Robinson was not so seasoned as his teammates, who had, to a man, played many more games of professional ball than he. Apart from college, Robinson had experienced only the freewheeling half season in the Negro American League and a stint in Venezuela. In the field, he would thrill the Montreal fans one day—a lunge to one side, a running catch into short right field—but would muff a simple ground ball or make a wild throw the next. He was at times out of position, or forgot to go into the outfield and take the relay throw for a play at home plate. Up at bat he could be out-crafted by a pitcher with a plan, and he often swung at pitches he wished he had not swung at. That season in Montreal, Robinson, at twenty-seven years old, was a marvelous young player, crash-learning the professional game.
Robinson was also raw as a base runner—although on this front, his skill was without peer in the league. He sent opposing teams "into fits of frenzy," a reporter noted of the way Robinson worked his leads off every base. "He can stop and start with unbelievable suddenness." On tag plays, Robinson eluded fielders in ways that took even umpires by surprise. During those opening weeks of the season, Lew Hayman, a founder of Montreal's new Big Four football club, the Alouettes, let it be known that come autumn, he'd like to hire Robinson to play for his team too.
By the end of that first home stand in Montreal, the Royals had won 9 of 10 games. They were leading the International League with a record of 168. Robinson, playing every day, was batting .326. He had stolen 13 bases and scored 26 runs, better than a run a game. He was, as he would later confide, still finding his way in the glare, in the day-after-day of it all, but he now knew without question that he could put on his glove and knot his cleats and really play with these guys. This league would not, on any merits of his ability, contain him. Quickly there developed a new respect for Robinson from those within the game, and from those perhaps less predisposed to have it. Early on in this unprecedented athletic life, Robinson got glimpses of his power to impact thought through the manner in which, and the level at which, he played baseball. The Royals manager Clay Hopper had been born in 1902 in Porterville, Mississippi, by the border with Alabama, and in the off-season he sold cotton out of Greenwood, near the center of the state. He had been in professional baseball for twenty years, and during Royals spring training of 1946, Hopper said some things aloud that made his personal perspective clear. Surveying Robinson in the field early on, Hopper expressed surprise that Branch Rickey considered a Black person (although Hopper used a very different, abhorrent term) to be a human being. On another day, as a Black child scampered near a spring training field, Robinson overheard Hopper suggesting that the child would "make a nice mouthful for an alligator."
There's no telling what true changes might have then, or ever, occurred in Clay Hopper's breast, but as the season moved along and the fiber and caliber of Robinson as a ballplayer and a man swiftly became clear, Hopper began saying and doing other things. He told people that Robinson was the most effective base runner he had ever seen, and that he could drive the energy on the field as few players could. Hopper witnessed qualities in Robinson that he could not deny. In early April, in an exhibition game against Indianapolis, Paul Derringer, the old and contentious right-hander from Springfield, Kentucky, had thrown at Robinson not once but twice. After a pitch toward Robinson's head forced him, as Hopper would tell it, "to put his chin right in the dirt," Robinson stood up; assumed his batting stance; hung in there on a biting, inside curve; and ripped the ball on a blur past third base for a hit. A few innings later, Derringer again knocked down Robinson. He got up and tripled to deep left field.
Almost overnight Hopper became an ally. He complimented Robinson without prompting to peers and to opposing players. From the Montreal dugout, he called out encouragement to Robinson just as he did to the other Royals. And Hopper could be protective. At times when throngs of exhilirated well-meaning fans swarmed around Robinson after a game, confining him, Hopper would push through the crowd and escort Jackie away. Robinson was thankful for this. Whatever the motivations of Hopper's alliance, the alliance was firm. It had not taken the manager or any member of the Royals long to see what Robinson could do for the team.
By the middle of May, the tenor of Robinson's life as a Montreal Royal had been set. There were many months still to go, and little was certain—and each day brought new situations to meet and appreciate. There would, in the months ahead, be unforeseen challenges and delights. The season—and by extension the future, Jackie and Rachel felt—was full of promise.
Anticipation for Robinson's arrival had been bubbling since the day he signed, six months before the 1946 season started. Racine, the Royals president, had called on local newspaper and radio reporters to come to his office at Delorimier Downs for what he termed "the biggest baseball story to ever hit this town." And if the news had indeed been wholly unexpected—the gathering of twenty-five pressmen expected to hear that Montreal was getting a major league team, or perhaps that Babe Ruth was coming to manage the Royals—the surprise was embraced and Robinson immediately became a figure to follow. As a headline in the local weekly, 'Le Petit Journal', put it (in translation): a baseball bombshell—royals' signing of a black player spurs overwhelming interest throughout north america.
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book THE PREMONITIONS BUREAU by Sam Knight.