Greatest Athletes: Jackie Robinson
|Jackie Robinson Day begins Sunday, April 15 at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN Classic.|
On the gridiron he led the nation in 1939 in average yards gained with 12 yards per carry and in punt returns with 20 a return. To cap his collegiate career, Robinson won swimming championships, reached the semifinals of the national Negro tennis tournament and won the 1940 NCAA long-jump title.Then came World War II and Robinson applied for admission to officer candidate school at Fort Riley, Kansas, where he won his commission as a second lieutenant. He won something else too -- a reputation as a fiercely proud man. And a reputation for being a troublemaker for fighting against injustice in any form. In a highly publicized incident, Robinson refused to "move to the back of the bus" although military buses had recently been desegregated. Army brass decided they could not control either his pride or his iron will and gave him a general discharge in November 1944, happy to get rid of the man they called "an uppity n-----." Mustered out, Robinson signed on with the Kansas City Monarchs at shortstop for the 1945 season at the going rate of $400 a month. At the time Sukeforth approached "that fellow Robinson" the 26-year-old was hitting .345 in 41 games. Robinson was skeptical of Rickey's intentions of signing him for something called the Brown Dodgers and pressured Sukeforth to repeat Rickey's instructions, word for word. Sukeforth could only say in response, "Jack, this could be the real thing." And, following Rickey's instructions to "bring him in," booked two berths on a train back to New York -- and Brooklyn. As Sukeforth ushered Robinson into Rickey's chambers, he began to make the customary introductions. But it was useless. Rickey, an orator by nature who could talk through 10 cigars on any subject, had already commenced his patter, patter that could sell anyone a combination watch and pocketknife for a dollar. Punctuating the air with his ever-present cigar and dropping ashes down the front of his vest, Rickey said, "Jack, I've been looking for a great colored ballplayer, but I need a man who will accept insults, take abuse -- in a word, carry the flag for his race."
From "The 100 Greatest Athletes of All Time"
copyright 1996, Lyons Press
Boxing historian Bert Sugar is host of ESPN Classic's "Ringside" and a contributor to ESPN.com.
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