Jackie Robinson & the 1946 Montreal Royals
By, Joe Swide
Jackie Robinson and the most important season in the history of baseball before the most important season in the history of baseball.
The most important game in the history of American professional baseball took place on opening day of the 1946 International League season, in front of 52,000 fans at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey. The hometown Jersey City Giants were playing the visiting Montreal Royals and in the lineup for the Royals that day, wearing the number 9 uniform in road gray flannel, was a rookie second baseman named Jackie Robinson. When Robinson stepped to the plate for his first at-bat, he became the first black player in the entire history of Organized Baseball––the term used for the Major Leagues and their affiliated minor league clubs.
While Robinson grounded out in his first at-bat, his second trip to the plate produced a three-run homer, and he finished the game with a stat line of 4-5 with 4 RBIs as the Royals routed the Giants by a score of 14-1. His debut proved not only to be a harbinger of his own future Hall of Fame career and a symbol of the ability of black players to compete at the highest levels of the game, but also represented the success that the Royals would find in their one summer with Robinson.
The ‘46 Royals are generally considered one of the greatest minor league teams of all time. They finished the International League season with a record of 100-54, winning the league pennant and then going on to defeat the American Association champion Louisville Colonels in six games to claim the Junior World Series title. In the process, Robinson led the league in batting average (.340) and runs (113), while also swiping 40 bases and tallying 66 RBIs. However, while the ‘46 season was nothing but a rousing success for the Royals and their fans, for Robinson himself, his year was a heavy mix of pioneering glory and nearly incapacitating hardship.
Even before the season, Robinson––who grew up in California and had never traveled to the Deep South––was thrust into Jim Crow segregation during the Royals’ spring training with their parent club, the Brooklyn Dodgers, in Florida. He found himself unable to board certain flights, ushered to the back of the bus, unable to eat out with his teammates, and even his own manager with the Royals, a Mississippian named Clay Helton, questioned Robinson’s humanity and used a racial slur while speaking about Robinson to Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey. According to Robinson’s wife, Rachel, Jackie spent much of spring training trying to restrain his simmering anger and focus on the task at hand of preparing for the baseball ahead.
When the Robinsons arrived in Montreal to begin the International League season, they found a much different climate in Canada, which lacked the same history of slavery and legislated racism as the United States. Both Robinsons said later that the feeling of being welcomed by the city and neighborhood in which they lived provided an invaluable relief from the environment in Florida. Yet even still, it wasn’t enough to completely protect Robinson from the indignities he experienced on road trips in the International League. At one point during the season, Robinson had stopped eating and worried that he had a serious illness, when in fact, he had just been internalizing the stress and abuse to such a degree that it was creating physical effects. After taking a short playing break to recuperate, he played the rest of the season at his regularly elite level.
When the Royals reached the Junior World Series against Louisville, Robinson was barred from staying at the team hotel, the Colonels ownership placed hard limits on the amount of black fans allowed in the ballpark, and there was some uncertainty if the Royals would even play the series. While they did ultimately choose to play, Robinson struggled in the first three games, going 1-10 as the Royals fell behind 2-1 in the series. When they returned to Montreal however, the home fans made an extra show of support for Robinson after the treatment he endured in Kentucky, and Robinson drove in the game winning run in the 10th inning of Game 4 to tie the series. The Royals went on to win the next two games and after claiming the championship with their victory in Game 6, the Montreal fans stormed the field to rush Robinson in celebration.
A reporter from the Pittsburgh Courier famously wrote that it was “probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on the mind.”