Monday Marked 50 Years Since Robinson’s Death
Monday, Oct. 24 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Before his decade of excellence with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson was a college sports star and in one notable moment, his UCLA basketball squad played at Illinois State.
On Dec. 21, 1940, Robinson’s Bruins team lost to Illinois State 37-21 in Normal at McCormick Gym, the former home of the Redbirds. Eight decades later, hoops historians still look back on the night that the great Jackie Robinson came to the Illinois heartland.
Though he is best known for his baseball career that changed American culture, Robinson was a four-sport letterwinner at UCLA, the only athlete in that school’s history to hold that distinction. In addition to basketball and baseball, he also participated in football and track.
Robinson excelled in many of his sports at UCLA. In football, he led the nation in punt return average in both 1939 and 1940, and averaged 12.2 yards per rushing attempt in 1939, when the Bruins finished #7 in the AP poll. He was the NCAA champion in the long jump in 1940.
Oddly, he played only one year of baseball at UCLA and struggled, hitting just .097 in 1940. However, Robinson stole home 19 times, a sign of both his incredible talent and on-field aggressiveness.
On the hardwood, the 5’11 Robinson averaged 12.4 points per game in 1939-40 and 11.1 in 1940-41. Despite Robinson’s contributions, the Bruins struggled, going 8-17 and 6-20 in those two years, respectively. But the legend of Jackie Robinson was just beginning, and when he brought his UCLA squad to Normal that night, there was plenty of hype.
The Illinois State – UCLA matchup featured two of the top black athletes in the nation in Robinson and the Redbirds’ John Scott. Though he was far less known, Scott had plenty of athletic credentials of his own.
Scott was a product of the hoops hotbed of Centralia and head coach Arthur Trout, who led the Orphans to 811 wins in a storied 37-year career. At Illinois State, he was a three-sport standout and collected fourteen championships in his three years as a Redbird.
The basketball program reeled off a 35-7 record in conference play with Scott, a four-time all-conference pick. The Redbirds’ basketball captain in 1940-41, Scott was also a two-time captain of the Illinois State cross country team. In addition, he was a top member of the school’s track team.
Though Robinson had more fame, the night belonged to Scott, who scored a game-high 21 points. That was as many as the entire UCLA team managed in a 37-21 Illinois State win. Robinson was held to just two baskets, for four points.
Seven years later, Robinson played his first game for the Dodgers and, in 1949, became the first black player to win a Most Valuable Player award. A six-time All-Star, Robinson won the National League batting title in 1949, and led the league in steals twice. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
After years of battling heart disease and diabetes, Robinson died of a heart attack at his Connecticut home at age 53 on Oct. 24, 1972. Today, Robinson is remembered as an icon of American sports, overcoming rampant racism that is just now becoming fully understood.
After ISU, Scott went on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters for two seasons. In 1972 – the year that Robinson died — he was inducted into the Illinois State Athletics Hall of Fame. Scott, who pursued a career in the medical field, is also a member of the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, another honor in a remarkable life.
Thirty years after Robinson’s night in Normal, the Illinois State men’s basketball program also made history with the hiring of Will Robinson (no relation), the first African-American head coach in NCAA Division I history, in 1970.
The appearance of Jackie Robinson at Illinois State, and his heralded matchup with John Scott, remains a seminal moment in hoops history in the state of Illinois.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or email@example.com.