Jackie Robinson — the player who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier and the only athlete in UCLA history to letter in four sports (football, basketball, track and baseball) — has been posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. The award, which was commissioned by Congress after the American Revolution as its highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions, was presented by President George W. Bush to members of Robinson’s family during ceremonies in the Capitol Rotunda on March 2.
Robinson, who died in 1972 at the age of 53 (he was born in Cairo, Ga., in 1919, the year that UCLA was founded), was a student at UCLA from 1939-1941. He enrolled as a transfer student from Pasadena City College and made an immediate impact on the ’39 Bruin football team, averaging 12 yards per carry and 20 per punt return to lead the nation. In basketball, he twice led the Pacific Coast Conference Southern Division in scoring, and in track he won the PCC and NCAA broad jump competitions. Oddly, given his historic role in breaking the major league’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, baseball was Robinson’s worst sport at UCLA — he hit .097 in his only season, though in his first game he went 4-4 and twice stole home base. Robinson was among the 25 charter members to UCLA’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 1984.
After graduating from UCLA, Robinson joined the Army, where he took his first step in tearing down racial barriers; while serving in Texas, he was court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a military bus. He was eventually acquitted and given an honorable discharge. After the Army, Robinson signed on with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Baseball League. It was there that he was spotted by Brooklyn Dodger President Branch Rickey, who signed him to a minor league contract with the team’s Montreal farm club in 1945. Two years later he was moved up to the big team.
In addition to Robinson’s family — his wife, Rachel, daughter Sharon and grandson David — representatives of the Los Angeles Dodgers attended the award ceremony. Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947 to 1956.
“Jackie’s is an amazing story,” said Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. “This kind of recognition outside of baseball is long overdue.”
Robinson’s No. 42 uniform was retired throughout the big leagues in 1997, on the 50th anniversary of his historic entrance into Major League Baseball. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.