1.18.2019

jackie robinson: "i owe more to canadians than they'll ever know."

Let me set the scene.

The year is 1946. The United States is deeply segregated. The birth of the civil rights movement that would begin as African-American soldiers returned home to Jim Crow, after fighting for democracy abroad, is still a good 10 years away.

Newlyweds Jackie and Rachel Robinson leave their hometown of Pasadena, California, for Florida, where Jackie will become the first African-American to play organized, professional sports in the United States. When Rachel sees "whites only" signs for the first time in the airport bathroom, she takes a deep breath and walks in anyway, feeling scared, but proud and defiant. Neither Rachel nor Jackie had ever seen the heart of the Jim Crow South. They had no idea what awaited them.

Despite her airport bravada, Rachel and her husband weren't allowed to board their plane. They were "bumped" from their scheduled flight, and the flight after that, and the one after that. They were also not allowed to purchase food while they were waiting. The airline finally suggested they go into town and wait until a flight was became "available". Twelve stressful hours later, they were allowed to fly as far as Pensacola, Florida -- where they were forced off the flight, their seats sold to white passengers.

They then boarded a Greyhound bus, where they were forced to sit in the rearmost, windowless row, for 16 hot, bitter hours, then waited in a dirty, overcrowded "colored" waiting room for yet another bus, shared with black labourers on their way to work. Thirty-six hours after leaving Pasadena, Jackie and Rachel finally reached Daytona Beach, where the Brooklyn Dodgers held spring training.

Robinson and Branch Rickey,
Spring Training, 1946
And then it began. Teams cancelled games rather than have a black player on their field. Thousands of paying (African-American) customers were turned away when the "colored section" of inferior seats were sold out. Disgusting catcalls from the stands were standard. Pitchers threw at Robinson's head repeatedly. Sliding baserunners aimed their spikes at his skin. When the team was on the road, Jackie and Rachel stayed and ate at the homes of African-American families, as none of the hotels or restaurants that served the team would admit them.

At the end of spring training, Jackie was assigned to the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' top "farm club". Road games were a nightmare – but home games were a joy.

From Jackie Robinson: A Biography, by Arnold Rampersad:
In Montreal, after about a month in a guest house, and despite an acute postwar housing shortage, Jack and Rachel found a nice apartment. Expecting the sordid resistance that would have come in virtually any white American neighborhood, she was stunned by the genteel response when she answered an advertisement to sublet half of a duplex apartment at 8232 Rue de Gaspé, in the traditionally French-speaking East End. Deliberately, Rachel [who was pregnant with their first child] had chosen the less affluent French-speaking district over its wealthier English counterpart, which she expected to be more exclusive. (Montreal had no distinctly black district.)

On De Gaspé, almost everyone spoke mainly or only French, and a brown face was unusual; but the woman of the apartment received Rachel pleasantly, poured tea and talked, and quickly agreed to rent her apartment furnished, with all her own linen and kitchen utensils. Rachel was almost overwhelmed. "The woman didn't merely agree," she said, "she insisted that I use her things. She wanted me to be careful–no water on the hardwood floors, that sort of thing, but she was gracious. It left us euphoric, really. All the months in Canada were like that."

They moved in without incident. Later, when she began to show, an informal delegation of local women visited her to offer not only advice and friendship but also coupons from their ration books, so she could buy any scarce foodstuffs she needed or craved. With the language barrier and the demands of the Royals' schedule, Jack and Rachel could make very few friends in the neighborhood; but upstairs were the Méthots, with seven or eight children who brightened the house. Rachel and Jack came to know Edgar Méthot and his wife, who had just had a baby; twenty-seven years later, the Methots would recall the Robinsons as "such good people." Their closest friends, however, were a Jewish couple, Sam and Belle Maltin. Sam, a Canadian and a socialist, wrote on sports for the Montreal Herald but was also a stringer for the Pittsburgh Courier; like Rachel, Belle was pregnant at the time. Knowing of Rachel's love of classical music, the Maltins took them to outdoor concerts on Mount Royal that reminded Rachel of visits to the Hollywood Bowl. Belle introduced Rachel to Jewish cooking and also knitted her a sweater she still wore fifty years later. The Maltins had another black friend, Herb Trawick, a football player with the Montreal Alouettes, and the Robinsons got to know him as well.

On the whole, however, the Robinsons aimed for a subdued life when Jack was home. Rachel's day was bound up in going to the ballpark to watch him. When he was away, sometimes she traveled with him (although the club frowned on wives on the road), but mostly she stayed home and sewed clothes for herself and the coming baby, or worked on a crochet tablecloth she was making for her dream home in California. She got to know some of the neighborhood children because they followed her on the street or carried her groceries home; she also tempted the children living upstairs by leaving a door open and a bowl of fruit in plain sight. Rachel could say little to most of the adults – she had taken Latin but no French – but they remained friendly and protective of her. She liked to watch them come out onto their balconies to take the sun in the lazy summer afternoons; they, no doubt, admired her brown-skinned beauty and grace. In May, an Afro-American woman reporter, recalling Rachel's night of abuse in Baltimore, wrote admiringly of her unusual calm and poise: "The only person I know who can equal her is that first citizen of the world, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt."

. . .

