Jackie Robinson was much better at basketball than at baseball, and may have been the finest hoops player of his time.
Did you know that Jackie Robinson was much better at basketball than he was at baseball?
In fact he may have been the finest basketball player of his time.
Robinson was so good on the court that in 1946 he joined a racially integrated professional basketball team called the Los Angeles Red Devils.
The Red Devils — though little known today — were organized seeking to join the National Basketball League (N.B.L.), which, in its merger talks with the N.B.A., wanted a West Coast franchise.
They played home games at the Olympic Auditorium in downtown L.A.
Robinson was already famous as U.C.L.A.’s first (and still only) four-sport varsity letterman — in football, baseball, basketball, and track.
He was exceptional as a forward with U.C.L.A.’s basketball team. Robinson was a tremendous leaper, who had set the collegiate broadjump record. “The first player who I ever saw dunking as part of his game was Jackie Robinson,” says former Rens player John Isaacs.
“Robinson formed the nucleus of a fast-breaking attack,” states the ’41 UCLA Yearbook — and led the Pacific Coast Conference Southern Division (now Pac-12) in scoring in 1940 and 1941.
“But scoring is the least of the dusky marvel’s accomplishments,” noted the Chicago Defender. “A lightning dribbler and glue-fingered ball handler, his terrific speed makes it impossible for one man to hold him in check.”
In one January 1941 home game, Robinson single-handedly defeated the University of San Francisco Dons. With seconds remaining in overtime and the game tied, Robinson stole the ball and got off a buzzer beater. “It was our Jackie,” wrote the Chicago Defender, “who pulled a hovie finish to cinch the game with a spectacular heave as the gun sounded, giving the U.C.L.A. boys a 55-53 verdict.” Robinson had sent the game into OT with a game-tying bucket with 10 seconds remaining.
Despite performances like this, however, Jackie only made the second all-conference team during that, his senior year.
In early 1941, after his basketball career at U.C.L.A. had ended, Robinson abandoned his senior year spring track season — a move that reportedly “broke the heart of track coach Harry Trotter, who had counted on him for the broadjump” — and left college to pursue outside athletic interests, including short stints in semi-pro and professional football, before reporting for military duty when the United States entered World War II.
Eventually he found his way to pro baseball in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs, before being signed, famously, by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1946 to play for the club’s minor league franchise, the Montreal Royals.
After completing his spectacular rookie season with Montreal, Robinson returned home to Pasadena and in October 1946 signed a professional basketball contract with the Red Devils.
Though they only played two seasons, the Red Devils were gooood while they lasted. Their lineup included forwards Jackie Robinson, Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame member George Crowe, and Pasadena City College standout Irv Noren, guards Everett “Ziggy” Marcelle, a Southern University grad and former Harlem Globetrotter, and U.S.C. All-American Eddie Oram, and Stanford star Art Stoefen at center.
Crowe, a sharp-shooting African American player who starred at Indiana Central College (now Indianapolis University), is enshrined in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. He went on to play pro basketball with the New York Rens, Dayton Rens, and Harlem Yankees, then played baseball in the major leagues for 10 years.
Marcelle went on to play baseball in the Negro Leagues like his father Ollie Marcelle, who had starred for the Brooklyn Royal Giants, Atlantic City Bacharach Giants, and Baltimore Black Sox.
Noren wound up playing alongside Mikan for the Chicago Gears in the N.B.L., then played major league baseball for 11 years.
To appreciate how good the Red Devils were, look at who they beat that season.
They crushed the Sheboygan Redskins of the N.B.L., twice.
They crushed the New York Renaissance (“Rens”), with a lineup that included future New York City Basketball Hall of Famer Clarence “Puggy” Bell and future N.B.A. player Hank DeZonie. Twice.
The Rens flew out to L.A. for the games, the first ever airplane trip for an African American barnstorming team.
They split with the N.B.L. champion Chicago Gears featuring the great future Hall of Famer George Mikan, with only 4 points separating the 2 teams.
Jackie Robinson left the Red Devils abruptly in January 1947. At the time, few knew why. Looking back, however, the reason was clear, and it has to do with the fact that Jackie parted ways with the Red Devils just after a Branch Rickey visit to Los Angeles.
A few months later, on April 15, 1947, Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbetts Field and was named the 1947 M.L.B. Rookie of the Year after a spectacular season.
Despite his success in baseball, professional basketball teams still had a Jones for Robinson. Abe Saperstein offered Robinson a pro contract worth $10,000 with bonuses to play for his Harlem Globetrotters. Though this amount was substantially more than what Robinson made with the Dodgers — $5,000, the major league minimum — he declined the offer.
Robinson also got a pro basketball offer from the Canton Cushites, an all-black team that featured future Football Hall of Fame member Marion Motley and future Baseball Hall of Fame member Larry Doby. He declined that offer too, but did sneak in 2 games with the professional all-black Detroit Wolverines.
After leaving baseball, Robinson remained a basketball fan and followed the N.B.A., especially when the league began considering the addition of a West Coast team.
He was in favor of pro basketball in California, but doubted it could succeed. “Though Los Angeles in particular has proved to be one of the great sports cities in the world,” Jackie wrote, “I still can’t forget the time ten years ago that pro basketball attempted to break in there.”
Robinson carried fond memories of the Red Devils. “There were some exceptionally good basketball players with name value on the squad,” he reminisced. “We had, I think, a really fine team.”
The Red Devils had plenty of off court entertainment too. The famous comedy duo of Abbott and Costello did a half-time routine during one game, and the Kilgore Rangerettes — “54 lovely Texas gals” — were advertised for another.
Attendance for Red Devils games ranged from 1,200 to over 3,000.
“There was a reasonable amount of publicity as well, and yet the promoters took a real bath in the this venture,” Robinson confessed. “Our games just didn’t draw.”
Still, Robinson pushed the idea.
“Whichever way it happens – whether by expanding the present NBA or actually setting up a new league – I’d like to see it tried again on the West Coast.”
Jackie Robinson could have played professional basketball for any team. He could easily have starred for the New York Rens or for the Harlem Globetrotters. Had he done so, it would have speeded up the racial integration of pro basketball.
Had he remained in hoops, Robinson certainly would have ended up in the N.B.A. and might have beaten out Earl Lloyd, Nat Clifton, and Chuck Cooper for the honor of breaking that league’s color barrier in 1950.
However, basketball on a whole had already broken through. Black teams had been playing white teams since before 1910 on a routine basis. Since the early 1940s there’d been many instances of racially mixed independent teams (including the Red Devils). And there was already a trickling of black players into the N.B.L., including William “Dolly” King with the Rochester Royals and William “Pop” Gates with the Tri-City Blackhawks.
Baseball on the other hand, had no such progress, and it was America’s game.
Jackie Robinson knew that his role as a courageous pioneer in baseball would have a much bigger, much broader, and more far-reaching cultural and social impact than anything he could ever accomplish in basketball.
To use a basketball metaphor, his “court sense” about America was impeccable.