Thank heaven for Warren Cromartie.
In an April made cruel by cold winds and meagre sunshine and as the batter-batter sounds of summer pass unheard, up he steps, the perfect antidote, talking baseball and pitching dreams.
These days, Cromartie – his friends call him Cro – has embarked on the Montreal
Baseball Project, an initiative founded on the notion that, with a solid commitment of will and resources, there is no reason why major league baseball cannot return to the city.
He maintains, correctly, that baseball is fundamental to our history, ingrained in the psyche of this city and province and has even shaped our destiny.
Cromartie knows Montreal. He spent nine years here with the Expos during their heyday, from 1974-1983, and another in Quebec City before that.
Those were the halcyon days of Nos Amours, when the Expos outstripped even les Canadiens in popularity. He sees no reason why that same energy cannot be harnessed again.
Take your direction from the past, Cromartie seems to tell us. And he gives examples – of summers when the Expos ruled; or earlier, when the Montreal Royals were the class of minor league baseball; and 1946, the year the Royal’s Jackie Robinson broke the game’s immutable colour barrier and changed the face of baseball forever.
Currently, a film based on Robinson’s early career, titled 42, is playing in local theatres. Cro told The Gazette’s Stu Cowan “it’s the best baseball movie ever … and that includes The Natural and Field of Dreams.”
He might well be right. Certainly 42′s honesty and tightly scripted narrative so moved me that, when I left Le Colisée Kirkland the other day, I couldn’t even remember where I’d parked my car. It made me care that much.
Except. The film ignores Montreal, and the pivotal role the city played in 1946 preparing Robinson for his next step – the Brooklyn Dodgers. His success with the Royals made everything else possible.
That February, Robinson and his new wife, Rachel, had arrived in Florida for spring training, only to be buffeted by the nightmarish force of racial intolerance, replete with epithets and physical threats directed at them.
By the time the couple boarded the train for Montreal they were almost ready to give up and return to their more familiar California. It took the warmth of a Montreal welcome to keep them going.
Robinson explained it to one reporter, “With the Royal team … there has been the constant reminder that in the stands I have many friends of both races. I have learned … that all of my well-wishers are not necessarily members of my own people.”
Beyond the stands, the story was the same. The Robinsons lived on de Gaspé Avenue in the east end. As daughter Sharon remarked years later their cosy duplex became “a place they could come home to after being on the road in the south where there was so much hatred expressed … and have the love and respect of a community. This was very important to them.”
In 1946, the Royals, led by Robinson, claimed both the International League championship and the Junior World Series.
Following the Series-clinching game at Delormier Stadium, as Robinson headed for the car that was to drive him to the airport, joyful fans chased after him, singing his praises. Sports-writer Sam Maltin later captured the moment in words that resonate still today.
“It was probably the only day in history,” he wrote, “that a black man ran from a white mob with love, instead of lynching on its mind.”
It is this glory and magic which Cromartie believes still smoulders in the hearts of Montrealers, just waiting for someone to stir the embers.
He’s ready to give it his best shot.
Baseball historian Bill Young is a longtime Hudson resident.