SABR Day 2013: Montreal
January 26, 2013; 1:30 p.m.
Irish Embassy Pub, Montreal
Members Present: Jacques Doucet; Robert Duval; Norm King; Rick Monette; Daniel Papillon; Alain Usereau; Bill Young
Regrets: Jack Anderson; Alain Dumas; Ghislain Henri; Alexandre Pratt
Guest: André Pratte
Bill Young chaired the Quebec Chapter meeting for 2013 SABR Day, and after a few opening remarks, turned the floor over to our guest. First, Alain Usereau offered a brief introduction – and then we were off. Mr. Pratte’s story covers the full scope of baseball history in Quebec in the second half of the 20th century, from the early 1950s through to the arrival of the Montreal Expos, and then some. His career in the game stretched across sixty years, the final twelve of which were spent as a scout for the Expos.
Born in 1933, in a working class district of Montreal, André Pratte excelled in all sports, especially hockey and softball. At the time, given his family’s modest circumstances, baseball was too exotic and too expensive for him to consider. For one thing, in baseball, everyone wore a glove; in softball, only the catcher and the first baseman did. He was a far-ranging infielder and free swinger who could drive the ball well beyond the outfield fence – had there been a fence in the inner-city parks where he played.
Nevertheless, Pratte’s prowess on the diamond soon caught the attention of the local baseball community and by age 17 he entered that world as well. In the beginning he found the transition strange, but soon adapted. He began playing at the junior-level for a Montreal club in a league where the age limit went up to twenty-two. He was one of youngest in the circuit.
Pratte said his first glove was “flat as a board,” but it suited him just fine. He was given size 11 spikes even though he wore a size 7 shoe. He was too overwhelmed to complain, so until someone noticed the problem, he was forced to walk bow-legged just to keep from falling down.
His first game was a bust. In five plate appearances he struck out five times – and he continued along the same vein throughout his first week with his new club. Bit by bit, however, he began to understand the game, and when his first hit did come, it was a home run. And then, as if to put an exclamation point on the matter, in his next at-bat he hit another four-bagger – this time from the opposite side of the plate.
André Pratte, baseballeur, had arrived. He was about to set out on a career in the sport that would shape his life right through to the present day.
Pratte moved quickly up the local baseball ladder. Although he was still eligible to play as a junior, his power numbers (from both sides of the plate) were enough to warrant his entry into the senior and semi-pro levels. He began playing at Delormier Stadium, the first time his majestic home runs had to contend with a fence! He was sufficiently talented that, when toiling with the Immaculée Conception team, not only was he a regular in the field, he was also called upon to pitch every four days. When suggestions were made that he concentrate on developing himself as a pitcher, he balked. He was an everyday player and he had no interest in changing that.
In1953, barely twenty years old, he advanced to the Laurentian League, a high-caliber independent loop made up of teams from around the Montreal area. The league featured the best of the Quebec baseball community, along with a handful of Americans, often young men looking to build a career in the game, and a smattering of former Negro Leagues players who found in Quebec a comfortable entry point into integrated baseball.
Pratte joined the Lachine Indians. Located just west of urban Montreal but still on the island, Lachine was the only club that did not represent a rural area. Its line-up included a number of veterans of Quebec’s baseball wars, along with a couple of NHL hockey players. There was Gilles Dubé, a former outfielder in the Provincial League and career hockey player who took part in 12 games with the Canadiens and another two playoff games with the Detroit Red Wings in 1954, the year they won the Stanley Cup. Dubé’s name is on that trophy. And there was Normand Dussault, perhaps the best of all Quebec-based ball players. When the Provincial League fielded powerful clubs in the late 1940s, Dussault more than held his own – and that was against such pitching talent as Sal Maglie, Max Lanier and Terris McDuffie. The diminutive, speedy Dussault was even better known as a hockey player, spending four years with the Canadiens, and several more in the Quebec Hockey League.
