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How Jackie Robinson Almost Became A Fresno State Bulldog

Apr 12, 2013

Baseball great Jackie Robinson was recruited by Fresno State in 1939.
Credit / Library of Congress - public domain

Before he broke baseball's color barrier in 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson nearly wound up as multi-sport star for the Fresno State Bulldogs.

In a move that would likely run afoul of today's NCAA recruiting regulations, the school offered the star a number of incentives in an attempt to lure Robinson to the campus, including a new set of tires for his aging 1931 Plymouth.

The year was 1938, and Robinson was already a star athlete with Pasadena Junior College. In May, the future Hall of Famer and civil rights hero visited Fresno to take part in the West Coast Relays, at what is today known as Ratcliffe Stadium. The event was a major draw, and was then known as the unofficial state track and field championship.

Robinson set a long jump record for the junior college division at the meet, and his picture was prominently displayed on the front page of the Fresno Bee on May 15, 1938 under a headline titled "Sets New Relay Record." 

While many colleges were apparently reluctant to sign a star African-American athlete, a handful of schools, including the University of Oregon, UCLA and Fresno State began to recruit Robinson. Fresno State's offer was rather unconventional, according to author Arnold Rampersad, in his book "Jackie Robinson: A Biography" :

As Jack's athletic accomplishments mounted, so did interest in him among those colleges and universities willing to recruit and start a black player; he himself recalled "a number of colleges putting out feelers, offering athletic scholarships." Jack Gordon remembered Fresno State, in central California, offering Jack all sorts of inducements, including a set of new tires for the ancient car that had come into his possession. 

The May 15, 1938 edition of The Fresno Bee featured a photo and story about Jack Robinson's performance at the West Coast Relays

Unfortunately for Fresno State fans, Robinson  became a UCLA Bruin in 1939, and not a Fresno State Bulldog. He would go on to win the 1940 NCAA Men's Track and Field Championship in long jump, with a leap of 25 feet, 6 and 1/2 inches.  And the rest, as they say, is history.