The Montreal Expos were the first major league baseball team in Canada, and were a huge part of the sports scene in the Quebec area. So what exactly led to the team leaving the city they called home for 35 years? In today’s video we’ll take a look back at how MLB came close to folding the team, before they ended up moving away for good.
The Montreal Royals (1890 – 1969)
Baseball in Montreal has a rich history, dating all the way back to the late 1800’s when the city’s most prominent team the Montreal Royals of the Eastern League were founded in 1897. They would play for 20 seasons before folding in 1917, but were revived in 1928. About a decade later, the Brooklyn Dodgers bought the team to use in their minor league farm system. The Royals became highly successful under the Dodgers management, winning seven international league championships and three junior world series. However, the Royals arguably became most famous for developing talented young prospects like Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente who would eventually go on to have legendary baseball careers. By the mid 1950’s, the Royals successful years had waned as did the home game attendance. Eventually the Dodgers sold the Royals to the upstart Minnesota Twins franchise in 1961, who promptly moved the Royals from Montreal to Syracuse, New York. Sadly, this left Montreal without a baseball club for the first time in decades.
Pretty much right after the Royals left town, the mayor of Montreal Jean Drapeau and city executive committee chairman Gerry Synder got to work on bringing a major league baseball club to Montreal. Unfortunately, the city was too late in their proposal for the 1962 MLB expansion, where the Houston Colt .45s (later renamed the Astros) and the New York evil plotting babies… I mean the New York Mets came into the league for the first time. Montreal would have to wait another five years, when in 1967 MLB planned another expansion to the league. This time, Montreal was significantly helped by the chairman of the National League’s expansion committee, Walter O’Malley. O’Malley, just happened to also be the owner of the Dodgers and the former owner of the Montreal Royals. It pays to have connections right? With his influence, Montreal became one of the two teams officially announced as new National League franchises on May 27, 1968 (with the other being San Diego). The American League also announced an expansion, adding Kansas City and Seattle as two new clubs. With that, Montreal became the first city outside of the United States to have a Major League Baseball team.
However, the brand new team ran into issues almost immediately, as the ownership group found it difficult to secure a stadium for the ball club to play in. Due to Montreal’s inclimate weather during the spring and fall months, the ownership group wanted to build a dome stadium but found it difficult to get the city to agree on such a plan. As time dragged on without any deal in place, by late 1968 the National League owners had become increasingly concerned that Montreal wouldn’t be able to start on time for the 1969 season. There were rumors that the franchise would instead be awarded to Buffalo, New York, who had War Memorial Stadium ready to go. Mayor Drapeau met with National League president Warren Giles, and assured him that Montreal would get a deal done, and proposed spending 1 million Canadien dollars on expanding a community field named Jerry Park from 3000 seats to 30,000 seats as a temporary home for the team.
With the Jarry Park plan in place, the team began the process of choosing a team nickname. Initially they preferred the name Royals, as an homage to the minor league club that played in Montreal for so many years. But there was just one problem, that name was already taken by the Kansas City Royals who announced their new nickname via fan vote. Montreal then considered a number of different names, including Voyageurs and Nationals (whis is pretty much a huge steaming bowl of foreshadowing) but settled on Expos named after the World’s Fair Exposition that had taken place a couple of years earlier in Montreal in 1967. The Expos chose a unique logo to represent the team. The logo has some clever and subtle hidden elements that represent the team’s namesake. The overall shape is shaped like an “M” for the city of Montreal, with a red swirl shape on the left that creates a lowercase “e” shape for Expos. Then the right side of the logo has a lowercase “b” shape in blue that stands for baseball. The logo is also italicized to represent forward movement, and while it was initially mocked for being too modern looking it eventually gained admiration as an iconic and classic logo.
