The Team That Nearly Wasn’t: The Montreal Expos

Once upon a time there was a Major League Baseball team in Montreal. It was full of great moments, great players, great hope and great loss.

It was a team that was ravaged by trades, the 1994 strike, international exchange rates, and, in many minds, Jeffery Loria and Bud Selig.

It was Rusty Staub and Bill Stoneman. It was Gary Carter and Larry Parrish and Andre Dawson and Randy Johnson and Pete Rose and Pedro Martinez and Tim Raines and Bill Lee and Vladimir Guerrero and Jarry Park and Le Stade Olympique … and … and … and it all almost never happened.

That’s right, the Montreal Expos may have been nothing more than a name on a sheet of paper. An ownership group and a team that never got to play in Montreal, but instead moved to Buffalo.

* Poof * … it was nearly gone less than three months after the NL awarded the club.

Rickey on the scene

Montreal’s first attempts to land an MLB franchise started in 1933, when Hector Racine and Charles Trudeau (yes, the father of former Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau), president and vice-president of Montreal’s International League Club, traveled to Chicago for the winter meetings in hopes of landing a club. That effort failed, but in 1939, that club became the Montreal Royals, and more importantly, a farm club for Branch Rickey and Walter O’Malley’s Brooklyn Dodgers.

Rickey was clearly a visionary. He also understood that bucking social convention could pay huge dividends both on the field and at the turnstiles. In 1945 he passed over the likes of Satchel Paige and enlisted Kansas City Monarch player Jackie Robinson to play in the Dodgers organization. Robinson was sent to play with the Montreal Royals, where he made his debut on April 18, 1946 and made an immediate splash on the field, bringing fans into the stands and setting the stage for the future.

In 1957, New York was stripped of not one, but two National League teams in the Dodgers and the Giants, as they swapped coasts and headed to Los Angeles and San Francisco. This blunted the idea of turning the Pacific Coast League into a third Major League. From that point, the view shifted to the hole in the region vacated by the Dodgers and Giants.

The Continental League

In 1958, New York reeled from the vacuum left by the relocation of the Giants and Dodgers. Mayor Robert Wagner put together a task force and placed lawyer William Shea in charge of trying to get the NL back in New York. To add to this, Commissioner Ford Frick was being pressured to expand the League or risk having the anti-trust exemption revoked. The league’s direction shifted from just replacing one or two clubs in New York, but to include other markets, as well.

In 1959, Shea needed someone with baseball clout and savvy to help in the effort. That end he brought in Branch Rickey—who, at 78 was the board chairman of the Pirates—to start a third major league, and on July 27, 1959, the American and National Leagues were joined by the Continental League. It was strictly a forced marriage in the eyes of Frick and the American and National Leagues (recall that both leagues were separate, unlike the relationship today). Three was a crowd.

As the Chicago Daily Tribune reported on July 19, 1960, “The National Baseball League ended a lengthy meeting in Chicago Monday with something of an ultimatum to the Continental League in an announcement by Warren Giles which said, in effect, if a new major league cannot get into operation, the National League is ready to expand.”

This new dynamic created a bit of a panic by Frick and the rest of the Lords, as they were being backed into a corner on other fronts, as well. To place further pressure on the National League, the American League proposed that both leagues expand to nine clubs. The deal was, if the NL agreed to expand to nine clubs as well, the American League would delay consideration of expansion into Los Angeles.

Rickey, who now headed up the newly founded league after Shea stepped aside, had five cities in hand at the outset: New York, Denver, Toronto, Houston, and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

For the Continental League, there was another problem: signing players. This, after all, was during the age of the reserve clause. Free agency was not available. In March of 1960, Rickey made an attempt to sign a working arrangement with the Class D Western Carolina League. That was immediately blocked by MLB. This left only the worst players available to the fledgling league.

The cities pushing for expansion pushed to get a bill through Congress that would limit the number players that clubs could control to 80. Given the fact that some clubs controlled as many as 400 players, this number would have been significant. The bill was amended and went back into committee in 1960, never to be seen again. With the failure, the Continental League folded in Chicago on August 2, 1960.

The AL expands and the NL reacts—Expansion Era begins

Congress was still unrelenting. It had heard from enough cities clamoring for MLB in the wake of the flurry of relocations and the failed Continental League that expansion was still being pushed for, especially in terms of the National League.

