Skip to main content

Former pitcher Jean-Pierre Roy is pictured in Montreal in 1987. His deceptive curveball was the foundation of his baseball career.

Denis Cyr/The Canadian Press

Jean-Pierre Roy thrived in the spotlight whether pitching on the baseball diamond, or calling a game from the press box for a television audience, or singing onstage at a night club.

The Quebec-born pitcher, who has died in Florida at 94, spent 12 seasons in the minor leagues, including long stints with his hometown Montreal Royals. He also spent an undistinguished week with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, a rare Canadian of his era to make the major leagues.

In his day, a job in professional baseball meant a long slog of low pay and overnight bus rides. Mr. Roy eagerly partook in the night life when pitching in such exotic locales as Havana and Hollywood, gaining a reputation as a bon vivant. He told Americans to call him Pete, was dubbed le bon Canadien by The Sporting News, and took as his own nickname the Baseball Adventurer.

Story continues below advertisement

A suave and dapper man, he served as an ambassador for his sport, helping to coin the phrases used to describe the game in French-language broadcasts after the expansion Montreal Expos joined the National League in 1969. Mr. Roy barnstormed his home province conducting clinics on behalf of the Expos, while also appearing in television commercials for O'Keefe beer, the club's sponsor.

The skinny right-hander, who stood 5 foot 10 and weighed just 160 pounds, developed a deceptive curveball upon which he built a baseball career. He enjoyed his greatest success at Delorimier Stadium in Montreal. In 1946, he had a front-row seat to the integration of professional baseball when the great Jackie Robinson joined the Royals for a season. Mr. Roy maintained contact over the years with Rachel Robinson, Mr. Robinson's widow; a friendship renewed when both appeared at events in Montreal honouring the late ball player.

Mr. Roy, who was born in Montreal on June 26, 1920, grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in the city's east end. His father, Henri, a court clerk, managed baseball teams on which Jean-Pierre served as team bat boy. When he got older, he played amateur ball in a city league.

In 2003, Mr. Roy told Ian MacDonald of the Montreal Gazette about an incident that fuelled his determination to succeed as an athlete. He had just earned an 11-inning, 1-0 victory when approached by the Royals' president. "You pitched a very good game, sir," said Hector Racine. "It's too bad you're too small to play professionally."

Mr. Roy was taken aback by the backhanded compliment. "He was so polite, I was shocked and happy. But what he said made me want to prove something," he recalled.

At 20, he launched what would be a 12-year pro career with the first of two seasons with Trois-Rivières Renards (also known as the Three Rivers Foxes). Before the 1942 season, he was sold to the St. Louis Cardinals organization which assigned him to the Mobile Shippers in Alabama. He was promoted to the Houston Buffaloes and then to the Rochester Red Wings, each step bringing him closer to the major leagues.

In the winter of 1943-1944, he made the first of several annual pilgrimages to Cuba, where he was a mainstay with Cienfuegos in a four-team league based in Havana. Mr. Roy quickly learned Spanish and partook in the many sensory delights on offer in pre-revolutionary Havana.

Story continues below advertisement

At home, he feuded with management in Rochester. He was sold to the Royals for just $1,000, a low sum owing to a trouble-maker reputation – he was regarded as a playboy, "a patron of the nocturnal gayeties, a late-supper devotee," according to The Sporting News. He closed the 1944 season with an 11-11 record in Montreal.

Mr. Roy took to the mound in 1945 in excellent shape, his performance buoyed by support from Quebeckers, with whom he was a fan favourite. A further motivation was a $2,000 bonus if he were credited with 20 wins, an unlikely achievement for a hurler who had never won more than 14 in a season. He went on to win 25 games against just 11 losses, as the Royals won the International League pennant (they were defeated in the playoffs by the Newark Bears).

That winter, Mr. Roy rejoined Cienfuegos, winning the Cuban championship. While in Cuba, he was presented with a gold watch by brothers Jorge and Bernardo Pasquel, who headed an outlaw baseball league based in Mexico. He signed a contract with them and got a $3,300 bonus with the promise of a $50,000 contract to pitch for three years. On the way home after the Cuban season ended, Mr. Roy stopped in Florida to meet with Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who talked him out of defecting to the fledgling Mexican operation: Mr. Roy would spend the season with the Dodgers instead.

Mr. Roy made his major-league debut on May 5, 1946, retiring the only two batters he faced in relief in a game at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Four days later, on the road against the Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field, he got his first start. He retired the first five batters he faced, but then surrendered a single followed by a home run by Max West. Mr. Roy's day was ended after just four innings' work. (The Reds won, 8-7.)

On May 11, Mr. Roy made his Brooklyn debut at Ebbets Field, a brief sojourn in relief in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies. He was charged with four runs, lasting just one and two-thirds innings. He did not know it, but the game marked his final major-league appearance, a tough week in which he was touched for seven earned runs in six and one-third innings. He had walked five and struck out six.

Frustrated by riding the bench and the thankless task of pitching batting practice, Mr. Roy quit the team at the end of the month, later announcing he was going to go to Mexico . He expected to earn $15,000, nearly twice the $8,000 he was earning with the Dodgers. After just two weeks in Mexico, though, he soured on the adventure; the ball parks were dilapidated and the hotels lacked hot water. He asked the Dodgers to assign him to the Royals and he returned home in time to take part in a historic season.

Story continues below advertisement

The Royals were tearing up the International League thanks in large part to the fielding, hitting and speed of rookie Mr. Robinson, the league's first African-American player. Mr. Rickey assigned him to Montreal for a season's worth of grooming in anticipation of breaking the major league colour barrier in 1947. Led by Mr. Robinson, the Royals ran away with the league pennant before capturing the Little World Series championship.

Years later, he reflected on Mr. Robinson's burden as a racial trailblazer. "It took a special man to take all that abuse," Mr. Roy told the Ottawa Citizen in 2006. "Montreal was about the only place he didn't have to worry about it."

While Mr. Robinson went on to star with the Dodgers, Mr. Roy pitched for the St. Jean Braves, Drummondville Cubs and Sherbrooke Indians in his home province. He also threw for the Ottawa A's and had two brief stints with the Hollywood Stars, winning a Pacific Coast League championship in 1949.

"I never wanted to leave Hollywood," he told a French-language newspaper in Florida five years ago. "It was paradise. The jet set, the restaurants, the good life."

After retiring from baseball, Mr. Roy performed as a singer in night clubs. He also worked as a real estate agent and a casino dealer in Las Vegas, where he lived for a decade. The Expos hired him to handle French-language radio broadcasts and he later switched to television before taking on special projects for the team as a publicist.

In 2007, he was diagnosed with prostate and colon cancers. A resident of Margate, Fla., he died on Oct. 31. He leaves his wife, Jeanne Duval-Roy.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Roy was inducted into the Expos Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Quebec Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001.

To submit an I Remember: obit@globeandmail.com

Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies