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Mack Robinson, who was a silver medalist in the 1936 Berlin Olympics but would be overshadowed by the track great Jesse Owens and by his younger brother, the pioneering baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, died Sunday at a hospital in Pasadena, Calif. He was 85.
He was one of America's best sprinters of the 1930's, but Matthew Mack Robinson hardly seemed destined for athletic feats.
While Robinson was in high school in Pasadena, wrote David Wallechinsky, the Olympic historian, ''coaches did not consider him athletic material and made his mother sign a statement absolving them of blame if his heart was damaged.''
Even when he showed formidable talents while in junior college, it seemed that Robinson would not even make it to the trials for the 1936 United States Olympic track team.
''No one paid an athlete's way in those days,'' Robinson once recalled. ''The trials were in New York, and Pasadena Junior College didn't have any money to send me. And I didn't have a dime to make a trip like that on my own.''
He got there because Pasadena businessmen raised $150 each for him and a teammate.
Robinson qualified for the Olympic team and, in Berlin, he ran second in the 200 meters to Owens, finishing in 21.1 seconds as Owens ran an Olympic-record 20.7 seconds for one of his four gold medals.
''Jesse got the coaching, I didn't,'' he said long afterward. ''I saw his television program, about his return to Berlin. He said that he and the coaches had studied the styles of every runner. That was true. They studied me, too.''
In the Olympics, Robinson ran in the same spikes he wore all season in junior college.
''It's not too bad to be second best in the world at what you're doing, no matter what it is,'' he said of his Olympic silver medal. ''It means that only one other person in the world was better than you. That makes you better than an awful lot of people.''
But when Robinson returned to Pasadena after the Olympics, he felt unappreciated. ''If anybody in Pasadena was proud for me, other than my family and close friends,'' he said, ''they never showed it. I was totally ignored. The only time I was noticed was when somebody asked me during an assembly at school if I'd race against a horse.''
In 1937, he set a national junior-college record of 25 feet 5 1/2 inches in the long jump (later broken by his brother Jackie) and he won national collegiate and Amateur Athletic Union track titles at the University of Oregon in 1938.
He quit Oregon in his senior year to return home and support his family. Back in Pasadena, wearing his Olympic sweatshirt with a big USA on the front, he pushed a broom sweeping downtown streets.
But when a judge ordered public pools in Pasadena opened to blacks, the city retaliated by firing all black workers, including Robinson.
He later worked in a variety of jobs for the city of Pasadena and did volunteer work with youth organizations.
He was not forgotten. In the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympics, the giant Olympic flag was carried into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum by six gold medal winners, the grandson of one (Bill Thorpe Jr., grandson of Jim Thorpe) and Mack Robinson.
His affection for Jackie Robinson, his younger brother by four years, was strong, and he felt that not enough had been done to preserve the memory of Jackie, who broke the major leagues' color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
''There was no one more competitive than Jackie,'' he said. ''No one could tell him he couldn't do something he wanted to do. No man was more appropriate for the tough assignment he received.''
But he also felt that his identity had been lost because of Jackie's achievements. ''I am getting awfully tired of being referred to just as Jackie Robinson's brother,'' he once said.
But the brothers, natives of Cairo, Ga., were honored together by their adopted hometown when the Pasadena Robinson Memorial was dedicated in 1997 in Centennial Plaza, across from City Hall.
Mack Robinson is survived by his wife, Delano, and their three sons and three daughters; a son and a daughter from previous marriages; 25 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren.
Sometimes we have no idea that we’re in standing the presence of greatness. As students at John Muir High School in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, we often saw the unassuming elderly gentleman on campus. He always had warm words of advice, encouragement and expectation for us kids. He’d ask students about homework, inquire about family members, warn them to stay away from drugs and insist that they go to class. But a lot of us had no idea that this man, Mr. Robinson, was a living legend.
I was amazed to learn, that Matthew “Mack” Robinson had set track and field records back in the 1930s as a student at Muir and Pasadena Junior College (PCC today). His greatest triumph came in 1936 Berlin Olympics where he won the silver medal in the 200 meters, finishing just four-tenths of a second behind the great Jesse Owens. He continued to gain sports glory at the University of Oregon. My peers and I were also impressed to learn that Mack Robinson also happened to be big brother to another famous Muir and PJC alum who made a little history of his own – the man who integrated Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson.
Mack Robinson’s heroism will be celebrated with a VIP reception at Pasadena City Colleg this Friday, July 18, the date that would have been his 100th birthday. Artifacts from Robinson’s Olympic and local sports careers will be on display and special tributes will be shared by community leaders, friends and family members including his widow, Delano Robinson. In addition to his athletic achievements, the PCC celebration will also spotlight Mr. Robinson’s lifelong efforts on behalf of local youth.
Indeed, Mack Robinson’s commitment to young people may be his greater legacy. It was certainly where he focused a lot of his attention. I remember the night in 1988 when Mack and his late brother, Jackie, were inducted into the Muir High School Alumni Hall of Fame. Mr. Robinson didn’t talk much about sports in his acceptance speech. Instead, admonished kids to make smart choices and urged adults to guide and protect young people. Look closely at the sculpted bust of Mack Robinson across the street from Pasadena City Hall and you’ll find his personal mission statement etched in bronze: “My desire was to bring about a drastic change in education and the attitudes of America’s youth.”
In pursuing that most important mission, Mack Robinson was truly a gold medalist.
Pasadena, Calif., honored Jackie, left, and Mack Robinson with busts, but Jackie Robinson held a grudge over the way his brother was treated there
Jesse Owens won the 200-meter dash at the 1936 Summer Games in Olympic-record time, the third of his four gold medals in Berlin. Owens’s dominance will be remembered forever, but the silver and bronze medalists in that race, Matthew Robinson and Martinus Osendarp, also had fascinating life stories.
