Sports  Jackie Robinson in Montreal

How the baseball legend got his professional start in a city that welcomed him

At the corner of de Lorimier and Ontario, a secondary school athletic field sits inconspicuously amongst the buildings and bustle of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. A small stone memorial is the only obvious indication of this place’s former life. But the three short paragraphs on the bronze plaque indicate what this place has meant for Montreal, and for one legendary baseball player, Jackie Robinson.

Robinson spent only one year in Montreal, but that year was an essential part of what became a legendary career. Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, broke Major League Baseball’s colour barrier by signing Robinson. What is known as the “Noble Experiment” was, in fact, a double-blind experiment – the decision was kept secret from the team and from the public until the day of Robinson’s signing.

Robinson was a vexed addition to the Dodgers. The challenges ahead required skills far beyond simple athletic ability. Rickey told Robinson that he needed a “Negro player with guts enough not to fight back” against the sure onslaught of racial antagonism. There were black talents who were more established than Robinson, namely Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, so the choice to sign Robinson was controversial even in his own League. However, Robinson promised Rickey that he would “turn the other cheek and let [his] play do the talking,” and became a member of the team on October 23, 1945.

Players on the Dodgers considered passing a petition against his playing. Spring training was held in the deeply-segregated Jacksonville, Florida, where Robinson was frequently made to leave airplanes, denied hotel lodging, and locked out of stadiums. But the real test remained after spring training and north of the border.

Before he became the general manager for the Dodgers, Rickey had been responsible for formalizing baseball’s farm team system, which affiliated Major League clubs with minor league “feeder” teams. The idea behind this being that, when a player signed to a Major League team, they would first play for the farm team. The Dodgers’ farm teams included the AAA International League Montreal Royals, where Rickey determined that Robinson would begin his professional baseball career.

Given that the city would later lose the Expos due to extraordinarily low game attendance, it is hard to fathom the baseball ardor that raged in Montreal during the 1940s. But fans loved the Royals. Rickey hoped that, with Montreal’s combination of passion for the game and cosmopolitan tolerance, it would be the right place to foster integration.

The Royal’s season began on the road that year, and Jackie Robinson made his actual professional debut in a game against the Jersey City Giants. Robinson gave an amazing performance, recording four runs, driving in three, and stealing two bases. The crowds in Jersey City were openly hostile, but, in Montreal, they were curious. When the Royals returned to
Montreal two weeks later, the opening day attendance broke records at 16,000.

Robinson would become the International League’s Most Valuable Player that year. In contrast to the deep-seated racism that awaited him on every road trip, the Royals fans adored him. He proved himself to be both a civil rights hero and a masterful athlete.

Throughout his career, and even after he left Montreal, Robinson expressed appreciation for the people here, crediting their enthusiasm and openness as the catalyst for his All-Star career. After his retirement from the MLB, Robinson was interviewed on CBC’s Assignment, where he reflected on his time in Montreal, saying that “I’ll never forget after playing in Louisville, down in my own country, and receiving the kind of boos and jeers that I did, going back to Montreal… I think the fact that I played in Montreal, that I had many people sending me letters and prayers and wishing me well, had a great deal to do with the success that I did have.”

A few metres away from the plaque at Delorimer Stadium is Larivière. When the Stadium was still intact, the back entrance exited onto this street. On October 4, 1946, Robinson played his last game for the Montreal Royals, winning them the “Little World Series” title over the Kentucky Colonels. When Robinson came through the stadium’s back door, he was bombarded with Royals fans.

Robinson tried to explain that he had a train to catch, and began running towards the station. The crowds dashed after him. Jackie’s friend Sam Maltin, who was working as a stringer for the Pittsburgh Courier, famously described the scene by writing, “it was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on his mind.”