By RON FANFAIR
Despite a postwar housing shortage in Montreal, baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson and his wife Rachel stumbled upon a duplex in the French-speaking East End that was their home for nearly a year in the mid-1940s after spending almost five weeks in a guest house.
Robinson, the first Black man to play in the major leagues since the 1880s, played one season with the Montreal Royals, the triple “A” affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers, hitting .349, stealing 40 bases and helping the club set an attendance record before he joined the big club in 1947.
Last Monday, a commemorative plaque was unveiled at 8232 de Gaspe Ave. – the residence the couple occupied in 1946 – as part of Black History Month celebrations.
Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, U.S. ambassador to Canada David Jacobson and Montreal Mayor Gerard Tremblay attended the unveiling.
“This is especially a special moment,” said Sharon Robinson. “I had never been to the home where my parents lived, so this is an emotional experience. My mother and father had such positive memories about their time in Montreal. To have it recognized where they lived in a neighbourhood that welcomed them and supported them then is quite emotional. It’s such a beautiful plaque with such fullness to it. It doesn’t just say ‘Jackie Robinson lived here.’ It really gives a little bit of history to it.”
The plaque’s inscription reads: “Hall of Fame baseball legend and civil rights leader Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson and wife, Rachel, lived in this house when he played with the Montreal Royals in the Class AAA International League in 1946. The first Black Major league Baseball player in the modern era, Robinson became a powerful symbol of hope and inspiration to millions with his grace, dignity and determination.”
Expecting to encounter stumbling blocks in their quest to secure accommodation, the Robinson’s were pleasantly surprised to be welcomed with open arms by the French-Canadian female apartment owner. She offered them tea before renting them the fully furnished apartment.
“The woman didn’t merely agree (that we could rent the place), but she insisted that I used her things,” recalled Rachel Robinson who is now 88. “She wanted me to be careful, no water on the hardwood floors, that sort of thing, but she was gracious. It left us euphoric, really. All the months in Canada were like that.”
Despite the language barrier and the Royals demanding schedule, the Robinsons made a few friends. Their closest ally was a Jewish couple, Sam and Belle Maltin. Sam was a Montreal Herald sports writer and stringer for the Pittsburg Courier while his wife was pregnant.
Aware of Rachel’s love of classical music, the Maltin’s took them to outdoor concerts on Mont Royal that reminded Rachel of visits to the Hollywood Bowl, a Los Angeles amphitheatre used primarily for music performances.
Belle introduced Rachel to Jewish cooking and also knitted her a sweater.
While Robinson faced hostility on the road, he could always count on the support of the Montreal fans.
“I owe more to Canada than they’ll ever know,” said Robinson who died in 1972. “In my baseball career, they were the first to make me feel my natural self.”
The home at 8232 de Gaspe Ave is now owned by Eric Boudreault.