Montreal Expos’ manager Gene Mauch and New York Mets’ manager Gil Hodges post prior to the first game in franchise history, Shea Stadium, April 8, 1969. The Expos won, 11-10. (Courtesy of the McCord Museum, Montreal)
Gerry Snyder, Charles Bronfman, and John McHale. Three of the biggest names in Montreal Expos history.
Without Snyder’s efforts, there very likely would have been no Expos in Montreal. Most of the media laughed at him when they found out he was pursuing a major-league baseball franchise for Montreal.
“Nobody believed me,’’ Snyder said years later. “The people on radio and television thought it was a big joke. Oh, yeah. Whenever I’d see them at a golf tournament or whatever, they’d have these sarcastic looks on their faces. They’d say, ‘Good luck, you’ll need it.’”1
When Snyder was informed by National League owners at Chicago’s Excelsior Hotel on May 27, 1968, that Montreal had been granted a franchise, only two reporters, Marcel Desjardins and Gerry Champagne, both from La Presse, were on hand to record the occasion. Jack Varnas, Snyder’s brother-in-law, had also tagged along to keep him company in Chicago.
Six years earlier, in 1962, Snyder, a Montreal city councilor and vice chairman of the municipal government’s executive committee, and Lucien Saulnier, the committee’s chairman, sat in the New York office of Commissioner Ford Frick to promote Montreal as a potential expansion city.
“Do you have a stadium?’’ Ford asked, almost immediately.
“No’’ was the answer.
“Well, when you have a stadium, come back to me,” Frick said.2
The meeting lasted only 10 minutes and Snyder and Saulnier left for Montreal rather dejected. Not until 1967 did Snyder get the feeling that perhaps Montreal had a chance at a franchise.
“All of a sudden out of a clear blue sky, the American League announced that it was expanding by two teams to Kansas City and Seattle for the 1969 season,’’ Snyder remembered. “I said to myself, ‘Hey, chances are good that the National League will also expand by two teams. So I started going to a number of NL meetings and I’d meet up with the expansion committee, which included Walter O’Malley of the Dodgers. I got along good with O’Malley.”3
“Whenever I’d speak to him on the phone, he’d always say, ‘Bonjour, Gerry, comment allez-vous? Look Gerry, you don’t have to come to LA to see me. I know what Montreal can do. I made a lot of money there with the Montreal Royals Triple-A team.”4
From that point on, Snyder was optimistic because of O’Malley’s support. But the media still wasn’t convinced.
“I was getting criticized from all quarters,’’ Snyder said. “The reporters were saying there was no hope in hell that the league would expand to a foreign country. Veteran newspaperman Jacques Beauchamp would always say afterward that the biggest mistake he made was not following me through the routine of getting a franchise. When we got the franchise, it was that much more pleasurable.”5
The 1960s had been a wonderful decade for Montreal. In 1962, the same year Frick rejected Snyder and Saulnier, Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau shocked his citizens when he arranged for Expo 67 to be staged in Montreal. Three years later, Montreal’s impressive subway system opened for the first time. Snyder’s coup of bringing major-league baseball to Montreal was icing on the cake for the decade.
Snyder had told major-league owners that the Autostade, a sports stadium built by the automakers for Expo 67, would play host to the Expos’ games in 1969. In the end, the Autostade was ruled unsuitable for baseball after officials visited Montreal in June of 1968. National League President Warren Giles was not worried. Paraphrasing Mayor Drapeau, he told a press conference that “we have no problems, we only have solutions.”6
Baseball was not unfamiliar ground for Gerry Snyder as he attempted to bring a team to Montreal. “No question,’’ he said. “I’d been an athlete. I was a softball player in both Montreal and in the Air Force wherever I was stationed for five years. I brought major-league baseball to Canada. I didn’t bring the Expos to Montreal. What the Expos did after was not my responsibility.”7
Snyder’s coup involving the new franchise didn’t end there. He coaxed minority shareholders to come on board with $1 million each to pay the $10 million franchise fee. He persuaded Jean-Louis Levesque of Blue Bonnets Raceway to be the first investor. Eventually, majority owner Charles Bronfman was the second investor.8 All this time, Snyder was also introducing eventual Expos President John McHale to Bronfman. At the time, McHale was baseball’s deputy commissioner after serving a stint as general manager of the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves.
“Bronfman didn’t know McHale from a hole in the ground and neither did I,’’ Snyder said. “I’d found out about McHale from this guy [William Daley] who was chairman of the board of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He was also half an investor in the Seattle Pilots and he was a former investor in the Cleveland Indians.”9
“Before we’d gotten the franchise, O’Malley said this guy wanted to talk with me. So we talked and he said, ‘I have someone in mind whom you should consider as the guy running your organization. I won’t tell you now who he is because he’s in baseball.’ So we left it at that. So when we got the franchise, the first guy to call was him. He told me about McHale and the next morning, McHale and I talked. I told him we’d talk later in the week.”10
Snyder soon arranged for McHale to come to Montreal to meet Bronfman. Snyder would pick McHale up the airport and then take him back for his return flight. This routine happened several times and at one point, McHale took Snyder aside and said he’d like to get him involved with the team because he appreciated Snyder’s role in landing him a job with the Expos.
