MLB·In Depth

Jackie Robinson's momentous year in Montreal

Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball colour barrier on April 15, 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but his year spent in Montreal paved the way for the landmark achievement.
This April 18,1946 file photo shows Montreal Royals Jackie Robinson. The quaint Montreal duplex that served as sanctuary to the Robinsons during the early part of his career is being recognized by the U.S. government. That chapter in American civil rights will be celebrated Monday, Feb. 28, 2011 when U.S. diplomats unveil a commemorative plaque at the apartment the couple called home in the summer of 1946. (AP Photo/John J. Lent)

Major League Baseball will honour pioneer Jackie Robinson on Monday, with all players and on-field personnel wearing the Number 42.

It is the fifth consecutive year MLB has a host of activities planned to celebrate Robinson taking the field on April 15, 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field.

On this particular occasion the celebrations are on the heels of the release of the biopic 42, which was the box office king the past weekend in North America.

While there were a couple of black players in the 1880s and a few others with African-American blood were described by their teams as "Cuban", "Mexican" or "Indian" in the first part of the 20th century, Robinson helped officially break the colour barrier post-World War II.

Between playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League and the Dodgers, Robinson spent the 1946 season with the Montreal Royals of the International League.

"Had it not been for the fact that we broke in in Montreal, I doubt seriously we could have made the grade so rapidly," Robinson said in a 1964 CBC interview. "The fans there were just fantastic and my wife and I have nothing but the greatest memories."

Robinson lived in Montreal with his wife, Rachel.

In a 1987 editorial for the New York Times on the 40th annivesary of his milestone, Rachel Robinson reflected on their time on DeGaspe Street in Montreal after a difficult experience enduring discrimination in spring training in Florida.

"We left the South bruised, stimulated, and more contemplative than we arrived. A more resilient pair.

"Our totally opposite experience in Montreal later that year provided us with an excellent springboard into the majors … Montreal and then Brooklyn became special havens where we gradually regained our sense of ourselves and our dignity."

While in Montreal, the couple would learn that they were expecting their first child. Jackie Jr. was born in Los Angeles in November. (Sadly the first of their three children would have a tragic life; he developed a heroin addiction while serving in Vietnam, and, while a recovering addict, predeceased the couple in a 1971 car accident.)

Robinson goes it alone

What's not well known is that Dodgers owner Branch Rickey also signed an African-American pitcher, Johnny Wright, with the intention that he would play for Montreal in the 1946 season.

But in his autobiography I Never Had It Made, released just weeks after his death from a heart attack in 1972, Robinson said Wright just didn't have the temperament for the challenge.

"He couldn't withstand the pressure of taking insult after insult without being able to retaliate," Robinson wrote of Wright, who played a few games for Montreal before returning to the Negro Leagues.

In his autobiography, Robinson singled out Lou Rochelli for praise. He said Rochelli was completely generous despite the fact that Robinson was bumping him to another position from his station at second base. 

He wasn't as effusive concerning Royals manager Clay Hooper. Robinson said that while the Mississippi native showed no outward signs of prejudice, he learned of instances were the manager had used disparaging slurs behind his back.

Not mentioned in the autobiography is 1946 Montreal teammate Al Campanis. Illustrating the lengthy and painful battle for racial equality in sports, Campanis was ushered out of baseball in the mid-1980s after appearing on Nightline for an appearance tied to Robinson's milestone.

Campanis said he didn't believe many blacks had the "necessities" to be a manager or general manager.

Robinson himself would express regret he wasn't given a shot at managing in the 1960s when his playing career was done.

But long before then, he was a marvel on the field in Quebec.

"The only thing the people in Montreal were asking were that I do the best I possibly could for the Montreal ballclub," he told the CBC.

It's been documented that the Montreal fans would pay close attention to any ear-to-the-ground or press reports of racism or mistreatment Robinson and the Royals received when playing on the road. Fans of the Royals would voice their displeasure when that city's team visited Delorimier Stadium.

Robinson expressed a "jubilant sense of gratitude for the way Canadians expressed their feelings."

The 27-year-old would hit .349 to win International League batting title, driving in 65 runs and stealing 40 bases.

The Royals would go on to win the Little World Series.

Robinson very well could have spent a second season in Montreal, but a couple of things happened in the spring of 1947 to pave the way for his summons to the majors.

First, he hit over .600 in a series of exhibition games between the Royals and Dodgers.

More importantly, Rickey sought to deflect negative attention from the suspension of manager Leo Durocher for associating with gamblers.

Regardless of the reason, Robinson would go on to be named National League rookie of the year, the beginning of a 10-year career that would result in a batting crown, a World Series title and induction into the Hall of Fame in 1962.