[Robinson] could count on a uniformly warm reception only at home, in De Lorimer Downs. "I owe more to Canadians than they'll ever know," he said later. "In my baseball career they were the first to make me feel my natural self." Robinson would write later about one French-accented rooter who "used to shout from the bleachers, if things were bad, 'Jackie, 'e's my boy!' The man had lungs of brass, a voice of iron, and a heart of gold."

. . .

Protected in this way, Jack flourished on the field despite his periods of gloom. Typical was a game in Baltimore when he led an injury-ridden Royals team to a 10-9 victory, after Montreal went ahead 8-0 only to have Baltimore tie the game. Jack not only got three of the Royals' seven hits but also stole home. Such feats made him a lion to his teammates, and to his manager, [Clay] Hopper, who was now almost a complete convert to Rickey's view of Robinson. In Newsweek, Hopper saluted Jack as "a player who must go to the majors. He's a big-league ballplayer, a good team hustler, and a real gentleman." Race now meant less to other baseball men. "I'd like to have nine Robinsons," Bruno Betzel, the Jersey City Giants' manager, declared. "If I had one Jackie, I'd room with him myself and put him to bed nights, to make sure nothing happened to him."

"I've had great luck and great treatment," Jack told Newsweek modestly. "This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me." By September, when the regular season ended, he had completely vindicated Rickey. Robinson became the first Royal to win the league batting crown; his average of .349 also eclipsed the Royals' team record, set in 1930. Hitting only three home runs, he nevertheless drove in 66 runs; he also scored more runs, 113, than anyone else in the league. His 40 stolen bases put him second only to his teammate Marvin Rackley's record-setting 65. At second base, he ended the season with the highest fielding percentage in the league. With one hundred victories, the highest number in team history, the Royals won the pennant by eighteen and a half games. They also played before the largest crowds at home and away – more than eight hundred thousand people – in the history of the club.

In the playoffs, the Royals won two tough seven-game series, first with the Newark Bears and then with the Syracuse Chiefs. Against Syracuse, in the deciding game, Jack went four-for-five. Then, late in September, the Royals traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, for the Little World Series against the Colonels of the American Association. For many of the Louisville players, officials, and fans, Robinson's presence was the most urgent single consideration; the series brought integrated baseball to Louisville for the first time. The Colonels, who had agreed only reluctantly to his playing, underscored their opposition by sharply limiting the number of seats for blacks, many of whom were left to mill about in confusion outside the park. Some who made it inside probably regretted their luck. "The tension was terrible," Robinson wrote, "and I was greeted with some of the worst vituperation I had yet experienced."

The Montreal press loved him.
The series opened with three games in Louisville, during which Jack slumped, going one for eleven. His failure only fed the rage of many white fans in the cheaper seats. "The worse I played," he recalled, "the more vicious that howling mob in the stands became. I had been booed pretty soundly before, but nothing like this. A torrent of mass hatred burst from the stands with virtually every move I made." As Jack suffered, Montreal dropped two games after taking the first. The abuse was so great that the white Louisville Courier-Journal felt obliged to deplore the "demonstrations of prejudice against Montreal's fine second baseman, the young Negro, Jackie Robinson," as well as the "brusque refusal" of the park to accommodate more black fans.

However, when the series moved to Montreal, the local fans repaid the Colonels. A storm of abuse, unprecedented at a Royals game, descended on the visitors. Down 4-0 at one point in the first home game, the Royals stormed back to win 6-5 in the tenth inning on a single by Robinson. In the fifth game, Jack doubled and, just after Louisville tied the game 3-all, hit a towering triple; then he laid down a bunt in the eighth inning "which really settled the fate of the Colonels," according to the Montreal Daily Star. "This was a really heady play, a beautifully placed hit." With Al Campanis, he also executed superb double plays to kill off Louisville scoring threats. Finally, on October 4, before an ecstatic crowd, the Royals defeated the Colonels once again, 2-0, to win the Little World Series. Robinson, who finished the series batting .400, also scored the last run.

Hustling to leave the ballpark in time to catch a plane, Jack made the mistake of stepping back onto the field before he could shower and change. Deliriously happy Montreal fans snatched him up in celebration. Previously, they had lifted Clay Hopper and a white player to their shoulders. Now, hugging and kissing Robinson, slapping him on the back, they carried him on their shoulders in triumph, singing songs of victory, until he was finally able to break away. Watching, the veteran writer Dink Carroll of the Gazette began to cry: "The tears poured down my cheeks and you choked up looking at it." Inside the locker room, Hopper warmly shook his hand. "You're a great ballplayer and a fine gentleman," he told Jack. "It's been wonderful having you on the team." When Robinson reappeared outside in street clothes, a large part of the crowd was still waiting. "They stormed around him, eager to touch him," the Gazette reported. Knowing exactly what he had accomplished over the season, they sang in tribute, "Il a gagné ses épaulettes"—He has earned his stripes; "they almost ripped the clothes from his back." In the Courier, his friend Sam Maltin wrote memorably of the astonishing scene: "It was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on its mind."

4 comments:

Jay Farquharson said...

Thank you so much for this post.

We, ( Canadians) need to remember who we can be.

laura k said...

Yes. Thanks.

richard said...

As a child, my dad lived on a side street of de Gaspé, very near mr and mrs Robinson. He spoke often of the warm relationship they had with the whole neighbourhood. For all I know, he may have been one of the kids helping out with the grocery bags ��

laura k said...

That would be pretty awesome!