The 1954 Montreal Royals team photo . . . Roberto Clemente

Courtesy of Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame

When I worked at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys in 2008 and 2009, I found myself fascinated with a 1954 Montreal Royals team photo.

From 1939 to 1960, the Royals were the Triple-A farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers, so baseball immortals like Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella and Don Drysdale all honed their skills at Montreal’s Delorimier Stadium before starring at Ebbets Field.

My initial interest in the photo was spurred by the fact that Roberto Clemente (bottom row, far left) was on this team, and this remains the only photo I’ve seen of the Puerto Rican legend with the Royals.

The story of Clemente’s 1954 campaign (told below) is an engrossing one, but as I looked at this photo more frequently, I began wondering about the rest of these mostly forgotten men smiling back at me.

The 1954 squad was far from the most successful team in Royals history. Aided by the hitting heroics of Sandy Amoros (.352 in 68 games) and the mound prowess of Tommy Lasorda (14 wins) – both of whom were recalled by the Dodgers and aren’t in this photo – the 1954 Royals won 88 games and finished second to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the International League.

But with former Montreal pitcher, Max Macon, who had replaced Walter Alston, as manager, the Royals enjoyed an inspired playoff run that saw them fall one victory short of a league championship.

When I returned to the Canadian ball shrine in St. Marys for a visit this summer, I found this photo again and my curiosity was rekindled. Just who were these men who spent a summer in Montreal 58 years ago?

Well, I’ve decided to find out.

Starting with today’s entry about Roberto Clemente, my goal to write an article about each man in this photo. It’s an ambitious project that will take several months, but I’m up for the challenge.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading about these men as well.

Roberto Clemente

The following has been adapted from an article I wrote in 2002.

When historians talk about legends that are part of Canadian baseball history, they often mention Babe Ruth (hit his first home run in professional baseball in Toronto) or Jackie Robinson (played in Montreal before breaking Major League Baseball’s colour barrier).  Seldom do they allude to a fearless Puerto Rican player who honed his skills in Montreal before becoming a major league superstar.

Remembered by most as a dynamic outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Roberto Clemente was a man whose on-the-field brilliance was matched only by his humanitarian efforts off of it. His tragic death in a plane crash while attempting to deliver relief supplies to Nicaragua on December 31, 1972 is still mourned.

And while Clemente is revered in Latin America and the U.S., Canada has not embraced him as an adopted son – this, despite the fact that, before attaining baseball immortality, he spent a season in Canada battling for playing time.

Signed to a $15,000 contract by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954, Clemente was assigned to their International League affiliate Montreal Royals. With a rule in place that stipulated that any team signing a rookie to a contract over $4,000 must keep that player on their major league roster for the season or risk losing him in an off-season draft, sending the talented youngster to the minors was a gamble.

Clemente’s season with the Royals wasn’t particularly memorable. Despite being one of the Dodgers’ best prospects, the slender outfielder was sent to the plate only 148 times in a 154-game season.

His lack of playing time was puzzling – a trend that began in the Royals’ home opener, when after registering three hits in four at bats, he found himself on the bench for the next game. Even hitting a monstrous home run that cleared the left field wall and went right out of Delorimier Stadium (the first player to accomplish this) wasn’t enough to earn him a regular spot in the lineup.

So why did the Dodgers refuse to play their premier prospect on a consistent basis? The most popular explanation is that they feared losing him in the off-season draft and they didn’t want other teams to see how good he was.

“The evidence seems to indicate that the Dodgers were trying to hide him,” said Bruce Markusen, author of “The Great One,” an excellent book about Clemente. “I mean if you have a young player with that much talent and you’re trying to develop him, you don’t limit him to 148 at bats.”

In his book, Markusen also notes that during Clemente’s tenure with the Royals, the future Pirates star often took batting practice with the pitchers and would typically only play the second game of a double-header (most scouts from visiting teams would leave after the first game). These tactics seemed to support the theory that he was being hidden.

On-the-field frustrations aside, Clemente seemed to enjoy living in Montreal, noted Markusen. The city offered the Latin outfielder refuge from the overt racism he encountered when he played in International League cities like Richmond.

“From everything I’ve read, he was generally treated well in Montreal,” said Markusen. “I’ve read reports where he has said that the family (a white French family) he stayed with was very good to him.”

But the cultural solace Montreal provided was little consolation for the highly motivated Puerto Rican. Driven to become a major league player, Clemente grew disenchanted as the season wore on. Fortunately, his luck would change when Branch Rickey, general manager of the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates, dispatched scout Clyde Sukeforth to check out Royals pitcher Joe Black. Legend has it that the veteran scout grew so enamored with Clemente that he never did see Black pitch. Before the end of his trip, Sukeforth was convinced that the skilled outfielder should be the Pirates’ number one pick in the off-season draft.

“It could be said that the course of Clemente’s career changed that year in Montreal,” said Markusen.

Claiming a starting position in the Pirates’ outfield in 1955, Clemente would become a fixture in the team’s lineup for 18 seasons. In his career, he was selected to 15 all-star teams, won four batting titles and registered exactly 3,000 career hits. He was also a member of two World Championship-winning teams (1960, 1971).

While Clemente was proud of his baseball accomplishments, his humanitarian work off the field was equally important to him. In the off-season, Clemente would return to Puerto Rico to hold baseball camps for underprivileged children. And in 1971, he announced plans to build the Roberto Clemente Sports City, a facility that provides less fortunate children with instruction in different recreational activities that still operates in his hometown of Carolina today.

