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FROM THE Heritage Minutes COLLECTION
A part of our heritage...
The 1997 baseball season belonged to the memory of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, the African American who broke Major League Baseball's colour barrier fifty years earlier. In commemoration of Robinson's courage, integrity, and determined excellence as a player and as a model for young people, every major league player wore a Jackie Robinson insignia, and Robinson's uniform number, 42, was retired by every team in the National and American Leagues.
The 1947 season was a turning point in the history of sports, and a significant moment in the African American's struggle for civil rights. But the season before, 1946, was Robinson's first big test in the world of "white" sports. Jackie Robinson entered the history of Canadian sports that year, too, as a member of the Montréal Royals, the minor league affiliate with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It was on April 18, 1946 that Robinson stepped onto the field in Jersey City, New Jersey in a Royals' uniform. In his first game, he displayed the kind of play that would make him a legend: he drove in four runs with four hits and stole two bases.
Jackie Robinson won the hearts of Montréal baseball fans that year. For most of the season he batted around .370, ending with a .349 batting average, scoring 113 runs, and stealing 40 bases. He electrified De Lorimier stadium with his daring base running, but it was his dignity and serious demeanor that gained the fans' respect.
That 1946 season was more than a test of Robinson's baseball skills. It was also a test of his character. Branch Rickey, the President of the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, was determined to break baseball's colour barrier. A smart baseball man as well as a man of principle, Rickey knew that the great players in the Negro Leagues would change baseball if they had the chance to play in the Majors. He also knew that the first African American to put on a major league uniform would face racist insults and violence. He searched for a superb athlete who also had the courage necessary to open the door to other African American players.
Jackie Robinson was one of the great all-round athletes of the century. At UCLA he was the first person to win varsity letters in four sports - football, basketball, baseball, and track. He was named to the All-American football team in 1941. After rising to second lieutenant in the US Army during World War Two, he joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. Actually, baseball was not Robinson's best sport, but there were few other opportunities for an African American athlete.
Veterans in the Negro Leagues were rather surprised when Rickey approached Robinson. Other players were probably more "ready" for the Majors in terms of baseball savvy, but Rickey knew what he was doing. He saw in Robinson the intelligence and moral strength. In a legendary interview in Brooklyn, Rickey bombarded Robinson with an hour of racist insults, an example of comments Robinson would hear from the stands, from opponents, and even from teammates. He made Robinson agree "not to fight back" until he proved to everyone that African Americans deserved to play in the Major Leagues.
That great experiment began with Montréal. In that 1946 season, Robinson proved that he was ready for the "Big Leagues" by his play on the field and by the way he endured the bigotry he faced, particularly in the southern cities with minor league teams.
Montréal may not have been free of racism in 1946, but Jackie Robinson and his wife Rachel were always thankful for the generosity and enthusiasm that they received there. According to the Royals' popular French-Canadian pitcher, Jean-Pierre Roy, Robinson often said that he would never have made it without the inspiration he got from the Montréal fans. "He loved the city," recalls Roy.
And the Montréal fans loved him back. Robinson helped lead the Royals to victory in the Little World Series. After they won the final game, fans carried Robinson around the field on their shoulders. Robinson finally had to sprint to the safety of the locker room, "probably the only day in history," one writer noted, "that a black man ran from a white mob that had love, not lynching, on its mind."
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