Robinson, who was known as Mack, also broke the old Olympic mark, with a time of 21.1 seconds. He was overshadowed by Owens, much as his accomplishments have been overshadowed by those of his younger brother, Jackie, the Hall of Famer who broke baseball’s color barrier.
A track star at Pasadena City College in California, Mack Robinson could not afford the trip to New York for the Olympic trials, so a group of local businessmen raised $150 for his train fare. Robinson had no coach, and he qualified for the 200 in the same battered pair of spikes he had worn during the college track season.
He ran a sensational race in Berlin although his shoes continued to deteriorate. He nipped at Owens’s heels, and finishing four-tenths of a second behind gnawed at him.
“Daddy always thought if he had better shoes, or some decent coaching, he could have beaten Jesse, or made it even closer than it was,” his daughter, Kathy Robinson Young, said.
The silver medal meant little in Pasadena, a city Robinson compared to the Jim Crow South.
“If anybody in Pasadena was proud for me, other than my family and close friends,” he once said, “they never showed it. The only time I was noticed was when somebody asked me during an assembly at school if I’d race against a horse.”
Robinson was reduced to pushing a broom, sweeping downtown streets while wearing his Olympic sweatshirt with a big “USA” on the front, unable to afford new clothes. Racial conflict cost him that job, too. When a judge ordered the desegregation of public swimming pools in Pasadena, the city retaliated by firing all its black workers, including Robinson.
Jackie Robinson was 17 when his brother took the silver in Berlin, and his anger over Mack’s treatment stoked a lifelong grudge against his hometown.
Mack Robinson wound up working in baseball, as an usher at Dodger Stadium.
“He would sneak the family into the blue level,” recalled Young, referring to the good seats.
But he found his calling as a truant officer for John Muir High School in Pasadena and in speaking out against local youth street crime.
“He was very strict, very strict,” Young said. But he was generous when it came to Muir football games.
“Daddy would flash his pass to get us in,” she said. “And any kids hanging around at the gate, he would sweep them all in, 20 or so at a time, saying, ‘They’re with me.’ ”
After decades of being ignored by his city and his country, Mack Robinson was chosen to be part of a group that carried a giant Olympic flag into the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympics at Los Angeles Coliseum.
“It was his greatest moment,” Young said.
In 1997, Pasadena honored the Robinson brothers by unveiling nine-foot-high bronze sculptures of their heads across the street from City Hall.
“When they were building them,” Young said, “I used to go down and take pictures of the two heads, Jackie’s and Daddy’s, lying on a flatbed truck.”
The inscription under Mack Robinson’s statue speaks to a life that was scarcely defined by his race in Berlin. It reads, “Athletes should recognize that once they establish themselves, people will attempt to pattern their lives after their sports heroes.”
As Young said, “I’m just as proud of his achievements with the youth of Pasadena as I am of his athletic achievements.”
Osendarp, a gangly Dutchman who finished two-tenths of a second behind Robinson in the 200 and also took third in the 100, was recognized immediately after the 1936 Olympics. He returned to the Netherlands a hero, the “best sprinter of the white race,” in the words of Han Hollander, the Dutch radio sportscaster who called Osendarp’s races. The president of the airline KLM sent a plane to Berlin to fly Osendarp home, where he was honored across the nation.
Born in Delft, near The Hague, in 1916, he preferred soccer like most Dutch youth. Osendarp was a fleet wing.
“I always had to wait up front until my teammates arrived,” he said in a rare interview with the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant in 1999, three years before his death.
When a trainer from Germany introduced him to the joys of running as sport, Osendarp gave up soccer for sprinting.
“Our boy is a quick one,” his parents wrote in a journal at the time.
Osendarp and his fellow sprinters did not have access to starting blocks, so they dug shallow holes in the track with spades. Thriving despite the conditions, he qualified for the Berlin Games in the 100 and the 200.
Before the 200 race, Osendarp later recalled, he shook hands with Owens, but they had no other interaction. Running in the innermost lane, Osendarp had a good view as Owens and Robinson shot past him. Osendarp concentrated on finishing third.
He would almost certainly have won a third medal, in the 4x100 relay, but he collided with a German runner as he began the anchor leg and dropped his baton, disqualifying the Dutch team.
Osendarp became a police officer in The Hague while continuing to run competitively, capturing the 100 and 200 in the 1938 European Championships. He was training for the 1940 Olympics when the Germans invaded on May 10.
The blitzkrieg rapidly overwhelmed the Netherlands. Osendarp’s parents were Dutch National Socialists, so it seemed natural for him to sign up for the Sicherheitsdienst, or SD, the intelligence arm of the SS, the Nazi special police.
“I thought I had to do it; I was wrong,” he told the Dutch newspaper Limburgs Dagblad in 1988. “Afterwards, I did ask myself: ‘What was I doing? How could I be so naïve?’ ”
Osendarp brought an athlete’s focus and a policeman’s skills to his new job, that of hunting resistance fighters. He arrested several dozen saboteurs, forgers and spies, some of whom died in prison.
In 1945, Osendarp was convicted of war crimes and given a 15-year sentence. He did hard labor in the Emma coal mine in Limburg, near the German border. After serving 12 years, Osendarp was released and found work as difficult to come by as Robinson had in Pasadena.
“I was unable to find a job in the west, so I returned to Emma to work,” Osendarp told Limburgs Dagblad.
After decades of being shunned, he was appointed the track coach at a nearby club, where he instructed young runners in the finer points of sprinting for nearly four decades. It is not known how many of Osendarp’s athletes were aware of his past.
“Of course I have remorse,” he told de Volkskrant, “but remorse always comes when it is too late.”