This article was originally published in “Dominionball,” the 2005 SABR convention publication.
While we now remember Montreal and the province of Quebec as the place where Jackie Robinson started his career in white organized baseball in 1946, the role of Quebec in the integration of black baseball players goes far beyond that.
While the black population in Quebec was very small (it still is only 2% in Quebec, 4% in Montreal), we find black players in white amateur teams as early as 1924, and since the news was covered so casually, there’s a strong possibility that there were black players before then.
In the late 1920s, Chappie Johnson sponsored a black team in a Montreal league, where many future and former Negro Leaguers played, including Ted Page and Alphonso Lattimore. Later, in 1935, the Provincial League, a league that was at least semi-professional and would go on to be one of the better-known outlaw leagues, had three black players. Pitcher-outfielder Alfred Wilson was signed by Granby, while pitcher-infielder Charlie Calvert played for the Jos. Choquette of Montreal and second-baseman-catcher Chico Bowden played for Sorel. Wilson, who was 27 and signed away from Johnson’s touring team, went 5-0 with a 3.56 ERA and hit .392 in 72 games. Calvert and Bowden seem to have been around for a while, playing for different teams over the previous decade.
The next season, Chappie Johnson, pleased with the experiment, sponsored a whole team, based in Montreal but playing only on the road, named the Black Panthers. Calvert was named player-manager. Filled with young, raw players, with frequent roster changes, the team had a decent record in 1936, finishing fourth at 13-16, but last in the round-robin playoffs. Those playoffs were quite eventful: after the Black Panthers fell out of contention, the Granby team added Panthers second baseman Ormond Sampson to their lineup for a crucial game against Sorel. Granby won the game 7-4, but their manoeuvre caught up with them: Sampson was declared ineligible, and the win became a forfeit.
There was one racial incident that season, and it involved the Montreal Royals of the International League. On August 3, they played an exhibition game against the Provincial League All-Stars, which had three Black Panthers among them. In front of a crowd of 10,000, a few Royals, among them Harry Smythe and Ben Sankey, refused to play with them. After a few minutes of discussion, the decision was to remove the Black Panthers from the game. The All-Stars won the game.
In 1937, the Black Panthers slumped to a 10-50 record and the team was disbanded after the season. Integration occurred for a lone game that year, as two Panthers joined the Granby team for an exhibition game against the barnstorming Canadian Clowns. A few Black Panthers stayed in the province, but they played for town teams, as the Provincial League, probably as part of its attempt to join organized baseball, remained white until the war.
Alfred Wilson was the most notable of the black players during the war, returning to Drummondville in 1945 in a more or less organized wartime league.
The next season, Jackie Robinson was making headlines in Montreal, but three other teams were integrated that year, two of them in Quebec.
In Trois-Rivieres, a farm club of the Dodgers in the Class C Canadian-American League, pitchers John Wright and Roy Partlow had great success after being demoted by Montreal, with respective lines of 12-8, 4.15 ERA and 10-1, 3.22 ERA.
The first team outside of the Dodgers system to integrate was the independent Sherbrooke Canadians of the Class C Border League, where shortstop Manny McIntyre first played on June 3. McIntyre, coming from the Maritimes, was better known as a hockey player, as one of the members of the “Black Aces,” an all-black line on the Sherbrooke team. He had a solid .310-1-17 line in his only professional baseball season.
Integration was a slow process, and many veteran black players went to the outlaw Provincial League in the following seasons to test their skill against white players. The league developed young players like Dave Pope, Buzz Clarkson, and Vic Power. It also gave opportunities to Negro Leaguers and Latin Americans like Len Hooker, Lazaro Medina, Willie Pope, Maurice Peatros, Clarence Bruce, Nap Gulley, Terris McDuffie, Quincy Barbee, Claro Duany, and Silvio Garcia.
Garcia, once scouted by Branch Rickey, had seasons of .315-4-76, .365-21-116, and .346-12-82 for Sherbrooke from 1949 to 1951, while Duany, his teammate in Sherbrooke, hit home runs so long that people still talk about him in the area.
McDuffie, a veteran Negro Leaguer, had a 19-8 record for St-Jean in 1948, and hit .342-5-20 in only 76 at-bats. He followed that with a 12-10 record in 1949.
The league lost its edge in the early 1950s as integration was accelerating its pace, even though the league joined organized baseball in 1950. Still, it developed young players like Ruben Gomez and Ed Charles.
The league still had one innovation up its sleeve. Thanks to Branch Rickey, now in the Pirates organization, another great experiment took place in Quebec in 1951. Rickey used its Class C farm team in Farnham to name the first black manager in organized baseball. Sam Bankhead, brother of pitcher Dan, led the team, the only incident being his dismissal following the season, in which Farnham finished 21 games back. It would take 24 years before Frank Robinson became the first black manager in the majors.
The Provincial League collapsed after the 1955 season and was reformed as an outlaw league in the 1960s. A strong Latin American contingent helped bring it back to prominence among the many active outlaw leagues in the latter half of the decade, but it collapsed again following the birth of the Montreal Expos.
Finally, the Montreal Expos made history on May 22, 1992, when they named Felipe Alou manager. He became the first Latin American manager in the major leagues. Alou would go on to be the most popular figure of the organization in the late 1990s.
Quebec has a good record with other minorities in baseball, as the 1935 Provincial League had an all-Mohawk team from the Caughnawaga reserve, filled mostly with lacrosse players. In 194 7, the league also welcomed Kaz Suga, former member of the Asahi team, an all-Japanese team from Vancouver. T he team was of course disbanded after the Pearl Harbor attack, which led to confiscation of properties and internment of all people of Japanese descent. The team finally gained recognition in 2003 when it was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. Suga hit .311 with six home runs in 42 games for St-Jean.
In conclusion, while the 1946 Jackie Robinson season was the pinnacle of the relationship of Quebec baseball with black players, that link had been well-established for more than a decade and continued after that. Branch Rickey knew what he was doing by starting his great experiment in Quebec.