Jackie Robinson, Montreal and where R met B

Apologies, but I’m a little hungover today (first jukebox ping pong party last night). And so, a rerouted post from my Saturday newspaper column, fresh this morning. Enjoy. 

69 years ago this week, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play integrated baseball, taking the field at old Delormier Downs in Montreal for the team’s first homestand. If the American sporting world regarded– and, in some ways, still regards– Canada as an ice hockey backwater, that week it became a beacon of hope for black athletes who dreamed of making the major leagues. Suddenly, Jackie Robinson was playing among white men for the blue-crested Montreal Royals; in Canada; in a place called Quebec. The food was different and they spoke French there.

Montreal was the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league, AAA team. It was also a wildly open city; lawless and great and filled with men and women from every corner of the world celebrating post-war freedoms. In 1946, it jitterbugged with gangsters, cabaret singers, burlesque performers, restauranters, impressarios, rising and waning political giants, burgeoning poets, villainous– and virtuous– police, hockey stars and thousands of Jews, Blacks, Arabs, Italians, Irish, Frenchmen and Englishwomen; all of them kneeling at the altar of possibility in a mid-century era struggling to move past the sorrow of its first half. If the rest of Canada was temperate-minded and careful and Protestant and straight, Montreal in 1946 was beyond any of the country’s– or continent’s– imaginings; safer– if no less corrupt– than Chicago; more beautiful than Toronto or Vancouver; and more progressive, and multi-racial, than New York City. Here, Rufus Rockhead ran the first integrated jazz club in North America while Lili St Cyr played sold-out shows at the Gayety, every night like New Year’s Eve: dancers, gangsters and moneymen from the four corners of North America. Lili was called “The Queen of Montreal” by newspapermen and her burlesque shows were packed, and even though she was Minnesotan by birth– her mother, a warlord of temperance, christened her Willis Marie– it didn’t matter to the crowd. They loved her as if she was one of their own and she loved them back.

It was against this backdrop that the greatest story in the history of pro sport began; a story that would change and affect the very way we live in the 21st Century.

Hector Racine was the Royals’ Quebec-born president. Where other white minor league owners would have been loathe to allow a black athlete on their all-white team, Racine embraced the challenge. He personally shepperded the Royals through spring training that year, where the team was met with resistance and bigotry every step of the way. In Sanford, Florida, the police chief threatened to cancel the game if Robinson played. In Jacksonville, the team arrived to find the stadium padlocked, and matches were suspended due to racial pressure from the KKK, who threatened to hunt Robinson down and string him up from the bleachers. Racine’s memories of the times aren’t so much about the triumph of integration, but rather the fear that this great experiment of athletic integration would fail terribly, and a unified playing field would remain a dream.

Clay Hopper, a cotton broker from the Deep American south, was Robinson’s manager with the Royals. Previously the field general of the Mobile (Alabama) Bears, Hopper found it challenging enough to be working in a foreign country where people spoke a second language, let alone manage the first black professional baseball player. When the Dodgers’ GM, Branch Rickey, first told Hopper that Robinson would be coming, he suggested that the player choose another team. “He didn’t feel he had the stomach for it, being raised in a traditional Southern family,” wrote Jimmy Breslin, but, after a beginning fraught with uncertainty– Hopper questioned the very essence of his nature– the manager came to support Robinson, lending his voice to the efforts of integration where he had once opposed them.

During the first game of the Royals’ homestand on May 2, the Montreal Canadiens’ legend and superstar, Rocket Richard, showed up for the event, only to pass unnoticed through the crowd, who were transfixed with Robinson: back crouched on the infield, heels raised, glove hanging at his sides, arms like mangrove root, eyes like olive pits. It didn’t take long for Montreal to fall in love with the Robinsons (I scoured newspapers to find dissenting voices, but there were none). The kindness and largesse of black and white families– French and English– astonished the Robinsons. Jackie’s wife,  Rachel, who was pregnant, tended to a home that her neighbours had helped her furnish. Her first week living in the city was busied with the ringing of her doorbell: neighbours welcoming them to Canada, to French Canada. History pressed on them to realize the dream.

After the Royals won the championship (the Little World Series) at home in late September, Robinson left the ballpark. There, he was met by hundreds of fans waiting for him, who chased him down the street; a clopping throng of men and women, boys and girls. Later, Sam Maltin– a white Jewish sports writer who had also befriended the Robinsons– wrote: “It was probably the first time in history that a black man had been chased by a white mob out of love rather than hate.”

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