Because of a surprise bout with the flu, I’m a week late getting to see the movie “42,” which celebrates a portion of the life of Jackie Robinson. It is a great film about a very important moment in America’s history, a time when there was not the equality we have today.
I’m not a sports fan, but I’ve known about Jackie Robinson most of my life. So when I learned about his brief tenure here in Atascadero in 1941, I was intrigued.
In the spring of 1941, the federal government leased The Printery and City Administration buildings from the Atascadero Development Syndicate.
Both buildings have been used as schools, first in 1928 as Moran Junior College and Prep School and then a few years later as Miramonte School.
The government established the National Youth Administration to provide help to what we would call “at risk” youth today. Robinson left UCLA to take a job with the NYA, which was headquartered on the Cal Poly campus. The satellite campus, “Camp Atascadero,” was here.
In a biography on Robinson written by Arnold Rampersad, the author quotes Robinson as saying that “the thought of working with youngsters in the field of sports excited me.” Robinson was hired as athletic director of the Atascadero campus, which served youth from 16 to 18 years of age. He told Rampersad that his job was to make sure that the students’ time was well spent.
Rampersad writes that the NYA issued a pre-emptive reply to people who would question the wisdom and propriety of “putting a black man in a position over whites, even white teenagers.”
In addition to organizing activities for the youth, Robinson played on the camp’s baseball team. A local man told me he remembers watching one of those games, played on what is now the junior high field, when Robinson hit the ball over the fence and into Atascadero Creek. In fact, in the spring of 1941, Robinson and his teammates got their 14th straight win over the Camp Roberts squad.
According to Rampersad and locals, UCLA’s star athlete never put on airs. Robinson is quoted as observing, “I realized that I had been no different than many of these kids, who would make good if given half a chance.”
Thank God for the Branch Rickeys of the world.
Unfortunately, Atascadero wasn’t quite as good to Robinson as he was to the community. Trying to attend a dance at the camp, he was turned away at the door.