The Montréal of Jackie Robinson

Richard Burnett

Richard “Bugs” Burnett is a Canadian freelance writer, editor, journalist, blogger and columnist for alt-weeklies, mainstream and LGBTQ publications. Bugs also knows Montréal like a drag queen knows a cosmetics counter.

Baseball and Black civil rights icon Jackie Robinson made history when he signed with the Montréal Royals, breaking white professional baseball’s colour barrier when he played the 1946 season with the fabled Montréal Royals in the city that Robinson called “paradise.”

Play ball!

Brooklyn Dodgers President, GM and co-owner Branch Rickey wanted to integrate Major League Baseball (MLB). On October 23, 1945, Robinson signed a contract to play with the Dodgers’ Triple A farm club, the Montréal Royals of the International League.

Montréal was chosen for what became known as Rickey’s “great experiment” because the city was seen as racially tolerant: its storied jazz scene in Little Burgundy – known as “Harlem of the North” – was already the stuff of legend, and the same year Robinson played for the Royals, the Montréal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League signed American athlete Herb Tranwick, the first Black player in the CFL.

Rickey, meanwhile, believed Robinson would be able to handle the pressure and racist backlash on the road – which Jackie did with the invaluable support of his wife Rachel Robinson.

Robinson made his début at Daytona’s City Island Ballpark in an exhibition game between the Royals and the Dodgers on March 17, 1946.

Robinson made his regular-season Montréal Royals debut against the Jersey City Giants at an over-capacity Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City on April 18 in front of 52,000 spectators. In his second at-bat Robinson hit a three-run homerun. The two other baserunners went straight into the dugout, so George “Shotgun” Shuba — who was on deck — stepped up to shake Robinson’s hand as Jackie crossed home plate. It was the first interracial handshake in a pro baseball game and is now called “Handshake of the Century”.

Montréal début

By the time the Royals returned to Montréal for their own home opener at Delorimier Stadium on May 1 — with another Montréal sports icon, Maurice “Rocket” Richard, watching the game from the stands — Robinson was already a local hero. After the game, he stayed on the field signing autographs for an hour.

Remembered and celebrated

Built in 1928, Delorimier Stadium (also known as Delorimier Downs) was a 20,000-seat sports stadium located at 2101 Ontario Street East at the corner of De Lorimier Avenue. The stadium was also home to the Alouettes of the CFL (until 1953). After the Royals ceased operations following their 1960 season, Delorimier Stadium was torn down in 1969 to make way for École Pierre-Dupuy high school.

At “Place des Royaux” – located at the corner of De Lorimier and Ontario streets where home plate used to be – the city in 1989 unveiled a plaque honouring Robinson, which is surrounded by a red batting cage.

Over by the main entrance of Olympic Stadium which was home to the Montréal Expos until 2004, the city in 1987 unveiled a cast bronze sculpture of Jackie Robinson handing a baseball to two boys. The statue was created by Montréal sculptor Jules Lasalle.

Then in 2011, diplomats with the U.S. Consulate General Montréal unveiled a commemorative plaque at 8232 De Gaspé Avenue, the Robinsons’ home in Montréal.

As Mrs. Robinson told me in 2004, “We were greeted in Montréal with such warmth and dignity. The acceptance was so complete. We were well prepared to return to the States (in 1947) to do what we did when Jackie played for the Dodgers.”

City of champions

In 1946 Robinson led the Royals to the International League “Little World Series”. After their Game 6 championship victory over the Louisville Colonels in front of a record Montréal home crowd of 19,171 on October 4, Pittsburgh Courier sports journalist Sam Maltin wrote:

“Ushers and police couldn’t keep the crowd from the field. They refused to move and sang “Il a gagné ses épaulettes” (“He won his bars”) and “We want Robinson.” It was a mob ready to riot … A delegation of ushers went to see Jackie and asked him to step out, so that they could close the park and call it a season. Jackie came out and the crowd surged on him. Men and women of all ages threw their arms around him, kissed him, pulled and tore at his clothes, and then carried him around the infield on their shoulders, shouting themselves hoarse. Jackie, tears streaming down his face, tried to beg off further honors.”

Maltin famously observed that it was “probably the only day in history that a Black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching in its mind.”

In his memoir My Own Story published in 1948, Jackie wrote, “As the plane roared skyward and the lights of Montréal twinkled and winked in the distance, I took one last look at this great city where I had found so much happiness. ‘I don’t care if I ever get to the majors,’ I told myself. ‘This is the city for me. This is paradise.’”

Mutual love affair

In 1958, the Robinsons returned to visit Montréal. They were greeted by Mayor Sarto Fournier at City Hall where Jackie signed the city’s Golden Book.

Today, Jackie is still widely revered as a hero in Montréal. There are two massive murals of Robinson in the city. The first is by Montréal artist Vincent Dumoulin. Unveiled in 2016, it is painted on the side of the 171 Jarry Street East building (at the corner of Ruelle De Gaspé) not far from the Robinson home in the Villeray neighbourhood.

Inaugurated in 2017, the second mural is by the artist Fluke of Ashop Productions. It is painted on the Coco Rico building at the corner of St. Laurent Boulevard and Napoleon Street in the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough.

Jackie Robinson is also celebrated in Cité Mémoire, one of the largest outdoor video-projection installations in the world. It features 24 tableaux projected in various Montréal locales, including the Robinson tableau at 408 Saint-François-Xavier Street in Old Montréal.

Most Valuable Player

With the Montréal Royals in 1946, Robinson batted .349 with 40 stolen bases and 113 runs scored, and won the International League batting title.

Robinson then made his MLB début with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947. That same year Robinson was awarded the inaugural MLB Rookie of the Year Award. He won the 1955 World Series with the Dodgers, was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 and into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.

Robinson was an icon on and off the field. “Jackie Robinson made my success possible,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.”

In 1997, Robinson’s No. 42 was retired by all of MLB. Since 2009, players and coaches in MLB wear his number each year on April 15, Jackie Robinson Day.

Richard Burnett

Richard “Bugs” Burnett is a Canadian freelance writer, editor, journalist, blogger and columnist for alt-weeklies, mainstream and LGBTQ publications. Bugs also knows Montréal like a drag queen knows a cosmetics counter.

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