Jackie Robinson’s Hawaii Ties

Jackie Robinson gifted this photo to folks at Palama Settlement, where he stayed in 1941. Photo courtesy Palama Settlement

Palama Settlement has a rich and vibrant history in the world of local athletics. Great Hawaii swimmers swam in its pool, barefoot football stars played on its fields, and youngsters from Ben Cayetano to Skippa Diaz to the Noga brothers – and many more – frolicked in and around its many buildings.

But until recently the current staff didn’t realize that another great sports name had a Palama past.

“We just found the photo last year,” says Jean Evans, Palama Settlement’s executive director. “It was hidden in a bunch of boxes.”

The photo is of the legendary Jackie Robinson, whom I’ve written of before in this column – about his brief association with the Honolulu Bears semi-pro football team in the fall of 1941, the first time that Robinson was paid to play professionally in any sport. But I had never heard the Palama story, and just had to see the photo in person.

So I went to the second floor of the administration building, right in the middle of the complex that has stood for more than 100 years, to see the Palama archives that just opened this year. From boxes that had been scattered throughout old rooms, archivists found many great photos now on display. One of the most prominent, adorning the side wall right next to a picture of a barefoot football team, is a black-and-white of the most famous African-American athlete of all-time – the man who broke the Major League Baseball color barrier in April 1947.

“To our Pals, best of luck, Jack Robinson,” it says. The former four-sport UCLA star wears a leather helmet and the number 85, and is shown posing as a passer.

“He stayed in one of the rooms here at Palama while the rest of his team stayed at Waikiki hotels. They wouldn’t let him stay there, on account of his race,” Evans says.

It’s ironic that Robinson found prejudice here, because it was because of bigotry elsewhere by other professional teams that brought him to the Islands in the first place. Meanwhile, sometimes called Jack and sometimes Jackie, he was hailed as a hero in the local newspapers when he arrived Sept. 17, 1941, aboard the Matsonia. Another African-American player, Ray Bartlett of UCLA, came with him also to play for the Bears, which was known as an “integrated” team. It’s not known if Bartlett roomed with him or not, but that would seem likely.

Robinson practiced at Palama’s football field the first evening he was in town, and played his first professional game (at the rate of $100 per contest) at Schofield Barracks the following Sunday.

“Robinson gave 8,000 fans a lot to talk about. All they say about the Negro Flash is true,” reports the story in the Star-Bulletin, written in the vernacular of the day.

In that first game, which the Bears won 27-6, Robinson intercepted a pass and ran it back 37 yards. Later, playing quarterback, he completed three straight passes for a total of more than 50 yards and a touchdown.

“He showed off his vaunted passing ability which surpasses even his running,” the article says glowingly.

More than 20,000 fans showed up at his next game at Honolulu Stadium, and Robinson scored his first rushing touchdown. But, alas, his team of Mainland and local stars lost, and would only win once more that entire season.

By early December, Robinson had injured his ankle, and his brief Honolulu pro football career limped to an end before he sailed back to the Mainland aboard the Lurline on Dec. 5, just two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor – and five years before he would become a household name.

“So many people came through Palama,” says Evans, looking up at the photo. “Some of them went to the dentist, some swam and some played ball in the fields.”

And one famous sports legend-to-be took advantage of the aloha spirit at Palama Settlement to rest his tired head. Yes, Jackie Robinson slept here.