No Expos without a stadium, said MLB. But it didn't stop Jean Drapeau

While trying to lure Major League Baseball to Montreal, Jean Drapeau faced the first iteration of what has become a familiar problem in this city — there was no baseball stadium for the team to play in.

The former mayor of Montreal's archives were recently made public, and his collection chronicles a busy time in the city's history.

Carbon copies of two letters in particular provide a glimpse into how the Montreal Expos came to be, and how the months before opening day turned into a bit of a scramble — especially when it came to where the team would play.

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Uncertainty regarding baseball stadiums in Montreal isn't exactly unheard of. The promise of a new downtown stadium, one that would allow the Expos to leave the much-maligned Olympic Stadium behind, was floated near the end of the team's time in Montreal. That stadium was never built.

And questions are once again being asked about where a baseball team would play if one were to return in the future.

But, I digress. Back to 1967.

No suitable MLB facilities

In the late 60s, Drapeau appeared on The Ed Sullivan show — twice. People knew his name. Expo 67 had been a resounding success, and Montreal was on the rise.

Basking in the glow of Expo, Drapeau sent a letter to Warren Giles, president of the National League, in November 1967, asking what Montreal had to do to land a team.

Francis J. Menten/Radio-Canada
Francis J. Menten/Radio-Canada

Giles's reply referred to Montreal as a "fine city," but he got to the point right off the bat, so to speak.

"It is my understanding there are presently no facilities in Montreal suitable for playing Major League Baseball," he said, informing Drapeau he would need to come up with a plan for a stadium.

(His letter also mentioned the requirement of an owner or group of owners willing to shell out between $6 million and $9 million to buy a team, which also proved to be a touch complicated. But the ownership saga is a story for another day.)

The plan Drapeau proposed to Major League Baseball appears to have been for the team to play in a renovated Autostade, the concrete stadium built to host outdoor events during Expo on a temporary basis, then move into its own stadium after a few years.

On May 27, 1968, MLB awarded San Diego and Montreal the two newest National League teams. It was no small feat — Montreal became the first city outside the U.S. to have an MLB team.

That July, Giles wrote a letter to Gerry Snyder, the vice-chair of Montreal's executive committee and the driving force behind efforts to land the team. The tone was ... terse.

Giles spoke of the league's "growing concern" about delays in Montreal.

"I have had two telephone calls and one letter from owners of clubs in the league, they are urging that we have a firm commitment regarding the construction and availability of the covered stadium in Montreal," he wrote.

Giles gave Montreal eight days — until a planned league meeting in Houston — to get it in writing that a proposed closed stadium would be ready in time for the 1972 season, and that the Autostade would be ready for opening day in 1969 through to the end of the 1971 season.

Baseball as a boon

Did Drapeau respond? Did Snyder? It's not clear, at least not from the documents Drapeau chose to stow away all these years.

What we do know is that plans to play in the Autostade eventually fell through. At the eleventh hour, Jarry Park became the team's home. The first game there took place April 14, 1969, under blue skies.

The team played there until they moved into their permanent home, the Olympic Stadium, for the 1977 season.

In the early days of the Expos' existence, Drapeau received congratulatory letters and telegrams for his efforts from all corners of the league — including from the NL president himself.

One of Drapeau's goals was to make Montreal an international city, and he felt that to achieve that status, the city needed a baseball team, said Mario Robert, head archivist for the city.

"Mayor Drapeau, I don't know if he loved baseball. I don't think he was a baseball fan ... but he was a lover of Montreal, and he wanted Montreal to be one of the great cities of the world."

More from Drapeau's archives

John McHale, the president of the ball club, wrote Drapeau a letter in 1968, asking him to get in touch with someone from the phone company and clear up a little issue.

Apparently, people were calling the operator, trying to get in touch with the Expos. The operators, unaware of the team's existence, responded that the event was over. They thought people were calling about Expo 67.

A letter sent to Drapeau in 1968 from "a one-time fan," postmarked from Milwaukee, tried to convince the mayor to abort his mission to bring baseball to Montreal.

"Don't be a sucker and spend a fortune for a dome or increased seating capacity. The public won't support it enough to get your money back in 100 years," said the writer. The Milwaukee Braves had left town a few years earlier — which may explain the disillusioned (or downright salty) tone of the letter.

CBC
CBC

Ron Hunka, the director of sports at CBC Television, sent the mayor an apologetic telex April 11, 1969. CBC never showed the mayor's ceremonial opening pitch on the first day of the season, a road game in New York against the Mets, because it happened during a commercial break. "[We] promise that we won't miss your opening pitch in the Expos' first World Series game," the note concluded.

Drapeau sent a response, saying the apology was unnecessary — the pitch "was not so good after all."

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