TORONTO – A year before Jackie Robinson ended the major leagues’ tacit policy of segregation with his Brooklyn Dodgers debut on April 15, 1947, he spent a pivotal season with the Montreal Royals, dispelling the dire portents of disaster spouted by bigots opposed to integration.
The role of that campaign with the International League club is often given short shrift in accounts of the trailblazing second baseman’s breaking of the colour barrier. But as baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on Thursday, it’s worth remembering that his 124 games with the Royals – the first of which, a 14–1 win over the Jersey City Giants when he went four for five with a homer, was 75 years ago Sunday – set the groundwork that led him to Ebbets Field.
“Opponents of integration had always said that there would be riots and violence, white players would walk out, white fans would not pay to see Black players play. There was also this idea that Black players were not good enough or that they didn’t have the mental makeup to play big-time baseball,” says Canadian historian Marcel Dugas, author of the French-language book, Jackie Robinson, Un Été À Montréal. “Basically, in the span of that one year, between that Oct. 23 when he signed his contract and Oct. 4, when the Royals win the Junior World Series and he was chased down the street by loving Montreal fans, he destroyed every single one of those arguments.
“The fact that he dominated basically the third-strongest baseball league in the world and that there were no riots and no violence and no walkouts, you go from having a near impossibility of integration to basically it’s a done deal. It was going to happen.”
Robinson signs with Montreal on Oct. 23, 1945. (AP Photo)
For that reason, Dugas, a lifelong baseball fan from Montreal who grew up cheering the Expos and whose field of interest is Quebec and Canadian history, decided to take a deep dive into Robinson’s experience with the Royals. In 2013, he started the Twitter account @Royals_46season as a way to share his research, essentially retracing the year through his posts. Those posts eventually led to his 2019 book, which was to be translated into English until the pandemic derailed those plans.
The Twitter account remains active, now featuring both Robinson and a defunct Royals franchise he believes hasn’t been documented nearly enough, especially when compared to the oft-covered “Greek tragedy” of the Expos. Like Robinson, Roberte Clemente also played his lone minor-league season in Montreal, adding to the team’s historical significance.
“It’s kind of a weird twist that the national pastime of the United States was integrated in a foreign land,” says Dugas. “But it is what it is. You could not put the genie back in the bottle after that ’46 season with the Royals.”
As much as Dugas attempted to remain dispassionate about the subject of his research, he found that he could not, gaining more and more admiration for Robinson the more he learned.
But he also went in prepared to discover the accounts of Montreal’s embrace of Robinson to be exaggerated, or to at least find some instances of bigotry. While racism in Canada wasn’t nearly as ingrained as it was in the U.S. at that time, it was only seven years earlier that the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Fred Christie, who had sued a Montreal bar called the York Tavern for refusing him service because he was Black, deciding that the business was within its rights to turn him away.
And one month after the Royals won the Junior World Series, Viola Desmond was arrested for refusing to sit in the balcony section of a theatre in New Glasgow, N.S., eventually fighting the charges against her up to the province’s Supreme Court.
But Dugas could find no accounts of resistance to Robinson, or racism toward the two other Black players to appear for the Royals that year — Johnny Wright and Roy Partlow — who ended up playing for a lower-level Dodgers farm team in Trois-Rivieres.
“There was a newspaperman who said that you really felt late in the season that if you were attacking Jackie Robinson, you were attacking Montreal in the mind of the fans,” says Dugas. “That’s really how they felt.”
Similarly important was the acceptance he and his wife, Rachel, found in the community at large.
Robinson’s spring training in Florida was filled with racist indignities, and several games were cancelled due to rules on integrated competition on city property.
3/28/46: 4 days after having a game in Jacksonville cancelled on account of African Americans on the roster, the Royals were scheduled to play in that same city. They travelled to J'ville and found Durkee field padlocked; police ready to enforce "No integrated competition" policy pic.twitter.com/nnyD9AhnkN
— The Montreal Royals (@Royals_46season) April 2, 2021
But the Robinsons found a respite in Montreal, where they rented an apartment in the neighbourhood of Villeray that quickly offered them a sense of community.
“They were able to relax,” says Dugas. “They found an apartment in a neighbourhood that was basically almost exclusively white, French-speaking and Catholic. They’re English-speaking Black Protestants. It was really kind of a fish-out-of-water type experience. But the neighbours were extremely nice to him and especially considerate of Rachel, given that she was pregnant and that he was often on the road for weeks at a time.”
In 2011, the U.S. recognized the apartment building with a commemorative plaque.
“You can’t make (enough) of the house because it’s where the experiment started, and the experiment went on to be a national success, so it led to something,” Rachel Robinson told the Canadian Press at the time. “What was nourished there in that house … had widespread influence in our society.”
Still, the burden of it all was enormous.
J.G. Taylor Spink, the segregationist editor of the then-influential Sporting News, wrote a 1942 editorial entitled “No Good from Raising Race Issue” that some have argued helped push back integration efforts.
Underlying the stakes, upon signing with the Dodgers and being assigned to the Royals, Robinson acknowledged the pressure, saying, “maybe I’m doing something for my race. If I can make good here, with this Montreal club, which is likely the only club where I might have been given this chance, then it will be a new deal in baseball for men of my race. I’m truly grateful for the chance thus offered. It could be that I’ll be subjected to many snubs, the target of some abuse, especially from the fans in hostile quarters, but I’m ready to take the chance.”
Robinson crosses the plate after hitting his first pro home run. (AP Photo)
What would have happened had he not been the dynamic force he was that summer in Montreal is impossible to know. During the Royals’ home opener, fans cheered him louder than any other player, including Montreal-born shortstop Stan Breard. By batting .349/.468/.462 in leading the Royals to a 100-54 record and a Little World Series championship, there was never reason for the adoration to stop.
“He had a pretty good first road trip, especially his first game, but they really didn’t wait for him to establish himself,” says Dugas. “There was a connection with this story and with him right from the get-go.”
All of which helped because, “he believed that if he had flopped, it would have set integration back 100 years,” says Dugas. “That’s excessive, but that was in his mind. The pressure was so crushing.”
But he met it with the Royals, and in such convincing fashion that the threatened consequences of integration by fear-mongering opponents were vanquished long before he set foot on Ebbets Field. Many hurdles remained with the Dodgers, of course, but Robinson had already showed that he could suit up alongside white players without the world ending, and demonstrated what a gift to the sport, and to a divided society, he would be.
“I remember Montreal as a city that enabled me to go into the major leagues,” Robinson told the CBC in a 1960s interview. “Had it not been for the fact that we broke in in Montreal, I doubt seriously if we could have made the grade so rapidly. The fans there were just fantastic, and my wife and I have nothing but the greatest memories.”