Olympian Mack Robinson was much more than 'Jackie's brother'

2 years ago

The two big bronze sculptures in Centennial Square in downtown Pasadena, Calif., are equal in size. Each is 9 feet tall, 6 feet wide and 7 feet deep. Each weighs approximately 2,700 pounds. And each depicts a sports hero.

Two brothers are the subject of the tribute. The sculptures don’t depict their bodies but rather — tellingly — only their heads, which no doubt needed to be their strongest assets when they overcame enormous racial and socioeconomic barriers in the pursuit of athletic feats.

One of the two faces is familiar to all. Jackie Robinson is rightly celebrated not just in Centennial Square but everywhere as the man who, on April 15, 1947, broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier and helped usher in the American civil rights movement. He is a recognizable legend.

But what of that other brother whose countenance is cast in brilliant bronze? How did he come to be memorialized in Pasadena with a tribute every bit as big as the one afforded a baseball icon?

If you don’t know the name Matthew “Mack” Robinson, it’s because he lived his life in the shadows of two of the most famous figures in the history of American sports. He was Jackie’s big brother, and he was the man who, despite matching an Olympic record in the 200-meter dash at the 1936 Summer Games, finished 0.4 seconds behind another legend named Jesse Owens.

Yet Mack, who passed away in 2000, is publicly revered in Pasadena for a reason. He was not just a great runner but a civic leader and an important mentor to Jackie.

“I had the greatest respect for Mack,” Jackie wrote in his autobiography, “I Never Had It Made.”

This Jackie Robinson Day, it is worth exploring the means by which Mack both inspired his little brother and later did justice to his memory, all while making a mark in his community.

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Mack Robinson with his silver medal.

The first Black family to live on Pepper Street in Pasadena arrived in 1920. Mallie Robinson had uprooted her four kids — sons Edgar, Frank, Mack and Jackie and daughter Willa Mae — from Cairo, Ga., after their father, Jerry, left the family. Like hundreds of thousands of other migrants, the Robinson family came West looking for something better.

What they found, however, was segregation served California-style.

Pasadena was wealthy and conservative and not welcoming to its new residents. Property was limited to whites-only in certain neighborhoods, and the community pool and the YMCA were off-limits to Black families. Those early experiences of discrimination would shape the lives of both Mack, who was 6 when the family moved, and Jackie, who was 1. Mack would eventually make it his mission to improve his hometown, to set it right. Jackie would leave Pasadena holding a grudge and never look back, forever determined not to let anybody tell him what he couldn’t do.

Sports were an escape for both brothers. And for Mack, games of tag and chase on the elementary school playground provided an early window into his natural athletic skill.

“We’d play ‘chasing the fox,’ and I’d have to break out of the ring and the whole class would start running after me,” Mack recalled in 1985. “And then I’d learn how to swivel-hip and sidestep and dart in-between.”

Even though doctors warned him that his participation in sports could be fatal because he had a heart ailment, he wouldn’t give up. … The heart condition never defeated Mack.

Jackie Robinson in his autobiography

He first ran track competitively at Washington Junior High School, where he broke the city record in the 120-yard low hurdles. But when he arrived to John Muir High School, they wouldn’t let him race.

“The doctors declared me ineligible because I had a heart murmur,” he said. “I felt as though they had actually broken my heart.”

Mack quit school, choosing instead to work odd jobs with his mother, washing windows and waxing floors. And if his athletic career had ended there, who knows if his younger brother Jackie would have had the early inspiration to passionately pursue his own athletic path?

Ultimately, though, Mack did decide to go back to school. And they did let him run. But only after his mother agreed to sign a waiver relinquishing the school of all responsibility should Mack’s heart give out.

“So she signed ’em, and I ran,” Mack said. “And I won every 100-yard dash I was in, in 1934, and I became the undefeated state champion. That year, I set a school and league record in the long jump. That was in 1934, and that record wasn’t broken until 1966.”

His younger brother paid attention.

“Even though doctors warned him that his participation in sports could be fatal because he had a heart ailment,” Jackie wrote in his autobiography, “he wouldn’t give up. … The heart condition never defeated Mack.”

Mack did not dare dream of reaching the 1936 Summer Olympics. But he sprinted his way into them, regardless.

