Jean-Pierre Roy

Jean-Pierre Roy and Hugh CaseyJean-Pierre Roy (left) with Hugh Casy.

Jean-Pierre Roy
Born: June 26, 1920 (Montréal, Québec)
Died: October 31, 2014 (Margate, Florida)

Jean-Pierre Roy thrived under a spotlight whether pitching on the baseball diamond, or calling a game for a television audience from the press box, or singing on stage at a night club.

The Quebec-born pitcher, who has died in Florida at 94, spent 12 seasons in the minor leagues, including long stints with his hometown Montreal Royals. He also spent an undistinguished week with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, a rare Canadian of his era to make the major leagues.

Jean-Pierre Roy (Parade Sportive)In his day, a baseball career meant a long slog of low pay, overnight bus rides, and poor accommodations. Mr. Roy made the most of his skills, enjoying the night life while pitching in such exotic locales as Havana and Hollywood. He told Americans his name was Pete, took as his own nickname the Baseball Adventurer, and was called le Bon Canadien by The Sporting News.

A suave and dapper man, he served as an ambassador for his sport, helping to coin the phrases used to describe the game in French-language broadcasts after the expansion Montreal Expos were added to the National League in 1969. He traveled his home province to conduct clinics on behalf of the Expos, and appeared in television commercials for O’Keefe beer, the club’s sponsor.

The skinny right-hander, who stood 5-foot-10 and weighed just 160 pounds, developed a deceptive curveball upon which he built a baseball career. He enjoyed his greatest success at Delorimier Stadium in Montreal, where his 25 victories in 1945 helped lead the Royals to the International League pennant. Jackie Robinson joined Montreal the following season, as Mr. Roy and his teammates had a front-row seat to the integration of professional baseball a season before Mr. Robinson joined the parent Dodgers. Mr. Roy maintained contact over the years with Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, a friendship renewed when both appeared at events in Montreal honouring the late ball player.

Mr. Roy, who was born in Montreal on June 26, 1920, grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in the east end of the city. As a boy, he tobogganed down a hill near the site of the future Olympic Stadium, from which he would broadcast Expos games. His father, Henri, a court clerk, managed baseball teams on which Jean-Pierre served as team bat boy. When he got older, the slim right-hander played amateur ball in a city league.

In 2003, Mr. Roy told Ian MacDonald of the Montreal Gazette about an incident that fuelled his determination to succeed as an athlete. He had just earned an 11-inning, 1-0 victory when approached by the president of the Montreal Royals.

“You pitched a very good game, sir,” said Hector Racine. “It’s too bad you’re too small to play professionally.”

Mr. Roy recalled being taken aback by the backhanded compliment. “He was so polite, I was shocked and happy. But what he said made me want to prove something.”

jean-Pierre Roy in CubaAt age 20, the pitcher launched what would be a 12-year professional career with the first of two seasons with Trois-Rivières Renards (also known as the Three Rivers Foxes) of the Quebec League, during which he won 24 games and lost 21. Before the 1942 season, he was sold to the St. Louis Cardinals organization which assigned him to the Mobile (Ala.) Shippers. The pitcher was promoted to the Houston Buffaloes and then to the Rochester Red Wings, each step bringing him closer to the major leagues.

In the winter of 1943-44, he made the first of several annual pilgrimages to Cuba, where he was a mainstay with Cienfuegos in a four-team league based in Havana. The warm-weather interlude gave him a chance to compete against major leaguers who, like him, were making extra money. The pitcher quickly learned Spanish and partook in the many delights on offer in pre-revolutionary Havana.

Back stateside, he feuded with management in Rochester. He was suspended without pay, apparently for having been spotted drinking beer after curfew, and left the club to return to his hometown. He was sold to the Royals for just $1,000, a low sum owing to a troublemaker reputation in which he was regraded as a playboy, “a patron of the nocturnal gayeties, a late-supper devotee,” according to The Sporting News. He closed out the 1944 season with an 11-11 record in Montreal.

After offseason surgery for a hernia, Mr. Roy took to the mound in 1945 in excellent shape, his performance buoyed by support from his fellow Quebeckers, for whom he was a fan favourite. A further motivation was a $2,000 bonus should he be credited with 20 wins, an unlikely achievement for a hurler who had never won more than 14 in a season. He went on to win 25 games against just 11 losses, as the Royals won the International League pennant, only to be defeated in the playoffs by the Newark Bears.

That winter, he rejoined Cienfuegos, winning the Cuban championship on a team managed by the legendary Adolfo Luque. The pitching staff including Sal (The Barber) Maglie, of Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Cubans Luis Tiant Sr. and Martin Dihigo, the latter the greatest player in Cuban baseball history, known as El Inmortal. Also on the club were Montreal teammates — and fellow Quebeckers — Roland Gladu and Stan Breard.

While in Cuba, the pitcher was presented with a valuable gold watch by Jorge and Bernardo Pasquel, the head of an outlaw baseball league based in Mexico. He signed a contract with them and got a $3,300 bonus and the promise of a $50,000 contract to pitch for three years.

