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Saturday, 15 September 2012

Baseball Memories

I was a 5 year old kid growing up in Montreal when I first discovered baseball. We spent part of the summer in 1952 in a small village called Chateuguay just across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal. One day my grandfather took me for a walk that included crossing a railway bridge. We stopped off at a local convenience store and my grandfather bought me my first pack of baseball cards. One of cards had a picture of pitcher Bob Lemon on it. The card also had the logo for the Cleveland Indians which was a smiling American Indian with big teeth. I didn’t have a clue where Cleveland was.
We lived in a fourplex in the N.D.G. area for most of the 1950s until about half way through the 1960s. A guy who was about 4 years older than me lived downstairs from us and he was a big baseball fan. His name was Peter Tellier. Often on Sunday mornings, he would throw a ball against the wall of our building for hours on end. The sound drove my father crazy and I remember him saying “That damned Dogan is stotting the ball against the wall again!” I can’t recall ever hearing the word “stotting” again in my life.
Peter was a bit of a jock. He was the kind of guy who would organize street hockey games or round up some kids to play baseball behind West Hill High School. Getting 18 kids together to do anything is a bit of a feat in itself. Little league baseball in Montreal didn’t exist back then in Montreal as far as I know. I remember organized hockey and football at Terrebonne Park but not baseball.
Peter Tellier and me on Harvard Avenue about 1954.
Peter was the kind of guy who loved to talk about sports. He would tell us about seeing the Montreal Royals baseball team at Delormier Stadium. The Royals played in The International League that included The Havana Sugar Kings. Jackie Robinson broke into baseball with the Royals and at one time Chuck Connors, The Rifleman, played first base for them.
I believe Peter pitched for the local N.D.G. junior baseball team in his late teens. He once told me he had been scouted by the Philadelphia Phillies.
In the 1950s the World Series was a big deal for a lot of young boys, even in Montreal, and because the games were played in the daytime a few of us brought transistor radios to school. I used to follow the baseball standings in the sports pages of the Montreal Gazette and just about every year it came down to what team the New York Yankees were going to play in the Series. I had become a baseball fan. I even had an Al Kaline fielder’s mitt.
In the autumn of 1960 I was home sick from school for about a week. I had the good fortune of witnessing one of the best World Series ever on our black and white TV, propped up on our lumpy couch in the living room.
The Yankees were like the gods of baseball. They had players like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Tony Kubek, and Bobby Richardson. They had a crusty old manager named Casey Stengel and had won 6 World Series in the past decade. What team could hope to beat them?
Growing up In Montreal, I had never been a fan of the Canadiens hockey team. When Bobby Hull turned up I became a Blackhawks fan. For some reason I liked pulling for the underdog. In 1960 it didn’t take me long to start rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Even the name “pirate” had a bit of an allure.
About the only name player I was a bit familiar with on the Pirates was Roberto Clemente. Over the next several days I got to recognize all of them. Vernon “Deacon” Law, Smokey Burgess, Dick Groat, Harvey Haddix, Bob Friend, Don Hoak, Bill Virdon, and some guy who played second base, Bill Mazeroski.
The Series went back and forth and the Yankees evened things in game 6 by demolishing the Pirates 12-0. It was now down to the 7th and final game. Maybe it was too much to ask? Fate seemed to be on the side of the Yankees.
In game 7 the Pirates got out to a 2-0 lead after the 1st inning and bumped it up to 4-0 a few innings later. Then the Yankees started to come back. Can a 12 year old have a stroke? Both teams scored some more runs and by the beginning of the 9th inning the score was tied at 9-9. The Pirates managed to keep the Yankees off of the score sheet in the top of the 9th inning.
The first batter for the Pirates in the bottom of the 9th was second baseman Bill Mazeroski. The first pitch to him was a ball. And then it happened. Mazeroski hit the ball over the left field fence. It was over. The Pirates had won the World Series. It almost seemed like there was a moment of “Did this really happen?”

Bill Mazeroski's winning home run.
What a series! It didn’t get any better than this. A year later the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. I thought I was on a kind of roll picking underdogs.
I continued following the Pirates over the next several years in the sports pages. In 1971 they won the World Series again with players like Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Dave Cash, Manny Sanquillen, and Steve Blass. Once again it took seven games.
Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash off of the coast of Puerto Rico in the last day of 1972. He had chartered a plane bringing relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. The only teammate who missed Clemente’s memorial service was his good friend Manny Sanguillen who spent the day diving and trying to recover Clemente’s body. It was never found.

