July 1976 was filled with breathtaking events. Operation Sail’s parade of Tall Ships in New York Harbor marked the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.1 NASA navigated the Viking 1 lander onto the surface of Mars to search for evidence of life.2 And Israeli commandos freed 103 hostages from a hijacked Air France flight at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.3
Atop the world of sports were the 1976 Summer Olympics, held in Montreal. Queen Elizabeth II – reigning two centuries after the famed break between her great-great-great-great-grandfather, George III, and his American colonies – officially opened the Olympics, Canada’s first.4 An estimated 500 million watched the Opening Ceremony, with organizers expecting to sell more than 3 million tickets to Olympic events.5
Like many theatrical productions, the Games were beset by problems leading up to opening night: cost overruns,6 incomplete facilities (most visibly the Olympic stadium),7 and a boycott. Twenty-nine nations, mostly African, withdrew from the Games in protest of the International Olympic Committee’s decision to not bar New Zealand over its national rugby team’s tour in the apartheid state of South Africa.8
Despite these shortcomings, enthusiasm for the Games among the Québécois9 was high. Enthusiasm for their Montreal Expos, not so much.
The 1976 Expos were dreadful. In their eighth season since joining the National League in 1969’s expansion, they were 29-58 the morning of July 24, worst in the majors and securely in last place in the NL East. Their young stars, Rookie of the Year runner-up Gary Carter, Larry Parrish, and Ellis Valentine, were all having down years, with talented farmhands, like Warren Cromartie and Andre Dawson,10 considered too green to be ready. First-year manager Karl Kuehl, youngest manager in the majors, was “38 going on 72.”11
The Mets also had a rookie manager at the helm. Little-known Joe Frazier had taken over for interim manager Roy McMillan at the end of the ’75 season.12 Frazier had steered the Mets’ Double-A Victoria and Triple-A Tidewater teams to league championships the previous two seasons, and Mets executives were hopeful of a similar level of success in the Big Apple.
On the field, the Mets hopes were pinned on the arms of their four aces – Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, and Mickey Lolich – and the bat of outfielder Dave Kingman. At the All-Star break, Kingman led the universe with 32 home runs, many of them prodigious. Despite a promising start to the season, 18-9 at one point, Mets were in third place, 16 games behind the Phillies.
Then disaster struck. On July 19, diving for a ball in the outfield, Kingman tore ligaments in his thumb. He needed surgery and six weeks to recover. Mets fans were devastated. “Sky King,” as the New York media called Kingman, “was bigger news than the landing of the Viking I spacecraft on Mars (some even suspected Kingman launched that one with his bat) or Nadia Comaneci and her perfect 10s in the Olympic [gymnastics],” columnist Jack Lang lamented. “He was in fact the only news.”13
Desperate to fill the void left by Kingman’s injury, the Mets agreed to a deal with the Expos on July 21. They acquired the dynamic, though sometimes defensively challenged, 24-year-old center fielder Pepe Mangual for veterans Del Unser and Wayne Garrett and utilityman Jim Dwyer. Mangual, with 18 stolen bases, gave the Mets speed, which they sorely lacked.14 Unser and Garrett gave Montreal an upgrade over the weak-hitting lefties they’d been limping along with.
The deal paid immediate dividends for Montreal. The day after the trade, Unser went 3-for-4 with a home run against Atlanta. He topped that by hitting a walk-off home run against the Mets in the bottom of the 11th inning on July 23 to win the opening game of the their three-game series at quaint Parc Jarry (Jarry Park). Lolich, acquired from Detroit in the offseason for “Le Grande Orange,” Rusty Staub,15 started the second game of the series on July 24 for New York. Despite his 5-10 “Woolworth”16 record, the 35-year-old Lolich had been solid since a shaky April. He’d tossed a two-hit shutout in his last start and sported a flashy 2.69 ERA.17 Opposite Lolich was Clay Kirby, who’d lost 20 games with the 1969 expansion San Diego Padres.18 Stricken with pneumonia prior to spring training, Kirby had been ineffective all season. He entered the game with a 1-7 record, a 4.97 ERA – and a ghastly 6.3 walks per nine innings pitched.
A crowd of 14,198 filed into Jarry Park for the Saturday night game, the largest crowd of their Olympics-overlapping homestand.19 Over at Olympic Park, many more fans witnessed a less-than-successful evening for Team USA. Trailing the Soviet Union and East Germany in the overall medal count, 62-40-38, the United States team was losing events it had always dominated. For the first time since 1928, no American medaled in the men’s 100-meter dash. US women lost yet again to the performance-enhanced East Germans in two swimming finals.20 One day earlier, in an event that few attended and no American had ever medaled in, the 20-kilometer walk, Mexico’s Daniel Bautista edged a pair of probably-performance-enhanced East German walkers.