“Then one time when McHale was in town, I found out he’d already left for the airport. When I found that out, I said there’s something wrong,’’ Snyder said. “I heard from different sources that McHale was not to hire me, that he’d have to forget his commitment to me. I heard they had turned me down. I never trusted McHale after that. It was a typical American thing. Any typical American, he brought in half a dozen Americans to work full time for him. … Over the years, McHale didn’t want to see me. He wasn’t my type of guy. When we’d meet, he’d say how glad he was to see me and then he was done.”11
Snyder’s treatment for many years by the Expos left him bewildered but not despondent. Wouldn’t you be a little ticked off? Just think, Snyder persuaded major-league owners to award a franchise to Montreal, he brought investors on board and he arranged for McHale to be part of the ship’s upper-management staff. Snyder received no position with the organization. He received no money for his efforts. No commission for bringing the franchise to Montreal, no commission for bringing investors on board and no bonus from Bronfman for recommending McHale.
“I got two season tickets every year the team was at Jarry Park,” Snyder said. “Once they moved to Olympic Stadium in ١٩٧٧, that all stopped. I got nothing else. I was a politician and they didn’t want to get involved in paying me off. Heck, Bruce McNall, when he was the majority owner of the Los Angeles Kings, was paid $25 million by the NHL for bringing the Disney franchise into the league. No question, I should have received more recognition.
“The guy who got New York the Mets franchise for 1962 had a stadium (Shea) named after him. I took 25 years before I threw out the first pitch before an Expos game. It was under Claude Brochu and the new regime. Name 24 people who did more for the franchise than me. But I’ve never regretted getting involved. I’m very pleased to have brought a franchise to Montreal and helped out a little.”12
For his part, McHale was driven around the city of Montreal in 1968 looking for a suitable venue for a team to be called the Expos.
“We looked at DeLorimier Downs. There was nothing there. No way,’’ McHale said. “The Autostade, where the Alouettes played, was awful. It was already leased to the Alouettes.” Then two journalists, broadcaster Russ Taylor and La Presse’s Marcel Desjardins, suggested National League attorney Bowie Kuhn (a future commissioner), Warren Giles, and General William Eckert (the current commissioner) check out Jarry Park.13 It was about 6 P.M. when Giles and several others from the Montreal contingent arrived at Jarry Park, just as an all-star junior game was about to take place.
“When we reached the site, the city’s director of recreation said there were only about 3,500 seats at the time but said up to 30,000 seats could be ready in time for the first pitch of the first home game in 1969. We told the recreation guy to get going on it,’’ McHale said.14
So Jarry Park became the home of the Expos with about 28,000 seats, a quaint, romantic park where fans could be up close to their heroes on the field. In less than five months, the park was transformed into a wonderland, complete with a press box.
“Snyder was a great lobbyist with major-league clubs,’’ McHale said.15
National League President Warren Giles and Montreal Expos’ President John McHale at the National League Expansion Draft, Montreal, October 14, 1968. (Courtesy of the McCord Museum, Montreal)
But there was another pothole to overcome. A group of original investors including Blue Bonnets’ Levesque backed out of the deal to be part of the Expos’ consortium, leaving the chance that Montreal would not get the team.
“Cities like Buffalo and Milwaukee (Bud Selig was part of the Milwaukee group) that didn’t get franchises were standing by to take over from Montreal and offering more money,’’ McHale said. “Then Charles Bronfman came along. He felt it would be an embarrassment to Quebec and Canada if the franchise got away. Charles said he would put up the money if I would stay and run the franchise for him.”16
McHale was born in Detroit and attended Catholic Central High School there and from 1939-45 he attended the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, where he graduated cum laude in economics and was a football letterman for the Fighting Irish. Somewhere in there, McHale’s university studies were interrupted by three years in the US Navy during World War II.
McHale went on to play in the Detroit Tigers’ minor-league system before getting to play in the big leagues for five seasons, beginning in 1943. And from there, his administrative career took hold when he began working for the Tigers in 1948. By 1957, McHale had advanced to become general manager, a title he held for two years.17
Then he moved to Milwaukee to become the president and GM of the Braves, who later moved to Atlanta. He stayed with the Braves until 1966 and then he made another move, this time becoming the deputy commissioner of baseball for a year. That’s when the Montreal offer came forth. He stayed with the Expos until 1986 when he stepped down and was replaced by Claude Brochu. However, McHale did continue with the Expos as vice chairman of the board of directors until 1990, when he retired.