Early Struggles & New Stadium (1970-1980)
The Expos played their first ever game on April 8, 1969 defeating the New York Mets 11-10 at Shea Stadium. They would play their first home game, and first ever MLB game outside of the US a week later on April 14, defeating the St. Louis Cardinals 8-7 at Jerry Park in front of a crowd of 29,184. However, the team quickly fell to the bottom of the standings, finishing tied with their expansion mates the San Diego Padres for the worst record in the National League at 52-110. One early breakout star was the power hitter, Rusty Staub who had been traded from the Houston Astros. Staub quickly became a fan favorite, nicknamed “Le Grande Orange” for his red hair and physical stature. He was the Expos only representative at the All Star Game during the Expos first three seasons. However, the club never managed to have a winning season for their first ten years of existence causing attendance and interest around the team to dwindle.
By the mid 1970’s, attendance had dropped to just 600,000 thousand fans for the entire season, about half of what the attendance figure’s were during their first season. It didn’t help that Jerry Park, which was intended to be a temporary home for the Expos left fans completely exposed to the outdoors and were forced to postpone many early season games due to inclimate weather. Earlier in the decade, Montreal had been selected as the host city for the 1976 Olympics, and part of the plan to host was building a brand new dome stadium that would be the main venue for many events including the opening and closing ceremonies. A worker strike, overruns in construction costs, and brutal winter months all contributed to the construction of the new stadium being delayed by several years. Olympic stadium finally opened July 17, 1976, just in time for the opening ceremonies. The Expos would move into Olympic Stadium the following year, with their first game on April 15, 1977 in front of a sellout crowd of 57,592. In 1977, MLB expanded once more adding two new teams, the Seattle Mariners (who replaced the Pilots team who had moved to Milwaukee) and the Toronto Blue Jays. With Toronto joining the league as the second Canadien team, it formed a natural rivalry between the Expos and the Blue Jays. The two teams would meet regularly for the Pearson Cup exhibition game, named after former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. The game was meant as a way to raise funds for minor league baseball in Canada, and was played every year from 1978 to 1986, and revived again in Montreal’s final years between 2003 and 2004.
The Turnaround (1981 – 1985)
The new stadium ushered in a new era of baseball for the Expos, although some of the same weather issues continued to persist due to construction issues with Olympic Stadium, and the roof not being fully installed until 1987. By the early 80’s the Expos had built a solid core of all star caliber players including Gary Carter, Tim Raines, and Andre Dawson. The 1981 season ended up being split into two halves, due to a player’ strike that lasted nearly two months. MLB decided that the team’s who won their divisions in both halves would advance to the playoffs. The Expos finished the first half in third place, and decided to fire the manager Dick Williams and replace him with scouting director Jim Fanning. This was seen as an odd choice at the time, as Fanning hadn’t managed a game in 20 years. But the Expos had a strong finish during the second half, winning the National League East with a half game over the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Expos faced the defending World Champions the Philadelphia Phillies in the divisional round and ended up splitting the first four games. In the fifth and deciding game, Expos pitcher Steve Rogers (nope, not that Steve Rodgers) pitched a complete game 3-0 shutout over the Phillies. This advanced the Expos to their first ever National League Championship series appearance. In the NLCS, Montreal faced the Los Angeles Dodgers and once again split the first four games of at the time a best of five game series. In near freezing temperatures, the two teams faced off for the final game at Olympic Stadium. The game went all the way to the 9th inning tied at 1 run a piece, when the Expos manager Jim Fanning called on the team’s ace Steve Rogers to come out of the bullpen and face the Dodgers in the 9th inning. Rogers retired the first two batters, and then faced Dodger’s fielder Rick Monday. On a 3-1 count, Rogers threw a hanging sinking ball that Monday hit over the centerfield wall putting the Dodgers ahead 2-1 and became the series winning home run. The Expos were left stunned, having to face a massive disappointment in coming up just short. Monday’s homerun and the game would become an infamous moment in Expos history, known as “Blue Monday”, while the Dodgers would go on to defeat the New York Yankees in six games, winning the World Series.
