Salute To 42: The Unlikely Austin, Texas Intersection of Willie Wells, Jackie Robinson, & Rev. Downs
Few know that influential legend, Jackie Robinson, spent ANY time in Texas; even fewer know about the surprising sports job he held there in the mid-'40s!
Jackie Robinson, born in Cairo, Georgia, but raised in Pasadena, CA, was a three-sport star at that L.A. suburb’s John Muir High School. Going largely unnoticed, athletically, he enrolled at Pasadena Junior College, where he added track to his high school sports resumé of basketball, football, and baseball.
Gaining a scholarship to UCLA (and ultimately lettering in his four sports, the first to ever do so), Robinson also played pro football for the L.A. Bulldogs in 1941. During this time, he became athletic director for a local youth program, and even taught Sunday School at a church pastored by a Reverend Karl Downs.
“Jack said Karl’s intervention—he called it a ‘rescue’—changed the course of his life.”
The spiritually influential Downs had a decidedly positive impact on Robinson (who grew up without a father at home). Providence would bring the two together again half-way across the country in just a few dozen months.
Rachel, Jackie’s eventual 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.”
Robinson served his country for a couple years, starting in 1942, at Ft. Hood, Texas in Killeen, 70 miles north of Austin. As a second lieutenant, he was assigned to a tank battalion, and received an honorable discharge, in 1944, after refusing to sit in the back of a military bus.
By this time, Reverend Downs had become president of Samuel Huston College, the very same school Willie Wells attended 20 years earlier!
Related: To read about late Austinite, Willie Wells, member of three Baseball Halls of Fame, see this article:
It didn’t take long for Robinson to find Pastor Downs, and Austin became the future legend’s home for a time, being assured of home-cooked meals and spiritual guidance by the Pastor and his wife.
This Huston-Tillotson University article by Linda Y. Jackson picks up the story: “Downs needed a men’s basketball coach, and Robinson was sitting across the dinner table. Little did Downs know that the invitation would be short-lived and historic.
“Samuel Huston’s basketball team under Robinson was undefeated while playing long, tough road schedules as part of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). Upon returning from one of those road stretches, Robinson noticed a letter in his pile of mail from the Kansas City Monarchs.
“He couldn’t turn down the opportunity to play for the most successful baseball team in the Negro League. His stay at Samuel Huston and in Austin was over.”
“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 wrote of the coaching job in his 1972 autobiography, published months before his death at 53.
Memories of Jackie Robinson’s 1944-45 college basketball coaching career have faded in Austin (and photos are non-existent), but some residents (according to this March 30, 2016 Austin American-Statesman article) remembered playing for him:
“He was a disciplinarian coach,” said D.C. Clements of Waco. “He believed we should be students first and athletes second. If you cut a class or anything like that, he would put you off the team or give you some laps. He was a great coach and a great teacher. He was way ahead of his time.”
“Well, Jackie, I didn’t even know you played any baseball.”
Harold “Pea Vine” Adanandus, the Dragons’ trainer during Robinson’s time as a coach, remembers the day Robinson accepted an offer to play baseball with the Kansas City Monarchs (shown above in the KC uni), the most successful team in the Negro Leagues at that time:
“We met up in Jackie’s office, and he was sorting his mail,” said Adanandus, another Waco resident. “He had received a letter from the Monarchs. He showed me the letter, and they wanted him to play ball. They offered him a $500 bonus and $250 a month. He asked me, `Vine, what would you do?’
“‘I said, ‘Well, Jackie, I didn’t even know you played any baseball.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I play a little.'”
On the weekends Jackie visited while still serving, Pastor Downs helped him deal with the racial targeting and harassment he was experiencing in the army. These lessons proved invaluable for the man who would make baseball and cultural history when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, earning NL Rookie of the Year honors, and eventually, six World Series rings.
Jackie’s Texas friend and mentor, Pastor Downs, married Robinson and his sweetheart, Rachel Annetta Isum, on February 10, 1946, at the Independent Church in L.A.:
Two years after officiating the Robinsons’ wedding, Downs passed away suddenly, at 36, following an operation at an Austin hospital.
The Huston-Tillotson baseball team currently plays a few miles from the university, at Downs Field.
The fiercely loyal Jackie Robinson returned to Huston-Tillotson College in 1970, serving on the Board of Trustees, where he signed the restated Articles of Incorporation.
On April 15, 2016, Austin’s Huston-Tillotson University joined Major League Baseball in honoring Jackie Robinson with a special resolution. That same day, Austin mayor, Steve Adler, declared that Friday as Jackie Robinson Day in the Texas capital city.
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