Shortly thereafter, he joined Japan Sports Systems as president of JSS-owned minor-league clubs in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Visalia, California. He also was president of the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America and a director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. At one time, he was a member of the Chairman’s Council of Intracoastal Health Systems Inc. in West Palm Beach, Florida. For many years, he lived in Palm City, Florida, where he died in 2008.
When the Expos had a chance to get Rusty Staub from Houston, this is how the original trade went down: Staub to the Expos for Jesus Alou and Donn Clendenon. Then Clendenon pulled his shocker. The slugger said that he had retired so the Expos trade with the Astros was off on January 22, 1969.18 The Astros and Expos were both unhappy with the turn of events after both teams publicly announced the trade.
“It was a shock to all of us,” recalled longtime Expos handyman Jim Fanning. John McHale arranged to go and visit Clendenon, who had said he was out of baseball to pursue a career as an executive with the Scripto Pen company. McHale convinced Clendenon to unretire and got the slugger to sign a two-year contract at a salary suggested by the player himself. So Clendenon, who was the Expos’ sixth pick overall in the expansion draft, became an Expo. Clendenon, a first baseman, belted 17 homers and drove in 87 runs for Pittsburgh in 1968 and Fanning recalled that “we were getting a front-line player.”19
Courtesy of Bronfman, here’s a tale out of spring training in 1969 about an unlikely immortal by the name of Joe Moock. He had just hit the Expos’ first-ever home run at spring training and Bronfman ambled over to manager Gene Mauch to say something.
“That Mook guy will never make the team,’’ Bronfman said.
“Well, I don’t think he’ll make the team because he doesn’t have the talent,’’ Mauch said.
“No, he won’t make the team because of the name he has. You don’t want any competition.”21
Bronfman had a chuckle over the Mook-Mauch story and he came back with another yarn about the time Mauch got a tad wary of his boss in the infant stages of the Expos before they hit the field.
“Gene had heard I wouldn’t be an on-hands owner,’’ Bronfman recalled. “Well, John McHale, Jim Fanning, Gene, and I were sitting and I told Gene I wanted a uniform with a number. I had the feeling he thought I would want 4, which was his number but I told him I wanted 83. He probably thought, ‘Now, he’s asking for a football number.’ There was dismay on his face. I laughed and said: ‘I just want to be able to put the uniform on once in a while and have some whiskey with you.’ (83 was one of the Seagram brand names produced by Bronfman’s company). Gene was vastly relieved when I told him that.”22
Bronfman can be a funny guy when he wants to be. Mostly, though, his quiet, modest, humble, soft-spoken demeanor is what endears him most to those who meet him. He was the ideal out-of-the-spotlight owner, who didn’t seek publicity. The fame that vaulted him from the obscurity of the Seagram boardrooms to the glare of professional sports wasn’t something he flaunted.
To the relief of the team executives and managers who worked for him, Bronfman never did interfere with the baseball operations department while he maintained majority control. That majority control is something Bronfman never originally sought in the early days of the franchise. He wasn’t even involved in the process that netted the city of Montreal a franchise. The spadework that resulted in that magnificent coup had been orchestrated by Snyder and Mayor Jean Drapeau.
Bronfman did agree to be one of 10 shareholders, who would throw in $1 million each to play the $10 million expansion fee. Bronfman also consented to be chairman of an administrative board responsible for attracting financial support for the team.23
“I never thought I’d be a majority owner,’’ Bronfman said. “Our letter of agreement for $1 million was on the basis that we could get a domed stadium.”24
Montreal did get a retractable roof in the 1980s but its operational capacity was a nightmare, the joke of the major leagues. In any event, when Levesque backed out as majority owner of the Expos in their infant stages, Bronfman decided to assume a larger percentage of the club’s ownership.
When Opening Day of the franchise came on April 8, 1969, it was of tantamount importance. Some 44,541 Canadians and Americans were on their feet at Shea Stadium in New York as the US and Canadian national anthems were being sung.25 This was the first time “O Canada” had ever been sung prior to a major-league game and some of the Americans had even joined in the chorus.
“Tears were rolling down my face,’’ Bronfman recalled. “I was very, very happy. You have to understand that I was an inheritor. I inherited wealth and I inherited a position with Seagram so when I pioneered the first major-league team in Canada, it was very special to me. Maureen Forrester was singing ‘O Canada’ that day and I remember Drapeau very good. He was quite non-plussed. The winds were blowing and the airplanes were flying over. Drapeau said, ‘How can they play with these airplanes making noise?’ He couldn’t quite understand that.”26
As was the case with Expos employees and fans, Bronfman suffered through the team’s growing pains, including a horrendous 20-game losing streak that first season. The streak was broken at Dodger Stadium but there was some heavy breathing going on before the game was over.