Collusion (1985 – 1989)
By the mid 1980’s the Expos had won more games between 1979 and 1983 than any other National League East team, but had only managed to make the playoffs once. In an attempt to turn things around, Montreal signed verteran star player Pete Rose to a one year contract. Coming into the season, Rose (seen here just as shocked as you are that he’s an Expo) was just ten hits shy of 4,000 career hits and closing in on Ty Cobb’s all time record of 4,191 hits. On April 13, 1984 Rose reached 4,000 career hits with a double off of Phillies pitcher Jerry Koosman. However, Rose’s time with the Expos was short lived as he was traded later that summer back to the team he began his career with, the Cincinnati Reds. With the team struggling on the field, attendance began to dwindle. It didn’t help that player salaries had increased significantly, going from the average player making $29,000 a year in 1970 (just after the team was founded) to $371,000 in 1985. In order to cut costs, the Expos began selling off their star players. Star catcher and fan favorite Gary Carter was traded to the New York Mets, with the Expos owner Charles Bronfman stating a year earlier that signing Carter to a seven year contract was the biggest mistake he had made in his life.
It didn’t get easier from there, another star player Andre Dawson left the Expos to test free agency after the 1986 season. However, all of the MLB team owners had privately worked together to purposely drive free agent’s salaries down in order to save money. The Expos management even leaked information about Dawson’s knee injuries, to try and dissuade any interest in him. Frustrated with the lack of movement in the free agent market, Dawson literally walked into the Chicago Cubs training camp and signed a blank contract. The Cubs signed Dawson to a one year contract worth half of his previous salary. He then went on to hit 49 home runs, while driving in 137 runs and being named the NL MVP for 1987. Andre Dawson’s, teammate Tim Raines suffered a similar fate after he became a free agent in 1986 when no serious offers were made to sign the six time all star player. Raines ended up re-signing with the Expos for 5 million dollars over three years, and was named the MVP of the 1987 All Star Game. The Player’s association filed several greiences with MLB throughout the late 1980’s over collusion, and eventually the owners were ordered to pay $280 million dollars in damages to the player’s association for loss wages and violation of the collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners. Obviously the players felt betrayed and disgusted with the entire situation, and the whole event would set the stage for a major showdown between the two sides in the coming years.
Up For Sale (1990 – 1994)
With the team continuing to struggle, and attendance fading, Expos owner Charles Bronfman became increasingly impatient with the realities of running a ballclub. In 1989, he decided to give winning a championship one more shot by trading for star pitcher Mark Langston of the Seattle Mariners. In return, Seattle got back from the Expos a then relatively unknown pitcher named Randy Johnson, who would of course go on to have a Hall of Fame career. The trade, at least initially, helped the Expos grab the division lead by the 1989 All Star Break. But soon after the wheels came off, and the Expos fell to fourth place finishing with a .500 record.
Disappointed, Bronfman decided after that season that he was done with the team and wanted to sell. The initial price Bronfman had in mind for the Expos was $100 million but he found it very difficult to find a local buyer who wanted the team. There were of course interested buyers from the US, who wanted to relocate the team to places like Miami or Buffalo. Bronfman insisted that the Expos remain in Montreal, and only wanted to sell to local buyers. The team’s president, Claude Brochu offered to lead a group of investors who could pool their money together and buy the team from Bronfman. Brochu managed to get 11 other Canadien businesses on board with the plan, as well as taking a loan from the city of Montreal and province of Quebec to purchase the Expos for the $100 million dollar asking price. The sale between Bronfman and Brochu was completed on November 29, 1990.
