Jackie Robinson's old Montreal apartment to be commemorated by U.S. government
Published Monday, February 28, 2011 7:56AM EST Last Updated Friday, February 20, 2015 8:56AM EST
Montreal Royals Jackie Robinson poses in this April 18,1946 photo. This is where Jackie Robinson began his climb to the big leagues and history, where Pete Rose stroked his 4,000th hit, where the major leagues first put down roots outside the United States. Now the rich baseball history of Montreal may become only that _ history. (AP Photo/John J. Lent)
MONTREAL- A quaint Montreal home that served as a sanctuary to Jackie Robinson and his wife in his pursuit of knocking down baseball's colour barrier is being officially recognized by the U.S. government.
That chapter in American civil-rights history will be celebrated Monday when U.S. diplomats unveil a commemorative plaque at the apartment Robinson and his wife Rachel called home in the summer of 1946.
The event will be attended by the U.S. ambassador to Canada, Montreal's mayor and Robinson's daughter, and is being timed to coincide with Black History Month.
Not too far away from the house, Robinson made history at old Delorimier Stadium, thrilling fans of the minor-league Montreal Royals for one season in his final stop before breaking the infamous colour barrier in Major League Baseball the next year with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
His widow remembers the home fondly -- and considers the residence on de Gaspe Avenue a critical part of their story.
It was in that lower-level duplex apartment on a quiet street that their new marriage blossomed, and Robinson found refuge from the taunts he often endured during road trips.
"You can't make (enough) of the house because it's where the experiment started and the experiment went on to be a national success, so it led to something," Rachel Robinson said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
"What was nourished there in that house . . . had widespread influence in our society."
Robinson, now 88, still recalls arriving in Montreal, newly married and having survived the Jim Crow south during spring training in Florida.
There they were met with racism at every turn: on whites-only flights, in hotels, in restaurants and at ballparks. In some cities, they were chased out of town.
The couple was twice bumped off airplanes while trying to get to Daytona. When they arrived, Jackie Robinson wasn't allowed to stay with teammates at their hotel.
The team didn't have a spring training facility of its own and many opponents wouldn't allow them into theirs. Robinson was forced to leave one town and in another, Jacksonville, Fla., the stadium was locked on game day.
"To appreciate how special the experience was in Canada, you have to think about the experience we had in the south going to spring training," Rachel Robinson said.
The couple initially felt some trepidation heading north to post-war Montreal, with its housing shortages.
It had never occurred to the Robinsons to look for a black neighbourhood in Montreal.
The Royals had provided a list of homes -- all in predominantly white areas at a time when the black community made up about two per cent of Montreal's population.
Robinson said they were more focused on the professional task than on neighbourhood demographics.
"We didn't consider it or think about it -- in an experimental situation like that, you have to stay focused on what's before you," Robinson said.
"We were not looking for black people. We had found an apartment which was the most important thing, in a supportive, friendly neighbourhood."
Robinson said she picked one on the list, and the way she was received at the apartment took her by surprise -- by a friendly French-Canadian woman who spoke English and welcomed her into the home.
"She received me so pleasantly," Robinson said. "Then she poured tea for me and agreed to rent the apartment to me furnished and she insisted I use her things -- like her linens and her china.
"It was an extraordinary welcome to Canada."
Home life was important because the intermittent road trips were difficult for her husband.
Jackie Robinson would be the target of slurs and attacks just about everywhere he travelled, so the couple cherished their time together in Montreal.
"The home was critical," Robinson said. "Because we never knew what was going to happen outside our home."
De Gaspe Avenue was predominantly French, but language didn't stop Rachel Robinson from making friends -- especially when the neighbourhood women noticed she was pregnant.
The women would give her ration coupons and help sew maternity clothes.
A couple with eight children lived above the Robinsons. While Rachel couldn't speak to them, she'd leave them a bowl of fruit on the porch.
"The children had to come down and pass my kitchen door to go to school, so I used to put fruit out just to attract them and they'd stop by on their way," she said.
The children would reciprocate, rushing down the street to help her with her grocery bags as she walked home.
"Little things (like) that turn into big pieces of your experience," Robinson said. "They were friendly, they were protective, they were supportive and it was not something that I'd have expected."
The Robinsons formed a strong and long-lasting friendship with famed Montreal sportswriter Sam Maltin and his wife, Belle, who would invite them into their home and take them to concerts on Mount Royal.
Rachel Robinson was a fixture at the Montreal stadium, never missing a home game.
She also recalls roaming the narrow, European-style streets of the city's old district, finding spots that suited her love of books and music -- especially when Jackie was on the road.
The city would become caught up in baseball fever that summer. With the help of Robinson's .349 batting average and 40 steals, the Royals would go on to win the Little World Series over the Kentucky Colonels.
Afterwards, a jubilant crowd chased Robinson down the street. That's when Maltin penned the famous phrase: "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."
The couple soon left Montreal. A few months later, Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in the National League.
One author says Montreal was integral to the strategy concocted by Dodgers executive Branch Rickey to smash the segregation system in America's national pastime.
Like other places, Montreal had its own sources of social tension. But they weren't the same as those in the United States.
"When you talk about the social cleavages, it was more linguistic and religious than it was in terms of skin colour," said William Brown, a journalist and author of the book, "Baseball's Fabulous Montreal Royals."
"Montreal was perfect for him because it wasn't going to be a big political thing and the Montreal that he moved to wasn't as divided racially along colour lines as the average American city."
The couple never had a proper honeymoon after marrying in February 1946.
They would always appreciate the experience, however, of a summer spent in Canada, playing baseball in Montreal, and building a little home at 8232 de Gaspe.
"It showed what we could do if we learned how to exercise tolerance and sharing and all those good things," Robinson said.
"So I would say that coming to Montreal at that time in our lives and the kind of reception we got -- that was our honeymoon," Robinson said.