MONTREAL – For nearly a century, baseball was a white man’s game, until a Class AAA Minor League team from Montreal changed history.
On Monday, baseball fans and players will be commemorating the fifth annual Jackie Robinson Day, which celebrates the moment when – 66 years ago – Robinson broke the Major League Baseball’s colour barrier by signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Yet this historical event may never have happened if it weren’t for the Montreal Royals. As the AAA farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team’s president and owner, Branch Rickey, thought Montreal would make a good testing ground for introducing a black player to baseball.
Although there wasn’t an official directive that banned black players from baseball, there was a de facto unwritten rule that, until Rickey, no team owner would break.
But Rickey felt strongly about allowing players from all races into the game, infamously saying: “I may not be able to do something about racism in every field, but I can sure do something about it in baseball.”
On October 23, 1945, Rickey announced that he had signed Jackie Robinson to play with the Montreal Royals for the 1946 season.
The news proved controversial. While on tour Robinson was met with heckling and threats. He wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotel as his teammates in Florida during training. He faced many challenges, including having the chief of police in Sanford, FL, threaten to cancel games if he was allowed to play, and finding the stadium padlocked in Jacksonville on game day.
Rickey lobbied local officials and finally, the Royals were allowed to host a game in Daytona Beach. On March 17, 1946, Robinson made his debut in an exhibition game against the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black player to play for a minor league team against a major league team.
His first official game for the Montreal Royals took place a month later on April 18, in Jersey City, NJ. Robinson hit four runs in four hits – including a three-run homer – stole two bases and helped the Royals win 14-1, playing the sort of game that made him a baseball legend.
Robinson ended the season as the AAA league’s batting champion and led the Royals to a league championship.
After proving without a doubt that he could play baseball as well as any major league player, Robinson was promoted to the Dodgers.
Although he was often jeered by opposing baseball players, managers, and fans, he was very popular with the American public and was honoured by being named baseball’s first rookie of the year. He retired from the game in 1957 and died in 1972.
Listen to “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” released by Nonesuch Records in 1994 by clicking here.
It was 66 years ago today, on April 15, 1947, that Robinson made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. To celebrate this historic occasion – now known as Jackie Robinson Day – Major League Baseball will honour the baseball pioneer by asking all players and on-field personnel to wear the Number 42.
The celebrations come as the player’s biopic 42 became a box office hit across North America over the weekend.
Watch the trailer here:
SOUND OFF: What does Jackie Robinson mean to you?