While attending Pasadena Junior College, Mack participated in a regional final in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and the 100-meter relay team at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. The top finishers qualified to advance to the finals in New York, where the U.S. Olympic track team was set.

Not only did Mack advance, but he bested Eddie Tolan’s then-Olympic record of 21.2 seconds in the 200.

Mack had just $150 to his name — money raised by some Pasadena businesspeople — when he left California for New York, and $99 of that was spent on his train ticket. He arrived to the finals at Randalls Island with only the beat-up track spikes he had worn while competing at Pasadena Junior College.

Yet he was confident.

“They had to be ready for me, because I was ready for them,” he said of his competition. “Throughout my track career, I was never out of condition. I was never injured, and I felt that the only way to succeed is to be ready and to stay in shape. And I stayed in shape.”

In the finals — in a precursor to what would transpire in Berlin — Mack was bested by Owens in the 200-meter by a foot. But he made the team and headed off to an Olympics unlike any other in history.

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Mack Robinson wins the 220-yard dash at the national collegiate track and field meet on June 18, 1938, while attending the University of Oregon.

Red, white and black Nazi swastika flags hung in Berlin’s shop windows in the summer of 1936. German chancellor Adolf Hitler was convinced that the 1936 Olympic Games — the first to be televised — were an opportunity to demonstrate to all the world the supremacy of the blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan race. Völkischer Beobachter, the newspaper of the Nazi Party, opined that Jews and Black people should not be allowed to compete. Germany’s Olympic teams were nearly purged of non-Aryan athletes.

These were the intimidating conditions Mack Robinson encountered when he arrived to Berlin. He also had to deal with racial inequity within his own team. Mack later claimed that the coaches left him off the four-man 100-meter relay team so as not to have too many Black runners. Two Black runners — Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe — handled the first half of the relay, and two white runners — Foy Draper and Frank Wykoff — ran the back half.

Though the relay team won the Olympic gold, Robinson couldn’t help but feel slighted.

“There was a lot of inside fighting,” he recalled in 1985, “and a lot of hard feelings.”

Nevertheless, Mack did get to compete in the 200-meter dash event, held at Berlin’s Olympiastadion on Aug. 3 and 4, 1936. Hitler was among the roughly 100,000 people in the crowd.

Mack, once again wearing those same well-worn spikes he had used in junior college, won his heat with a time of 21.6 seconds, just 0.4 seconds off Eddie Tolan’s Olympic mark and 0.6 seconds better than his next-closest competitor.

In the quarterfinals, Mack tied Tolan’s record to finish first in his grouping. And in the semifinals, he tied the new world record Owens had set in his quarterfinals run — 21.1 seconds. Mack’s time was the best of any semifinals participant, Owens included. He was one of eight to advance to the finals.

The finals were where Owens would help cement his legend. Two days earlier, Owens had won the 100-meter dash with a time of 10.3 seconds. One day earlier, he had won the long jump with a leap of 8.06 meters. With an incredible time of 20.7 seconds — or half a second better than Tolan’s Olympic record — Owens won his third medal in as many days. His fourth would come as part of the aforementioned 100-meter relay team, four days later.

Those four medals, rubbed in the face of the German Führer, were an unprecedented Olympic haul by a track athlete, and Owens has been lionized as a result.

Mack, though, was right behind Owens in the 200, finishing in 21.1 seconds to beat the Netherlands’ Tinus Osendarp (21.3 seconds) for the silver. (Osendarp would go on to work for the German Security Service and the Nazi Security Police in the deportation of Dutch Jews during World War II.)

“I have no qualms about finishing second,” Robinson said in that 1985 interview. “My silver medal has a lot of meaning to me, and I believe it has as much meaning in it as the gold. But I think the gold, to me, was taken away.”

It was Robinson’s contention that, had he been more properly coached and been supplied with better shoes, he could have beaten Owens in the 200. While Robinson was wearing his broken-in kicks, Owens wore a prototype of an Adidas track shoe made by company founder Adi Dassler himself.

Robinson said that when he made the Olympic team and was whisked off to Berlin, he did not have the money to fit himself with better equipment.

“I was out there on my own,” Robinson said. “I did need a pair of spikes. I didn’t have an opportunity to talk on the radio with Bill Henry, who was broadcasting back to California. I certainly would have asked friends in Pasadena to send me a pair of spikes or send me enough money to be able to buy a pair of shoes.”

