Jackie Robinson’s Early Athletic Journey: From Football Hero to Baseball Star

Jackie Robinson is widely recognized as one of the most influential figures in American sports history. His groundbreaking achievement as the first Black player in Major League Baseball in 1947 challenged the longstanding racial segregation in professional sports and helped pave the way for future generations of Black athletes. However, Robinson’s impact on the world of sports began long before he stepped onto a baseball field.

In 1939, Robinson burst onto the national sports scene as a star football player at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Along with teammates Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, and Ray Bartlett, Robinson helped to establish the undefeated 1939 UCLA football team as the first in the history of America’s white-dominated world of commercial spectator sports to be led by as many as four Black players.

Even at a young age, Robinson’s athleticism and talent on the field made him an inspiration to millions of Black Americans. His success as a football player was a source of pride and hope for a community that had long been excluded from the mainstream sports world. And although his football career was cut short due to an injury, Robinson’s legacy as a trailblazing athlete continued to inspire generations of Black athletes and fans alike.

As Robinson, Washington, Strode, and Bartlett were leading UCLA to the school’s first undefeated season in history, putting what was in the 1930s a commuter school with five buildings, no dormitories, and no football tradition on the national map for the first time, the same Black newspapers that created the initial waves of the Great Migration – and would soon pave the way for Robinson to erase MLB’s color line – kept millions of Black Americans appraised of every last detail of UCLA’s extraordinary and unprecedented football achievements throughout the 1939 football season.

And by the time those undefeated Bruins reached their final game of the season, a matchup against USC that would determine one of the teams that would play in the Rose Bowl, legendary Black newspapers like the New York Amsterdam News, Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Atlanta Daily World, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Cleveland Call and Post, the Norfolk Journal and Guide and the California Eagle had transformed the 1939 UCLA football squad of Jackie Robinson, Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, and Ray Bartlett into what was nothing short of Black America’s team.

National Football League greats Joe Perry, the first Black player for the San Francisco 49ers, and Bob Mann, the first Black player for both the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, are striking examples of the influence that the 1939 UCLA Bruins had on Black Americans nearly a decade before Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough in Major League Baseball.

In the 2009 book Gridiron Gauntlet, 49er legend Perry, who is also an NFL Hall of Famer, said of his formative football years, “Kenny Washington was one of my idols when he was at UCLA. In fact, I wanted to go to UCLA because of him and Woody Strode, and Jackie Robinson. They were all great football players and we used to follow them very closely.”

NFL Greats Joe Perry (left) and Bob Mann Were Inspired by Jackie Robinson to Play Football - Not baseball - Years Before Robinson's Baseball Breakthrough

NFL Greats Joe Perry (the First Black San Francisco 49er) and Bob Mann (First Black Detroit Lion and Green Bay Packer) Were Inspired by Jackie Robinson to Play Football – Not Baseball – Years Before Robinson’s Baseball Breakthrough

In the same book, Mann described when his father “asked me where I wanted to go (to college) and I said Cornell or UCLA because they were the schools I knew about because of (pioneering Cornell All-American) Brud Holland and Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson.”

The impressions and observations about Jackie Robinson related by Perry and Mann originally took place years before they, along with the vast majority of Americans, knew Jackie Robinson even played baseball, let alone that he was good enough at the sport to do what he would years later.

None of this is to say that the appeal of UCLA during the 1939 season was limited to the Black community. On the contrary, thanks in large part to Jackie Robinson doing things on the football field that no one had ever seen before while averaging an astounding 12-yards per carry for the season, UCLA would lead all of college football in attendance that year, capping the year by drawing what remains to this day the largest crowd ever to see the Bruins play USC at the Los Angeles Coliseum: 103,303.


The 1939 UCLA Football Team - Led By Jackie Robinson (See Inset) - Led the Nation in Attendance and the 103,303 at the USC-UCLA Game that Year is the Second-largest Crowd Ever to Attend an Event at the Los Angeles Coliseum and the Largest Crowd in the History of The Series.

The 1939 UCLA Football Team – Led by Jackie Robinson (See Inset) – Led the Nation in Attendance and the 103,303 at the USC-UCLA Game that Year is the Second-largest Crowd Ever to Attend an Event at the Los Angeles Coliseum and the Largest Crowd in the History of the Series.


And the 1939 UCLA football season was only the beginning of Jackie Robinson’s athletic career at the school. Robinson would go on to lead the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring in his two seasons as a UCLA basketball player and as a member of the UCLA track team would win the NCAA long jump title, establishing Robinson as America’s leading long jump prospect for the 1940 Olympic games. (The latter was a casualty of World War II.)

Given that Jackie Robinson’s unprecedented, extraordinary football career is left out of the popular historical narrative of his life despite the profound influence it had on millions of Black Americans many years before Robinson’s baseball exploits, it’s no coincidence that – tragically – so few people have ever seen film of Robinson playing football.

Thus we’ve edited together a short video – embedded above in this post – that features highlights of Jackie Robinson’s single greatest game as a football player, which was played between UCLA and Washington State on November 16, 1940, at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

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