Jackie Robinson’s Older Brother Was An Athletic Pioneer First

By Jeff Kelly on Tuesday, November 26, 2013
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“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me. All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” —Jackie Robinson

In A Nutshell

Anyone familiar with the sport of baseball knows all about Jackie Robinson (pictured above), the man who famously broke the color barrier as a black man playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Just within the last year, a movie was released detailing his story. But what people probably don’t realize that he wasn’t even the first member of his family to achieve greatness and make a statement for racial equality in athletics, as his brother, Mack, finished just behind Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

The Whole Bushel

Jackie Robinson is an American hero, a man who broke baseball’s color barrier with grace and dignity in the face of horrible racism and adversity. Everyone who is familiar with the sport knows all about Robinson, and Major League Baseball holds him in such high regard that his number, 42, can no longer be worn by anyone, ever.

What people probably don’t realize, however, is the fact that years before Jackie Robinson was making headlines, his older brother Mack came within half a second of becoming the most famous sprinter in history. That is to say, if he had been just a little bit faster, we would all be talking about Mack Robinson, and not Jesse Owens, being the black athlete who showed up Hitler and the Nazis at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

And the difference between being the forgotten brother of Jackie Robinson and the heroic sprinter who defied the Nazis, in Mack Robinson’s mind, came down to a ratty old pair of shoes. Being exceedingly poor, Mack couldn’t afford a new pair of shoes leading up to the Olympics, meaning he wore the same slowly deteriorating pair in his race with Owens that he had worn for years. He still managed to, along with Owens, break the previous world record but finished four-tenths of a second later, earning a silver medal.

Unfortunately for Mack Robinson, history rarely remembers the silver medalist, particularly when such a statement about racial equality is being made, however inadvertently. Of course, it was his treatment after the Olympics had ended that fueled his younger brother’s fire, as Mack was still treated as a second-class citizen and, too poor even to afford clothes, was fired from his job over racial issues.

Probably not so coincidentally, Mack wound up working as an usher at Dodger Stadium for a while before returning to his hometown of Pasadena, California. Finally, after nearly 50 years of being virtually ignored, when the Olympics came to Los Angeles in 1984, he was asked to help carry the American flag. In 1997, the city of Pasadena unveiled a pair of bronze statues commemorating the brothers.

Still, it’s amazing to think what may have happened had Mack Robinson been just a little bit faster. Or perhaps, if he had had some better shoes. Rather than being an afterthought, overshadowed by both Owens and Jackie, he would have made his own incredible mark on history.

Show Me The Proof

NY Times: Mack Robinson, 85, Second to Owens in Berlin
NY Times: Tracing Two Lives After a Loss to Jesse Owens