This week, the U.S. consulate unveiled a commemorative plaque at the apartment where baseball legend Jackie Robinson resided during the summer he spent with the Montreal Royals. It has been 65 years since he joined the minor-league Royals, thereby launching the "great experiment" in which he became the first black player to break the seemingly impenetrable colour barrier in Major League Baseball.
At the time, many white Americans viewed blacks as inferior people and were fully prepared to disregard their civil rights. In the South, racist policies were practised in many institutions. Blacks and whites were to be born separately in hospitals, and segregation was the rule in many schools and workplaces and in recreational activities. It seemed paradoxical that the United States, which had just fought a war with the Nazis, supported such discrimination. Yet, in the absence of significant support from most white Americans, the battle against such prejudice encountered limited success.
The attitude among baseball owners and players was a microcosm of a fairly generalized view about the place of blacks in American society. In 1946, 15 out of 16 major-league club owners voted against the integration of blacks into professional baseball. The sole exception was Branch Rickey, who, in 1942, became president, part owner and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Mr. Rickey once confided that "the greatest untapped reservoir of raw material in the history of the game is the black race … [who]will make us winners for years to come." He was determined to reach his objective, and he convinced the Dodgers' board of directors to support him. He then faced the monumental task of convincing baseball's establishment that his cause was just.
In Jackie Robinson, he found the ideal player. But he warned him that "we can't fight our way through this. We've got no army. There's virtually nobody on our side. No owners, no umpires, very few newspapermen. And I'm afraid that many fans will be hostile. We'll be in a tough position. We can win only if we can convince the world that I'm doing this because you're a great ballplayer and a fine gentleman."
In October of 1945, the Royals' signing of Mr. Robinson generated tremendous controversy in the United States. Texas-born star Roger Hornsby said it wouldn't work. Pitcher Bob Feller and others felt it was okay so long as there were no black players on their team. The legendary Connie Mack, then manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, expressed his disapproval.
Mr. Robinson described the people of Montreal as "warm and wonderful" toward him and his wife. They rented an apartment in a predominantly French-Canadian neighbourhood, at 8232 de Gaspé near Mount Royal. Given the difficulties of finding accommodation in America's white neighbourhoods, Rachel Robinson didn't know what to expect in Montreal. But they took note that, when stared at on the streets, the stares were friendly. As one of Mr. Robinson's biographers noted, "Even among the heroes of Canada's own national pastime, Robinson remained the prime attraction."
In October of 1946, Mr. Robinson led the Royals to their first Junior World Series title.
It's not entirely clear whether 1946 Montrealers understood the historic role their city played in the "great experiment." For one observer, Mr. Robinson's presence in Canada constituted an "unmistakable irony" - namely, that "the integration of baseball, the national pastime of the United States, would be enacted largely outside that country's borders."
Montreal baseball fans had much to be proud of in 1946 in the exemplary response they offered Mr. Robinson. By their outpouring of support during that season, Montrealers did not disappoint. Indeed, they set an example for many North Americans to follow.
It would be a mistake, however, for the Jackie Robinson story to make us lose sight of the fact that racism remains far too pervasive in Montreal and across the continent. It should serve as a reminder of the continued importance of fighting for equality and justice for all.
Jack Jedwab is executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies.