As general manager, manager, vice president, scouting director, even broadcaster, Jim Fanning held almost every position a ball club could have, primarily for the Expos, but for the Atlanta/Milwaukee Braves, Colorado Rockies and Toronto Blue Jays as well.
This baseball Renaissance man was an only child born in Chicago on September 14, 1927 to Frank and Gladys Fanning. Soon after Jim’s birth, his father, a mason, moved the family back to tiny Moneta, Iowa. There Jim played baseball in school and listened to broadcast re-creations of St. Louis Cardinals games.
“Back then, Moneta had a population of about a hundred,” Fanning recalled. “One year we had 11 boys on the baseball team and we finished second in the state.”1
Fanning was with the army in Germany after World War II. Upon returning home, he earned a degree in physical education from Buena Vista College in Storm Lake, Iowa, graduating in 1951. He continued playing baseball, first for a local semi-pro team. After scout Joe Kernan signed Fanning for the Chicago Cubs in 1949, the catcher played for various minor-league clubs starting in 1950. (one sportswriter in Cedar Rapids, Iowa dubbed him “The Wandering Man” after he played on eight different teams in three years).2
Finally, in 1954, he hit .304 for Beaumont of the Texas League and made the all-star team – even though he didn’t report to the club until June because he was coaching and teaching history, at Stanhope, Iowa.3 He got his first taste of major-league action at the end of that season, appearing in 11 games for the Cubs. He didn’t exactly tear the cover off the ball, hitting just .184 in 39 plate appearances.4 He did, however, get to play with his baseball hero – Walker Cooper, the veteran catcher who had starred with the Cardinals when Fanning was a teenager.5
He had cups of coffee with Chicago in both 1955 and 1956 – in spring training 1956, Cubs personnel director Wid Matthews commented that he had six catchers, and that Fanning was “good enough so that I can’t get waivers on him.”6 Finally, in 1957, he got into 47 games as a reserve behind Cal Neeman. He was carried as extra protection at first, but wound up playing more than veteran Charlie Silvera, the longtime backup to Yogi Berra. That was by far the most action Fanning ever saw in The Show – his overall major league stat sheet shows that he appeared in 64 games, with no home runs, five RBIs, and a .170 batting average.
That batting average gives credibility to an assessment of Fanning by sportswriter Duane Pitcher of the Spencer (Iowa) Sunday Times, who idolized the catcher growing up. “Jim was never really known as an exceptional hitter, although he was always tough when it really counted. The thing that Jim did best was hustle, throw, handle the pitchers, and all the other defensive aspects of catching.”7
Fanning played in Venezuela during the winter of 1957-58, but he was not in the big club’s plans during spring training 1958. Once it was clear that he was not going to stick in the majors, Fanning chose to continue his baseball career as a manager. He was serving as a player-coach of the Fort Worth Cats of the Texas League in July 1958 when he was hired as player-manager of the circuit’s Tulsa Oilers, which had fired their manager after a seven-game losing streak. The Oilers lost their eighth straight before Fanning won his first game as a manager. He personally extended the winning streak to two the next night by hitting a 12th-inning single to score the winning run.8 The team finished seventh with a 71-81 record.
In July of the following year he became another mid-season replacement as a player-manager, this time with the American Association’s Dallas Rangers. His leadership provided a spark at the beginning, during which they won five of six games, but the team eventually limped to a fourth-place finish in the Western Division with a 75-87 record. He managed them in 1960 as well, this time to a league-worst 64-90 mark.9
Not surprisingly, he was fired at the end of that season, only to catch on as manager of the Eau Claire Braves, of the Class C Northern League in 1961. This was the beginning of his working relationship with John McHale, the Milwaukee Braves’ general manager at the time. The two men would work together in Milwaukee, Atlanta and Montreal until McHale left his position as President of the Expos after the 1986 season.10
Fanning served in various capacities with the Braves during the 1960s. He was a minor-league skipper and scout, finally joining the major league front office in late 1964 as assistant general manager as the Braves prepared their move to Atlanta. He left the Braves in 1968 to head Major League Baseball’s (MLB) new scouting bureau, which he created. The post was so new that when he arrived he didn’t even have his own space in the Commissioner’s office.
“Fanning doesn't even have his own phone yet,” wrote Jack Lang in The Sporting News. “Nor does he have a secretary – yet.”11
In that same article, Fanning was quoted as saying, “I don't know where I’ll be a year from now.”12 “Where” turned out to be a new city (Montreal) in a new country (Canada) with a new team (Les Expos).
John McHale had been working in the Commissioner’s office when the Expos’ principal owner, Charles Bronfman, named him President and Chief Executive Officer. McHale chose his old friend Fanning as GM. Not wanting to waste any time, Fanning got involved in a controversial trade before the Expos had even played a game, the first of arguably the four most controversial trades he made during his tenure as Expos GM.
Just before spring training began, Fanning traded Jesús Alou and Donn Clendenon to Houston for Rusty Staub. The problem was, Clendenon didn’t want to play in Houston, and was willing to retire rather than play for the Astros. Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ruled that Staub belonged to the Expos anyway. Not surprisingly, Astros President Judge Roy Hofheinz was not happy with the ruling, and threatened to sue the Expos in order to get compensation for Clendenon. Eventually the Expos replaced Clendenon in the deal with Jack Billingham and Skip Guinn (along with Alou). Fanning traded Clendenon to the New York Mets during the season, where he ended up being named Most Valuable Player in the 1969 World Series.
The trade resulted in a marriage made in baseball heaven. Staub became an instant hero in Montreal, and was part of a happy love triangle involving city, player and team. “Le Grand Orange,” as he became known, moved to the city, learned French, and became a roving ambassador across Canada for the team.
The Expos had to do a lot of things in a hurry because until August 1968, the future of the franchise in Montreal was very much in doubt. McHale and Fanning led a scouting blitz ahead of the expansion draft. The club’s original ballpark, Jarry Park, was barely ready in time for Opening Day 1969 – Fanning himself was involved in the installation of 6,000 folding chairs because there was not enough time to bolt the permanent seats into place.13 Their 52-110 record in 1969 was not unusual for a first-year club. But unlike recent expansion teams, such as the Florida (now Miami) Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks, the Expos did not have free agency as a means for improving. The team did record 73 wins in 1970, but then fell back to 71 in 1971. After the regression of 1971, Fanning pulled off the second of his four most controversial trades. Staub was involved again; this time he was sent off to the New York Mets for outfielder Ken Singleton, shortstop Tim Foli, and first baseman Mike Jorgensen.
“We knew that trading Rusty Staub was going to be one of the agonizing things we were going to have to do with this young franchise,” said Fanning. “I got more letters over the Staub deal…I answered every single letter and said if you’re not happy with this deal by mid-summer, write me back. I never got any letters.”14
The team still didn’t get many wins, either. The trade did not improve the Expos’ fortunes in 1972 as they won 70 games (in the team’s strike-shortened 156-game schedule that year).15
The Expos reaped some benefits in 1973, experiencing their first-ever pennant race. They were actually in first place – albeit for just a few hours – on September 17, before finishing with a 79-83 record, just 3.5 games out in the mediocre National League East. Ken Singleton led the team in batting average (.302) and RBIs (103) and was second on the team with 23 home runs (behind only Bob Bailey’s, 26).
Maybe it was a case of pennant fever, but the Expos’ new-found competitiveness prompted Fanning to pull off controversial trade number three before the 1974 season, sending ace reliever Mike Marshall, who had 31 saves in ’73 (Fanning acquired him from Houston, for outfielder Don Bosch) to the Los Angeles Dodgers for speedy centerfielder Willie Davis. Speculation had it that the Expos traded Marshall because of off-field difficulties, but Fanning said that was not the case. The difficulty in this case was Marshall’s refusal to accept the team’s player of the year award and the $5,000 cheque from a local brewery that came with it. Marshall felt it wasn’t right for teammates to compete with each other.
The trade didn’t work out as the Expos had hoped. Davis had a decent season in 1974, with 12 home runs, 89 RBIs and a .295 batting average; he was even voted the team’s player of the year by the beat writers. Unfortunately he only lasted one year in Montreal and was traded to the Texas Rangers for Pete Mackanin and Don Stanhouse. Marshall, on the other hand, set a record that still stands with 104 relief appearances. He had a 15-12 record with 21 saves, won the Cy Young Award, and led the Dodgers to the World Series, which they lost in five games to the Oakland A’s.
Also prior to the 1975 season, Fanning made the fourth of his controversial trades, and arguably the worst in Expos history. Desperate for left-handed pitching (the 1974 staff had no southpaws, even in the bullpen), Fanning traded Ken Singleton and 15-game winner Mike Torrez to Baltimore for lefty Dave McNally and outfielder Rich Coggins. McNally retired in the middle of the season after compiling a 3-6 record with a 5.24 ERA. Coggins played only 13 games with the team before being struck down with a serious illness and was sold to the Yankees later in the season for $100,000. After back-to-back 79-win seasons in ’73 and ’74 and the tantalizing first sniffs of contention, the Expos won 75 games in 1975 and fell from fourth to a fifth place tie in the NL East.
