More Than Black And White

A pioneer's year told by those who were there

The memory hangs on George Shuba’s living room wall, suspended in time. First, notice the scene: a crowded ballpark, every seat filled for a historic day. Now, study the subjects: two ballplayers, one trotting home after blasting a fastball into the bleachers, the other waiting to congratulate him at the plate. Every eye in the place is focused on them. Even the umpire standing behind them stares in amazement. Their outstretched hands are clasped in a handshake, a simple gesture from teammate to teammate. Then zoom in a little bit more, and that simple gesture becomes a bit more complex, a bit more lasting. Examine those hands carefully. The film is old, enhancing the contrast that suddenly stings your eye with its starkness. The hand on the left is white. The hand on the right is black. And that afternoon, as those two palms met, a barrier was crushed forever.    

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Jackie Robinson (right) shakes hands with George Shuba on Opening Day

Photo courtesy of the Jackie Robinson Foundation

George Shuba didn't think it was such a big deal at the time, the day he stood on a ballfield before thousands and shook hands with Jackie Robinson. It was part of The Code, the unwritten laws of etiquette that binds athletes for life: When a teammate hits a home run, you shake his hand. Even if that hand is black. "Jackie hit the ball out of the park," Shuba explains in a voice that suggests he never wavered in his decision to congratulate Robinson, "and when a player on your team hits a home run, you go shake the player’s hand. He was the second batter of the inning, and I was the third batter. I was standing right there, in the on-deck circle. So I had the pleasure of shaking Jackie Robinson’s hand right after his first home run in professional baseball."

""I’m looking for a ballplayer with enough guts not to fight back"

For those watching, a ballpark as well as a nation, the concept wasn’t so plain. Robinson wasn’t merely a teammate, but a black teammate. Shuba wasn’t simply a ballplayer, but a white ballplayer. And behind that dichotomy of black and white stood a number of shades of gray.

Across several decades, the professional playing fields of America’s Pastime had stood as bastions of segregation, forbidding racial intermingling in the game the nation loved. The Civil War had come and gone, slavery in America had come and gone, the constitutional amendment guaranteeing all persons born or naturalized in the United States "due process of law" and "equal protection of the laws" had long since been passed. Yet there was no equal protection in baseball. An unwritten color barrier had hung a sign marked "Whites Only" on American ballparks for years. Blacks knew their place — on barnstorming outfits that toured the country’s sandlots, or maybe, if they were lucky, a position on one of the clubs in the so-called "Negro Leagues", clubs of talented players denied a shot at the pros because of the color of their skin. Jackie Robinson had played in those "Negro Leagues," had starred for a team called the Kansas City Monarchs, had played with and against plenty of blacks who could have beaten the daylights out of some of the white professionals — if they were only given the chance.

Now, Robinson had been given the chance. Wesley Branch Rickey, business manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had given it to him. Like Shuba, Rickey stuck to The Code. His business was winning ballgames, not building barriers. "If an elephant could play centerfield better than any man I have,"he once told a reporter, "I would play the elephant." Rickey never signed an elephant. Instead, on August 28, 1945, he did something that may have shocked the baseball world even more. He signed a black man, offered him a contract with the Dodgers’ farm team, the Montreal Royals, with a chance to make it all the way to the major leagues. The stakes for desegregation may have never been higher. Robinson would be center stage almost every day of the summer, more than 150 games a year, smack in the sweet spot of the public eye in the most popular sport in America. On the surface, at least, he would be playing baseball. In reality, he was taking on history, challenging a popular all-white establishment and yet trying to do so without making a sound. A three-hour lecture in that first meeting laid out the ground rules to Robinson: No matter what he faced, no matter what degree of prejudice and racism was hurled at him, there were to be no incidents. Robinson demanded to know if Rickey was looking for a black player who was afraid to fight back. "Robinson," Rickey answered, "I’m looking for a ballplayer with enough guts not to fight back."The contract was agreed upon that day. On October 23 of that year, it was finalized. Rickey and Robinson’s "Noble Experiment"had begun.

Yet until April 18, 1946, it hadn’t really begun. Up to that point, Robinson was a ghost, a name in the newspapers, an almost mythical figure for some to celebrate, some to hate, and some even to fear. On that April afternoon, though, as Robinson jogged with eight other teammates onto the field of Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium, the myth became real. A black man was wearing the uniform of a professional American baseball team. The experiment had started. There was no turning back.

"Jack knew there would be many eyes on him that first day"

Rachel Robinson still remembers the pressures her husband faced on that pressure-cooker of a day. "There was a lot riding on Jack that whole year,"she explains, "because his aim was to prove himself so he could go on and play with the Brooklyn Dodgers. But there was a certain anxiety to that first game. Jack knew there would be many eyes on him that first day. He knew he needed to play well."