The new ownership group got to work right away on making improvements to the team, they traded away future Hall of Fame player Tim Raines before the 1991 season in a five player deal. After the team started 21-21, the Expos fired manager Buck Rodgers (nope not that Buck Rogers), who had managed the team since 1985. But it wasn’t all bad, because on July 28 of that season, Expos pitcher Dennis Martinez pitched a perfect game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was only the 13th perfect game in MLB history up to that point, and became one of the most iconic moments in Expos history. Shortly after that, the team ended being forced out of Olympic Stadium for the final month of the season due to a 50 ton beam that fell from the stadium’s structure onto a concourse shortly before a motocross event. During the offseason, the team had the stadium go under a full safety inspection and was cleared to be safe to play. However the roof had sustained damage from a wind storm earlier in the year and the team decided that it was safer, but also cheaper to just keep the roof closed permanently. By 1992 the Expos once again had a talented core of young players to build around, including Delino DeShields, Larry Walker, and Marquis Grissom. The team also traded for outfielder Moises Alou, who’s father Felipe Alou just happened to be the newly named manager of the Expos. DeShields was eventually traded to the Dodgers but in return the Expos got a young pitcher named Pedro Martinez (who’d go onto have a hall of fame career), and the team’s play on the field greatly improved, winning 94 games in 1993.
Strike & Fire Sale (1994 – 1998)
Entering the 1994 season, the Expos fielded what many analysts felt were the best team in the franchise’s history. However, Montreal would face tougher competition in the NL East division, as MLB expansion the season before led to new divisional alignments. This meant that the dominant Atlanta Braves, powered by their trio of pitching Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, were now in the NL East. The Expos were 2.5 games back of the Braves, when they hosted Atlanta in late June. Montreal would take two of the three game series, which sparked the team on an impressive run of wins. By the All Star break, the Expos were in first place and continued to pull away from the rest of the division through July and the beginning of August. By mid August, Montreal had the best record in baseball with 74 wins and 40 losses, and were on pace to set a franchise record of 106 wins.
But all of that would come to a sudden end, because on August 12 every player in MLB went on strike due to collapsing talks of a new collective bargaining agreement between the players and the owners. The players were against the owners desire to install a hard salary cap on player’s salaries, while the owners claimed that smaller market teams would struggle to survive unless the larger market teams shared revenue from local broadcasts, and that it wouldn’t be possible without a salary cap in place. At the time the player’s union thought a new deal would be reached by Labor day at the latest, which was September 5th that year. That would leave just under a month left in the season, before the playoffs started. However, both sides were stuck in a stalemate and by September 14th, the commissioner of baseball Bud Selig (seen here working on his pickoff move) officially canceled the rest of the season, postseason, and World Series for 1994. This would be the first time in 90 years that the World Series wasn’t played, with the last time being in 1904 when the New York Giants refused to play the Boston Americans (who are now the Red Sox) in a series, believing that it was beneath them to play a team from an inferior league. The cancellation of the season left many in Montreal devastated, as this seemed to be their year to finally make a World Series appearance. Unfortunately for the Expos, the 1981 playoff run 13 years earlier would be the first and last time the franchise ever reached the playoffs.
The strike would last all offseason, finally coming to an end in March of 1995 when both the owners and players were ordered to back to work by future Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayer of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York. Sotomayer issued an injunction against the owners, who were planning on using replacement players. Ordering both sides to honor the terms of the previous CBA until a new agreement could be made. The strike arguably hurt the Expos more than any other franchise, as Montreal’s management was notoriously known as a penny pinching club. With mounting financial losses, the Expos decided to sell off most of their key players. Larry Walker and Moises Alou left as free agents, while Ken Hill, John Wetteland, and Pedro Martinez were all traded in the following years. Making matters worse, every other MLB team knew the Expos were close to bankruptcy and had virtually no leverage involving trades, so Montreal ended up getting very little in return for their players.