“Every club makes lots of little mistakes but that was a biggie, because in the development stage of this club it set us back about two or three years,” said Bronfman. “In effect, we got nothing for those two fine players (Torrez and Singleton).”16
“I took a lot of heat and rightly so,” admitted Fanning. “It turned out to be a very bad deal.”17
The “bad deal” helped the Expos fall to 55-107 in 1976, their worst season since 1969. Fanning was kicked upstairs to become vice president in charge of player development and was replaced by Charlie Fox. In that capacity, Fanning oversaw the nurturing of several fine players, including Bill Gullickson, Tim Raines and Tim Wallach. This player development, along with the maturing of youngsters he drafted as GM, including Ellis Valentine, Gary Carter and André Dawson, turned the Expos into an NL East power in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Also included, in Fanning’s time as Scouting Director, were fine Major League players: Andres Galarraga, Mark Gardner, Brian Holman, Randy Johnson, Terry Francona, Wallace Johnson, Charlie Lea, Jeff Huson, Brad Mills, Larry Walker, and many others. Fanning has said many times, his forte was Scouting and Development.18
Fanning wore a suit and worked in a suite until September 8, 1981, when the Expos fired manager Dick Williams. John McHale – who had assumed the additional role of GM ahead of the 1979 season – felt that the Expos’ play had been ragged and that the sarcastic Williams had become disconnected from his squad. McHale gave Fanning the manager’s job. It was an odd move in that the Expos were in a tight pennant race and Fanning had last managed with the Single-A Greenville in 1963. He also lost his first two games as skipper, and pulled some moves that had people guessing. For example, on September 9, he told third baseman Larry Parrish, who was struggling at the time, to bunt with two strikes. Predictably, Parrish fouled off the bunt attempt for strike three. “It was an unnecessary humiliation for a struggling player,” wrote Bill Conlin in The Sporting News.19
It had been a long time since Fanning had taken the field in uniform. Despite his lack of experience, he led the Expos to the division title for the second half of the strike-shortened 1981 season. The Expos defeated first-half winner Philadelphia and lost the National League Championship Series on Rick Monday’s famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) home run in the ninth inning of the fifth and final game of the series.
The Expos opened the 1982 season as one of the favourites in the NL East, especially after they acquired Al Oliver from Texas for Larry Parrish and a minor leaguer. Things got rocky for Fanning early. The team released second baseman Rodney Scott on May 7, prompting left-hander Bill “Spaceman” Lee to throw a tantrum the next day. He ripped off his uniform, put it in Fanning’s office, then went to a bar while the Expos were playing the Dodgers. He was fined $5000 and cut from the team the next day. He wanted to fight Fanning but Fanning, not surprisingly, didn’t take him up on it. Lee never played major league baseball again.
This incident was only one episode in a disappointing season for the Expos. Though Al Oliver won the batting crown and tied for the league lead in RBIs, Fanning’s first and last full season as a major league manager was frustrating. Inconsistent hitting and injuries resulted in an 86-76 record and a third-place finish in the NL East. Fanning resigned on the last day of the season and became the team’s farm director. Bill Virdon replaced him in the dugout until late in the 1984 season when Fanning returned the favour after Virdon was fired.
Fanning got married for the first time at the age of 57 in 1985 to Maria Malandra of Montreal. Being a typical baseball lifer, he spent his honeymoon scouting and signing players in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, which included the signing of Mel Rojas, who became an ace relief pitcher for the Montreal Expos.
Attendance began declining in Montreal in the mid-1980s, so in 1986 Fanning was given the responsibility for community relations to help boost attendance. The next year he became the on-air broadcast partner of 2011 Ford Frick Award winner Dave Van Horne. He finally left the Expos – the team he helped build, literally, from the ground up – for a position as a scout with the Colorado Rockies. He continued working out of Montreal. During the stint with the Rockies, Fanning also had a show, on Montreal’s largest English-language radio station, CJAD, which was heard twice daily, for eight years.
The 21st century has been very good to Fanning. In 2000, he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ontario. When he and his family drove to St. Mary’s for the induction, they fell in love with the area and decided to move there with the help of the Toronto Blue Jays.
"We thought about it (moving) for awhile. And then I called Gord Ash (the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays at the time), and I said 'We may be making a move to Ontario. If there's anything I could do for you.' And he hired me during the telephone call. So I came over here with a job in hand."20 He still works for the Blue Jays as a goodwill ambassador.
On most things, Fanning wasn’t considered as a slow mover. But finally, in February 2012, Fanning became a Canadian citizen after 44 years of residence there. He said, “My wife Maria is from Canada and my two children Cynthia and Frank were born in Canada. It’s nice to become a citizen of a second country and it’s nice to be a citizen in two of the greatest countries in the world. I feel privileged.’’21
Fanning died at age 87 on April 25, 2015.
1 Dick Kaegel, “Fanning Was Architect of Expos,” The Sporting News, October 31, 1981, 28.
3 John C. Hoffman, “Fanning Now on Same Club with Diamond Hero Cooper,” The Sporting News, September 22, 1954, 10.
5 Hoffman, “Fanning Now on Same Club with Diamond Hero Cooper”
6 Edgar Munzel, “Cubs to Be Higher Because Bench Is Deeper, Says Wid,” The Sporting News, February 15, 1956, 28.
7 Duane Pitcher, “Times Writer Interviews Jim Fanning, Cub Catcher,” The Spencer Sunday Times, February 16, 1958, 6.
8 Bill Rives, “Officials Ask More Help From Majors”, The Sporting News , July 30, 1958, 36.
11 Jack Lang, “Fanning Tries to Breathe Life into Central Scouting Bureau,” The Sporting News February 17, 1968, 23.
13 “Expos’ Home Bow Is Memorable,” Associated Press, April 15, 1969.
14 Video, “Les Expos Nos Amours,” Volume 1, TV Labatt, 1989
16 “Les Expos Nos Amours”
18 Correspondence from Jim Fanning
19 Op. cit. The Sporting News, September 25, 1981, 25.
20 Todd Devlin, “Former Expos boss Jim Fanning proudly calls London home,” The Londoner, August 17, 2010.