It’s the most famous photo of Jackie Robinson with the Montreal Royals.
Pictured in an over-sized uniform about to enter the Brooklyn Dodgers’ clubhouse, the baseball pioneer looks young and happy as he stops to acknowledge a group of reporters.
With the words “KEEP OUT” boldly emblazoned on the clubhouse door, this photo is often used as a symbolic shot.
“This is the door that (Dodgers GM Branch) Rickey has finally opened,” reads a caption of a photo of Robinson outside the clubhouse door in the Pittsburgh Courier on April 19, 1947. “The ‘keep out’ sign doesn’t mean Jackie, or any other colored player who can make the grade. The great American pastime has really become American at last.”
Over the past 20 years, whenever I’ve stumbled across this popular photo, I’ve always assumed it was taken prior to Robinson’s 1946 season in Montreal. As most of you know, prior to breaking Major League Baseball’s colour barrier, Robinson was signed by Rickey and starred at second base for the Royals, a Dodgers’ farm team, in 1946.
Rickey stationed Robinson in Montreal to ease the trailblazing prospect into integrated baseball. Playing his home games in a city with a reputation for racial tolerance provided Robinson with relative tranquility for half the schedule. And the electrifying infielder excelled on the field in Canada, leading the International League in batting average, walks, runs and stolen bases, and spurring the Royals to their first Junior World Series title.
But my long-held assumptions about this photo were incorrect. I was fortunate to be part of a contingent from the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame that trekked to the National Baseball Hall of Fame for an extensive tour on November 30. During that visit, senior curator, Tom Shieber, took us through the Jackie Robinson exhibit, where he explained the origins of this famous Robinson photo.
This picture was not, in fact, snapped in 1946, but on April 11, 1947. On April 10, 1947, a bulletin was delivered to reporters during the fifth inning of an exhibition game between the Royals and Dodgers at Ebbets Field that read: “The Brooklyn Dodgers today purchased the contract of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson from the Montreal Royals.” There was no press conference, just this short statement to announce this historic news. In the exhibition game that day, Robinson played first base for the Royals, who actually defeated the Dodgers 4-3.
A caption accompanying two photos of Robinson in the Chicago Defender on April 19, 1947 reveals that Robinson debuted at first base for the Dodgers in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees at Ebbets Field on April 11. This famous photo was staged prior to that contest. According to the Chicago Defender photo caption, before that game Robinson clad in his Royals uniform stopped to wave to photographers before entering the Dodgers’ clubhouse, only to emerge a few minutes later in a Dodgers uniform, where he, again, stopped to allow photographers to take pictures.
For the record, Robinson knocked in three runs in the Dodgers’ 14-6 win over the Yankees in his first appearance with the big league club.
So thanks to Tom Shieber, I know now the origins of one of the most famous photos in Canadian baseball history.