Whatever one thinks of Robinson’s belief that his gold was “taken away,” it can be stated with certainty that a Black athlete competing in Germany in 1936 was in no place to make demands. All Mack Robinson could do was use the Olympic stage to showcase his talent.

Gold or no gold, he had done just that.

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Mack Robinson finishes second behind Jesse Owens at the 1936 Summer Olympics.

A hero’s welcome did not await Mack Robinson in his return to the United States.

None of the 14 Black athletes adorned with an Olympic medal — a group that prompted an enraged Hitler to proclaim, “The Americans should have been ashamed of themselves for allowing their medals to be won by Negroes” — were invited to the White House. President Franklin D. Roosevelt hosted only the white medal-winners from the U.S. team.

While Jesse Owens did have a ticker-tape parade in his honor in lower Manhattan, the man who finished behind him in the 200 returned quietly to Pasadena.

“If anybody in Pasadena was proud for me, other than my family and close friends, they never showed it,” Mack once said. “The only time I was noticed was when somebody asked me during an assembly at school if I’d race against a horse.”

Robinson returned to Pasadena Junior College for a year, then transferred to the University of Oregon. He left school prior to completing his physical education degree in order to get a job and support his family — including brother Jackie, who by then had made a name for himself as a letter-winner in four sports (baseball, basketball, football and track) at UCLA.

Mack took up modest work as a street sweeper in Pasadena, wearing his Olympic sweatshirt with “USA” on the front while he performed that humble task. And once again, racism reared its ugly head. When a judge ordered that the city of Pasadena desegregate its public pools, the city retaliated by firing all its Black employees, Robinson included.

Such slights and injustices were what sparked Jackie Robinson’s awkward relationship with his hometown. When Jackie embarked upon his baseball mission, he left Pasadena behind, returning only to visit family. He went so far as to say, per biographer Arnold Rampersad, that he preferred the segregated South to Pasadena.

“In Atlanta, I know what I can do,” Robinson was quoted as saying. “In Pasadena, I never knew.”

Mack took a different tack. Rather than let mistreatment harden his heart and estrange him from where he grew up, he spent the rest of his life trying to better Pasadena while working a variety of common jobs, including as an usher at Dodger Stadium. He advocated against street crime and for the creation of playgrounds and pools. He helped restore peace in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. He raised money for Olympic athletes. He volunteered for various civic organizations and youth groups, particularly in the troubled section Pasadena where he had grown up.

“A champion,” he once said, “should turn his rewards back to the young people and give them a pat on the back.”

Mack regularly showed up at Pasadena City Hall to raise issues that were important to him.

“My dad was a pain in the neck to a lot of the city officials,” his son Wayne says with a laugh. “If they knew Mack was coming down there, it was like, ‘Oh my God!’ My dad was an advocate for the northwest citizens in Pasadena. He fought for their rights.”

This — more than the Olympic silver and more than being Jackie Robinson’s brother — became Mack Robinson’s legacy within his hometown.

The rest of the world could paint him however it saw fit. Within his community, however, Mack was second to none.

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Photos courtesy Kathy Robinson Young and Coffee Bluff Pictures.

Mack Robinson did admit to the frustration that can come with having an icon within your family ranks.

“I am getting awfully tired,” he once said, “of being referred to just as Jackie Robinson’s brother.”

Nevertheless, Mack was proud of his brother and what he meant to society.

“I never saw a day where they were upset or mad at each other, except for when they talked about politics,” Mack’s son Wayne recalls. “[Mack] had genuine love for his brother. And I think my uncle was motivated by my father. It wasn’t like my dad looking back. It was my uncle looking forward and trying to learn from my dad.”

In his later years, Mack put his time and money toward ensuring Jackie was properly celebrated. It’s hard to believe now that he has a day in his honor, now that his number is retired across Major League Baseball and now that there are buildings and ballparks across the country that are named for him. But when Jackie was still living, his impact was not yet fully appreciated.

Four months before Jackie’s death, when the baseball legend was weakened by heart disease and nearly blinded by diabetes, Mack visited his brother at his Stamford, Conn., home and proposed an idea.

“I asked him what he thought about having a statue built of him,” Mack recalled years later. “I thought it was time that he be recognized.”

Mack estimated the cost of having a statue of Jackie placed near UCLA’s baseball stadium to be about $100,000. He figured donors would rise to the occasion.