The Lachine team also counted the well-know baseball veterans Sam Sporn and Alfred Duperron on its roster as well.
And then there was the manager, Ray Brown. One of the brightest lights of Negro Leagues baseball, Brown had come to Quebec at the beginning of the 1950s, an aging star striving to keep his career alive. His first stop was Sherbrooke of the Provincial League where he won a championship in 1951. In 1952, he led Thetford Mines of the Quebec Senior League to another the league championship. And in 1953, now serving as playing manager, he guided the Lachine club to yet a third consecutive league title. Little did the folks playing with him, or the fans, or the media, have any inkling that some forty years later Brown would be voted into the National Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. NY, one of eighteen Negro Leagues alumni to be so honoured in 2006.
Pratte spoke well of Brown, claiming he was a quiet, efficient manager who obviously possessed a deep understanding of the game. Pratte recalls the day he learned “a new English word” from Ray Brown.
Pratte was playing third base that day, and when a batter tapped the ball down the line he was on the move, hoping to make a play at first. He could hear Brown calling from the dugout, “Let it go! Let it go!” (meaning let it roll foul), but, because he had never heard that expression before, Pratte thought the manager was calling out “Let’s go! Let’s go!” so strove that much harder to throw the batter out. When the inning ended and Pratte returned to the dugout, Brown, quietly, explained to him the difference between the two expressions, an education to be sure.
In the 1953 Laurentian League final, Lachine came face to face against the powerful club from Lachute. Its manager was Jérôme Cotnoir, a friend of SABR-Quebec and a catcher of long standing in the Provincial League. Like many Quebec athletes he too was a multi-sport professional who played hockey in the winter. A goaltender, Cotnoir spend much of his ice time in the Western Hockey League, mostly with Victoria, BC. Asked once why he chose to wear the tools of ignorance, so-called, in both sports, he replied: “I prefer being able to see the whole play unfold in front of me.”
Pratte, whose offensive weapons included ability as a base-stealer, said he never tried to run again Cotnoir: he was “too quick and accurate in throwing to the base.”
It was during this summer that Pratte caught the attention of the scouts, and more specifically, of Doc Gautreau. A former second baseman with the Boston Braves in the 1920s, Gautreau had maintained ties with that organization and by this time was a leading figure on the player development side. Although born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Gautreau’s roots were in Quebec, and following his tour with the Braves he ended up with the Montreal Royals, where he played for another five years.
Gautreau became a popular figure in Montreal, in part because of his heritage and ability to speak French. Thus, when he returned to the Braves’ front-office following his playing career, it was not unusual to see him seated in the stands of ball parks across Quebec, looking for a new star to emerge. And in 1953, André Pratte caught his eye.
No wonder! The young man, barely turned twenty, was batting in the .400 range and fielding everything that came his way. On the day Gautreau scouted him, he went 5 for 5, and this against a pitcher who, in their previous confrontation, had struck him out in four straight at-bats.
Pratte had an interesting tale to tell about the vagaries of the scouting business. He recalled a conversation with Gautreau where the scout mentioned the name of Claude St. Vincent, another prominent figure in the Laurentian League. Gautreau said he might have been interested in St. Vincent, except that at age thirty he was just too old to be considered. A surprised Pratte, who knew St. Vincent, told Gautreau that he and Claude were both the same age.
Apparently, some higher-up in league management had stretched the truth, not wanting to see top talent drawn away. Pratte went on to say that he understood there were at least seven other players who had been misrepresented in that same manner.
In any event, the Braves signed Pratte to a minor league contract. No bonus baby, he received $1000 when he put his pen to paper, with the promise of another $1000 if he was still around in July. He was sent to the Braves minor-league training facility in Waycross, Georgia, on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp – and then assigned to the Quebec Braves, coached by former first-baseman George McQuinn, a 12-year veteran of the American League (mostly with the St. Louis Browns). Pratte began the season well – playing third-base and hitting for average and distance. Sadly, 59 games in, he broke his leg sliding into second. And that was his season.