The combination of the strike and the fire sale of players left Expos fans disgusted with their club. As the team finished in last place in 1995, attendance dipped below an average of 20,000 fans per game and would never again reach above that mark. In order to address the attendance problems, Claude Brochu began to pitch to his partners the idea of building a new stadium, one closer to Montreal’s population center and closer to local entertainment districts. The concept stadium called Labatt Park, was announced in 1997 and would seat about 35,000 people. It was designed with a retro-classic feel, with the old Bonaventure railway station as it’s main design influence. The project had a budget of $250 million dollars and was hoped to be completed before the 2001 season. However, the plan fell through when the $150 million that Brochu sought from the provincial government of Quebec refused to pay, citing yet to be paid debts from Olympic Stadium’s construction as a main concern. Many of Brochu’s partners wanted to just sell the team instead, and began to openly question Brochu’s leadership as managing general partner. Some of the other partners even accused Brochu of having a secret deal with MLB’s commissioner Bud Selig to move the team to Washington DC. With all of this turmoil happening behind the scenes, Brochu was eventually replaced with minority stake holder Jeffrey Loria (seen here as the grown up version of the evil plotting baby). Loria, an American art dealer who had no real prior experience running a baseball club, sought to bring major changes to the team and succeeded in many intended and unintended ways.
Before Jeffrey Loria had become the new managing general partner, he had previously tried to buy the Expos in 1991 but was ultimately rejected in favor of Claude Brochu’s offer instead. By 1999, Loria had purchased a 24 percent stake in the team, and would eventually over the next two years end up with a 93 percent of the team’s shares. Once Loria took control over the Expos, he made it well known that the days of cheap spending were over, and that the team would be aggressive in trying to win. Loria was seen by some as a potential savior for the franchise, but Loria quickly ran into the same issues as his predecessor did.
Many of the other business partners involved with the Expos refused to spend more on the team, and wanted to trade key assets like all star player Vladimir Guerrero. Loria outright refused, and tried to focus his energy on getting a new stadium built with the help of the city of Montreal and the province of Quebec. Loria proposed cost cutting measures to the Labatt Park project, swapping the retro-classic design for a more modern and sleek look. But once again, both the city and provincial government refused to pay for any part of a new stadium. And to top it off, MLB after also being asked by Loria for financial help, said that Lobatt Park’s new design was structurally unsound. In another move to increase cash flow, Loria thought it would be a brilliant idea to demand more money from the Expos television and radio broadcast partners. But the team’s English speaking TV or Radio broadcasters both refused to pay the increased rate, and so for the 2000 season the Expos went without English broadcasts.
By 2001, with the fans obviously irate at the lack of over the air coverage for the team, the Expos drew just under 650,000 for the entire season. At this point, with MLB claiming that they were struggling financially, the league decided to take the unusual step of holding a vote for contraction of the league. MLB singled out the Montreal Expos and the Minnesota Twins as two clubs that potentially could fold, thus shrinking the league down to 28 teams from 30. On November 6 2001, the owners voted 28-2 in favor of contracting the league (with the two teams voting against, of course being the Expos and Twins). Commissioner Bud Selig stated the two teams “had a long record of failing to generate enough revenues to operate a viable major league franchise.” However, fortunately for both teams that contraction plan fell through when a Minnesota court ruled that Twins must play out the rest of their lease with the Metrodome (which ran through 2002). With the ruling, and multiple legal challenges by the player’s association, MLB officially backed off plans for contraction.
Not long after, Loria decided to sell the Expos to MLB for $120 million dollars and then he turned around and used that money to buy the Florida Marlins from owner John Henry, who then used that money to purchase the Boston Red Sox. With the musical chairs of ownership happening, the Expos ended up being literally owned by the 29 other clubs in baseball. Loria took everything he could with him to Florida, including the Expos team computers, and scouting information. Montreal’s general manager, Omar Minaya (hired by MLB from the New York Mets), felt that if the Expos could have a successful postseason run, it might spark reinvigorated interest in the team as it did for the Mariners when they got a new stadium built after their iconic 1995 playoff run. With that in mind, Minaya completed a blockbuster trade for all star pitcher Bartolo Colon from the Cleveland Indians. Unfortunately, the Expos lost their early season momentum and finished the 2002 season second in the NL east but it was their first winning season since 1996.