On Aug. 30, 1960, the American League voted unanimously to expand from eight to 10 clubs no later than 1962. On Oct. 10, 1960, closed door sessions were convened to go over proposals from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Houston, and Dallas-Ft. Worth. The next day, Houston and New York made requests to the NL. The frenzy had begun. One week later, the National League awarded franchises to New York and to Houston. The Mets and the Colt .45s were born. Then, the American League threw a wrench in the works of the National League. On Oct. 27, the AL expanded into Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and back into Washington, DC, and replaced Griffith’s Senators with the new Senators, owned by Bob Short.

Frick had to be brought in as peacemaker over the matter, “My main concern is that we’re all on the same track,” the commissioner said. “We must not lose sight of the fact that orderly expansion is our goal and we must see what can be worked out.”

The conflict simmered, but Frick worked to keep things steady, and the quick expansion was met with the adjustments in growth. In the meantime, Charlie Finley was looking to relocate the Athletics from Kansas City, and Seattle began to knock. In October of 1967 the American League, yet again, decided to go with relocation and expansion by allowing Finley to move the A’s the Oakland, filling the void in Kansas City with the Royals, and topping it off with the creation of the Pilots in Seattle. Warren Giles and the National League were livid. Meetings between both leagues were called by Frick in Mexico City to keep the war of escalation in check.

On Dec. 2, 1967, an agreement was announced in which the AL would pay the NL $5.3 million to offset the quick expansion. At the same time, the National League announced that it would expand to 12 by 1971. The initial list of front runners for expansion included Dallas-Ft. Worth, Milwaukee, and San Diego. A list of “others” was announced as well. Buffalo, Denver, Toronto, and at the end of the list … Montreal.

Montreal: The dark horse prevails

The AL had been quick and stealthy, getting into markets before Giles and the rest of the senior circuit could figure what had happened. As Giles and the rest of the National League started to try and stake out where to go, the key issue—as it is today—was a functional stadium. As David Condon of the Chicago Tribune wrote in October of 1967, “It is inevitable that Montreal will be part of the major league structure.

The present stumbling block is Montreal’s lack of a stadium.” Yet, the notion that Montreal would be ahead of favorites such as Dallas-Ft. Worth and San Diego seemed far flung. In March of 1968, well known New York Times columnist Leonard Koppett wrote that eight of the 10 owners were in agreement on the expansion locations, with Roy Hofheinz of Houston, and Bob Carpenter of Philadelphia, who was opposed to expansion all together, the only obstacles. If Hofheinz got the block on Dallas, San Diego or Milwaukee were seen to fill the void.

In the midst of this was Montreal and a former sporting goods dealer who had organized hockey and softball leagues, but was now the vice chairman of the Executive Committee of the City of Montreal, named Gerry Snyder. Snyder dreamed of MLB in Montreal, and started to work the phones, lining up others. When MLB asked what kind of capital Snyder and Montreal had to back their application to the league for an expansion club, Snyder rounded up backers from Canadian cash utiltites, stores, whiskey, publishing, horse racing and other sources. At the time, his key financier was Jean-Louis Lévesque, who owned Blue Bonnet Race Track and a stable of 72 thoroughbreds.

The issue of the stadium in Montreal was dealt with by Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau, who offered up the Autostade as an interim facililty while a domed stadium would be built. As John McHale was working with MLB as deputy Commissioner at the time after he had resigned from working with the Braves, he recounts how Montreal sold MLB on the deal.

McHale: ”I went to the first meeting when the mayor Jean Drapeau addressed the chief executive and the owners of the NL clubs. He was a very good salesman, he painted a beautiful picture of Montreal. Walter O’Malley had had teams there for Brooklyn and was impressed by the size of the city and they just came off Expo ’67. Drapeau represented that there was a place to play at the Autostade and that we could play there for a short period of time and that he would see that a domed stadium was built within three years. It all sounded very good. He also had said there were owners that would put up $10 million to buy the expansion franchise from the league and everybody left the meeting quite happy. San Diego was the other [city] that was represented there.”

On May 28, 1968, Montreal and San Diego were awarded expansion franchises. As Edward Cowan of the New York Times wrote the following day, “The National League club owners’ award last night of franchises to Montreal and San Diego caught this city of 2,436,000 people on the St. Lawrence by surprise.”