Like Bautista, the Mets did an awful lot of walking. After Kirby retired the first two Mets in the first inning, he walked the next three. Another walk to catcher Ron Hodges forced in the first Mets run. There would be many more to come.
In the fourth inning, Kirby walked Lolich (lifetime .110/.215/.121) and gave up singles to Mangual and shortstop Mike Phillips. First baseman Andre Thornton booted John Milner’s grounder, allowing two runs to score. The Mets now led, 3-0. That ended Kirby’s night.
Righty Joe Kerrigan entered; the Expos’ 1974 first round pick who’d recently been promoted from Triple-A Denver. He intentionally walked right fielder Ed Kranepool and induced an inning-ending double play from the NL double-play record holder (and future Mets manager), Joe Torre.21
Meanwhile, Lolich sliced through the Montreal lineup. He gave up his first hit in the fourth, a double by Bombo Rivera.22 Four weeks earlier, Bombo had electrified the Jarry Park crowd by hitting an inside-the-park grand slam for his first major-league home run. Lolich stranded Bombo, getting a pair of groundouts.
All hell broke loose for Montreal in the fifth. Kerrigan walked the leadoff batter, Hodges. Then he walked shortstop Roy Staiger. And second baseman Felix Millan. And finally, Lolich (again) for the Mets’ second walked-in run of the night. Manager Kuehl summoned lefty Dan Warthen.
George Bernard Shaw famously wrote “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”23 Warthen’s body of work to that point of the season foretold a future in coaching.24 In the Expos rotation until late June, he had been pushed into the bullpen by several bad outings. He carried a 1-8 record and a 6.31 ERA, his most recent outing a seven-hit, three-walk, five-earned-run nightmare. Warthen promptly walked Mangual to bring in the Mets’ third run via bases-loaded walks. A sacrifice fly by Phillips scored Staiger, and Milner cleared the bases with a double. The Mets were now up, 8-0. Warthen’s fate was sealed; he was demoted to Denver the next day.25
After five smooth innings, Lolich ran into trouble in the sixth – no thanks to Mangual. After hits by pinch-hitter Jerry White (on a “catchable ball that Mangual didn’t catch”26) and Valentine, Mangual kicked a ball hit by catcher Lance Parrish for a run-scoring double. Thornton’s sacrifice fly gave Montreal a second run, the score now 8-2.
Expos righty Chip Lang took the mound for the top of the seventh.27 He worked around Mangual’s single and an error by shortstop and former Met Tim Foli,28 retiring the next three batters. The Expos, buoyed by the Mets’ decision to replace Lolich with righty Bob Apodaca, rallied for two runs in the bottom of the inning. After a walk to Carter, Hodges committed catcher’s interference for the second time in the game.29 With the Expos down by six runs, Lang wasn’t pinch-hit for. He responded with his first (and what would be his only) hit as a major leaguer, a run-scoring single to right field. A sacrifice fly by Valentine pulled the Expos to within 8-4.
The good vibes didn’t last long. In the eighth, after singles by Hodges and Staiger, Lang issued the Expos’ 14th walk of the game to load the bases. Apodaca’s groundball double play suggested light at the end of the tunnel – but it was a train. Mangual doubled past third base, driving in two to give the Mets a 10-4 lead. Mangual now had three hits and three RBIs against his former team.
Apodaca breezed through the last two innings, earning a three-inning save behind Lolich. Kirby absorbed yet another loss.30
Expos pitchers fell one shy of the team record (15) and three shy of the major-league record (18) for walks in a game.31 Even though there were no walk races on the Olympic calendar that day, Expos fans had seen more than enough walking.
In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college, a friend and I traveled to Montreal to spend a week at the Olympics. We rented a room in the basement of a French-speaking family (of course, neither of us spoke French) and spent our days at Olympic events. Having little money between us, we mostly bought tickets to inexpensive (unpopular) competitions like handball, canoeing, water polo, field hockey, and judo. On a Saturday afternoon, we met two other friends and took the Montreal Metro to Jarry Park to see our favorite team, the Mets, play the Expos. As we walked from the Metro to the park’s home-plate entrance, a foul ball flew over the low grandstand. It landed on the pavement, bounced over a chain-link fence – and rolled straight to me. I had a foul ball before even buying a ticket! It remains the only ball I’ve ever caught in the dozens of major/minor-league games I’ve attended.
This article was fact-checked by Bruce Slutsky and copy-edited by Len Levin.
In addition to the Sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for pertinent material and the box scores noted below. The author also made extensive use of the Baseball Almanac website.
1 Operation Sail, considered the greatest maritime spectacle in American history, had as its centerpiece a single-file procession of 15 tall sailing ships from around the world. A fleet of 53 warships from 22 nations stood watch along with thousands of small watercraft. An estimated 7 million spectators lined the harbor. “7 Million View the Spectacle of Operation Sail,” Ithaca Journal, July 5, 1976: 3.
