In the middle of this week-long celebration of football leading up to the most popular sporting event in America — the Super Bowl — a year-long celebration of the 100th birthday of arguably the most important athlete in American history will begin.
He didn’t play football.
But he could have — and may have wound up one of the all-time greats.
Jackie Robinson’s 100th birthday is Thursday, and Major League Baseball will celebrate the centennial with a series of events throughout the year to commemorate the ballplayer who changed the game and American culture as the first black player to break baseball’s color line, taking the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Then again, his choices were limited and more complicated, since at the time black players were denied the opportunity to play major league baseball or in the National Football League.
He was a heralded college athlete, first at Pasadena Junior College, a four-star athlete in baseball, basketball, track and football, where he played quarterback and safety. Robinson went on to play all four sports at UCLA and was the first athlete at the school to win varsity letters in all four sports. He was one of four black players on the football team, along with Kenny Bartlett, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, who would become the first black player in the NFL.
While the door was closed in both major league baseball and the NFL, there were professional football opportunities for Robinson. He played semi-pro football for the integrated Honolulu Bears in 1941 and then for the Los Angeles Bulldogs in the Pacific Coast Football League — a predominantly white league which allowed black players. Robinson was one of a handful of those players, and, playing quarterback, reportedly scored on a 41-yard touchdown run in his first game.
Robinson would be drafted into the service during World War II, but upon his discharge, resumed his professional football career, going back to play for the Bulldogs. He was the star of the team, throwing two touchdowns in his first game back and rushing for 101 yards on eight carries in the next game, according to Bob Gill of Professional Football Researchers.
In his next game, though, Robinson left the game with an ankle injury the first time he handled the ball and would not return — ever.
This was not the game of professional football that dominates the American sports landscape today — far from it. The NFL was just barely two decades old and still trying to grow as the country emerged from the war. And while there were the minor league and semi pro football opportunities for Robinson, they were few and far in between, and hardly a way to make a living at the time.
Baseball still dwarfed football in the spotlight and at the box office.
Robinson ended his football career to take a job as athletic director at Sam Houston College in Texas, where he also coached the basketball team, in 1945.
Professional baseball came calling — not the major leagues yet, but the Kansas City Monarchs in Negro League Baseball. Robinson reportedly earned $400 a month playing for the Monarchs. Then came the moment when Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey came calling to sign Robinson to a contract to play for their minor league club, the Montreal Royals, in 1946. One year later, Robinson made his historic debut with the Dodgers, breaking baseball’s color line and forever changing a nation.
Robinson might have instead followed Washington, his first UCLA teammates, into the NFL as a groundbreaker, but it would have hardly had the same impact that his presence did in baseball, given the impact baseball had in American culture compared to football.
Murray has different choices, with different impacts. Football is now the bigger stage, and, perhaps as a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, the bigger opportunity. But Murray, the first pick by the Oakland Athletics in last year’s draft, may still have a bigger impact on the baseball field, with the potential to be a star black player in a sport with just 7.8 percent black players — down significantly from the all-time high of 27 percent in 1975.
Murray could be the face of the movement to bring both black players and fans back to the game of baseball.
Jackie Robinson would probably tell the young man to do what his heart tells him. But if he were to choose baseball in the 100th year of the birth of Robinson, it may be the best moment in a year-long celebration to honor the memory of the Hall of Fame ballplayer, who, like Murray, once lit up the football field.
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