Clemente was also an outspoken leader for Latin players – using every opportunity he had to enlighten Major League Baseball and its fans about the racism and language barriers that Latin players had to overcome. Markusen writes that when Clemente started playing in 1955, there were only five other Puerto Rican players in the majors and 29 Latin players in total.

“He deserves a great deal of credit for the increase in the number of Latin players in the majors today,” said Markusen. “There has been a full generation since his passing and he is still very highly regarded in the Latin community.”

So while Latin America and Clemente’s U.S. fans regularly reflect on his life, perhaps Canadians should pause and remember this baseball legend as well. His stay in our country may have been brief, but his impact is still being felt. And although he’s not talked about as much as Ruth or Robinson, he’s very much a part of our baseball history.

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38 thoughts on “The 1954 Montreal Royals team photo . . . Roberto Clemente

  1. Kevin: Thanks for the photo and the great story on Clemente. As a kid in the seventies all I remember about Clemente was that he was a star on Pittsburgh and that he was lost in a plane crash in Central or South America. I heard many older players give great tributes to him but I knew little about him. Fantastic story and photo. I’m becoming more and more aware of the influence that Montreal and Toronto played as minor-league development teams for many notable major league stars. Sparky Anderson stands out with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Look forward to your research on the other players. I plan a trip to Montreal in the next five years for personal reasons. Is Delaurmier Stadium or Jarry Park still standing?

  2. Thanks for the kind words, David. Yes, Sparky played in both Toronto and Montreal. His first professional managerial gig was also with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Famous Yankees catcher Elston Howard also played with the Maple Leafs in 1954. From what I understand, Delorimier Stadium is long torn down, but Jarry Park exists, but without the baseball stadium. Thanks again.

  3. That’s really interesting.

    I had no idea Lasorda and Clemente were on that team.

    Who knew there was such a deep rich history in Canadian baseball.

    Really looking forward to your articles on the team and their players.

    How long do you think it would take to complete that project. Possibly more than months?
    Devon Teeple – Founder / Executive Director – The GM’s Perspective

  4. Kevin: I love “Where Are They Now” stories and have researched and written quite a few myself. I look forward to seeing what you come up with. For those unfamiliar with the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and its BioProject, check out bioproj.sabr.org and follow the instructions to find hundreds of life stories of ballplayers and others significant in the game.
    Len Corben

  5. Kevin:

    My father, Harry Simmons, was the Secretary of the International League for many years and since the league office was in Montreal at that time, he was quite involved with the 1954 Royals. Wishing to help you in your search for information about the team players of that year, I went through a box of old clippings and notes that my Dad had compiled from those years. Most of the items from that period are among about 50 boxes which I donated to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame after my Dad’s death at the age of 90 in 1998.

    I did find a letter dated July19, 1967 from Flo Snyder of the L.A. Dodgers which may interest you. At that time my Dad was working in the Commissioners office in New York and among his many duties was the supervision of player pension records. He had discovered that Sandy Amoros needed just one more week of play inorder to qualify for his pension. Since my Dad had to leave immediately on a business trip, he passed this information to John McHale who gave Buzzie Bavasi a call about it. The Dodgers put Amoros on their roster for the required time and he did receive his much needed pension. Unfortunately, McHale ended up getting all the credit for find. The letter I have from Flo Snyder thanked my Dad for his work and mentions that Amoros did call him to thank him in person. The Sabr Bioproject covers this affair incorrectly, see:

    http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/4f02bbd8

    Let me know if I can be of any more help,

    David Simmons

    • David,

      Thanks very much for this. What a wonderful story about the work your dad did to secure Amoros his pension.

      I’m well aware of the impact your father had on the game of baseball. I used to give tours at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and I regularly spoke about your father to the visitors. He’s a Canadian baseball legend.

      Thank you again for sharing this information. I will keep your kind offer of assistance in mind as I embark on my quest to find out more about the 1954 Montreal Royals players.

      Thanks again.

      Kevin

  6. These stories are priceless. They remind me why it is vital to have a Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. It is wonderful to enjoy inductions each year and to view the items in the Museum. It is however absolutely vital to Canadian baseball and all Canadian baseball fans that we have a place where the history of baseball in Canada is stored and archived. The story of Sandy Amoros getting his pension is amazing. We desperately need the new building for the Hall. Baseball is a huge part of Canada’s heritage from coast to coast for over a century!!

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  22. This is all so interesting to me. My name is Matt Lehman and my grandfather was Ken Lehman. I live a little north of Seattle Washington and have many fond memories of my Grandfather, right up until his passing a few years back. If you are looking for any more information about Ken Lehman, I’d love to share it with you!

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  25. to David Simmons:

    I knew your dad, Harry Simmons, when I covered The Montreal Royals for The Canadian Press in the 1950s. I fact I broke the story of the Dodgers pulling out of Montreal, tracking down the owner of Delorimier Stadium on a Florida golf course in the off-season. I wrote a profile of your dad for CP and wish I had a copy today. Your dad was a remarkably accomplished individual and great guy. I subsequently moved to the U.S and lived in New Canaan, passing by, every day, the assisted living facility where your dad resided, lamentably unaware that he was there.

    Marven Moss
    Monroe, CT

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