Alas, they did not. In the immediate aftermath of Jackie’s death and in the 11 years that followed, the project went nowhere.

So, finally, Mack took matters into his own hands, dipping into his own savings and soliciting the help of friends to make a proper tribute to his brother happen. The statue, which depicts Jackie in the on-deck position, was unveiled in 1985, outside Jackie Robinson Stadium.

“That statue is up,” Mack said that year, “but, financially, I’m in the hole. The statue has been paid for, but there’s an awful lot of other extra monies that is needed, and I’m still working on that phase of it. But it’s a beautiful life-size statue of Jack.”

It took the love, fortitude and personal finances of a determined brother to make that statue happen. Today, there are additional permanent tributes to Jackie on UCLA’s campus in the form of a statue of him in his football uniform outside the Rose Bowl and a monument of his number 42 outside the athletics and recreation complex that bears his name.

But Mack — the man whose most famous moment was finishing second — was the first to ensure Jackie was given his due.

“The love that Daddy had for his brother,” says Mack’s daughter Kathy Robinson Young, “is manifested in that statue.”

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Long after his track days, Mack Robinson remained competitive. His children laugh about how fast he would zip along the Los Angeles area’s Arroyo Seco Parkway as if it were the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“My dad had a thing about always racing,” his son Wayne says. “He couldn’t stand anybody being in front of him.”

And be it on the freeway or the Olympic track, Mack always expected to finish first.

It’s not too bad to be second-best in the world at what you’re doing, no matter what it is. It means that only one other person in the world was better than you. That makes you better than an awful lot of people.

Mack Robinson

“He didn’t underestimate the person in the lane next to him, but he was not concerned about whether they were going to beat him or not,” says his son Edward. “He was never in fear. He had the sheer confidence and the fortitude to say, ‘I just want to win.’”

So, yes, it bugged Mack to have finished second to Owens. But as miffed as Mack might have been about that result and the inferior shoes he believed to have caused it, he still had the proper perspective on what he had achieved.

“It’s not too bad to be second-best in the world at what you’re doing, no matter what it is,” he once said. “It means that only one other person in the world was better than you. That makes you better than an awful lot of people.”

Mack and Owens maintained a relationship decades after they finished so close to one another in the 200 meters. Mack’s daughter Kathy recalls that when Owens passed away in 1980, Mack drove more than halfway across the country (likely, over the speed limit) to be there for the funeral services in Chicago.

“The Olympic family is something unique,” Wayne says. “They compete against one another, but there’s a bond between these athletes. It’s a bond that is cemented through time.”


Mack Robinson sharing his 1936 Olympic 200 Meters Silver Medal, with his son Wayne in July 1968. (Photo by George F. Alexander for Newsweek)

Over the years, Robinson remained involved with the U.S. Olympic Committee. One of his proudest moments came in 1984, when he was chosen to be one of the athletes who carried the Olympic flag into L.A. Memorial Coliseum during the opening ceremony of the Summer Games. He also regularly volunteered for the Special Olympics and would get his children involved, too.

That cause became even more important to the family when Brittni Hamilton, the daughter of Mack’s daughter Kathy, was diagnosed with Leigh syndrome, a severe neurological disorder, at 2 years old. Though confined to a wheelchair, Brittni has been able to keep Mack’s spirit intact by carrying on the support of the Special Olympics.

“We had the Special Olympics World Games in 2015 in Los Angeles,” Kathy says. “Brittni was given the title of VIP Ambassador. She would help hand out the medals around the necks of the winners.”

So the example Mack set lives on, many years after he passed away at age 85 from complications from diabetes, kidney failure and pneumonia. He was survived by his wife, Delano, who, prior to her own death in August 2021, continued Mack’s civic duties in Pasadena. And today, his children and grandchildren ensure that his story continues to be told.

“His legacy, to me, is that of someone who can rise from nothing,” Edward says, “and go all the way to something that’s larger than life.”

Mack, along with Jackie, is certainly larger than life in that memorial in Pasadena, which was dedicated in 1997. There, Jackie’s head purposefully faces east, out toward Brooklyn and the baseball world he uprooted after bidding his hometown goodbye for good.

But Mack’s face points toward City Hall — the civic center of the town where he took the hard lessons of the injustices he had endured in a life in the shadows and nobly tried to do some good.