Untold Story of ’42′: How Jackie Robinson Almost Didn’t Play Baseball

Movie Talk
Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson didn't choose baseball. Baseball chose him -- and in more ways than the mere fact that Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey plucked Robinson from obscurity in the mid-'40s, making him the first African American major league baseball player.

Robinson tried his hand at several sports before eventually stumbling upon an opportunity to play pro baseball.

Robinson met a former player for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League as his military tour was coming to an end. (After he refused to sit at the back of an Army bus, Robinson was transferred to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, where he became an athletics coach. Shortly thereafter he was honorably discharged.) Robinson was convinced by the former pro athlete to try out and wrote to Monarchs' co-owner Thomas Baird. A few months later, in early 1945, Robinson accepted a contract, paying him $400 per month -- a good amount of money for him at that time.

"He just happened to be playing for the Monarchs when the Dodgers just happened to be looking for a guy," Dodgers team historian Mark Langill told Yahoo! Movies of Robinson's good fortune. "It's not like he dreamed of being in the majors. They found him instead of the other way around," Langill added.

Langill contends Robinson chose that contract with the Monarchs because he was about to get married and simply needed the money. And when he got recruited to the Brooklyn Dodgers soon afterward, Negro league players grumbled: Robinson wasn't considered as good as Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, who were deemed the best pure ball players of the time.

Chadwick Boseman plays Jackie Robinson in '42,' in theaters now
Chadwick Boseman plays Jackie Robinson in '42,' in theaters now

It's not as though Robinson was disinterested in baseball, per say, it's just that he was also great in other athletic areas. Moreover, he wanted to be a coach or an athletic director -- but simply couldn't find a job in those fields.

It all started with his older brother Mack -- who won a silver medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Mack actually broke the world record in the 200-meter dash; but the thing was, so did Jesse Owens, who ran a faster time to take home the gold.)

Mack Robinson fostered his little brother's athletic aspirations as Jackie Robinson transformed into a star high school and junior college athlete. In 1939 Robinson transferred to UCLA where he became the school's first athlete to earn varsity letters in four sports: basketball, football, track, and, of course, baseball.

Robinson left school just shy of graduating due to financial hardship and took a short-lived job as a National Youth Administration athletic director. The NYA, a government organization, ceased operating, so Robinson made his next move. He flew to Hawaii in 1941 to play semipro football for the Honolulu Bears.

Yes, baseball legend Jackie Robinson was first football player. And, unlike pro baseball, the football leagues back then were racially integrated. He also enjoyed a stint coaching and playing basketball -- even catching the attention of future Harlem Globetrotter Marques Haynes. And this all happened before his pro baseball days.

Robinson enjoyed a great career as a major league baseball player, leading the Brooklyn Dodgers to six World Series and helping them win the 1955 World Championship. During his last play appearance as a Dodger, during a post season tour of Japan in '56, Robinson hit a home run.

But Robinson knew he was a trailblazer for social change, and took his role as the first African American MLB player seriously, campaigning for civil rights with Martin Luther King, Jr. and involving himself with the NAACP.

As Robinson famously said, "If I had to choose between baseball’s Hall of Fame and first class citizenship for all of my people. I would say first-class citizenship."
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