On the way home, Mr. Roy stopped in Florida to meet with Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who talked the Quebec pitcher into not defecting to the fledgling Mexican operation. Mr. Roy would spend the season with the Dodgers instead. Mr. Rickey told the New York Times the only weakness he could spot in Mr. Roy’s repertoire was tendency to be wild. “He has all the stuff in the world — a curve ball that just rolls off the table — but he is constantly behind the batter,” Mr. Rickey said.

The pitcher made his major-league debut with the Dodgers on May 5, 1946, in relief in the second game of a doubleheader at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. He faced just two batters, striking out the opposing pitcher and getting leadoff batter Lee Handley to ground out to end the fourth inning.

Jean-Pierre Roy (throwing)Four days later, he got his first start, on the road against the Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field. Mr. Roy retired the first five batters he faced, but then surrendered a single followed by a home run by Max West. Later, another Reds run scored on a triple and a sacrifice fly and Mr. Roy’s day was ended after just four innings work. He did not figure in the verdict, as another Brooklyn pitcher was charged with the loss in the 8-7 defeat.

On May 11, Mr. Roy made his Brooklyn debut at Ebbets Field with a brief sojourn in relief in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies. He was charged with four runs, including a home run by Frank McCormick, in just 1 2/3 innings. He did not yet know it, but the game marked his final major-league appearance, a tough week in which he was touched for seven earned runs in 6 1/3 innings. He had walked five and struck out six.

Frustrated at riding the bench and being given the thankless task of pitching batting practice, Mr. Roy quit the team at the end of the month, later announcing he was going to go to Mexico after all. He expected to earn $15,000, nearly twice the $8,000 he was earning with the Dodgers. After just two weeks in Mexico, he soured on the adventure, as the ball parks were dilapidated and the hotels lacked running hot water. He asked the Dodgers to assign him to the Royals and he returned home in time to take part in a historic season.

The Royals were tearing up the International League thanks in large part to the fielding, hitting and speed of rookie Jackie Robinson, the league’s first African-American player. Mr. Rickey assigned the player to Montreal for a year’s worth of grooming in anticipation of breaking the major league colour barrier in 1947. Led by Mr. Robinson, the Royals ran away with the league pennant before capturing the Little World Series championship. Mr. Roy went 8-5 after returning from his time in Brooklyn and Mexico.

Years later, the pitcher reflected on Mr. Robinson’s burden as a racial trailblazer. “It took a special man to take all that abuse,” Mr. Roy told the Ottawa Citizen in 2006. “Montreal was about the only place he didn’t have to worry about it.”

While Mr. Robinson went on to become a star with the parent Dodgers, Mr. Roy continued to seek the best possible paycheque, pitching for the independent St. Jean (Que.) Braves. He had two brief stints with the Hollywood Stars, winning a Pacific Coast League championship in 1949. “I never wanted to leave Hollywood,” he told a French-language newspaper in Florida five years ago. “It was paradise. The jet set, the restaurants, the good life.” He also liked to sit in on nightclub sessions as a vocalist.

The pitcher spent time with the Ottawa A’s, as well as the Drummondville Cubs and Sherbrooke Indians in his home province.

To mark his retirement, Mr. Roy took part in a stunt he called a Pitchathon at Delorimier Stadium on July 24, 1955. As the Royals and Havana Cubans played a double header, the pitcher warmed up in the bullpen. He began at 11 a.m. and only quit at 5:45 p.m. after throwing 2,835 pitches, stopping only because his fingers began to blister. He said his arm was not sore, though his catchers — Nick Malfara, a retired minor leaguer, and Jacques Plante, the 26-year-old goalkeeper for hockey’s Montreal Canadiens — complained of fatigue after the six-hour, 45-minute marathon.

The feat, which Mr. Roy described as a valedictory to his baseball career, was hailed by newspapers as a record, though it soon after bettered by 18-year-old Georges Francoeur, who pitched a baseball for nine hours while using a dozen catchers on a diamond in Shawinigan Falls, Que. The youth’s performance earned a brief notice in Sports Illustrated magazine.

Mr. Roy performed as a singer in night clubs after retiring from baseball. He also worked as a realtor and a casino dealer in Las Vegas, where he lived for a decade. When the National League granted a franchise to Montreal in 1968, the Expos hired him to handle French-language radio broadcasts. He later switched to television before handling special projects for the team as a publicist.

In 1989, Mr. Roy was driving a friend home following a golf tournament when he crashed his Cadillac into the rear of a flat-bed truck. The friend was killed and Mr. Roy had a long recovery from injuries.

Mr. Roy was inducted into the Expos Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Quebec Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001.

In 2007, he was diagnosed with prostate and colon cancers. Mr. Roy, a resident of Margate, Fla., died on Oct. 31. He leaves his wife, Jeanne Duval-Roy.

On April 15, 1977, Mr. Roy was one of seven Quebec-born former major leaguers invited to throw out a ceremonial first pitch for the first Expos game played at Olympic Stadium, a grand edifice built within walking distance of his childhood home.

Jean-Pierre Roy (Cienfuegos champions, 1945-46)The 1945-46 Cuban championship Cienfuegos team includes Jean-Pierre Roy (second from right in third row from top), as well as the legendary Martin Dihigo. The manager was Baseball Hall of Famer Dolf Luque. 

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