“In spring training they taught us to slide using sliding pits filled with sand,” he said. “But in the dirt around the bases in Provincial League parks was not the same. And when I slid that time my spikes caught – and my leg gave way.” His final numbers were: .284, with 5 home runs and 27 RBIs, all of which put him among the team leaders.
When 1955 rolled around, circumstances had changed, and not for the better as far as Pratte’s fortunes were concerned. By this time Claude St. Vincent was on the Quebec roster, and McQuinn had been moved up the Braves’ coaching ladder, to the Atlanta Crackers. Recently-retired Braves’ infielder Sibby Sisti who had spent all of his 13 years in the big leagues with the same club had come in as player-manager. Anticipating a logjam around the infield, Pratte managed to get himself traded to Trois-Rivières, a Phillies farm team. His time there was limited to only 22 games, and he never really got the chance to strut his stuff. Nevertheless the Phillies organization showed interest in him but it never developed into anything.
Pratte offered some interesting comments about the problems faced by French-Canadians trying to make it in baseball at the time. He felt there was too little support and encouragement shown after they had signed. The Doc Gautreaus and Roland Hemonds of the Braves organization - both Franco-Americans who still spoke French - were the exception. On the whole, non-English speaking ballplayers at training camp were dismissed out of hand, including Hispanics. He wryly noted that when you were a prospect they flew you to training camp; when they cut you they sent you home on the bus!
This observation was confirmed by another refugee of the Braves system around the same time, Willie O’Ree, a black from Fredericton, New Brunswick. He was a pretty good ball player around his home town but his first sport was hockey. O’Ree starred with the Quebec Aces of the 1950s and has the distinction of being the first black to play in the NHL.
Nevertheless, in 1956, the Braves offered him a tryout and flew him to Waycross, via Atlanta, a black Canadian experiencing the racist South for a first time. He was released two weeks later, and sent home, this time by bus. It was a five day trip, and for the first three days he had to sit in the back. “I was only allowed to use the washroom or grab a sandwich at a rest stop,” he wrote in his autobiography. “As we drove farther north I moved farther up the bus. By the time we got to the Canadian border I was sitting up front.”1
The Provincial League withdrew from Organized Baseball at the end of the 1955 season, and effectively disbanded, only to re-appear as a strong senior league operating with independent status. And as one might imagine, Pratte was involved with it right until the moment it shut down in 1971. Among the teams he played for were Sherbrooke in 1963-64 when that team was part of the Eastern Townships Provincial League and Plessisville, where from 1967-1969 he served as player-manager.
For many Quebec athletes during this period, while baseball might occupy summer days and nights, winter was given over to hockey. Pratte was no exception. He was a goalie and played on several senior teams in the province – and has the bruises to prove it.
One such bruise is truly exceptional. It came about because of a Bernard “Boom-Boom” Geoffrion slap-shot. A blistering bullet, the shot caught Pratte on the side of his leg up by the knee, where his goalie pads offered little or no protection. The pain was excruciating and the swelling immediate, although there was no bleeding and nothing was broken. Eventually the pain went away, but not the swelling. As Pratte revealed by rolling up his pant leg, even today the spot where Boom-Boom’s cannonading drive (as Danny Gallivan might have put it) rocketed into Pratte’s limb there is a bump, a substantial bump, almost the size of a tennis ball. Hard as a rock it is not painful and the medical establishment has no idea what it is.
It struck some of us that while we might have a faded autograph or two collected during the Geoffrion days, André Pratte has the ultimate souvenir – a mysterious swelling that refuses to go away, a swelling caused by Boom-Boom’s signature shot, delivered by the great legend himself.
