Robinson's lips tended to purse as he awaited a pitch, his nose showed a crease in its bridge, and his eyes stared straight out with an uncompromising focus on the mound. His brows thick, his forehead furrowed. It was this very gaze—"the look that meant he was ready and all business," as his teammate Ralph Branca would say many years later—that Robinson fixed on a six-foot-four-inch left-handed minor leaguer, the Jersey City Giants' hard-throwing and square-jawed Warren Sandel, in the top of the first inning of an early afternoon game on April 18, 1946, the day Robinson, a rookie with the visiting Montreal Royals, officially began his soul-shifting, nationbending baseball career.
The land reaches northward off the base of the great continent and leans east into the North Atlantic, its shores protected here and again by outer islands, its modern shipyards secure, the whale-rich waters of the open ocean calming in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and then once more in the inner bay, where the waves finally come up against the rocky, thick thumb of risen land—the Gaspé Peninsula.
The peninsula points toward the island of Newfoundland, on the far side of the gulf, and then beyond, many, many leagues away, in a direct line to the harbors of western France. It was on the Gaspé Peninsula, in the summer of 1534, that the explorer Jacques Cartier, having set sail weeks before from the port at Saint-Malo, came ashore with his men and planted a tall cross, staking a claim literally and figuratively to the land. They called the land the Country of Canadas, deriving this from the Iroquois name.
The earliest settlers—and those who came later, in the 1600s with Samuel de Champlain, and then those who came after that—built a new life over many decades. They fished for salmon and cod, hunted game, and grew barley and beans and squash. They baked white bread and planted kitchen gardens outside their wooden homes. They traveled the Saint Lawrence River and put up trading posts along its banks. They weathered the bitter cold and the long winter nights and built canoes that traveled on ice, and they sought to deliver their Christian god to the natives. By and large, the settlers communed and coexisted—far more peaceably than did other settlers of the New World—with the Aboriginal peoples who had lived there for so many years.
In the 1700s the British arrived in earnest, and the French and the British did urgent and bloody battle for property and solvency, particularly in the Seven Years' War and spectacularly in the battle of the Plains of Abraham, at which the British prevailed. Eventually Britain took all of Canada but, as a way to preserve some harmony for the life ahead, carved out a region where much of the French way of law and life and language and worship would continue, its heritage secure in what was then, as now, known as the Province of Quebec.
The beating heart of this province, its most populous and dynamic city, its cultural bellwether and economic pulse through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, was first known as Hochelaga, then renamed Ville-Marie, and finally—in accordance with the big bountiful hill in its midst—Mont Royal. Montreal. The waterfronts of the city thrived and expanded, and workers arrived, from Ireland and Scotland especially, to build new bridges. It was here, in Montreal, that Quebec's first railway track was laid and the first tall buildings raised. The population swelled in the years before the Great War and swelled again afterward, and in the 1920s visitors came north to Montreal from the United States, briefly escaping Prohibition and creating a suddenly fervent nightlife where the lonely found love, and the misfits their kin, and the lights stayed on until dawn.
The Great Depression wounded and tempered the city, as it did all North American cities, until the start of World War II. Long lines of men queued for hours outside the Montreal armories, eager to enlist with the Allies, even while others abstained. Overnight the city's factories began humming and churning and reconfiguring themselves, employing thousands of workers to build rifles, tanks, and airplanes. Civilian pilots flew arms across the Atlantic to Britain. Montreal became Canada's arsenal, helping in great measure to aid the effort that would win the war.
The history of new people coming to Montreal, building new lives, and wanting to stay had by then created a varied and polyglot place. Immigrants had continued to arrive (and were arriving) from Britain and France, surely, but also from Hungary and Greece and Poland, and, in great numbers, from Italy. There were Catholic churches on these Montreal streets and Protestant churches on those, and synagogues here and there, and Black churches like the United Union Church, a pillar of prayer and togetherness. The people of Montreal spoke French primarily but English too (especially in matters of business and commerce), and what emerged was a world of living alongside one another. The mix of ethnicities and the distinct languages created divisions among the people even as they fostered shared perspectives as well.
It was into this city—specifically, the neighborhood of Villeray, solidly French but just a streetcar stop from the coalescing blocks of Little Italy, north of downtown and nearer to the narrow Prairies River than to the great Saint Lawrence, to a home on the Avenue de Gaspé—that in the springtime of 1946 Jackie Robinson and his buoyant, beautiful bride, Rachel, came to live.
Jackie had his baseball gloves with him (his bats were with the team) and a few pairs of good new shoes, and Rachel counted among her tasteful wardrobe the long ermine coat that Jackie had saved up for all through their engagement and given to her as a wedding gift two months before.