Jackie Robinson's Forgotten Season as a College Basketball Coach

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Jackie Robinson's Forgotten Season as a College Basketball Coach
AP Images

AUSTIN, Texas—When 86-year-old Roland Harden has told acquaintances through the years about one of the most memorable experiences of his life, the response has typically been tinged with skepticism or outright disbelief.

"You played college basketball for Jackie Robinson? THE Jackie Robinson?"

"I told somebody a few weeks ago," Harden said recently, "and they just laughed."

But Jackie Robinson—the Jackie Robinson, who famously broke major league baseball's color barrier on April 15, 1947—did coach college basketball. He did so during the 1944-45 season here in Texas' capital city at a historically black college that no longer exists.

The school was Samuel Huston College. It competed in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, along with that league's more well-known members today, such as Grambling State and Southern. And its president, the Rev. Karl Downs, just happened to be the Methodist minister who was Robinson's pastor and mentor when growing up in Pasadena, Calif.

At the time, Robinson was in the U.S. Army and stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, located about 60 miles north of Austin. And he often spent his leave time in Austin with Downs, a 1933 Huston graduate who became the school's president in 1943 at age 31.

Robinson received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army in November of 1944 after he refused to move to the back of a military bus. He jumped at the opportunity to work for Downs, who was looking for a physical-education instructor and basketball coach.

Robinson provided the details in his autobiography I Never Had It Made, which was published in 1972 only months before his death at the age of 53: "There was very little money involved, but I knew that Karl would have done anything for me, so I couldn't turn him down."

Robinson grew up without a father at home. Rachel Robinson, Jackie's wife, identified Downs as one of the most important male figures in Robinson's life in the book that she wrote with Lee Daniels called Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait: "Jack said Karl's intervention—he called it a 'rescue'—changed the course of his life."

Photo courtesy of Austin History Center
Jackie Robinson, center, with Karl Downs, right.

After graduating from Austin's all-black Anderson High, Harden first encountered Robinson in the fall of 1944. At 6'0'' and 150 pounds, Harden didn't play on any of Anderson's athletic teams. But as a freshman at Samuel Huston, he said he often watched the school's basketball team in practice. One day, he said, he all but dared the 25-year-old rookie coach to put him on the team.

"I was sitting there observing them," Harden recalled. "I made a statement, 'I can play as well as these guys.' He said, "C'mon on out, then." So I came out, and he started working me out and he put me on the team and gave me a scholarship. Tuition only, but my mother was elated."

Fellow Anderson grad Lonnie Jackson played on the basketball team at Samuel Huston about that same time, but he said he missed Robinson's season while serving in the U.S. Navy. Jackson recalled meeting Robinson, known for his athletic exploits a few years earlier at UCLA, at an Austin drugstore during the summer of 1944 and recognized him from newspaper clippings.

Robinson asked Jackson if he played basketball, since the teen had sneakers draped over his shoulders. Soon after, Jackson said, Robinson was organizing regular games at a local gym.

"All I could think of," Jackson recalled from that initial encounter, "was, 'I'm taking Jackie Robinson to the gym!'"

In 1952, Samuel Huston College, named after a benevolent Iowan who donated $9,000 toward the institution's opening in 1900, merged with Austin's other college for blacks on the city's segregated east side, Tillotson College. Today that institution, known as Huston-Tillotson University, is situated on the former campus of Tillotson College.

Huston-Tillotson has no photos of Robinson or the team from that season and no detailed records of the squad's performance. Austin's two mainstream daily newspapers then, the morning American and evening Statesman, didn't cover Huston's Dragons or Tillotson's Eagles.

Photo by Erich Schlegel

Harden, likewise, can't recall many specifics of that season beyond trips across Texas and into Louisiana and Arkansas. But playing for Robinson definitely left an impression.

"We were one of the few teams that ran at that time," he said. "He got out there with us and actually showed us what to do and was a better player than anybody on our team. Or anybody we played, really.

"And he was a gentleman. He required us to wear suits and ties when we got off the bus.

In 1945, Robinson accepted an invitation to try out for the Negro Leagues' Kansas City Monarchs. The club was conveniently holding spring training in Houston, only a few hours from Austin.

AP Photo
Jackie Robinson as a member of the Kansas City Monarchs.

Samuel Huston's trainer was Harold "Pea Vine" Adanandus, who died in 2007. In a 1997 interview with the Austin American-Statesman, Adanandus recalled when Robinson broke the news to the team after the season that he would be leaving Samuel Huston to join the Monarchs: "I said, 'Well, Jackie. I didn't even know you played any baseball.' And he said, 'Yeah, I play a little.'"

By year's end, Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey signed Robinson to a contract that placed him with the club's top minor league affiliate in 1946 and on the big-league roster in '47. The date of his debut that year—April 15—is now recognized annually as Jackie Robinson Day by Major League Baseball.

The fiery Robinson whom Brooklyn's Rickey gambled wouldn't retaliate against bigoted baseball fans was on display during Huston games, according to Harden.

"I saw him go after officials when we were playing," he recalled. "He didn't get ejected, but he would go to the breaking point."

When Robinson made his historic debut with the Dodgers in 1947, neither the American nor the Statesman recognized him for his stay at Samuel Huston. The dailies' local sports focus was on the debut of Austin's new minor league baseball team in the Big State League.

Oh, there was a story advancing the University of Texas track team's upcoming trip to the Kansas Relays written by a young alum named Tex Schramm, who later became the first president and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1991.

Harden naturally followed Robinson's exploits in the majors.

"Being a product of segregation here in Austin, I knew what he had to be going through," Harden said. "I really didn't think he would make it because I didn't think he could control his temper that much. But I guess Branch Rickey schooled him well."

AP Photo

Downs officiated at the California wedding of Jackie and Rachel Robinson in February of 1946, just before Robinson joined the Dodgers' Montreal farm club. Downs died suddenly in February of 1948 at the age of 36 at an Austin hospital following an operation. In his five years as president of Samuel Huston, he was credited with doubling the number of campus buildings (five to 10) and more than doubling enrollment (250 to 700).

Those Samuel Huston buildings have long since been demolished. Part of the land that the campus occupied, now on the east frontage road of Interstate 35 and East 12th Street, is home to the Lucky Lady bingo parlor. Huston-Tillotson's baseball team plays a few miles off campus at a ballpark named Downs Field.

Robinson certainly didn't forget Samuel Huston College. He was elected to Huston-Tillotson's board of regents in 1968 and served until just before his death. Terry Smith, executive assistant to the university president and unofficial school historian, said Robinson would have been required to attend the board's two annual meetings on campus.

The Huston-Tillotson campus features no markers, no overt remembrances of the former coach who became an American icon. Smith speculated that any of the university's current 937 students who know Robinson coached at a predecessor to their school first learned of his legacy with the release of the autobiographical 42 movie in 2013.

Asked to estimate how many that would be, Smith sat back in his chair, paused a bit and finally said, "Two percent." 

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