When the Montreal Expos were founded in 1968, Pratte got in touch with Jim Fanning and his player personnel department to suggest the names of players who were having success in the Provincial League and merited a look-see by the fledgling club. One of these was Pepe Frias, and in due course he was signed by Montreal. As a result of this interaction Pratte was taken on by the Expos as a scout, a position he retained for another 12 years. He enjoyed the work but always felt that the Big Team did not pay enough attention to the good local ballplayers immediately available to them.
He mentioned Denis McSween specifically as an example of a player who might have benefitted had he been handled differently. McSween was a gifted athlete from Valleyfield and the first of the homegrown talent signed by Montreal. Even before the Expos wrapped up their first season in 1969 they had already assigned him to the Gulf Coast League. By 1971 he had passed through Jamestown on the way to the Expos’ AA-Eastern League farm club in Quebec City where he remained through 1974. Over that span his teammates included the likes of Bombo Rivera and the Pepes – Frias and Mangual; Dan Warthen, Barry Foote and Dale Murray; Gary Carter and Dennis Blair: Cromartie, Parrish and Valentine. Not a bad all-star team one might suggest.
McSween left the game in 1974. Convinced that his career had become stalled, he changed hats and went into business for himself. André Pratte still feels that this story could have had a happier ending had the Expos’ player development crew been more willing to nurture young local talent.
Once Pratte joined the Expos he was put to work, both scouting games across the province and running instructional clinics for kids of all ages. Calling on the assistance of local coaches, and with the help of Rodger Brulotte, during this period he directed many such events, often facing huge hordes of participants and on-lookers, and having to cope with only a very small staff. But he more than managed and even today, youngsters who took part, including SABR-Quebec president Daniel Papillon, remember fondly Monsieur Pratte and his wonderful baseball clinics. So too must Rodger Brulotte who worked for the Expo for close to 30 years: Pratte was responsible for his hiring.
Pratte finally ended his ties with the Montreal club in the early 1980s, in part because he was looking to do something else and in part because he was frustrated by the number of local ball players of talent who gave up early or signed with other organizations because they were not followed closely enough by the Expos. He mentioned three from Quebec’s semi-pro or amateur ranks whom he had recommended highly, although only one, Pepe Frias was signed. The other two, Paul Hodgson and Norm Angelini, went elsewhere, Paul to the Blue Jays and Norm to Kansas City, both eventually making it to the big leagues.
Following his retirement, Pratte remained linked to baseball. He was voted into the Quebec Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002. And in the summer of 2012 he was honoured at the annual golf tournament held each year in Drummondville to pay homage to the Provincial League and the wonderful ball players who made it so special.
We were privileged to have Andre Pratte as our guest for SABR Day.
We had planned to discuss several other items at the meeting but the session with M. Pratte was so fascinating that we put them aside for another day. Special apologies to Norm King who had been invited to say a few words about his experience preparing biographies for the SABR BioProject. Next time...
We had also hoped to resolve our leadership needs, what with Bill Young stepping down and Daniel Papillon assuming the role of president. More in the coming days...
All-Star straw vote
At the opening of the meeting members present were invited to identify the ballplayers they would like to see enshrined in Cooperstown. Using a variation of a 2013 Hall of Fame ballot prepared by SABR, voters could select up to 10 nominees. The results were as follows:
- Tim Raines (unanimous) 8 votes
- Larry Walker 6 votes
- Barry Bonds; Fred McGriff 4 votes
- Roger Clemens; Mike Piazza; Don Mattingly 3 votes
- Jack Morris; Lee Smith 3 votes
- Craig Biggio 2 votes
- Sandy Alomar Jr; Ryan Klesko; Edgar Martinez; 1 vote
- Dale Murphy; Sammy Sosa; Alan Trammell; 1 vote
- Rondell White; Jeff Bagwell; Mark McGwire; 1 vote
- Curt Schilling; David Wells; Bernie Williams 1 vote
We have not set a date for the next meeting but it should take place in late April or early May. More to come...
— Bill Young