O’Ree tried baseball before hockey stuck
In 1956, two years before breaking the NHL color barrier with the Boston Bruins, Willie O’Ree gave professional baseball a try in Waycross, Ga., more than 4 hours south of Atlanta.
Spotted by Milwaukee Braves scouts while playing for a semipro team in his hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick, O’Ree’s introduction to the preintegration South began with his first step off the plane in Atlanta.
“I’d never been in the South before, so I fly into Atlanta and step off the plane and went into the terminal and the first thing I saw was ‘White Only’ and ‘Colored Only’ restrooms,” O’Ree said.
The second strong hint that things would be different came when O’Ree was pushed to the back of the bus for the long ride to Waycross. O’Ree, who played second base and shortstop, said he began second-guessing his baseball career almost immediately and after only a week was told to go home for more seasoning.
This time there would be no plane ride. He had a five-day bus ride back to Canada.
“I sat on the back of the bus, which I was not accustomed to, being from Canada, where I could sit anywhere on the bus,” he said.
“As we’re getting farther up north I start moving up on the bus. By the time I got to Bangor, Maine, I was sitting right on front of the bus. When I got back to my hometown I said, ‘Willie, forget about baseball, concentrate on playing hockey.’ ”
O’Ree’s 21 years in professional hockey began soon after his return home when he signed with the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Professional Hockey League.
On Jan. 18, 1958, at the Montreal Forum, he made his NHL debut with the Bruins, becoming the first black player to appear in a game.
“It was a great thrill for me, but it really didn’t register,” O’Ree said.
O’Ree appeared in only two games in 1958 and did not record a point. He was recalled and played 43 games in 1960-61, when he had four goals and 10 assists.
“It was the media who gave me the nickname ‘the Jackie Robinson of hockey,’ ” he said. “I never considered myself the Jackie Robinson of hockey. When I was recalled they said, ‘Oh there’s Willie O’Ree, he’s the Jackie Robinson of hockey,’ so it stuck over the years.”
O’Ree said he did not leave racism behind in the South. He faced taunts from fans and repeated physical challenges from opposing players.
“It was tough at the beginning,” he said. “I was faced with racial slurs and remarks. I wanted to stay focused on what I wanted to do. I just took it a day at a time.”
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