that year because teams were unaccustomed to his kind of speed. But he eventually banged up his knee a little, and thus was forced to play most of the final games only on defense.”
Robinson, along with so many others of color during that era, ran into discrimination problems on the Mainland. But not in Honolulu. Here, in the melting pot in the middle of the Pacific, he played in a racially mixed league among people of many different ethnicities.
“I think the 1940 census shows that more than 40 percent of the population (in Hawaii) was Japanese, so there was definitely our ‘Hawaiian mix’over here. I don’t know if there were other black players, but he would have gotten along just fine here,” Becker says.
Ironically, Robinson’s short stay in the Islands ended just before a very historic date. Just after playing in what was termed an “exhibition game” on the Pearl Harbor Naval Base, Robinson boarded the S.S. Lurline for the trip back to California. The date was Dec. 5, 1941.
Years later, after Robinson became famous, that story was told over and over until it took on a life of its own-and there were reports that Robinson “watched out the porthole” as Pearl Harbor was bombed, and other ridiculous tales. The truth is that he went back to Los Angeles, working at odd jobs, and even played semi-professional basketball for the Los Angeles Red Devils. By the end of 1942, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he spent the next two years in the service of his country-none of it stationed in Hawaii.
After the war, his legendary story began when the Dodgers’ Branch Rickey picked him out of the Negro Leagues to become the ballplayer who would break baseball’s long-held color barrier. While his legend grew in Brooklyn and in baseball stadiums in the East and Midwest, it was ironically in Hawaii where he earned his first athletic professional check and where he thrilled the ethnically diverse fans who filled the stands of old Honolulu Stadium.
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