Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s colour barrier – starting in Montreal

Undated photo of US baseball star Jackie Robinson as he signs a then-record contract to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson, who endured insults and death threats to integrate United States sports, was honored 15 April by the permanent retirement of his jersey number throughout Major League baseball. The contract, the highest salary in Dodger history up to then, was for US $35 000 a year. STR/AFP/Getty Images
Montreal Royals Jackie Robinson poses in this April 18,1946 photo. This is where Jackie Robinson began his climb to the big leagues and history, where Pete Rose stroked his 4,000th hit, where the major leagues first put down roots outside the United States. The Canadian Press/File
Jackie Robinson, on signing with the Montreal Royals, October, 1945. The Canadian Press/File
Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers poses at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, N.Y., April 11, 1947. At ballparks all across the majors Thursday, April 15, 2004, fans and players got to see and hear about the Hall of Famer Robinson's legacy. Baseball paused for Jackie Robinson Day, with video tributes, speeches and commemorative No. 42 signs honouring the man who broke the sport's colour barrier. AP Photo/John Rooney
A photo taken on the front porch of Jackie and Rachel Robinson is seen in the window next a commemorative plaque distinguishing the house inhabited by the Hall of Fame baseball legend and civil rights leader while he lived in Montreal in 1946 during an unveiling ceremony Monday, February 28, 2011 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
This Aug. 22, 1948, photo shows the Brooklyn Dodgers' Jackie Robinson stealing home at Ebbets Field in New York. The movie "42" recounts Robinson's experiences as the man who broke baseball's colour barrier. AP Photo/File
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This April 9, 2013 photo shows Jackie Robinson’s gravesite, where fans still leave tributes to the man who integrated Major League Baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. His burial site is in Cypress Hills Cemetery, which straddles the border of Brooklyn and Queens and is reachable via the Jackie Robinson Parkway. AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz
At the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' and Legendary Pictures' "42" at the Chinese Theatre on April 9, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. Getty Images
Jackie Robinson memorabilia. Getty Images
A skateboarder rides past a statue honouring baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who began his career with the Montreal Royals, in front of Olympic Stadium, home of the Expos, in Montreal. The Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz
Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel, at the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' and Legendary Pictures' "42" at the Chinese Theatre on April 9, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. Getty Images
The New York Mets and the San Diego Padres honour Jackie Robinson on April 15, 2009 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. Getty Images
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Jonny Gomes (L) and Jacoby Ellsbury (R) look on during the national anthem prior to a game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park on April 15, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. All uniformed team members are wearing jersey number 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson Day. Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

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.”

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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.

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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:

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