After surviving the contraction attempt, the Expos were once again momentarily saved by the new collective bargaining agreement which stated that no contractions could take place until 2006. Looking to boost revenue, MLB decided that for the 2003 season 22 of the 81 home games would be played in San Juan, Puerto Rico, instead of Montrael. The Expos once again performed surprisingly well that season, finding themselves in a four way tie for a wild card spot by late August. However, Bud Selig announced that the Expos would not do the customary September call ups for any players from the minors which usually adds depth to a team’s lineup. Deflated, Montreal faded from the standings and finished second to last in the NL east.
Relocation and Future (2005 – Present)
The Expos once again split time between San Jan and Montreal for the 2004 season. They got off to a slow start, and never ended up gaining any traction, finishing the season with 67 wins and 95 losses. On September 29, 2004 MLB officially announced that after an extensive search for various relocation sites, they had settled on Washington D.C. as the new home for the Expos. That same night, the Expos played their last ever game in Montreal, a somber 9-1 loss coincidentally to Jeffrey Loria’s Florida Marlins. A few days later, the Expos traveled to New York and fittingly played their last ever franchise game where they played their first ever game, at Shea Stadium against the Mets. The following season the Expos moved to Washington D.C. and became the Washington Nationals, inspired by the two American league teams that existed between 1901 and 1971, who used both Senators and Nationals as nicknames.
Meanwhile, the Expos old mascot Youppi! Who was first introduced in 1979 after replacing the team’s short lived first mascot “Souki” (after he apparently and this is true, scared too many little children) – Sadly was left without a team to root for. Various local teams around Montreal offered to have Youppi as their mascot, but the Montreal Canadiens stepped in and made a deal with MLB to buy the rights to Youppi from them. With his debut on October 18, 2005, Youppi became the first mascot in professional sports to change leagues. Major League Baseball did find it’s way back to Montreal, when ten years afte r the Expos left, Montreal hosted two spring training games between the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Mets in 2014. Over the two games, 96,350 packed in Olympic Stadium and let the baseball world know that they wanted their Expos back.
Since baseball left Montreal, there’s been rumors of MLB possibly exploring expanding by adding two new teams in the near future, with Montreal typically at the top of the rumored list. The city has remained attractive due it’s large extended population center of 4.2 million people and it’s rich baseball history, however the weak Canadien dollar in comparison to the American dollar would be a major drawback in considerations. MLB’s commissioner Rob Manfred has stated repeatedly that the league won’t consider expansion until the Oakland A’s and Tampa Rays stadium situations are resolved. Both teams are looking to build new stadiums, and have used relocations to other cities as a possible threat. Recently, there’s been a proposed plan to build a brand new stadium near the Peel Basin area of Montreal. The concept was formulated by an investment group headed by the Expo’s former owner Charles Bronfman’s son, Stephen Bronfamn (appearing on the right) and the former president of the Montreal Canadiens Pierre Boivin (appearing on the left). The idea being that the Tampa Bay Rays could split their season between playing in Tampa and in Montreal (similar to how the Expos split their time between the city and San Juan). As of the recording of this video, there’s been no definitive timetable to build this proposed stadium but who knows, maybe we’ll get to see the Montreal ExRays in the future!
The Expos legacy has continued to remain enduring, with merchandise sales of their old logo still performing strong. According to retailer Lids, sales of Expos hats have continued to rise every year with it climbing to their fifth most popular hat as of 2018. While the Washington Nationals have honored their Expos past in various ways, it wasn’t until 2019 that the Nationals wore Expos throwback uniforms for the very first time. Which was particularly meaningful, since the Nationals manager Dave Martinez once played for the Expos between 1988 and 1991.
But what did you guys think of the Expos leaving Montreal and becoming the Washington Nationals? Do you think that baseball could return to Montreal in the future? Let me know in the comments below! And while you’re here, check out some of the other All Sports History’s videos!