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Jackie Robinson waits on deck as a member of the Montreal Royals

Photo courtesy of the Jackie Robinson Foundation

The stands of Roosevelt Stadium were full that afternoon, more than 25,000 fans and reporters from every New York City daily paper filling the park where history would be made. At 3:04 that afternoon, Jackie Robinson came up to bat for the first time. He mustered only a weak ground ball to the Jersey City shortstop, who easily threw out Robinson at first. Two innings later, the Royal whom everyone had come to see stepped into the batter’s box again. This time, he turned on a chest-high fastball and crushed it deep into the bleachers, more than 340 feet away. Waiting in the on-deck circle, George Shuba never thought twice about what he would do. "To me, Jackie was like any other ballplayer,"Shuba remembers. He swats any talk of the repercussions the handshake might have caused, brushing it aside with the same ease he once employed to hit the line drives that earned him the nickname "Shotgun.""We had already been through all of spring training together,"he explains. "I knew, and we all knew, that Jackie Robinson was a great ballplayer. He was a great athlete, and very intelligent, and a great man. I was proud to shake his hand."

By the time the day was over, Robinson had rapped out four hits in five at-bats, stolen two bases, and scored two runs. It was, as Rachel Robinson remembers it, "a near-perfect debut.""Jackie played a spectacular game that day,"Rachel recalls. "He did everything right. I think he picked up some new supporters that day just because people saw him play so well. Having a start like that was better than anything we could have imagined."

One game did not instantaneously earn a black man league-wide acceptance. Robinson had many more games to go, many more pressures and obstacles to face before he could even think about a chance at the Dodgers. Opportunities for turmoil existed even within his own team, managed by a man for whom the existence of any black professional ballplayer — much less one playing for his club — was about as easy to swallow as cod-liver oil. Born into a plantation-owning family in Mississippi, Clay Hopper’s cultural background led him to see blacks not only as subordinate, but even sub-human. In spring training, while Rickey and Hopper were sitting side-by-side, Rickey proclaimed one of Robinson’s plays as "superhuman.""Clay Hopper turned to Rickey," Rachel says, "and said ‘Mr. Rickey, do you really think a nigger’s a human being?’ This was the man whom Jack was going to be playing for."In addition, certain teams were already planning protests and walkouts when Robinson and the Royals came to town. The reception from the visiting fans and opposing players was going to be anything but polite. And Robinson was still bound by his bargain with Rickey: the contract which strictly forbade him from fighting back.

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Displaying his characteristic fire on the basepaths, Jackie Robinson rounds third

Photo courtesy of the Jackie Robinson Foundation

Conditions like these lead Jack Jedwab to believe Rickey’s placement of Robinson in Montreal was no accident. Author of the acclaimed 1996 book Jackie Robinson’s Unforgettable Season of Baseball in Montreal, Jedwab insists Rickey sent Robinson to the Royals in order to initiate his career in a city where race was a negligible issue. "Race was not a powerful dimension of inter-group conflict in Montreal, or anywhere in Canada,"Jedwab explains. "Language and religion have always been greater sources of tension here. Branch Rickey felt that the United States was not ready to accept a black baseball player, but in Canada, the fact that he (Robinson) was black would not be perceived as a problem. So it seems as if it was a very calculated move for Robinson to make the breakthrough with Montreal. And it turned out to be a very good calculation."

Rachel agrees with Jedwab’s assessment. Before going to Montreal, Rachel explains, she and Jackie had experienced the horrors of the Jim Crow south during the team’s spring training in Florida. The Robinsons were bumped from flights, ordered to the back of buses, banned from restaurants and hotels, and even locked out of certain ballparks. "Before that trip, I had never been to the Deep South," Rachel says. "That experience was a real shock for me. It was threatening, both mentally and physically, to both of us. That’s the kind of background we had going into Montreal."

"We could not afford to fail in Montreal"

Going north, Rachel continues, provided a sense of hope for her and her husband. "What we needed in Montreal,"she says, "was relief. We hoped Montreal would be better than what we had experienced in the South. And we needed it to be better. We could not afford to fail in Montreal. This was Jack’s shot at playing professional baseball and making it to the Dodgers. We needed Montreal to provide us a safe haven so he could focus on that goal."
And when the Robinsons needed it most, the city came through in the clutch. "The best part, to me, of Jackie Robinson’s year in Montreal,"Jedwab says, "is that he was playing before fans who were not only friendly, but passionate. Montreal loved the Royals. When they saw Jackie, they saw a player on their team, not a black man, and when they judged him, it was on his athletic prowess, not his skin color. And when Jackie played well, which he did, they loved him."

