|Jean-Pierre Roy w/ Nicholas Diunte in 2011 - M. Lemieux|
In February 2011, I had the opportunity to visit Mr. Roy at his home in Florida and spend a glorious afternoon talking about a baseball career that started in 1940 and lasted over 40 years. Knowing that he played in a wide array of countries like Cuba, Mexico, and Panama, in addition to the United States and Canada, I expected that he had a few hidden gems to unravel. What I did not expect from the 91-year-old Roy, was a raconteur in the essence of Buck O’Neil, one who could deliver his memories not only with clarity and precision, but with an elegance that drew you in from the first words and by the end left you feeling that you had been long lost friends.
What started a short meeting arranged by a Canadian reporter Michel Lemieux, turned into a three-hour long history lesson, with Roy pulling out meticulous scrapbooks and evoking the name of baseball legends from the 1930’s through the 1950’s. He seemingly had a story for, or an encounter with every significant baseball figure from that era.
I could regale you with details of his minor league stats, or lists of all of the places he played and people that he saw, but telling those details wouldn’t do justice to the essence of Jean-Pierre Roy. To meet him was to know him, and I can’t say that about every ballplayer I’ve spoken to. He immediately expressed an excitement about his career from the start of our talk that was evident when he recalled what hooked him into the prospects of a professional career.
|Jean-Pierre Roy shares a laugh - M. Lemieux|
“I was so happy to play the game, I loved the game. I put things aside for baseball. Of course today, I regret some of them. I missed the opportunity in certain other fields. That’s what I had in mind, play the game, travel and meet people and everything, so that satisfied me.”
Playing in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, one of the most eccentric charters Roy met was Branch Rickey. Throughout his many dealings with Mr. Rickey, he was most impressed with the executive's ability to read people.
“He was a very intelligent man,” he said. “He was a university product. He had been a teacher, manager and player. He had a good knowledge of humanity. A human for Mr. Rickey could have been a ballplayer, hockey player, a raconteur; he knew each one and why they would make an excellent selection.”
Roy, who had the reputation of being a ladies’ man, fondly recalled an exchange between the two of them where Rickey offered him a bonus if he would get married. It wasn’t until much later that he understood why he made the request.
“One time he wanted me to get married,” he said. “It was 1944. I wasn’t the marrying type. I wanted to meet girls, yes I did. That wasn’t on my mind. He said, ‘Jean (with his eyebrows going down this way and his cigar in the corner), I’m going to give you $2,000 if you get married before or on the first of November.’ Before or on the first of November, why not the second or the fourth? That boggled my mind. Of course, I didn’t get married. I didn’t tell him why.
“Why did he say this, on the first or before? He wanted me to get married before. It wasn’t the $2,000. He knew if I did, I’d get paid after, not before. Mr. Rickey was very selective in his own way. This is very vivid in my mind. Later on, I had the audacity to ask him, ‘Why did you say the first?’ He said, ‘What do you mean Jean? What did I say?’ So I told him, ‘You wanted me to get married on the first of November. Why the first?’ He said, ‘If I said, about the first, that wouldn’t change anything, because I wanted you to get married. That was the first thing. Not to play ball, but to play better ball, to understand the game better and yourself. You cannot play well when you have several things on your mind at once, and you have that. You were not the ballplayer that I wanted. You had the ability that I wanted, but you had to do so much more to make yourself available not only to me but to other people.’ That was Mr. Rickey.”
If he adhered to Rickey's request to get married, he might have went to the big leagues sooner than his 1946 debut. He started the season on Brooklyn’s roster, but it was almost a month before he saw action in a major league game. Even though he only appeared in three contests, Roy was honored just to be there.
“It was thrilling,” he said. “My big fault … if I had established myself as a human being, if I listened to things I heard and Mr. Rickey, I could have done much better than I did. Not only one particular game, but for several games.”
Soured by his performance with Brooklyn and Leo Durocher’s seemingly quick hook, Roy contemplated going south for greater riches. Jorge Pasquel, who knew Roy from his days in Cuba attempted to lure the Canadian to Mexico for his fledgling baseball league.
“I did not go,” he said. “[Pasquel] was a friend of mine because he used to come to Cuba. If it pleased him, he’d take us out to eat together and give me a watch. I was close to him. He comes to New York and tells me, ‘I’m going to bring you to Mexico City. You are going to play for our club, our league. I’m going to send you the money.’ He offered $3,500 for the trip. I went down and the money was $15,000, big money at the time. I was not worth $15,000 as a pitcher in Mexico. Today I say I wasn’t, but at the time it touched me.
