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CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

This tribute to Jackie Robinson is hard to find

Pasadena has honored the Hall of Famer, but something could be done about the little plaque on Pepper Street.

August 01, 2012|Chris Erskine
  • A plaque commemorating baseball legend Jackie Robinson sits outside his boyhood home on Pepper Street in Pasadena. It seems Pasadena could do a little more for the man who broke baseball's color barrier.
A plaque commemorating baseball legend Jackie Robinson sits outside his… (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)

Didn't spot it at first outside the place where Jackie Robinson grew up, where he learned to run, threw oranges from neighbors' trees, first fired a baseball under the tutelage of three older brothers, one of whom would star in the most famous Olympics of all.

Didn't spot it till it was mentioned by Robinson's sister-in-law Delano, who still lives in that same working-class area between the Rose Bowl and John Muir High.

"Did you see the plaque?" she asked.

Well, no, even looking for it.

Maybe not for a plaque exactly, but something designating this as one of the most historic streets in America. What Hannibal, Mo., was to Mark Twain, Pasadena was to Jackie Robinson, a place that incubated his early values, a place that ultimately recalibrated history.

And here is this modest little plaque at 121 Pepper Street, so easily overlooked.

You hear plenty about how Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, and with Branch Rickey's firm paw on his shoulder, ignored the taunts, swallowed the anger and took out his hurt on opposing teams.

Think your job has pressure?

"TRIUMPH OF WHOLE RACE SEEN IN JACKIE'S DEBUT IN MAJOR LEAGUE BALL," a Boston newspaper roared on the day he signed with the Dodgers.

Tenacious and frequently brilliant, what would a ballplayer like Jackie Robinson earn today? Manhattan?

Yet, you might wonder exactly where he romped as a kid, learned to run bases and hurdle potential tacklers — word is, baseball wasn't even his best sport.

It's found here, between Lincoln Avenue and Fair Oaks. The most anonymous famous block in America: Pepper Street in Pasadena.

In 1922, Robinson's mother, Mallie, bought the Pepper Street place. The family called it "The Big House," a four-bedroom place where she would raise five kids on her own.

It was a white neighborhood then. She was able to buy the clapboard house only because the previous owner, also black, had purchased it with the help of a light-skinned relative.

So Mallie had her dream home, the porch hemmed with fieldstone and bougainvillea.

In the 1996 book "Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait," his widow, Rachel, tells how Mallie followed her brothers to California, hoping for more opportunity than Cairo, Ga., offered, then spent a life cleaning and cooking in the area where the Tournament of Roses house is on Orange Grove.

To be sure, Pasadena can be a stately town, with mansions and long lawns and a spirit of volunteerism that probably surpasses most places.

Yet, for all of the mansions and famed Craftsman-style homes, this is potentially Pasadena's most renowned street — the scratchy little stretch where its most inspiring figure came of age. For all of its attention to history, Pasadena has let this one slip away.

The old house is gone now, replaced by a couple of nondescript ranch-style homes. But the lore lingers.

On Pepper Street, Jackie Robinson learned to run and leap and throw.

It is from where, one day a week, the minority children could head down to swim in the Brookside pool, after which workers would drain it, as if it were somehow poisoned, before letting the other kids swim again.

On Pepper Street is where Robinson lived when he played four sports for Muir, then later for UCLA — like most black athletes, he lived at home then.

On Pepper Street is where Robinson lived when he met Rachel, put on a suit and took her to the Biltmore for their first date. It's where he received his draft notice in 1942 and went off to serve at the same base as Joe Louis.

Pasadena hasn't exactly failed on the Robinson front. There is a post office named for his underappreciated brother Mack, who returned from his silver-medal performance at the 1936 Olympics to an empty train station — no fanfare, no job, till he found one digging ditches. Still, he devoted his life to Pasadena, working at Muir, helping police with troubled youth, organizing clothing drives.

There are outsized busts of Mack and Jackie at City Hall. And there is nearby Robinson Park, a fine rec center on Fair Oaks.

No, Pasadena hasn't failed to honor the Robinsons. Yet, there is this little street. And a plaque no one sees.

"It could be argued that [Jackie Robinson] was the start of the civil rights movement," Dodgers outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. said at a Muir symposium this spring.

"Martin Luther King used to go to Jackie Robinson for advice," former Dodger Tommy Davis added.

"I would say that the city is proud of the two busts ... a fine tribute to the Robinsons," Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard said the other day. "And there is Robinson Park that was recently refurbished. Beyond that, I haven't heard of any suggestions to do more on Pepper Street. But maybe if you bring it up?"

It has been brought up before.

"We've talked to them about taking that plaque and standing it up and maybe putting a little light on it," says Delano, Mack's widow, now 79. "We'd love to see that."

And what about renaming Pepper Street "Robinson Way"?

We'd love to see that too.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter.com/erskinetimes

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