Pasadena

Jackie Robinson wore number 42 during his Major League Baseball career. It was his number when, in 1947, he signed on with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was named MLB Rookie of the Year when the season ended. He was the most valuable player every year for the next 6 years. His number was 42 when he retired from the major leagues after 10 seasons. In 1997 that number would never be anyone else’s, as 42 was officially retired. It is now his alone, except once a year,  on April 15, every player in Major League Baseball wears number 42. All 25 players on all 30 teams — all 750 professional MLB athletes wear number 42 — in honor of Jackie Robinson.

Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s 60-year color barrier when Dodger owner Blanch Richie called him up to the majors 6 days before the beginning of the regular season. He was the first Black to play in the major leagues. Older than most players, he began his professional career at 28. While many Dodgers players accepted him, the feeling was not universal. Some players threatened to sit out the games rather than play alongside a negro. Wanting to head off a mutiny, manager Leo Durocher told his team, “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you’re all traded.”

Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was born into a sharecropper’s family in Cairo, Georgia, on January 31, 1919. In 1920, Jackie’s father abandoned them, and the family moved to Pasadena, California. He was the youngest of 5 children and grew up in a modest home in an affluent community in Southern California. Denied entrance to most establishments and recreational activities in the neighborhood, Jackie joined a gang but quickly dropped out in favor of John Muir Technical High School’s athletics. While there, Jackie lettered in football, basketball, track, baseball, and tennis. He was a quarterback, shortstop, catcher, and point guard and earned medals in the broad jump.

Through the encouragement of his brother, he focused on sports at Pasadena Junior College and then at the University of California at Los Angeles. He idealized his older brother Mack, who won a silver medal behind Jesse Owens in the 100-meter dash at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The younger Jackie became one of the greatest baseball players ever to play the game.

In 1942, the U.S. Army drafted Robinson and sent him to a segregated cavalry unit at Fort Riley, Kansas. Even though he met all the qualifications to attend Officer Candidate School, the Army delayed his entrance. Mainly, through the protests of another Black athlete, Joe Lewis, he was eventually selected for OCS and commissioned a second lieutenant.

— Sometimes, having the world’s heavyweight boxing champion in your corner helps.

His military career stalled in 1944 after he refused to sit in the back of an Army bus. When the bus driver complained, the military police took him into custody. By the time of his court-martial, the Army reduced the charges against him from public drunkenness to insubordination. Robinson didn’t drink. In August of that year, an all-white, 9-officer panel acquitted him of all charges.

Jackie Robinson never saw combat and was honorably discharged in November 1944.

Robinson’s professional baseball career spanned 10 seasons as he paved the way for other Black athletes.

On November 19, 2017, 52 years after being inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame, his 1947 jersey fetched $2.05 million. This was the highest price ever paid for a post-WWII jersey.

Pasadena. Sitting just 11 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles is the city of Pasadena. If you visit Pasadena today, you will observe its population of 139,000 as a culturally-, ethnically-, and income-diverse group.

On January 1 every year, while most of the country huddles under blankets to keep warm, the Rose Bowl football game and Tournament of Roses Parade occur under a warm and bright California sun. The multiple dimensions of the city’s diversity are on full display as you drive the parade route down Colorado Boulevard.

Pasadena is also home to many scientific, educational, and cultural institutions, including The California Institute of Technology, Pasadena City College, Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine, Fuller Theological Seminary, Parsons Corporation, Art Center College of Design, the Pasadena Playhouse, the Ambassador Auditorium, the Norton Simon Museum, and the USC Pacific Asia Museum.

While the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl Football game are icons on the American landscape, Pasadena remains a city of contrast. On one street, you see opulence and unrestrained wealth, while one block removed, you encounter homelessness, poverty, and too many youngsters idling with nowhere to go.

As you drive the length of Colorado Boulevard, you will see signs reminding you that you’re on “Mother Road,” Route 66. Pasadena sits on either side of this famous street. If you leave the main drag, you’ll wind through pleasant suburban streets reminiscent of the 1950s. About 6 blocks north of Colorado is the Villa Parke Community Center. If you are traveling on a Tuesday afternoon, you can stop by the farmer’s market. The community center hosts several athletic programs, from soccer and basketball to Zumba and yoga. A library and a robust array of afterschool and summer programs make Villa Parke the community’s centerpiece.

A staple of Villa Parke Community Center for the past several decades is its boxing gym and youth boxing program. Over the years, thousands of kids from throughout the city have entered that ring. Some come to avoid life on the streets and the influence of the neighborhood gangs. Some come for the physical conditioning and discipline boxing requires. Many boxers go on as amateurs and train for the chance at an Olympic tryout. Others dream of turning professional and hitting the big time of fame and glory.

When you meet him, you are overwhelmed with the sense of gratitude he feels. “Every day is a gift,” Fausto De La Torre says. Fausto’s the heart and soul of Villa Parke Boxing, where he’s been a coach and trainer for three decades. He’s been boxing since he was nine and to hear him tell it, “Honestly, boxing saved my life.”

“I was destined for failure and destined to become a drug addict, a gang member, and to be in jail,” said Fausto. “I was destined to be dead.” While other kids succumbed to the pressures of the street gangs, Fausto hit the gym with thoughts of Olympic glory, replacing the violence and drugs that were all too common in Pasadena during the 1980s.

Raised by a single mother, he and his three brothers and sister lived in a single-bedroom house not far from the community center. If you press him, he’ll tell you of how boxing put food on the table — literally. According to Fausto, the legendary trainer and former Golden Gloves Champion Ben Lira was a trainer and coach in South El Monte, California. Lira held a local boxing championship every year, where a frozen turkey was the grand prize. Fausto knew he had to win if there was to be a Thanksgiving Day feast for the De La Torre family. Second place garnered a trophy, and you can’t eat a trophy.

So Fausto won, and for several years, he continued to win. “I lost my dad when he was only 27. I would get my mom flowers on Father’s Day. I still do.” Growing up, he befriended the trainer Eddie Johnson, a boxing coach at Villa Parke. “Eddie Johnson was my trainer. He paid for food if I was hungry, he paid for my boxing license, he paid for everything.” At 19, Fausto was determined to turn pro, but unfortunately, Eddie suffered a stroke and passed away. “He was a father figure who saved my life. He taught me so much, and I trusted him.”

With the loss of his beloved mentor and trainer, Fausto was faced with the decision that would define his life and the lives of hundreds of local youths. He put his dreams of boxing glory on hold and took the job of boxing coach at Villa Parke Community Center. With a steady income, he purchased a house at 23 and has raised 2 wonderful children: Eliana, who is pursuing a doctorate in creative writing, and Fausto Jr., who just graduated high school.

“Now I am lacking nothing, my kids are happy, I love my wife. God has provided for all my needs.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Fausto at his gym a few months ago. Two traits shine above all his other positive attributes. First, you are taken by his humility. He takes nothing for granted, downplaying his accomplishments, and quickly turns the conversation from himself to the dozens of young boxers working out. He joked, praised, and taught as he toured me around. There is an honesty in his eyes that belies the pride in what he’s accomplished.

Fausto De La Torre: father, husband, son, brother, coach, mentor, and friend.

Leave a Comment