2 In an image of the Martian surface taken by Viking 1 on July 25, 1976, a 2-kilometer-long mesa had the appearance of a humanoid face and was dubbed the “Face on Mars.” Higher-resolution images taken by Mars-orbiting spacecraft in the 1990s and 2000s confirmed that the face is an optical illusion. “Unmasking the Face on Mars,” https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2001/ast24may_1, accessed on January 14, 2022.
3 The daring rescue offered a glimpse of what might have been four summers earlier had German authorities allowed Israel to attempt to rescue their athletes, coaches, and officials who were kidnapped and killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Mike Smith, “Looking Back: 45 Years Since Daring Raid,” Detroit Jewish News, July 9, 2021, https://thejewishnews.com/2021/07/09/looking-back-45-years-since-daring-raid/, accessed January 14, 2022.
4 Canada has since hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.
5 Montréal 1976, https://stillmed.olympic.org/Documents/Reports/Official%20Past%20Games%20Reports/Summer/1976/ENG/1976-RO-S-Montreal-Vol_1_I.pdf, accessed October 29, 2021.
6 In 2015 the Montreal Games were estimated to have cost $6.1 billion in 2015 dollars, a cost overrun of 720 percent – the largest overrun for any Olympics through 2016. Flyvbjerg, Stewart and Budzier, The Oxford Olympics Study 2016: Cost and Cost Overrun at the Games, Oxford: Saïd Business School Working Papers (Oxford: University of Oxford) (https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2804554), accessed October 28, 2021.
7 With Queen Elizabeth, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and 73,000 spectators looking on, the Greek athletes leading the Parade of Nations into the Olympic stadium found their way almost blocked by construction workers. Jack Todd, “The 40-Year Hangover: How the 1976 Olympics Nearly Broke Montreal,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/jul/06/40-year-hangover-1976-olympic-games-broke-montreal-canada, accessed January 14, 2022.
8 Ironically, New Zealand’s national rugby team was called “All Blacks.”
9 Québécois is the French term for residents of Montreal’s home province of Quebec.
10 In just his second year of professional baseball, Dawson started the season at Double-A Quebec City, where he hit .357, then was promoted to Triple-A Denver in early June. Dawson crushed seven home runs in his first six games with Denver, and by the end of June he had 14 home runs and a .338 average. A former San Francisco Giants manager and special-assignment scout for Montreal, Charlie Fox, remarked that “Dawson’s start reminds me a lot of [Willie] Mays. But Mays had had considerably more playing experience than Dawson and was a more advanced ballplayer.” Expos management concurred with Fox’s opinion and delayed Dawson’s major-league debut until September, after he’d played 74 games in Triple-A. Frank Haraway, “Dawson’s Denver Debut Draws Comparisons to Mays, Aaron,” The Sporting News, July 17, 1976: 35.
11 The former manager of the Expos Triple-A affiliate in Memphis and a two-time minor-league manager of the year, Kuehl was selected to lead the Expos after President John McHale fired “The Little General” Gene Mauch at the end of the 1975 season, saying, “This young ball club, in its current stage of development needed a different kind of handling, and a different kind of touch on the field. Kuehl was rumored to have been selected over Tommy Lasorda, who became the Dodgers manager in late September 1976. Bob Dunn, “Feeble Expos Stir Memories of 1969 Expansion,” The Sporting News, July 31, 1976: 14; Bob Quinn, “Expos Name Kuehl Majors’ Youngest Pilot,” The Sporting News, November 15, 1975: 45; Tim Burke, “Waterloo for the Little General,” Montreal Gazette, October 2, 1975: 19; Bob Quinn, “Award Salves Jorgensen’s Ruffled Feelings,” The Sporting News, November 1, 1975: 19.
12 Though unknown to most Mets fans, Frazier’s record as manager of the Triple-A Tidewater Tides had earned him the 1975 Sporting News Minor League Manager of the Year Award. McMillan had been named Mets interim manager when Yogi Berra was fired on August 6, 1975, the consequence of the team’s underachieving. McMillan and the rest of Berra’s coaches were retained by the Mets in Frazier’s first season as manager. Augie Borgi, “Berra Fired, Roy In,” New York Daily News, August 7, 1975: 104; https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/joe-frazier/.
13 Comaneci earned the first of her record seven perfect 10 scores, a score never before earned in Olympic gymnastics history, on July 18. Viking I landed on Mars on July 20. Jack Lang, “Sky Kings’ Dive Lets Air from Met Balloon,” The Sporting News, August 7, 1976: 15.
