Fifty years ago this week.
Half a century if you want it in poignant terms. The specific date on the calendar was April 8, 1969. It was a sunny spring day in Nova Scotia, a snowy day down in New York.
I zero in on the anniversary for two reasons.
First, it was the day Jane and I were moving from New Glasgow to Dartmouth. For years thereafter, she told people how I was so emotional as we left Temperance Street, my home for 30 years, 10 months and 14 days. Why can’t I stop counting days and be like normal people?
I had promised Jane, when we married 16 months earlier, that we would be living in Halifax-Dartmouth in less than two years. I kept the promise, thanks to The Chronicle Herald summoning me to the big city to become the paper’s provincial editor.
That’s one thing. But, these 50 years later, how do I make it a sports topic?
Easier than you think. The second matter of significance that day was the Montreal Expos were playing their very first major league game. It was in New York’s Shea Stadium — and the first time a Canadian team was squeezing its way into the American fabric.
No, I didn’t miss seeing that historic event.
The moving van had reached our new address in the early afternoon, less than an hour before the game came on the CBC. There was no Sportsnet, no TSN. (I said it was a long time ago.)
Before the first pitch was thrown, the movers had made me a comfortable seat atop a cardboard box filled with bathroom linen. It gave me the feeling I was sitting in the stands somewhere out in centre field. The two young guys doing the lifting never asked me to give them a hand. They actually apologized that there were no hotdogs or soft drinks.
The tiny TV screen — it truly was tiny compared to what we have nowadays — was balanced on another cardboard box in the living room as Dave Van Horne, Ron Reusch and Russ Taylor began describing the scene.
Remember how it unfolded?
Snow was falling at Shea, a befitting way to remind American fans that this new team was from the great white north. That made it easier to remember the Expos’ inaugural. The 44,000 spectators in New York didn’t look very comfortable as the field got whiter and whiter.
I always recalled how the action got rather wild and crazy in the conditions. Lots of hitting and little pitching. No, I couldn’t recall the final score after 50 years. I had to do online research to get the statistical details.
The scoreboard showed the Expos winning 11-6 entering the bottom of the eighth inning when they almost blew the lead. New York got four runs, making it 11-10 and an exciting finish.
When I started thinking about that first Montreal contest recently, I asked a good New Glasgow buddy what he recalled about the debut. Even though he still gets around the old town with an Expos hat on his head – he still buys those red, white and blue ones — he had difficulty remembering the 1969 game.
The first Montreal home run? It was hit by a pitcher, Dan McGinn. But right fielder Rusty Staub, one of the franchise’s first heroes, also hit for the distance.
The biggest blast of the day? A three-run shot by third baseman Coco Laboy, who became an instant Expos hero. Speaking of Laboy, it was great seeing him in Montreal when the Toronto Blue Jays wound up their 2019 spring training schedule.
The Expos’ first-ever lineup card? Catcher John Bateman, first baseman Bob Bailey, second baseman Gary Sutherland, Laboy at the hot corner, Maury Wills at shortstop, and outfielders Mack Jones, Don Hahn and Staub.
Montreal manager Gene Mauch used five pitchers in the victory — starter Mudcat Grant, who didn’t get out of the second inning; McGinn, Jerry Robertson, Don Shaw and Carroll Sembra. Shaw got the win, Sembra the save.
Oh, I almost forgot to say — it wasn’t in the boxscore — our two movers finished their work halfway through the game. And I managed to get into a real chair for the final innings. But there were still no hotdogs.
While I cheered for the Canadian club that day, I never did become an Expos fan, even though I attended many of their games in Montreal, first in Jarry Park, then in the Big Owe, many while on vacation, many more when in Montreal on assignment. Instead, I remained loyal to the New York Yankees — until the Blue Jays flew into Toronto.
During the years when the Nova Scotia Voyageurs were based in Halifax, I was sports editor at the paper and, each spring, I covered the NHL meetings that were always held in Montreal.
Year after year, I was wined and dined by Montreal Canadiens people like Sam Pollock, Floyd Curry and Scotty Bowman. That, of course, was because the Voyageurs were then Montreal’s farm team. Hockey people always made sure the meetings were in the city during Expos home stands.
Though I’ve been a Blue Jays fan now for 42 years — so much so that Jays dominate my fantasy league lineups season after season — I do regret the demise of the Expos, now deceased for 15 years.
Will we ever see the Expos back in business?
Despite some unofficial behind-the-scenes movements in Montreal, I doubt very much it will happen in my lifetime – or in the lifetime of anyone in my age bracket. Baseball isn’t ready yet for a second Expos era.
It’s too bad. I’d love to see the Jays and Expos battling in the same division — as long as I didn’t have to sit on a cardboard box to watch the activities.