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When '42' Was '28'

Sep 19, 2017

Before Jackie Robinson made No. 42 famous with the Brooklyn Dodgers -- a number that has been retired throughout Major League Baseball -- he wore No. 28 for UCLA on the football field.
 
Given Robinson's Hall of Fame baseball career and his impact as the first to break baseball's color line, it's easy to forget what a great athlete he was in other sports. He lettered in four sports at UCLA – baseball, football, basketball, and track and field – and also had been a tennis standout before college.
 
In track, he set a world junior long jump record of 25-6 ½ and captured the 1940 NCAA title in that event. In basketball, he twice led the Southern Division of the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring.
 
Surprisingly, baseball may have been the worst sport. Robinson batted only .097 in his lone season for the Bruins. Football, however, may have been his best.
 
Robinson led the nation in punt return average in both 1939 and 1940 -- his only two UCLA seasons -- and his career average of 18.8 yards per return ranks fifth in NCAA major-college history. And, as a senior, he led UCLA in rushing, passing, total offense, and scoring.
 
Stanford had two brushes with Robinson's football greatness. On Oct. 14, 1939, Stanford tied UCLA, 14-14, at Stanford Stadium. On Nov. 2, 1940, Stanford won 20-14 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. After college, his immediate sport of choice was football, playing semipro ball for the likes of the Honolulu Bears and Los Angeles Bulldogs before joining the army during World War II.
 
In 1939, Stanford and UCLA were having contrasting years. The Bruins would go 6-0-4 and finish No. 7 in the final AP poll. Stanford went 1-7-1 in the final season of the Tiny Thornhill coaching era. "The 1939 campaign was one of the most dismal and drab in Stanford history," wrote Don Liebendorfer in his 1972 opus, "The Color of Life is Red."
 

Ticket from 1939 game between Stanford and UCLA.

The Stanford Daily called him, "Lightning Jack Robinson." He played wing-back and teamed with halfback Kenny Washington, an All-America and the player who broke the NFL's color barrier in 1946, to form a formidable backfield. Robinson often would go in motion and be in position to take a handoff as the ball was snapped, carry on a reverse handoff from Washington, or even pass the ball himself.
 
On this sunny day, the Stanford Indians broke from their spell. Norm Standlee piled up 115 yards rushing on 32 carries. Defensively, Corky Donahue moved to tackle and his job was to physically harass Robinson, knocking him down whether he had the ball or not.
 
Stanford held a 14-7 fourth-quarter lead, but Frankie Albert, then a tailback, passed on third down and it was intercepted, leading to UCLA's tying score. Either way, the home result was described in the Stanford Daily as an "upset" and a 'moral victory.'
 
In 1940, the fortunes had turned dramatically. Clark Shaughnessy, who had coached University of Chicago's defunct program, replaced Thornhill and immediately revolutionized the game with his 'T' formation. Though it wasn't new, Shaughnessy popularized the version because of the way football was evolving.
 
The 'T,' which called for a line of three backs behind the quarterback, was the first offense in which the quarterback took the snap from under center to hand off or drop back to pass. Previously, the quarterback was used mainly as a blocker. The formation also created opportunities for the backs to hit the hole at full speed and allowed for more creative blocking schemes. Though it was designed largely as a run formation, the 'T' in actuality launched the modern passing game.
 
With opposing defenses thoroughly confused and with a backfield of stars such as Albert -- coming into his own as the first great quarterback in the Stanford tradition -- and Hugh Gallarneau and Pete Kmetovic, Stanford rolled. By the time Stanford reached Los Angeles, the Indians were 5-0 on the way to a 10-0 season, earning a Rose Bowl victory and a share of the national championship.
 
Meanwhile, UCLA was losing close game after close game in what would be a 1-9 season. However, it was not the fault of Robinson. The Stanford Daily described the matchup as Stanford against "Jackie Robinson and ten other Bruins."
 
In what should have been a blowout, Stanford had its hands full with Robinson, despite a dominance in which the Indians rushed for 372 yards.
 
"As the statistics showed, Stanford was always the master of the game, doing anything they wanted, anytime they wanted to," wrote the Daily's Don Selby. "That is, everything but completely stopping Robinson."
 
Stanford built a 14-0 first-half lead before Robinson and UCLA began to storm back. After a Stanford third-quarter fumble, UCLA crossed up the Stanford defense with a long pass to cut the deficit. A long punt return and pass reception by Kmetovic put Stanford back up, 20-7, and the Indians threatened again before Robinson intercepted an Albert pass. Robinson himself sped for another score, but only a minute remained and Stanford hung on for the victory. The six-point margin was Stanford narrowest in conference play all season.
 
Robinson competed against Stanford in three sports -- football (twice), basketball (eight times), and baseball (three times). His record against Stanford was 4-8-1, going 0-1-1 in football, 2-6 in basketball, and 2-1 in baseball.
 
In his lone baseball game at Stanford, Robinson sparked a three-run seventh-inning rally to give UCLA to a 3-2 victory. He reached on a fielder's choice, and moved around on a walk, stolen base and fielder's choice for the Bruins' first run, highlighting a 1-for-4 day at Sunken Diamond.
 
For as many great athletes Stanford has had, it's also fascinating to note the great ones who have graced the fields and courts in opposing uniforms, and there have been none greater than Jackie Robinson.
 
 
Below are games Robinson played at Stanford, with Stanford scores listed first, and notes on his performances. Stanford went 4-1-1 in those contests.
 

Date Sport Score Location Note
Oct. 14, 1939 Football 14-14 Stanford Stadium Not a factor in surprising draw.
Jan. 12, 1940 Basketball 53-38 Pavilion Scored 25 points.
Jan. 13, 1940 Basketball 40-36 Pavilion Scored 10 points.
April 8, 1940 Baseball 2-3 Sunken Diamond 1-for-4, stolen base, run scored.
Feb. 21, 1941 Basketball 49-44 Pavilion Scored 13 points.
Feb. 22, 1941 Basketball 56-34 Pavilion Fouled out.