How do you do justice to the most important player in baseball history?
That’s the quandary the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame faces when sharing Jackie Robinson’s story.
Prior to breaking Major League Baseball’s colour barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Robinson suited up for the Montreal Royals, a Dodgers farm team, in 1946.
“When I was 16, in 1947, Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues, and that was the first time most baseball fans had ever heard of him,” wrote Willie Mays in his 1988 autobiography. “But we all knew who Jackie was. In fact, to us black ballplayers it seemed like a bigger breakthrough when, in 1946, he signed to play with the Dodgers’ farm team in Montreal. That was organized ball. I mean, forget about the majors.”
It’s widely believed that Dodgers GM Branch Rickey stationed Robinson in Montreal to ease his young prospect into integrated baseball. Playing his home games in a city with a reputation for racial tolerance would provide Robinson with relative tranquility for half the schedule.
Robinson excelled at second base with the Royals, leading the International League in batting average, walks and runs, and spurring his team to 100 regular season wins and their first Junior World Series triumph.
When the Royals clinched the championship at Delorimier Stadium, the fans chanted Robinson’s name and hoisted him on their shoulders. Tears of jubilation spilled from the baseball pioneer’s eyes. He had endured a lot that season. Racism was palpable in International League cities like Syracuse and Baltimore, but the taunts had intensified in Louisville, the city Montreal opposed in the Junior World Series.
After the celebration appeared over, Robinson emerged from the clubhouse, only to have adoring fans chase him down the street, wanting to touch their hero one last time. The scene inspired Pittsburgh Courier correspondent, Sam Maltin, to write, “It was the first time that a white mob chased a black man down the street, not out of hate, but because of love.”
Moved by the affection of Montrealers, Robinson once remarked, “I owe more to Canadians than they’ll ever know. In my baseball career, they were the first to make me feel my natural self.”
So, with this in mind, how can the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame do justice to Robinson’s story?
For 11 years, tour guides have referred to pictures and replica jerseys to talk about Robinson’s season in Montreal. But now, thanks to the generosity of Denyse Giroux Ahern, a Laval, Quebec native, and the efforts of her family members, including her daughter Louise Ahern-Sciaraffa, son-in-law, Tony Sciaraffa, her niece, Louise Koen, and her nephew-in-law, Ed Koen, a new exhibit showcases an item that Robinson actually touched.
On August 5, Mme Ahern’s family members visited the Canadian ball shrine in St. Marys, Ontario to donate a ball autographed by Robinson and most of the other members of the 1946 Montreal Royals. Ed Koen corresponded with the Hall for several months and was instrumental in organizing the ball’s delivery and providing details about its provenance.
Mme Ahern, who attended Royals games with her father in 1946, got the ball from family friend George Demers and kept it for 55 years. Demers had caught the ball in foul territory at Delorimier Stadium and, through his connections, had it signed by team members. At a later date, knowing how much of a baseball fan Mme Ahern was, Demers gave her the ball.
Demers would often see Robinson and his wife, Rachel, on the streetcar on the way to games. “On one such occasion, George got up and went to shake hands with Robinson and congratulated him on his success,” writes Ahern in the letter that accompanied the ball. “They were both going to the same place – the stadium at the corner of Delorimier and Ontario streets.”
Ahern is aware of the ball’s value, but opted to give it to the Hall of Fame where the public can view it.
“We are tremendously grateful to Mme Ahern and her family for their generosity in donating the ball to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. It has become a centrepiece artifact in our museum,” said Ball Hall president & CEO, Tom Valcke.
“Those who don’t know history tend to repeat it, right?” Valcke added.
“Well, as the Hall’s summer camp program for boys and girls entitled ‘Kids On Deck’ continues to grow, the most important and impactful stories we can tell in our museum are those where baseball can be used to enhance cultural awareness and diminish perceived barriers. Whether it’s the story of the Vancouver Asahi, Fergie Jenkins or Jackie Robinson’s year in Canada, our kids need to hear them in order to properly fill their future role as leaders.
“Also, I have to tell you, that, from a purely personal standpoint, knowing that Jackie Robinson has touched this ball, gives me chills.”
Valcke points out that a statue of Robinson still stands outside of Olympic Stadium showcasing the words Robinson uttered about Montreal after the Royals’ 1946 Junior World Series victory: “This is the city for me. This is paradise.”
“To paraphrase Jackie, I believe, ‘This (St. Marys) is the place for this ball.’ Thanks to generosity of Mme Ahern and her family, we can use this historic artifact to share Robinson’s story with thousands of Canadians for generations to come,” said Valcke.
For more information about the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum, please call us at519-284-1838.