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Montreal Was Jackie Robinson's Refuge From Racism

Posted: 04/11/2013 5:16 pm

I'm pretty sure I did the final interview with Jackie Robinson. I'm glad I grabbed the chance to approach Robinson, already a legendary figure, when I did. He was gone shortly after.

It took place in Montreal, where Robinson loved living and playing baseball. The city was his refuge from racism. That's why he told this young sportswriter he came back to the city. He spent what turned out to be his last summer in that French-speaking metropolis.

The new film about Robinson,42, virtually overlooks Montreal, just as Argo marginalized Canada. A shame, but totally predictable.

It had taken the whole season to summon up the courage to ask Robinson, a private man, for an interview. I finally did shortly before he died in October, 1972.

Robinson loved the French-speaking city, where he'd made his professional baseball debut in 1946 with the Brooklyn Dodgers' Triple-A farm team, the Montreal Royals of the International League. Dodger exec Branch Rickey was wise to send Robinson north, where he would get some respite from bigotry and be able to focus on improving his baseball skills.

The next year, he was making history by playing in the big leagues in Brooklyn, where he was subjected to constant racial abuse. He endured plenty of abuse, too, when the Montreal Royals played on the road in U.S. cities.

But there was none of that in Montreal, which adored Robinson and mobbed him like a Hollywood star when he left the city, headed for Brooklyn. In Quebec, the cultural divide has always been between French and English, not black and white. African-American musicians loved to play in Montreal clubs.

Robinson flourished as a baseball star in his season playing there, leading the Royals to the International League title. His Royals teammates hoisted him on their shoulders and Montreal sports fans lionized him, even in a city where hockey has always reigned supreme.

I was a young sportswriter for the Montreal Gazette, newly arrived in that city in 1972. I had been wanting to interview Robinson, who, I knew, didn't do many interviews. He'd just returned to his beloved Montreal to work as a commentator for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) alongside his old Dodger teammate, Expo play-by-play man Duke Snider. I saw him in the press box often, but never approached him, figuring he valued his privacy.

One day in late summer, near the end of another woeful Expos' season ('70-'86), I looked down from the Expos' press box at Jarry Park and saw Robinson, greying and stooped, moving laboriously across the infield with a cane, one eye watering copiously from the effects of diabetes.

I knew nothing about diabetes then. (Hey, I was young.) I just knew I'd better ask the frail-looking baseball and civil-rights legend for that interview.

When I did, up in the press box, Robinson said calmly, "Aren't you that American kid?" I said I was, and he graciously allowed me to chat with him before the game.

Robinson looked much older than his 53 years. It soon became obvious that he didn't want to talk about baseball to a fellow Yank. He wanted to talk about his pleasant year in Montreal as a young man. The year before the storm of hatred he knew he would face in the U.S.

"I experienced no racism here. That was a huge relief for my wife and I. The French-Canadian people welcomed us with open arms," he said warmly, recalling the racial taunting he'd experienced at the Royals' Florida training camp earlier in 1946.

"Our French-Canadian landlady greeted us with a smile and a cup of tea. We were pleasantly surprised."

Robinson's widow, Rachel, has repeatedly praised the non-racist, accepting attitude the newlyweds found in Montreal. In 2011, a plaque was placed by the U.S. ambassador to Canada at the apartment near the Expos' old home, Jarry Park, the home where the young couple had spent the summer of '46.

Maybe a movie will be made of that pleasant time some day, something Rachel Robinson would probably welcome. It will almost have to be a Canadian-made movie. Rachel Robinson wanted to see more mention of the Robinsons' time in Montreal in this week's new movie.

"I've always had warm feelings for this city," Jackie Robinson said. "I knew I'd come back some day if the opportunity arose."

He then got up and slowly struggled up to the press box. A few weeks later, Jackie Robinson was gone. And the city of Montreal grieved for its beloved adopted son.

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  • This undated image provided by the Brooklyn Cyclones shows a statue of Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson at MCU Park in the Coney Island section of the Brooklyn borough of New York, where the minor league Cyclones team plays. A new film, “42,” tells the inspiring story of how Robinson integrated Major League Baseball when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The pedestal of the statue states that Reese, captain of the Dodgers, “stood by Jackie Robinson against prejudiced fans and fellow players” by walking over to Robinson, standing next to him and “silencing the taunts of the crowd” during a game in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Brooklyn Cyclones)

  • FILE - This July 1954 file photo shows an aerial view of Ebbets Field stadium in the Brooklyn borough of New York. With the new movie "42" bringing the Jackie Robinson story to a whole new generation, fans young and old may be interested in seeing some of the places in Brooklyn connected to the Dodger who integrated Major League Baseball. (AP Photo, file)

  • This undated image provided by the Brooklyn Cyclones shows a statue of Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson at MCU Park in the Coney Island section of the Brooklyn borough of New York, where the minor league Cyclones team plays. A new film, “42,” tells the inspiring story of how Robinson integrated Major League Baseball when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The pedestal of the statue states that Reese, captain of the Dodgers, “stood by Jackie Robinson against prejudiced fans and fellow players” by walking over to Robinson, standing next to him and “silencing the taunts of the crowd” during a game in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Brooklyn Cyclones)