“Elroy Face was pitching for us,’’ Bronfman said. “We led 4-1 but the Dodgers cut the lead to 4-3 and they had two men on base in the ninth. Willie Crawford hit a ball and it looked like it was going out but Rusty Staub leaped up and made a great catch.”27
Mauch lasted seven seasons and when he was fired after the 1975 season, Bronfman and McHale thought they had Tommy Lasorda lined up to be manager. Lasorda had been a popular pitcher with the Montreal Royals’ Triple-A team in the 1950s and showed potential in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization as a manager.
“Gene no longer had control of the club,’’ Bronfman said. “He wanted to go with veterans but we had a young club. We were serious about Tommy. We thought he was coming. I remember I was in Israel and I got a phone call from John McHale in Denver. John said, ‘We lost Tommy Lasorda.’ I was heartbroken. If we had gotten him, he would’ve been with us for a long time.”28
Instead, Lasorda stayed with the Dodgers for a long time after becoming their big-league manager, beginning late in the 1976 season when Walter Alston decided to retire. “I ran into Tommy some point later and I said, ‘Tommy, you used us, you bugger.’ But he said he had too much Dodger Blue in him,’’ Bronfman said.29
In an experiment that failed miserably, the Expos gave Karl Kuehl the manager’s post. K.K. had been a highly admired man in the Expos’ minor-league system but he was out of his element at the major-league level. The Expos finished with 55 wins and 107 losses.30 Kuehl didn’t last the season. The final day epitomized how the season went.
“It was a cold, rainy, miserable, rotten day. It was the way the season ought to end,’’ Bronfman said. “Karl was in over his head. He didn’t earn the respect of the players.”31
Dick Williams was hired a few months later but the Expos still endured their ninth consecutive losing season in 1977 and that’s when Bronfman thought very seriously about withdrawing his ownership. He had become very frustrated.
“I felt as a group that we hadn’t done our jobs,’’ Bronfman said. “I know that was one of my worst periods.”32
Gary Carter poses with a fan at the Expos’ spring training camp in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1976. The Expos their rise in the National League East beginning in the late1970s to excellence in player development, signing future All-Stars and Hall of Famers like Carter. (Courtesy of the McCord Museum, Montreal)
Coming to Bronfman’s rescue was minority shareholder Lorne Webster, who persuaded his buddy to stay on. Bronfman was glad he did. The Expos came ever so close in 1979 and 1980 and finally in 1981, they came within a whisker of going to the World Series.
Bronfman was happy with his role in ownership until late in the 1989 season when the Expos folded and gave away the NL East, which they had led for 37 consecutive days at one point. Bronfman had given general manager Dave Dombrowski the mandate to improve the team during the course of the season and D.D. did just that, trading pitchers Randy Johnson, Brian Holman, and Gene Harris to Seattle for veteran pitcher Mark Langston.33
Langston should have been the catalyst to push the Expos over the top but he too, like the Expos, faltered the last two months. Bronfman was devastated and he made the decision to get out.
“I was very bitter,’’ Bronfman said. “I had a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. Plan A was to sell the club to someone who would keep the team in Montreal; Plan B was to sell to someone who would agree to keep the team in Montreal for five years; Plan C was to sell to the highest bidder anywhere.”34
In the end, team President Claude Brochu and Jacques Menard of Burns Fry put a consortium together to keep the team in Montreal.
DANNY GALLAGHER played highly competitive baseball for 27 consecutive seasons from 1968-94 in adult leagues across Canada where he worked as a reporter. He has been covering major-league baseball since 1988 when he joined the staff of the Montreal Daily News. Over the years, Gallagher has written five books on the Expos, including his latest on the 1981 squad: Blue Monday: The Expos, The Dodgers and the Home Run That Changed Everything. Blue Monday was scheduled for release in the fall of 2018 by Dundurn Press. The softcover includes 74 interviews and will unveil secrets never told before. Danny co-authored Remembering the Montreal Expos and Ecstasy to Agony with fellow SABR member Bill Young. He lives in Uxbridge, Ontario with his wife Sherry.
11 Jacques Doucet and Marc Robitaille, Il Etait Une Fois Les Expos, Tome 1: Les Annees 1969-1984 (Montreal: Editions Hurtubise Inc., 2009), 28.
2 Danny Gallagher, You Don’t Forget Homers Like That: Memories of Strawberry, Cosby, and the Expos (Toronto: Scoop Press, 1997), 163.
3 Danny Gallagher and Bill Young, Remembering the Montreal Expos (Toronto: Scoop Press, 2005), 19.
4 Gallagher, You Don’t Forget Homers Like That, 164.
https://sabr.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Expansion-Baseball-cover-800px.jpg800613admin/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/sabr_logo.pngadmin2018-02-14 01:00:532023-02-27 01:04:18‘Les Expos Sont La’: The Expos Are Here