By: Bill Young
Canadian Baseball Network
Saturday, April 15, is Jackie Robinson Day. All across major league baseball teams will take a moment to commemorate that opening day in 1947 when Jackie Robinson first stepped onto the diamond as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers and shattered baseball’s hateful colour barrier forever.
To honour the occasion, every player, coach, manager, and umpire on every team will be wearing Robinson’s number 42 on their uniforms – their tribute to the man whose courage, obstinacy and skill opened doors to talented ball players the world over, regardless of colour, race, or creed.
Few remember that Robinson’s odyssey toward the major leagues was ant thing but easy, fraught with Jim Crow segregation and displays of open hostility, including threats of violence.
Except in Montreal - where Robinson’s journey was formally launched. Here the city welcomed him, initially with wonderment, then with pride.
It all began on October 23, 1945, when a somewhat nervous Robinson, fresh off an all-star season with the Negro American League’s Kansas City Monarchs, walked cautiously into the Delormier Stadium offices of the Montreal Royals. There, in the presence of team president, Hector Racine and other team officials, Robinson signed a contract to play for Montreal’s International League club in 1946.
Up until that moment, all of Organized Baseball had unflinchingly adhered to a strict, albeit unofficial, colour barrier, what author Art Rust, Jr., described as a series of “private agreements [intended] to maintain the game’s ‘white purity.’”
Its roots reached back into the 1880s when certain of baseball’s opinion–setters began taking brutally vocal exception to the small numbers of blacks then entering the game. Perhaps the most notorious bigot was the legendary Cap Anson who one time in Toledo, when confronted by Moses Fleetwood Walker, one of two blacks on the home team, is famously reputed to have yelled, “Get that N...... off the field.”
By the turn of the century, at all levels of professional baseball, from the major leagues to their affiliated minor leagues, segregation ruled. The last of this small cohort to be banished was the Canadian William “Hippo” Galloway who in 1899 played in five games with the Class-D Canadian League Woodstock Bains, until, as was written, “leaving Woodstock under difficult circumstances.”
Even though attitudes began shifting during World War II as large numbers of African Americans enlisted in the United States military to fight – and die – for their country, they were still not free to play baseball in a white milieu. Not, that is, until Branch Rickey, G.M. and president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decided to take matters into his own hands.
A devout man, Rickey considered that segregation in all its forms was abhorrent, especially in baseball, and by 1945 he was ready to challenge it head on.
The Dodgers’ president fully understood that breaking through baseball’s colour barrier would be a delicate operation – one wrong step and the damage would be incalculable. The player selected to lead the way would have to be capable enough to leave no doubts as to his playing ability and strong enough to withstand the bitter vituperation that would come his way from all sides. It took some time - but when Rickey met Jackie Robinson he knew he had found his man.
However, before Robinson could even consider joining the Dodgers, he would first have to prove his mettle in the minor leagues. To make this transition painless as possible, Rickey selected the relative obscurity of the International League, and what he considered to be the most accepting of all cities on the Dodgers’ map, Montreal.
It was the right decision. As sports writer Tom Meany, noted, "Rickey felt that he had the ideal spot in which to break in a Negro ballplayer, the Triple-A farm in Montreal where there was no racial discrimination." In the same vein, Dink Carroll of the Montreal Gazette added, “The absence here of an anti-Negro sentiment among sports fans . . . was what Mr. Rickey doubtless had in mind when he chose Montreal as the locale of his history-making experiment.”
Robinson himself acknowledged the importance of this choice. “I owe more to Canadians than they’ll ever know,” he once said. “In my baseball career they were the first to make me feel my natural self,”
Rickey had been very deliberate in his march toward baseball integration, but when in the autumn of 1945 he was ready to act, he moved quickly. On little notice, and without tipping his hand, Rickey arranged to send Robinson to Montreal on October 23 to formally sign with the Royals. The press were summoned, but not told why.
Thus when Team President Hector Racine introduced Jackie Robinson as the newest member of his baseball team and invited him to put his pen to a formal contract with the Montreal Royals, a first in modern baseball history, the reporters in the room reacted with stunned silence. Baseball was about to be integrated – and no one had seen it coming.
Then, almost as one, they broke for the telephones, clamouring over each other in their haste to be the first “to relay the incredible news to their editors”. What Le Petit Journal would call a “veritable revolution in the world of baseball,” had finally begun.
And it had begun in Montreal.