Monday, February 22, 2010

Before He Was A Monarch

This is the first in a series in which I'll be tracking Jackie Robinson's stint with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945. I'm going to do it in "real-time"if Jackie and the Monarchs played a game on April 20, 1945, I'll have a post about it on (or about) April 20, 2010. I don't expect to have a lot of commentary, instead hoping to fill a void with specificsthe nuts and bolts of game summaries, scores and stats. Hopefully we'll get to know some of Jackie's teammates and get a feel for the 1945 Negro leagues season as a whole along the way. Jackie joined the Monarchs in late March, so we're still a ways off from this project really getting going. But I do want to provide a little context to how Jackie ended up playing with the Monarchs in 1945 and what he was doing in the years prior.

Jackie's baseball experience was surprisingly sparse before joining the Monarchs. He had played at John Muir High School in Pasadena, CA and Pasadena Junior College before transferring to UCLA in 1939. Jackie played basketball, track and starred at football with the UCLA Bruins, but played just one season of baseball during his almost three years at the school. He hit .097 that 1940 season in spite of going 4-4 at the plate in his first game. Like all of the schools and teams Jackie had known throughout his life, UCLA was integrated and largely white. He achieved national renown as a football star, and appeared in the 1941 All-Star Football Game that pitted college all-stars versus the Chicago Bears. (He scored a remarkable touchdown in that game that you can see here.)

He left UCLA just short of graduating due to "financial hardship," and went to play on a semi-pro football team in Honolulu. He left Honolulu on December 5, 1941; two days later, Pearl Harbor in Honolulu was bombed. The US entered the war, and Jackie was soon drafted. His first station was Fort Riley, Kansas, 130 miles west of Kansas City. Jackie bristled at the segregation and racism rampant in the Army, and was court-martialed in 1944 after refusing to move to the back of an Army bus. He was acquitted of all charges, and honorably discharged in November 1944. He never saw combat. As far as I can tell, Jackie did not play organized sports during his two years in the Army, but while awaiting discharge, came across soldiers throwing a baseball. He struck up a conversation with one who had been a Kansas City Monarch. In his autobiography, Jackie said it was "a brother named Alexander," probably pitcher Ted Alexander. Alexander suggested to Jackie that he should write the Monarchs and ask to tryout. Jackie did, and was invited to meet up with the Monarchs in the spring. During the winter of '44-'45, he coached basketball at a small black college, Samuel Huston, in Texas. (Other sources give Hilton Smith credit for leading Jackie to the Monarchs. The truth about that is unclear.)

I hope you'll come along for the ride with Jackie and the 1945 Monarchs this season. Spring training starts March 20th in Houston.