Thursday, November 6, 2014

182. Jackie Robinson: Veterans Day 2014



Since I began this website I always liked to feature a special story for Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Indeed some of my favorite stories have been part of this little series: Eddie Grant, Bill Niemeyer and Sam Kau to name a few. This Veteran's Day I'm reminded that not all vet's served in combat. Some men served in peacetime like Sig Jakucki and Torpedo Mills, and then there were those who for whatever reasons were spared the horrors of battle.

Jackie Robinson was one of those men. 

In the summer of 1944 2nd Lieutenant Jack Robinson found himself at Camp Breckinridge, an infantry replacement training depot in the hills of western Kentucky. The war had been rough for Robinson - not on the battlefields of France or a nameless island in the Pacific, but at home in a racial war whose injuries were not physical but mental.

Before the war Jackie Robinson was a well-known collegiate athlete. His exploits as a track star at UCLA set numerous records and his skills on the gridiron made the sports page from coast to coast. If he had been white, Jackie Robinson would have had to fight off offers from National Football League teams upon graduation. Instead Robinson took a position with a government-run athletic program which quickly folded. Looking for employment, Robinson took the most lucrative sports job he could find - semi-pro football in Hawaii. After a successful 1941 season, Robinson booked passage on a steamship back to Los Angeles. On Sunday, December 7th, 1941 he was contemplating his next move when the Japanese decided it for him. 

The 23 year-old Robinson received his draft notice in early 1942. After basic training with a cavalry regiment he and several other black soldiers requested a transfer to officer's candidate school. Robinson's natural leadership qualities and UCLA education made him ideal officer material but his skin color worked against him. His transfer was put on the back-burner until boxer Joe Lewis stepped in to help open the gate allowing black soldiers to attend officer's school. By January 1943 the former college star was 2nd Lieutenant Jack Robinson,U.S. Army.

Robinson was assigned to the 761st Tank Battalion at Ft. Hood Texas. Known as the "Black Panthers", the 761st would go on to earn a distinguished combat record serving under General Patton in Europe. For two reasons Lt. Robinson wasn't one of them.

Years of strenuous athletic activity had left Robinson with an old ankle injury that required testing to guarantee he was combat-ready. On afternoon while awaiting the results of the test, Robinson boarded an integrated Army bus and took a seat near the front. When the driver told Robinson to sit in the back he flatly refused. The driver reported the incident to the Military Police who took the insolent lieutenant in custody. The commander of the 761st flatly refused to prosecute his young officer but the matter was taken out of his hands when Robinson was transferred to another battalion. His new commanding officer happily signed off on court-martial proceedings before the ink was dry on his transfer papers.

After a humiliating trial in which he was acquitted of all charges, Robinson found himself a soldier without an army. His unit had deployed to Europe during his court martial and medical tests found his ankle was tender enough to keep him out of combat. The trial had made news and his superiors at Ft. Hood didn't want him around so he was transferred to another black unit, the 372nd Infantry Regiment.

The 372nd had a brilliant battle record from the first world war. The units shoulder patch was a red hand on a white disk trimmed in blue and red. This striking insignia was bestowed on the regiment by the French Army of Africa with which the unit had fought with in 1918. By the time Lt. Robinson caught up with the regiment at Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky it was being used as a feeder unit that trained replacement infantry troops. As a distinguished college athlete, Robinson was named the regiment's athletic director.

It was only a temporary assignment. Robinson's fight against the bogus court marshal gained him a reputation as a hard case, and with a bum ankle he wasn't any good for combat. The army decided to discharge him. In the meantime, Robinson waited for the slow moving paperwork to wind its way through Army bureaucracy by keeping the recruits occupied with baseball.

One afternoon Robinson happened upon a soldier throwing big league curve balls on the baseball field. The soldier was Ted Alexander, a former pitcher with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. Robinson had had a brush with Negro League baseball back before the war when a traveling blackball team had played a pickup team which Robinson was a part of. When the game ended the team took off without giving Robinson his agreed upon money for the exhibition. The whole experience left Robinson with a bad taste in his mouth and a lingering distrust of black baseball operations. When Robinson told Alexander of his concerns about post-army employment, the pitcher revealed the the Monarchs were always hiring good talent. The war had hit black baseball as hard as the white version with many of its good players in the service. However with many blacks now employed in high paying war industry jobs, blackball was the most popular diversion for their new-found disposable income. The Negro Leagues were experiencing their most profitable period in their history.

The former Monarchs pitcher surely related all this to Robinson and before the two men parted ways Alexander had given the Lieutenant Kansas City Monarchs' owner Tom Baird's contact information. When he received his honorable discharge in November of 1944, Robinson wrote to the Monarchs inquiring about a position. In the meantime he took a job as athletic director at Sam Huston College in Austin, Texas. When spring rolled around the Monarchs sent Robinson a $400 a month contract and instructed him to report for spring training. 

Jackie Robinson's baseball career had begun.

This was a neat story I stumbled on when seeking players for my Kentucky Baseball book project. Much has been written about Jackie Robinson, yet I found it a much neglected side bar that the roots of his professional baseball career actually dated back to a late summer afternoon in western Kentucky. This was a fun illustration to work on especially since his army regiments insignia was so unique - I just knew that red hand would make the drawing. My old pal Will Arlt, owner of Ideal Cap Co. was in town last week and I showed him my illustration. We both agreed that the cap I depicted Jackie wearing would have to be an eventual offering from Ideal, so be on the look out for it next year.

Next week I will revert to the customary baseball card format for my drawings - it just so happens that I recently completed two full-page illustrations for the Kentucky project and I thought it would be a shame to shoe-horn them into a smaller format.

Anyway, this post is dedicated to all the men and women who have served in the United States military. It was your sacrifices and sense of duty that allowed me the life I am fortunate to enjoy. I think of that every day, not just on Memorial and Veteran's Day. Thank you from this very grateful artist.

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