Jackie Robinson‘s revered legacy is an American treasure. As the first black man to play professional baseball—Robinson’s legendary career with the Brooklyn Dodgers is well documented in the annals of American history. His story is as important to the history of baseball as it is to the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the United States. What is less documented is Robinson’s career before his historic move to play professional baseball with the Dodgers.
Few younger generations of Montrealers realize that Jackie Robinson’s professional baseball career started right here in Montreal. Chances are, though, that if you ask your grandparents, they’ll remember heading to De Lorimier Downs to watch Jackie Robinson hit home runs for the Montreal Royals.
When the young, talented shortstop from Cairo, Georgia entered Delorimier Downs, he was far from home. He went straight to the office of Hector Racine, the president of the Montreal Royals ball club. The Royals were a AAA team and one of the Brooklyn Dodger’s farm clubs, playing in the International League. Jackie Robinson signed to play with the team for the following season—it was October 23, 1945.
After 2nd Lieutenant Jack Robinson was honourably discharged from the United States military in 1944, he went on to play for the Kansas City Monarchs in what was known as the Negro League. Although there was no official ban of black players in Major League Baseball, all teams adhered to an unofficial segregated league, requiring black athletes to form their own leagues. However, while Jackie Robinson’s un-stellar career with the Monarchs ambled on, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, was conducting what history would later dub as, “The Noble Experiment.”
Rickey scouted the Negro Leagues in order to find black players to try out for the Dodgers—he had his eye on Robinson. Before Rickey could assign Jackie Robinson to the Montreal Royals, he needed to ensure that Robinson would be able to endure the inevitable racial abuse that would be slung at any black player breaking the colour barrier of a white man’s league. Rickey asked Robinson if he could withstand the racial abuse without reacting to it to which Jackie Robinson demanded: “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey responded that he needed a player “with guts enough not to fight back.” It was August 28, 1945, just under two months before Robinson’s signing with the Royals.
During his tenure with the Montreal Royals, Jackie Robinson loved and was loved by his adoring Montreal fan-base. Although he experienced racial hostility while traveling with the Royals—especially during spring training in Daytona Beach, Florida— that was not the case when he played at home in Montreal. After he led the Montreal Royals to the Little World Series in 1946, sports writer, Sam Maltin, poetically wrote, “it was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on its mind.” In the single-season in 1946 that Jackie Robinson played for the Royals, one million people came to see him play—a huge number for the time. After that season, Jackie Robinson would go on to play for the Brooklyn Dodger’s for ten seasons, forever changing the game of baseball and history itself.
In 2013, The Globe and Mail ran an article interviewing Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife, about their time spent in Montreal. “When I hear of bad things that are happening in other places – where people are fighting or being violent and are trying to exclude African-Americans – I think back to the days in Montreal—It was almost blissful,” said Mrs. Robinson. In the article, Mrs. Robinson recounts the time she rented her apartment on de Gaspé. She recalled how “shocked” she was when, instead of being rebuffed by her would-be landlord, she was invited inside for tea. Although communication was difficult for the Robinson’s, who lived in the mainly french Villeray community in Montreal, the community embraced the Robinson’s as one of their own.
Although Jackie Robinson’s career in Montreal was short-lived, this February let’s remember that Jackie Robinson once was and will always remain one of our own.