Jackie Robinson and the baseball colour barrier

By Dalton Campbell

In April 1946, Jackie Robinson took the field with the Montreal Royals baseball team, which played in the International League. He was the first black man signed to a Major League Baseball team in the twentieth century. After signing a contract in October 1945 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was assigned by Dodgers’ management to the Royals, the Dodgers’ top minor league affiliate, in order to gain experience. They thought that Montreal would be a less hostile city for him to learn to deal with media scrutiny and fan attention and to endure on-field discrimination and physical intimidation.

Black-and-white photograph of a baseball player running the bases. His foot is on third base and he is turning and heading to home plate. In the background are other players, and in the distance the outfield fence and trees.

Jackie Robinson, in a Montreal Royals’ uniform, circles third base and heads for home during spring training. April 20, 1946 (MIKAN 3574533)

In the first game of the season, he more than held his own. He had four hits, three runs, and a home run. A famous photograph captures Royals’ teammate George “Shotgun” Shuba shaking Robinson’s hand as he crossed home plate after his home run. This is believed to be the first photograph of a white man congratulating a black man on a baseball diamond.

Robinson faced racial slurs from opposing players and fans. One player even resigned from the league to protest integration. Robinson was hit often by opposing pitchers and, as a second baseman, he faced the spikes of baserunners as they slid into second. While many fans booed, many others cheered and supported him and the Royals drew strong crowds at home and on the road throughout the season.

Although the pressure from the fans, media and opposition began to tell on him as the season went on, he finished the season as league leader in hitting and had the best fielding percentage among second basemen. The Royals placed first in the regular season and won the championship.

A black-and-white photograph of three men on a baseball field. Two men, one in uniform, the other in street clothes, stand in the foreground talking to each other. On the ground at their feet are two baseball gloves and a number of baseball bats. In the background, another player, in uniform, holds three baseball bats on his right shoulder. In the distance, people stand or sit on the ground and in the bleachers.

Jackie Robinson, in background, wearing an unfamiliar, number 30, uniform. When he reached the Major Leagues, he would make history wearing number 42 (MIKAN 3593629)

Jackie and his wife Rachel enjoyed living in Montreal. The fans were enthusiastic. Their neighbours shared ration coupons with Mrs. Robinson—who was pregnant at the time—and the local children carried her packages. In spring 1947, when there was talk of Jackie possibly not making the Brooklyn Dodgers’ lineup, Mrs. Robinson welcomed the chance to return to Montreal for another season.

The following spring, Jackie Robinson was promoted to the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black player in Major League Baseball in the twentieth century. He would play ten seasons with the Dodgers, retiring with a .311 batting average, a Most Valuable Player Award and a World Series championship. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. His uniform number, 42, was retired throughout Major League Baseball in 1997; he was the first player to be so honoured. He died in 1972, aged 53.

He is remembered in Montreal with a statue, plaques, and awards. The Montreal Association of Black Business Persons gave the Jackie Robinson Award to, among others, pianist Oliver Jones, Judge Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré, and former Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Canada Julius Isaac. The Black Academic Scholarship Fund awards Jackie Robinson Scholarships to post-secondary students.

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Dalton Campbell is an archivist in the Science, Environment and Economy Section of the Private Archives Division.

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