“He was a friend. Of course, I needed the money. My mother was not well and I had my mother on my mind. I jumped and as soon as I got to Mexico, I went to Jorge and said, ‘Jorge, I do not see anybody.’ He’s sitting on a bench facing the window. He says, ‘I send you to San Luis Potosi.’ That was a little city he was sending me to. At the time, the commissioner of baseball in Cuba was a guy named Pittman. He told me I was going there. That’s not what I wanted; I thought it was Mexico City. I came back and went to Montreal.”
He returned to find himself right in the middle of Jackie Robinson’s historical debut season. On April 18, 1946, Robinson broke the color line in the minor leagues when he played in Montreal’s season opener against the Jersey City Giants. Roy spent the rest of the season with Robinson and built up a kinship with him during the remainder of his time in the Dodgers organization that allowed him to gain insight into Robinson’s character both on and off the field.
“He’s everything that has been recommended,” he said, “a complete ballplayer. [He was] a fellow who can create according to his ability and put it together at the right time to help somehow. That’s something that I remember about him … Jackie used to do it on his own. He was so strong, mentally, that I still believe, he died from this—he got hurt so badly by not being recognized as a future manager. He wanted to be a manager; that he told me.”
Throughout his global baseball travels, Roy had many opportunities to play against the stars of the Negro Leagues in their prime, and had vivid stories about all of the greats who were held back and excluded due to segregation. What he admired most was their ability to play the game despite the harsh conditions they faced.
“They didn’t care,” he said, “they played the game and that was it. I spoke with them very often. They would say, ‘We’re playing the game. We get paid for it because we’ve got to eat. Take this apart, it doesn’t matter. We want to play.’”
Roy never returned to the major leagues, bouncing around among minor league teams far and wide from Ottawa to Hollywood to Mexico City until he hung his spikes up for good in 1955 while playing for Sherbrooke in the Provincial League. At 35, he knew it was time to move on.
“I was too old for that organization,” he said. “I didn’t care too much for it because when you are through, you are through.”
|Jean-Pierre Roy comfortable behind the microphone - M. Lemieux|
“I was there from day one,” he said. “This is it in Montreal. This is a childish dream. I played in Montreal; I knew they would accept it. In that ballpark, that Double-A ballpark. Mr. John McHale, I owe him a great deal of recognizance. He was the type like Branch Rickey, but there is only one Branch Rickey as far as I am concerned.”
Broadcasting in an era far away from the reach of the hyper-sensitive media outlets of today, Roy said that on-air personnel face far greater challenges with what they can say and how their words are interpreted.
“They’ve gotta be very careful because you have many writers who are knowledgeable and they have friends,” he said. “Today’s sports are so influential on people. It is a big business to start with. Big business means big dollars, and when you have big dollars, you have everything else that is big or will become big. You’ve gotta be careful how you say your ideas whenever it comes up.
“That doesn’t mean being transparent doesn’t mean having to say the truth, you have to be careful. You have to say the truth in a certain way. It’s said in a business way. At the same time, you have to communicate to who is listening to you. You have to communicate honestly and show you have the knowledge. Having all this is a plus and a minus. You know, they used to say ‘off the cover,’ but that doesn’t exist anymore. … Everything is seen by the listener as a truthful communication. It might not be complete as the communication is concerned. You cannot say everything that is on your mind to millions of people at once. This is something very fascinating to me.”
During that sunny Florida winter afternoon in 2011 as our interview progressed, Roy assumed the role of a broadcaster during a rain delay, detailing with pride his vast baseball experiences. I listened with wide ears as he professed his love affair with the game.
“My pleasure and the best memory I have of the game is what I know about it,” he said. “The little I know about it, the people I have known, and the people I see on television. Today it’s baseball to me.
“It’s the answer I would have given you yesterday and the day before yesterday. What I like about baseball is not the players; it’s the life, the life of a human being. This is how you should accept it. Do the best you can in the things our boss has asked us to do. By boss, you can call it God, the manager, the Lord, but that’s it. This is what I want, what I like to see.”
At the conclusion of our conversation, while thumbing through old scrapbooks of photos from yesteryear depicting the travels of a young handsome pitcher from a half-century ago, Roy showed contrition for his transgressions in his earlier days.
“Why should I go back 50 years and regret things that happened at that time?” he asked. “I made mistakes in baseball, made more mistakes than I was allowed to. That was my choice, let it be, it’s my fault. That’s the part that I have to read to the public. If they want to know the rest, they can. If they like me now for what I can express as far as the game myself, I hope they accept it.
“Baseball is a great game. If we can take advantage of all of the ingredients of the game and the minds that commanded the game for years like Mr. Rickey. … He is the God of baseball as far as I’m concerned. There are so many names took birth with that gentlemen. [By] birth, I say the first day they played the game was account of Mr. Rickey. That’s a gift from him.”