  • This April 7, 2013 image shows a building on MacDonough Street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn where Jackie Robinson and his wife Rachel lived during his 1947 rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. A new movie, “42,” tells Robinson’s inspiring story as the man who integrated Major League Baseball. Although much of the movie was filmed in the South, some scenes were shot on MacDonough because the filmmakers could not find a building elsewhere with the distinctive front stoop commonly found in Brooklyn. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

  • This April 7, 2013 photo shows a plaque on a house in the Brooklyn borough of New York, where baseball great Jackie Robinson once lived. The sign says: “The first African-American major league baseball player lived here from 1947 to 1949.” A new movie, “42,” tells Robinson’s inspiring story as the man who integrated Major League Baseball. The house at 5224 Tilden Ave. in East Flatbush is one of a number of places in Brooklyn connected to Robinson. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

  • This April 7, 2013 image shows the Nazarene Congregational Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Baseball great Jackie Robinson was close to the church’s assistant pastor, the Rev. Lacy Covington, and at one time Robinson, whose son struggled with drug addiction, made a speech in the church warning against the scourge of drugs. Robinson lived nearby for a time after joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African-American to play for a Major League Baseball team, a story that is told in a new movie, “42.” (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

  • This April 7, 2013 image shows the site of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ ballpark, Ebbets Field, which was torn down after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1957 and is today an apartment complex in the Crown Heights neighborhood. A stone in the wall says “This is the former site of Ebbets Field” while a faded sign in the courtyard says “No ball playing.” A new movie, “42,” tells the inspiring story of how Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball when he played here for the Dodgers, beginning in 1947. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

  • This April 7, 2013 image shows people in a playground at Washington Park in the Brooklyn borough of New York. A baseball park was located on the site beginning in the 1880s, and the team, later known as the Brooklyn Dodgers, used the Old Stone House, background center, as a clubhouse. A man named Charles Ebbets worked there as a ticket-taker, eventually took over the team, and later built the Dodgers’ storied ballpark at Ebbets Field. A new movie, “42,” tells the story of Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, who integrated Major League Baseball and played at Ebbets. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

  • This April 7, 2013 image shows the Old Stone House in Washington Park in the Brooklyn borough of New York. A baseball park was located on the site beginning in the 1880s, and the team, later known as the Brooklyn Dodgers, used the Old Stone House as a clubhouse. A man named Charles Ebbets worked there as a ticket-taker, eventually took over the team, and later built the Dodgers’ storied ballpark at Ebbets Field. A new movie, “42,” tells the story of Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, who integrated Major League Baseball and played at Ebbets. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

  • This April 7, 2013 image shows the former site of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ ballpark, Ebbets Field, which was torn down after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1957 and is today an apartment complex in the Crown Heights neighborhood. A faded sign in the courtyard says “No ball playing.” A new movie, “42,” tells the inspiring story of how Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball when he played here for the Dodgers, beginning in 1947. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

  • This April 9, 2013 photo shows Jackie Robinson’s gravesite, where fans still leave tributes to the man who integrated Major League Baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. A new movie, “42,” about Robinson’s life is bringing his inspiring story to a new generation. Fans young and old can find a number of places in Brooklyn connected to Robinson, including his burial site in Cypress Hills Cemetery, which straddles the border of Brooklyn and Queens and is reachable via the Jackie Robinson Parkway. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

  • This April 7, 2013 image shows a house in the Brooklyn borough of New York where baseball great Jackie Robinson once lived. A plaque on the door says: “The first African-American major league baseball player lived here from 1947 to 1949.” A new movie, “42,” tells Robinson’s inspiring story as the man who integrated Major League Baseball. The house at 5224 Tilden Ave. in East Flatbush is one of a number of places in Brooklyn connected to Robinson. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

  • FILE - This Jan. 31, 1962 file photo shows apartment buildings under construction on the former site of Ebbets Field, former home of the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. With the new movie "42" bringing the Jackie Robinson story to a whole new generation, fans young and old may be interested in seeing some of the places in Brooklyn connected to the Dodger who integrated Major League Baseball. (AP Photo/Ruben Goldberg, file)

  • ROBINSON SALKELD CONLAN

    FILE - This Aug. 22, 1948 file photo shows Brooklyn Dodgers Jackie Robinson, right, stealing home plate as Boston Braves' catcher Bill Salkeld is thrown off-balance on the throw to the plate during the fifth inning at Ebbets Field in New York. With the new movie "42" bringing the Jackie Robinson story to a whole new generation, fans young and old may be interested in seeing some of the places in Brooklyn connected to the Dodger who integrated Major League Baseball. (AP Photo/File)

  • Jackie Robinson #42 of the Brooklyn Dodgers poses for a portrait circa 1947 - 1956.

 

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