The city of Montreal is famous for more than their legendary National Hockey League team. In 1946, this minor league baseball franchise made sports history, when, as the International League AAA farm team of the Dodgers, it broke the color barrier and played Jackie Robinson, who went on to be the first black major league star.
Montreal was also the launching point for other baseball legends: Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale, Roberto Clemente, Duke Snider, Walter Alston, Chuck Conners, Sparky Anderson, Gene Mauch, Johnny Podres and the winningest pitcher in the history of the team, our namesake, Tommy Lasorda.
Of course we all know that on October 23, 1945, Montreal Royals owner and team president, Hector Racine and Brooklyn Dodgers general manager, Branch Rickey, signed Jackie Robinson. Interestingly, they also signed two other black players to contracts for the 1946 AAA season. Pitchers John Wright and Roy Partlow both played for Montreal along with Robinson that year.
During that season, Robinson faced many hurdles including race-related resistance from his manager, Clay Hopper, and hostile crowds and opponents. As for the Montreal fans, he was immediately accepted and adored. For the rest of his life Robinson was grateful to the Montreal fans for making him and his wife feel welcome. The Royals won the International League title that year with Robinson leaving to play for the Dodgers the next year.
As a youngster growing up in Montreal in the 1950′s and 1960′s, the Royals were our home team. They played at Delormier Stadium, an old minor league park built-in the 1930′s situated in the rough part of the east end of Montreal.
My first game was in the early summer of 1958. The Royals hosted the Havana Sugar Kings on a warm Saturday afternoon. It was a sellout with standing room only as Montreal’s starting pitcher was none other than Tommy Lasorda. Lasorda was 18-6 that year with an ERA of 2.50. The 30-year-old southpaw threw 16 complete games, including 5 shutouts, giving up only 18 home runs in more than 230 innings.
Lasorda hurled 7 solid innings, giving up 3 runs on 5 hits and left leading 3-1. The Sugar Kings managed only one more run that day, and the Royals won the game 3-2.
The Montreal fans gave Lasorda a standing ovation and hundreds of us raced to the clubhouse door to get his autograph. He spent more than a half hour signing autographs and talking to the fans.
The Royals continued through the 1960 season, but on September 13, 1960 Dodgers President Walter O’Malley announced that due to weak attendance, the Dodgers were ending their affiliation with the team. While a new affiliation with the Minnesota Twins was arranged, efforts to keep the team in Montreal failed, and the franchise relocated to Syracuse, New York for the 1961 season., where it has played as the Syracuse Chiefs since.
For the next two years I was able to attend many more Royals games. During those years I came to appreciate the hard work and the committment that the Dodgers organization made to their young players. Lasorda’s Lair will expand its coverage this year to include the Dodger’s minor league affiliates. We will try to bring you coverage of the Class A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes of the California League as well as additional coverage of the Albuquerque Isotopes games. We will spotlight the progress of the Dodger’s prospects and bring you interviews with the young players trying to make their way to the majors.