Rachel compares their reception in Montreal to "a breath of fresh air.""It provided us with the safety we needed,"she says. "Montreal was, in so many ways, the perfect place for Jack to get his start."Mostly free from negative distractions and adored by the local fans, Jackie Robinson was able to focus on what he did best: playing exciting, daring baseball. The only unpleasant incidents, Rachel recalls, took place on the road, where the Royals crossed the border of a county far more consumed with racial battles. Fans in cities like Baltimore and Louisville were particularly hostile, calling Robinson names and challenging him to fight. In Syracuse, a rival player threw a black cat onto the field while Robinson was batting, taunting "Hey, Jackie — there’s your cousin."Just this once, Robinson came within inches of breaching his deal with Rickey. Doubling to left, then scoring when the next batter hit a single, he allowed himself a quick retort as he passed the Syracuse dugout, staring in at the offending players and shouting "Hey — I guess my cousin’s pretty happy now."

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8232 De Gaspe Street in Montreal, the Robinsons's home for a season

Photo by Benjamin Pomerance

In Montreal, though, winning was the only qualification to impress the fans at Delorimier Downs, the intimate ballpark where the Royals played. By midsummer, Jackie Robinson had become Montreal’s favorite son, a hero among heroes on the hometown team. The Royals were playing well, entrenched at the top of their division, and Robinson had earned his place as one of their stars. Off the field, the ballplayer and his wife also found success. After moving to Montreal, Rachel dreaded the process of searching for a new place to live. The Royals provided the Robinsons with a list of recommended addresses, all of them in predominantly white neighborhoods, adding to her apprehension. "Any black person looking to rent a room in a white neighborhood in America at that time, particularly in the South, would not have been treated well at all," Rachel says. "But at the place where we went, on (8232) De Gaspe Street, we experienced nothing but kindness. The woman who owned the duplex we rented brought me inside, poured me tea, and insisted that when we lived there, she wanted us to use her things — her own linens and utensils. That’s the kind of experience we had in Montreal."

"We never had a threatening or unpleasant experience there"

8232 De Gaspe Street proved to be more than just a living space for the Robinsons. For the first time in months, Rachel and Jackie were part of a neighborhood, a close-knit cluster that welcomed them warmly. "No one there spoke English," Rachel remembers, "and we didn’t speak any French. But they still treated us as friends. We never had a threatening or unpleasant experience there."As the summer progressed, Rachel says, it began to become quite noticeable that she was pregnant with their first child, to be named Jackie Jr. "Everyone around us started watching out for me," she continues, laughing lightly at the memory. "I would usually sit outside on our porch during the day, and the neighbors would come by and ask me how I was doing, or if I needed anything. If a day went by when I didn’t go out on the porch, somebody would come by and knock on the door to make sure I was okay." To reciprocate this kindness, Rachel filled a container with fruit and placed it on a table on their porch. Before long, the word spread through the neighborhood: Any child looking for a healthy snack could simply stop by 8232 and help themselves to the Robinson’s fruit bowl.

As Rachel remembers it, Jackie formed no close kinships with his teammates on the Royals. Shuba, who had extended his hand to Robinson on opening day in Jersey City, was gone after just three weeks with the Royals, off to another Dodgers farm team in Mobile. The other players, Rachel says, were supportive of her husband, but did not form any particularly tight bonds with him, either, likely due to the fact that every athlete on the team was competing with the same goal in mind: to take another man’s spot on the Brooklyn Dodgers. Instead, the Robinsons formed their closest friendship with a journalist, Montreal Herald sportswriter Sam Maltin, and his wife, Belle. On occasion, the two couples joined each other at evening concerts on Mount Royal, a scenic rise that overlooked the city. More often, though, their closeness was forged at their homes, where the foursome made small talk and Belle taught Rachel "trade secrets"of Jewish cooking. For more than 50 years after leaving Montreal, Rachel still wore the sweater Belle knitted for her during that summer of 1946.

Yet most of that summer was spent in self-imposed solitude, the young couple’s only opportunity to spend uninterrupted time together. Rachel and Jackie came to Montreal as newlyweds, married in California on February 10 of that year. Summer in the city would be the only honeymoon they would ever get. Every moment together in their place on De Gaspe Street, Rachel remembers, was precious. "We were still recovering from our experiences in the South,"she says, "and we were deeply in love. We needed that time alone. It strengthened our relationship."