Roberto Clemente
In 1968, a year after Expo 67, it was announced that Montreal had been awarded a National League baseball franchise. A lot of the efforts to secure a team were headed by a Montrealer named Gerry Snyder. In 1969, the new team, now named the Montreal Expos, took to the playing field for the first time. They were made up mostly of fringe players and over the hill veterans from the other teams. This pool of rejects was shared by San Diego who had also been a awarded a franchise. The baseball park the Expos first played in was Jarry Park which only had a seating capacity of about 28,000.
Mack Jones, Manny Mota, Bill Stoneman, Bobby Wine, Bob Bailey, Carl Morton, Coco Laboy, and John Bocabella were some of the first Expo players. The team logo and name never seemed to make a lot of sense but the big deal was that Montreal finally had a team. And to top everything off in early 1969, before the team was in their first exhibition game, a trade was made to acquire outfielder Rusty Staub. Over the next several years Rusty became a god in Montreal and was known as Le Grand Orange.

I never got to Jarry Park but I religiously followed the “Spos” on the radio with Dave Van Horne describing the games. For the first few years Van Horne was assisted by Ron Reusch and Russ Taylor, two really dull guys. Later Don Drysdale and Duke Snyder added a little more pizazz.
Nobody was expecting any miracles. A few years earlier baseball fans had witnessed the follies of another expansion team, the New York Mets. One of their pitchers, Roger Craig had a record of something like 1 win and 25 losses. They had a first baseman, Marv Throneberry, who was nicknamed “Stone Hands”. The aged Casey Stengel came out of retirement to coach them.
I left Montreal in about 1970 and lived in other places in Canada. I always kept track of the Expos and watched them on TV whenever I could. Over the years they had some really great players, many of them developed through their farm system. Rusty Staub became a bona fide star. Other great players were the high average hitter and base stealing whiz Tim Raines, second baseman Dave Cash, ace pitcher Steve Rogers, home run hitting outfielder Andre Dawson, and egocentric catcher Gary Carter. And of course, pot smoking pitcher Bill Lee.
A number of years later the Expos were loaded with talent and leading the league in wins. A baseball strike put an end to that. Eventually the crowds at Olympic Stadium where they were then playing, started to dwindle. The frost was off the pumpkin. A lot of the better players were shipped off. Management was in turmoil and less and less French Canadians had much interest in the sport. In some ways it was like a slow death of a game in a city that had introduced Jackie Robinson.
In 2005 the team moved to Washington, DC. Their new name was The Nationals. In some ways the end of the Expos was the end of my interest in baseball. The truth is that I had already lost interest years before. I never liked the idea of the New York Yankees ending up with the best players other teams had drafted and groomed. I didn’t like the steroid stuff and the amazing amount of home runs that were being hit by some. I really didn’t like seeing players with their pants bottoms dragging on the ground. I also didn’t like the economics of team owners threatening to leave cities if the local taxpayers didn’t cough up for a state of the art stadium.
I only ever made it to Olympic Stadium once to actually see the Expos and that was in 1982. Years later I saw the Seattle Mariners a few times at the old Kingdome. I tried following the Mariners for a bit but they seemed to mostly have one bad year after another. Like a lot of Canadians, I have never had much use for Toronto but sucked it up and enjoyed seeing the Blue Jays win a couple of World Series.
Steve Rogers on the big screen at the big O.
Expos game 1982.
My son played baseball until he was 18. When he was younger I was an assistant coach on his team for a few years. Back then, I was into riding my bike (that ended when I got a big dog) and every once in a while I would get off my bike and watch a local ball game for a bit of time. I’ve often thought that baseball is a bit like fishing. There might not be anything happening now but something could if you wait around long enough. In the meantime a hot dog might be a good idea.
Years ago I saw the occasional baseball game at Nat Bailey Stadium in Vancouver. Some years it was Triple A and other years it was Double A. (Baseball people know what I mean.) It only cost a couple of bucks to get in and they made most of their money from the concession stands. One day I kind of figured something out. The difference between major league baseball and Triple A is about 2 plays in a 9 inning game. A key hit to the opposite field or a circus catch out near the bleachers. Something like that.

Vancouver Canadians at Nat Bailey Stadium in Vancouver about 1994.

The Astroturf tells me that this PIC and the following pics were taken of the Vancouver Canadians at BC Place.

I’ve kind of given up on baseball. I would rather watch golf. I find the CFL far more entertaining than the NFL. In general there is far too much hype in professional sports. Monday Night Football often sucks. Cage fights seem a bit barbaric to me. Basketball is kind of a freak sport in that you pretty well have to be a giant to play it.  The one game that seems to have held its own over the years is hockey. (Honourable mention-tennis.) It is as good or better than it ever was. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we are going to get to see any NHL games this year.
Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio?

1 comment:

  1. Returning to Mtl in April 1981 after living in Oz for a few yrs, I asked my dad if he wanted to attend a double-header at Olympic to see the Expos with me & some of my friends. I was shocked when when he declined. Now nearing 60- his age then- the temperature was close to zero all day. Sipping beers on remote steel benches the sole relief.