Friday is Jackie Robinson Day across the majors, and it's always important to remember his contribution to baseball and the civil rights movement. Although Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, a lot happened before that date. His path to breaking the color barrier didn't go straight from Branch Rickey's office to Ebbets Field. In fact, it began in Montreal, where he spent 1946 playing for the Dodgers' affiliate in the International League.
Actually, we're even getting ahead of the story there.
Before the Dodgers, before Montreal, there was a tryout with the Boston Red Sox. After serving in the Army, Robinson had signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues for the 1945 season. In April, after just three weeks with the Monarchs, Robinson was invited to Fenway Park along with Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams. Sportswriter Wendell Smith had selected the players, with his newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, bankrolling the expenses. All three players were in their mid-20s, in their athletic primes, but the selection of Robinson seems odd given how little experience he had in the Negro Leagues. Perhaps Smith saw something special in Robinson. In Danny Peary's new book "Jackie Robinson in Quotes," he cites a speech Aaron Stilley gave at the Negro Leagues Museum in 2013 that speculates Robinson might have been invited because of his name recognition.
Here's the deal, however: The tryout was a sham. The Red Sox had no intention of signing a black player. At the time, a law in Boston prohibited baseball on Sunday, so each year the Red Sox and Braves had to receive a special permit to play. Councilman Isadore Muchnick threatened to block the permit unless the team allowed a black player to try out. A couple of coaches conducted the tryout, but manager Joe Cronin wasn't on hand. Neither Smith nor the players would hear a word from the Red Sox, who would become the last club to integrate in 1959.
So Robinson returned to the Monarchs and quickly made a name for himself as one of the best players in the league. In June, The New York Times called him "one of baseball's leading shortstops." After a game at Yankee Stadium on June 17, the New York Amsterdam reported that Robinson "is one of the sport's most valuable additions in years ... and is headed for stardom."
Meanwhile, Rickey was hatching his plan to sign black players for the Dodgers. After sending out his scouts to watch Robinson play -- and to check on Robinson's background -- Rickey met with Robinson in his office on Aug. 28. His first words to Robinson in the three-hour meeting apparently were, "You got a girl?" When Robinson informed he did, indeed, have one, Rickey advised, "Well, you marry her right away. When we get through today you may want to call her up, 'cause there are times when a man needs a woman by his side."
That story feeds the perception of Robinson at Rickey's bidding. But as Rachel Robinson -- she would marry Jackie in February 1946 -- told Jules Tygiel in his seminal "Baseball's Great Experiment," "The things that have been reported about it make it sound very paternalistic on Mr. Rickey's part as though he directed everything. There was much more of an attitude of their being collaborators and conspirators. ... There was an alliance between them and a kind of mutual respect."
Robinson would agree to contract that day before leaving Rickey's office -- a $3,500 bonus and a salary of $600 a month to play for Montreal. He was sworn to secrecy for the time being. Initially, Rickey hoped to sign other players. Rickey wrote a letter in early October to a writer named Arthur Mann saying, "Also quite obviously it might not be good to sign Robinson with other and possibly better players unsigned."
Rickey hadn't considered Negro Leagues legends like Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson. They were too old and didn't have the personality Rickey sought.
Rickey was going to wait until football season, but in the end he ordered Robinson to fly to Montreal. On Oct. 23, Robinson signed to play for the Royals for 1946 to become the first black player in organized baseball since the 19th century. (Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella would later sign with the Dodgers as well, and spent 1946 playing for Class B Nashua of the New England League. Rickey also signed a veteran Negro Leagues pitcher named Roy Partlow, who would play for Class C Trois-Rivieres and Montreal in 1946, although he never reached the majors, and John Wright, another pitcher who didn't reach the majors.)
Responses were mixed. According to Peary's book, Clay Hopper, the Montreal manager, told Rickey, "Mr. Rickey, please don't do this to me. I'm a white man, been living in Mississippi all my life. If you do this to me, you're going to force me to move out of Mississippi." Brooklyn outfielder Dixie Walker said, "He's been signed for the Montreal club, and as long as he isn't with the Dodgers, I'm not worried." The great Buck O'Neil was stationed in the Philippines when Robinson's signing was announced. In "I Was Right on Time," he wrote that he took the bullhorn from an officer and shouted, "'Now hear this! Now hear this! The Dodgers just signed Jackie Robinson!' You should have heard the celebration. Halfway around the world from Brooklyn, we started hollering and shouting and firing our guns in the air." A Red Sox scout named George Digby told the United Press, "Personally, I think it's the worst thing that can happen to organized ball."
Robinson would have to go through spring training with Royals in the deep South -- starting in Sanford, Florida. Robinson and Wright weren't allowed at the team hotel, so stayed at a private residence in Sanford, along with Rachel, the journalist Smith and a photographer. Hopper overcame his concerns and shook Robinson's hand at the team's first practice. Robinson wrote in his autobiography that the black fans who came to Sanford to watch practice "cheered if I leaned to tie my shoe." The camp would later move to Daytona, where Jackie and Rachel would again have to stay separately from the rest of the team.
When the team eventually made its way to Montreal, the Robinsons found a different reception. They lived in a French-Canadian neighborhood. "There we felt genuinely that few people thought we were intruding," Rachel said in 1951. "Even the younger children, who had never seen Negroes before, didn't make us feel that we were different." Teammate George Shuba was in the first known photograph of a white player celebrating with a black player. "We were ballplayers," he said. "It didn't matter what color he was. Shaking his hand was just the right thing to do."
Most importantly, Robinson showed he could play. He hit .349 for Montreal to lead the league, drew 92 walks and stole 40 bases. He didn't show much power -- only three home runs -- but remember that he had played very little baseball outside of UCLA and one season with the Monarchs. Spider Jorgensen, a teammate in Montreal and Brooklyn, told Peter Golenbock in "Bums" that, "Most of the older fellas ... never thought he would hit, because he was a lunger. They'd throw him fastballs inside, and he'd fight them off ... but he could always hit the breaking ball."
Maybe the baseball was the easy part. Before Montreal's first game, International League president Frank Shaughnessy advised Rickey not to bring Robinson to Jersey City or "you're going to have a race riot." (There wasn't one.) Fans in Baltimore threatened to boycott if the Royals played Robinson. (They showed up in huge numbers.) Baltimore manager Tommy Thomas, a former major league pitcher, ordered his pitchers to knock down Robinson. (They did.) Tygiel's book reports that the Yankees' Newark team also threw at Robinson. (He was hit by seven pitches that season, which did rank fourth in the league.) He had to deal with abuse from fans. Wright, who started the season with Montreal, couldn't handle it and was sent down to Class C before returning to the Negro Leagues in 1947.
The Royals won the pennant by 19 games. In the Little World Series, Montreal beat Louisville for the championship, with Robinson leading the way. The clinching win came in Montreal. The fans demanded a curtain call, mobbing Robinson when he returned to the field. When he finally returned to the clubhouse and left the stadium, he had to fight through another adoring crowd before a motorist finally rescued him and drove him to his hotel. "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," wrote Sam Maltin of the Pittsburgh Courier.
He was ready for the majors.