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Huston College president guided Jackie Robinson down historic path

Karl Downs steered teenage Robinson away from trouble and set him on path to baseball history.

By John Maher - American-Statesman Staff



The baseball biopic about Jackie Robinson, “42,” was a success when it hit theaters in April. It’s now becoming available on DVD and Blu-ray Disc.

Robinson’s widow, Rachel, recently chatted on the phone with the American-Statesman about the film and a man who was not portrayed in the movie but who was very influential in her husband’s life, former Samuel Huston College President Karl Downs.

In his 1972 autobiography written with Alfred Duckett, “I Never Had it Made,” Robinson wrote, “Karl Downs ranked with Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in ability and dedication, and had he lived he would have developed into one of the front line leaders on the national scene.”

The man who broke baseball’s color barrier also wrote that racism played a role in Downs’ untimely death in Austin in 1948, one year after Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Rachel Robinson, 91, still has an office at the Jackie Robinson Foundation in New York, a nonprofit that provides educational opportunities for young black men and women. She started the foundation a year after her husband died of a heart attack in 1972.

For decades, she also worked on getting Robinson’s story onto the screen.

“I worked with several producers, but they didn’t produce,” she joked.

A few years ago, she sold the rights to producer Thomas Tull and gave the go-ahead to Warner Bros. and writer-director Brian Helgeland.

She is more than pleased with the outcome.

“I’ve seen the whole thing six times,” Robinson said. “What I enjoy is the audience reaction. People have cried or clapped or yelled. … It’s doing everything I hoped it would.”

Her husband might have been this country’s most versatile athlete since Jim Thorpe. Robinson was UCLA’s first four-sport letterman. The younger brother of Mack Brown, the 200-meter silver medalist behind Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Robinson was the NCAA long jump champion in 1940, soaring close to 25 feet. In basketball, he twice led the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring, and in football, he led the country in punt return average in 1940 as well as leading UCLA in rushing, passing and scoring that year.

“He could do about anything,” Rachel Robinson said. “He did not wish to go into professional football because he thought the risk of injury was too great.”

Robinson instead picked baseball, which back then really was the country’s pastime. At the time, a black athlete could earn a living in the Negro Leagues even though major league baseball was segregated.

Although the Negro Leagues had far more established stars, it was the college-educated Robinson whom Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ president, chose to break baseball’s color line in 1947. It’s unlikely that Rickey, played in the movie by a cigar-chomping Harrison Ford, ever would have offered Robinson that chance without Downs’ previous influence on Robinson.

“Karl was the father that Jack didn’t have,” Rachel Robinson said. “Jack was so close to him. He kept saying that Karl changed his life.”

Downs was born in Abilene in 1912, the son of a Methodist minister. He earned a degree from Austin’s Samuel Huston College in 1933 and received a master’s in theology from Boston University in 1937. Downs was named pastor at Scott Methodist Church in Pasadena, Calif., where he met Jackie Robinson.

Downs wore glasses on a long, thin face and had a gentle disposition.

“He was a quiet, sweet man, someone you could talk to,” Rachel Robinson said. “Not many people think of him as having a leadership role, but he was special.”

In 1938, Downs made national headlines while speaking at a United Methodist council in Chicago. There, he was denied lodging at a hotel used by white conference-goers. His deft handling of that situation caused the influential black newspaper the Afro-American to proclaim, “Since that incident, the Rev. Mr. Downs has been hailed as the most promising and potent young minister today.”

In Pasadena, Downs connected with the community by organizing everything from a nursery to athletics for the older children.

At that time, Jackie Robinson, whose father had deserted the family soon after he was born, was the leader of the local Pepper Street gang, a mixed-race group of troublemakers. Downs sought out Robinson, eventually gaining his confidence.

“The Pepper Street gang didn’t have a male influence,” Rachel Robinson said. “Right off the bat, Karl began to build their self-esteem. … He made a place for them in the church.”

With Downs’ guidance, Robinson stayed out of trouble and starred in athletics at UCLA.

Robinson left school early and played some semipro football before being drafted by the Army in 1942. A year later, he was stationed at Fort Hood, not far from where Downs was president of Samuel Huston College (which later merged with Tillotson College to form what is now Huston-Tillotson University).

Downs upped the profile of the small black college, increasing enrollment and embarking on an ambitious building plan. In the spring of 1944, Downs put together a Sunday artist series at Wesley Methodist Church that sounds impressive seven decades later. The artists included NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois, poet Langston Hughes, politician Adam Clayton Powell and internationally famous tenor Roland Hayes.

Upon Robinson’s discharge from the Army, Downs hired him as the athletic director at Sam Huston, and Robinson coached the basketball team for the 1944-45 season before leaving to try professional baseball.

In August 1945, Robinson met with Rickey and agreed to join the Dodgers organization. In October, Robinson signed a contract to play for Montreal, the Dodgers’ farm club in the International League.

When Rachel and Jack were married in February 1946, their wedding was not the impromptu union depicted in the movie. Several members of the old Pepper Street gang dressed up for the occasion, and Downs traveled to California to preside over the ceremony.

That year, Robinson played for the Montreal Royals and hit a league-leading .349. The next season, he joined the Dodgers. The team tried to keep the fanfare to a minimum, but after Robinson won the Rookie of the Year award, he was honored by the Dodgers on Sept. 23, 1947, with his own day. The World Series against the New York Yankees was to begin a week later.

Downs came up from Texas for Robinson’s day at Ebbets Field, to the delight of both Jackie and Rachel. “I’m sure (Jackie) called him more than any other person,” Rachel recalled. “He trusted Karl.”

At some point while visiting the Robinsons, Downs apparently became ill and had to be taken to a Brooklyn hospital by Rachel.

In late February 1948, Downs was back home in Austin when he again became ill with stomach problems. He was admitted to Brackenridge Hospital for an emergency operation.

In a biography of Robinson, author Susan Muaddi Darraj wrote: “The hospital was segregated, and even though Downs suffered from complications after surgery, he was not allowed to remain in a recovery room for observation, a decision made by his white doctor. Instead, he was sent back to the segregated ward, which did not have the same quality of care as the white section of the hospital. He died in that ward, a victim of Jim Crow segregation, which had even tarnished medical ethics.”

At that time, Rachel and Jackie believed Downs would have lived if the surgery had been done in New York.

In his biography, Robinson wrote, “We believe Karl would not have died if he had received proper care, and there are a number of whites who evidently shared this belief. After Karl’s death, the doctor who performed the operation was put under such pressure that he was forced to leave town.”

Sixty-five years later, details of Downs’ death on Feb. 26, 1948, are sketchy at best, and they have faded over time.

During Downs’ five-year tenure at Sam Huston, enrollment swelled from 250 to 700 students, and the buildings on the campus doubled. Today the baseball field at Huston-Tillotson and the Downs-Jones Library and Communication Center are named in his honor. At the time of his death, Downs was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California. He was 35.

“We were devastated by his death,” Rachel Robinson said.

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