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The Montreal stadium where Jackie Robinson made history is gone, but a plaque in Robinson's honor remains

Photo by Benjamin Pomerance

By fall, though, Rachel and Jackie were spending little time alone. With the highest win total in team history, the Royals had made the playoffs of the International League. Victories in two tough playoff series, first against Mobile and then against Syracuse, earned the team a berth in the Little World Series against the tough Louisville organization. Here, on the league’s biggest stage, Robinson turned in his best performances of the season, batting over .400 over the five-game set. In the deciding match, a 2-0 Royals victory, an elated crowd stormed the field at Delorimier Downs, hoisting Robinson onto their shoulders and singing Il a gagne ses epaulettes! — "He has earned his stripes!"— in tribute to their new champion. Behind his typewriter, Sam Maltin marveled at the outpouring of support. "It was probably the only day in history," he wrote for the next day’s sports section, "that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on its mind."

Equally meaningful for Robinson was the reception he received in the Royals dugout. Clay Hopper, who before the season had questioned whether a black man was human, came to Robinson with his right hand outstretched, just as Shuba had done on opening day. After an entire season, the gesture of a white hand clasping a black one still had not lost its significance. "You’re a great ballplayer and a fine gentleman," Hopper told Robinson. "It’s been a pleasure having you on the team." With that, another piece of the color barrier crumbled.

Following the victory celebration, Rachel and Jackie raced from Delorimier Downs to the Montreal airport. Jackie was off to join a barnstorming team, trying to get some supplemental income in the off-season. Rachel planned to return to Los Angeles for the final month of her pregnancy. That afternoon, they boarded their respective planes out of the city that had welcomed them home…and flew off into history.

The Jackie Robinson story is a well-documented one today, a tale not only of athletic success, but of steely-willed courage on and off the diamond. It’s the story of how Robinson did indeed make the Brooklyn Dodgers the following season, becoming the first black man to play in the major leagues. It’s the story of how this man gained the respect of his teammates and coaches and survived unimaginable adversity to become one of the most revered figures not only in the history of the game, but in the history of America. With a .311 lifetime batting average and an arsenal of accomplishments that will never show up in any statistic, Robinson was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. Thirty-five years later, Major League Baseball took the honor a step further, retiring Robinson’s jersey number — 42 — at every stadium in the country, the first and only time such a tribute has been bestowed on a ballplayer. Through books, movies, documentaries, and countless other retrospectives, it appears the legacy of Jackie Robinson will never be forgotten, a lasting tribute to a true pioneer.

"I don’t think the newer generations of people in the city give a lot of thought to the fact that this was the place where Jackie Robinson’s first professional team played"

Yet there is one aspect to the life of Jackie Robinson that is often forgotten, overlooked in the wake of his glory days with the Dodgers. It’s the tale of the city where "The Noble Experiment "got its start: the story of Montreal. Delorimier Downs is gone today, demolished many years ago, with only a small plaque to commemorate Robinson’s season with the team. A statue of Robinson speaking with two children stands outside Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, a stately but easy-to-miss marker of Robinson’s relationship with the people of the city. Outside of that, though, the impact of the Montreal years seems to be largely neglected by modern fans. "It’s become more a footnote, I think," Jedwab says. "The Royals had a lot of fans when they played, but those days are over. I don’t think the newer generations of people in the city give a lot of thought to the fact that this was the place where Jackie Robinson’s first professional team played."

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A statue of Jackie Robinson outside Montreal's Olympic Stadium, one of the last remaining traces of Robinson's presence in the city

Photo by Benjamin Pomerance

In the end, though, there remain at least two other places where Robinson’s time in Montreal will forever be remembered. One is George Shuba’s living room, where a copy of the photograph of that opening day handshake hangs above the ex-Dodger’s favorite living room chair. To this day, Shuba says, it remains the one piece of baseball memorabilia he has consistently displayed. "That was a great moment for Jackie Robinson,"Shuba says, "and a great moment for baseball, and I’m happy with whatever role — however small — I played in it."

"Playing with Montreal, he learned he could manage the social environment wherever he was."

The other spot isn’t as easily seen. Yet the expression of tribute is every bit as heartfelt when Rachel Robinson speaks of the influence Montreal had on her husband’s career. "In my mind, it was crucial for Jack to go to Montreal,"she says. "Playing there solidified his confidence, his feelings of being capable of making it at the next level. He knew he could play ball — he always knew that. But playing with Montreal, he learned he could manage the social environment wherever he was."She pauses. "And whenever things got rough on the road, we were always very grateful to have Montreal to come home to." Which, perhaps, is the greatest impact the summer of 1946 had on the career of Jackie Robinson. For the first time in a while, Jackie and Rachel Robinson had found a place to call home, a place that at long last could finally see what Branch Rickey and George Shuba and all of Robinson’s allies always realized, and what converts like Clay Hopper ultimately learned: that baseball, and life, is indeed more than black and white.

What do you remember about Jackie Robinson's career?