The near collapse

The party was barely over when serious snags started to hit the Montreal bid. As McHale said, “Time went by and there was no response from Montreal as to who would own the team and what plans were in place for the new Montreal club to play. Time went by—two, three, four weeks—and Warren Giles and John Galbreath, who owned Pittsburgh, were quite concerned that nothing was happening. They asked me to go up to Montreal to determine [what the problems were] as there were two or three other cities that were very anxious to get the club if it failed, with Buffalo being one, Milwaukee another, and maybe New Orleans.”

A key problem for the effort was the lease rate for the Autostade. There was an issue with the rate being set by the Montreal Aloutte football club, which used the facility and had the lease for the three years during which the fledgling Montreal club was supposed to use the proposed interim stadium. To confuse matters further, Robert Irsay, an industrialist who was part of the Montreal bid effort, was now in charge of the effort, and announced that Charles Bronfman, the distillery magnate, had removed himself from the group, although it was not confirmed at the time of the reporting, and Bronfman stayed on.

As McHale recounts the time, “There were 10 members supposedly putting up one million dollars each. They all started falling by the wayside, and pretty much got down to Charles Bronfman, the only one remaining. I went to see him, I had never known him before, I knew reputation. I indicated that it would be a very big embarrassment to Montreal if this thing were revoked and taken back, given to some city in the States. He said that he would make every effort to try to solve the investment problem. I said that’s not the only problem, you don’t have any place to play.” The domed facility was now being shelved, and worse yet, it seemed that the Autostade would be unavailable.

On top of this the clock was ticking on the financing. By early August of 1968, the initial $1.2 million payment to the league had not yet been made. When the award was made, the arrangement had been that the initial payment, as well as a completed lease agreement, would be delivered no later than August 15. In the meantime, the Chicago Tribune reported on August 7 that, “Major League Baseball’s first international experiment is going to flop, and Montreal’s National League expansion franchise will be forfeited.” The collapse seemed certain at the time, as a baseball official reported to Tribune, “The Montreal franchise apparently is headed for Buffalo because that group stands by its previous pledge and is even willing to start immediately with McHale.”

MLB in Montreal dodges the bullet

The solution to the Autostade, and ultimately Major League Baseball in Montreal, wound up coming from two members of the media. As McHale further tells of the events, “Jean Drapeau, Bowie Kuhn, who was the attorney for the NL, and Warren Giles had come up [to Montreal] and joined us to try and work through the situation. We went to Jarry Park, which was recommended to us by two members of the media, Marcel Desjardins and Russ Taylor, and we went to see the ballpark. We walked in, and the fans—there was a sort of a championship semi-pro type or amateur game going on—the people recognize Warren Giles and they stood up called out, “Le Grand Patron” —‘The president of the League’—Warren Giles was quite impressed by that and the ballpark was exciting, the people were cheering and is seemed like the right place. Giles said, ‘If you could make this into a stadium; that would be a good place.’ The mayor said, “We’ll start tomorrow’.”

Giles seemed to be satisfied, as long as the small 3,000 seat Jarry Park could be expanded to 30,000. By August 11, Giles said to the Chicago Tribune, “I have great confidence in the future of Montreal as a baseball city and plans for a ball park there fine as an interim facility.”

On August 15, just as the deal had been agreed to, the National League accepted a check for $1.2 million from John McHale, who was named the new president of the Montreal club the same day. Montreal had dodged the bullet.

While there had been six inches of snow on the ground but a week before the inaugural game at Jarry Park, the baseball god shined down on Montreal, the skies cleared and on April 14, 1968, the Expos hosted the St. Louis Cardinals in front of 28,456, who were treated to an 8-7 win. All of three days later, Bill Stoneman would pitch a 7-0 no-hitter against Philadelphia, and, at least for the time, Montreal seemed to be a city of endless baseball opportunity.

It was all nearly for naught. It all almost nearly happened. It all nearly disparu.

References & Resources
I owe great thanks to my Canadian SABR brother to the north, Alain Usereau for the transcript of his interview with John McHale for this article. Usereau is working on a book on the Expos, which I hope to graciously promote for his assistance.

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