Jackie Robinson told me about his ‘Refuge From Racism’

Mann Overboard

Bill Mann
Posted 8/7/19

I recently attended the memorial service for one of PT’s most notable citizens, Len Mandelbaum. Len, a Yale grad, business law professor, head of the ACLU in Seattle, and a mensch who was an …

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Jackie Robinson told me about his ‘Refuge From Racism’

Mann Overboard

Posted

I recently attended the memorial service for one of PT’s most notable citizens, Len Mandelbaum. Len, a Yale grad, business law professor, head of the ACLU in Seattle, and a mensch who was an avid birder, was born to immigrant Jewish parents in New York and grew up in public housing in Brooklyn.

In one corner of the room, among the memorabilia from Len’s impressive life, was a photo of his boyhood idol, Jackie Robinson.

One day at lunch here, civil-rights pioneer Robinson’s name had come up, and Mandelbaum was awestruck (as many are) when I told him that I had done the last-ever interview with the American icon, which Sports Illustrated excerpted. I later wrote about this memorable and historic interview in USA Today. It took place just before Robinson died in the fall of 1972.

It was not easy to get Mandelbaum to divert from talking progressive politics, but he wanted to know about my interview with his teenage idol, whom he’d seen play at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn as a youth.

I was in the right city at the right time as a young sportswriter for the Montreal Gazette in 1972, for whom I covered the since-departed Expos. I’d walked past Robinson several times in the pressbox, but was too timid to ask this living legend for an interview. Robinson was half of the Expos’ broadcast team, along with his old Dodger teammate, Duke Snider.

But one day late in the 1972 season, I watched Robinson, his hair white as snow and one eye watering (from diabetes) slowly, painstakingly make his way across the infield using a cane. If I were going to interview Robinson, I thought I’d better do it soon.

I finally summoned up the courage to introduce myself to Robinson, who said, “Aren’t you that American kid?”

I said yes, and sheepishly asked the prematurely grey Robinson, 53, for an interview, something he rarely granted. He agreed, so the next day, before the game, we sat behind home plate in the stands at Jarry Park, my notebook at the ready.

Robinson had played his first professional ball with the minor-league Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ farm team, in 1946, the year before he went to Brooklyn and made history.

Robinson said he would have to endure racial taunts whenever the Royals would play away games down in the U.S., but never in Montreal, where the cultural divide was — and still is — French and English, not black and white.

Robinson called Montréal “my refuge from racism.” He said the French-Canadian fans couldn’t have been friendlier, and that his French landlady was solicitous. He and his new bride Rachel honeymooned in Montreal.

“That’s why I came back here this year,” the future Hall-of-Famer told me. “Montreal has always had a special place in my heart.”

In 1946, the Royals won the International League’s World Series, and Robinson was met by a big crowd of adoring French-Canadian fans as he disembarked from the team’s train and was hoisted on their shoulders.

One Canadian sports writer noted wryly, “It may have been the first time a black man was mobbed by white people— as a hero.”

The Quebec government recently installed a historic marker at the house where Jackie and Rachel Robinson lived in 1946.

The Robinson Montreal story serves as a reminder of tolerance in an ugly era of bigotry, both then and now.

(PT resident Bill Mann moved on from sports writing soon after. He misses birding with Mandelbaum.)

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