14 The Mets were last in the NL in stolen bases in 1975, prompting sportswriter Jack Lang to offer that “many of the players could lose a foot race to a tortoise.” As of the date of the Mangual trade, Bruce Boisclair led the team with six stolen bases and the Mets team overall had the same number of stolen bases as did the NL leader, Frank Taveras of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Jack Lang, “Mets Promote ‘Sergeant’ Joe to Top Command,” The Sporting News, October 18, 1975: 26; Lang, “Sky Kings’ Dive Lets Air from Met Balloon.”
15 Staub had been acquired by the Mets in 1972 from Montreal, where Tom Blackman of the Montreal Gazette bestowed the nickname on him after his exploits on June 8, 1969, ended a 20-game losing streak. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/rusty-staub/.
16 Augie Borgi, “Mets Stroll to Victory, 10-4, on 14 Free Passes,” New York Daily News, July 25, 1976: 93.
17 Among Mets starting pitchers, Lolich’s 2.69 ERA was second by an eyelash to Seaver’s 2.68.
18 Kirby gained notoriety when in 1970, he was lifted by manager Preston Gomez for a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning of a no-hitter he was throwing, albeit losing, against the Mets. This was a managerial move long scorned by Padres fans, but presumably less so after Joe Musgrove authored the Padres first franchise no-hitter on April 8, 2021. https://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/july-21-1970-clay-kirbys-near-no-hitter/.
19 Attendance at cozy Jarry Park lagged the previous season by about 10 percent, but was expected to pick up from out-of-towners attending eight home games that coincided with the Olympic Games. “Expos’ Faithful Getting Restless,” Red Deer (Alberta) Advocate, July 8, 1976: 13.
20 Beginning in the late 1960s, the East German government conducted a decadeslong program of coercive administration and distribution of performance-enhancing drugs to its elite athletes across multiple sports. East German athletes finished with the second highest medal count in Montreal. Their women’s swimming team won an unprecedented 12 gold medals in 13 events, acknowledged years later by former East German officials as the result of widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs. https://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/news/dopings-darkest-hour-the-east-germans-and-the-1976-montreal-games/, accessed October 28, 2021.
21 Torre grounded into an NL-record four double plays in a single game against the Houston Astros one year earlier, on July 21, 1975. “It’s the first record I ever set in baseball,” he told The Sporting News. “N.L. Flashes,” The Sporting News, August 9, 1975: 21.
22 Public-address announcer Richard Morency introduced Rivera to the Jarry Park faithful with a flair that brought back memories of John Boccabella’s introduction during the team’s first five seasons. https://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/june-26-1976-pirates-slip-past-expos-despite-bombo-riveras-inside-the-park-grand-slam/.
23 The aphorism is a truncation of a line in Shaw’s 1905 play, Man and Superman. “The ‘Those Who Can’t Do, Teach’ Fallacy,” September 7, 2020, https://medium.com/@strontiumz38/the-those-who-cant-do-teach-fallacy-8116b0e12de5, accessed January 14, 2022.
24 Warthen was recalled from Denver in September and pitched his first and only shutout, a two-hitter, over Jerry Koosman and the Mets during the Expos final homestand at Jarry Park. Traded to the Phillies in 1977, he spent the next few years bouncing between the majors and minors in the Phillies, Astros, and Pirates organizations. He transitioned to teaching the art of pitching as a coach, eventually returning to the majors as the Mets pitching coach from 2008 to 2017.
25 The “scatter-armed” Warthen was demoted in hopes that he “can find the strike zone in Denver.” His reassignment was one of several roster moves the Expos made that day, including bringing up pitcher Chuck Taylor, trading for former Rookie of the Year catcher Earl Williams, and releasing outfielder Jim Lyttle. “Earl Williams Latest Expo,” Montreal Gazette, July 26, 1976: 12.
26 Borgi, “Mets Stroll to Victory, 10-4, on 14 Free Passes.”
27 Lang made his major-league debut in a start against the Mets in the first game of a doubleheader at Jarry Park on September 8, 1975.
28 Originally drafted by the Mets, Foli was the number-one overall selection in the 1968 amateur draft, out of Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California. Foli was traded along with Mike Jorgensen and Ken Singleton for Rusty Staub on April 5, 1972. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/tim-foli/.
29 Prior to this game, Hodges had no catcher-interference calls in his career (145 games caught).
30 Kirby was even more erratic in his next start, an August 3 rematch with Lolich at Shea Stadium. He walked 8 batters and allowed 6 earned runs in 5⅔ innings in a Montreal loss. It turned out to be Kirby’s last major-league start.
31 The Expos allowed 15 walks on July 9, 1973, in an 11-6 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. The NL record for walks issued is 17, held by three teams, most recently by the New York Giants on April 30, 1944. The major-league record is 18, set by the Detroit Tigers on May 9, 1916, and tied by the Cleveland Indians on May 20, 1948.