Fittingly, the man the Daily Bruin once called “the greatest UCLA athlete of all time” was born in 1919, the same year that the University of California opened its “Southern Branch” in Los Angeles.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson came to UCLA in 1939, and although he only stayed in Westwood for two years, he left behind one of the most powerful and proud legacies in UCLA’s storied history. And soon, “Jackie” Robinson would change the world as well.
In his time at UCLA, the young man from Cairo, Georgia, won a national championship in track and field, two consecutive conference scoring titles as a basketball player, was an honorable mention All-American in football and played a little baseball, where he was so-so.
Of course, Jackie did quite a bit better than so-so when he tried his talented hand at the next level. He began his career in 1944 in the Negro Leagues, because professional baseball wouldn’t let a black man on the field. But three years later, Jackie Robinson did just that, breaking Major League Baseball’s decades-long color barrier.
This Sunday, April 15, Major League Baseball celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Hall of Famer’s first game as a Brooklyn Dodger. On Jackie Robinson Day, many of the sport’s stars, including Gary Sheffield, Ken Griffey Jr. and Derrek Lee, among others, will wear Robinson’s retired No. 42 — as will the entire Dodgers team.
But as symbolic as it was, Robinson’s sports breakthrough by itself isn’t nearly the full measure of the man’s impact.
There are famous Bruins. There are great Bruins. There are Bruins who make a difference every day in every way in every possible field. But Jackie Robinson changed the world.
Not just because he endured the jeers of his fellow players and death threats from the bigots in the stands, but because he endured it all with such grace, dignity and honor. And after he retired, he fought tirelessly for civil rights and integration in professional sports.
Robinson was as fearless after baseball as he was during it, standing on principle even if it was unpopular. He argued with Martin Luther King Jr., admired Malcolm X and defended Ralph Bunche from black militants.
“He was the first athlete in UCLA history to letter in four sports in the same year,” says UCLA Chancellor Norm Abrams, “but it is his abiding dignity and unshakable conviction that we most appreciate and that made him a true champion. The entire Bruin family treasures his legacy.”