LETTERS FROM QUEBEC: An Expos Birthdayâ€¦
â€œGerry was a great salesman,â€ the friend said. â€œHow else could he have convinced Walter Oâ€™Malley to bring major league baseball to Montreal?â€
Remember this date – May 27, 1968. It is as significant as any in the history of the organization we once called the Expos.
Although pretty well forgotten now, May 27 was the day, 42 years ago, that the National League declared its intention to place an expansion team in the city of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, for the start of the 1969 season.
For the first time ever, big league baseball would be coming to Canada; for the first time ever, the major leagues were about to extend their reach beyond the U.S. border.
No one believed it possible
That is, no one apart from the two men who made it happen, Montrealâ€™s flamboyant Mayor, Jean Drapeau, and his side-kick and Ã©minence grise, Gerry Snyder. Snyder was an elected city councilor and long-serving chairman of the mayorâ€™s Executive Committee. And when the situation called for it, he also became, in the words of the Montreal Gazette, the cityâ€™s â€œfreewheeling sports ambassador.â€
Many would say this was his most important portfolio.
â€œNobody believed me,â€ Snyder once told former Expos beat-writer Danny Gallagher, co-author of Remembering the Montreal Expos, a book he and I wrote together in 2005. â€œThe people on radio and television thought it was a big joke. Oh, yeah. Whenever Iâ€™d see them at a golf tournament or whatever, theyâ€™d have these sarcastic looks on their faces. Theyâ€™d say: â€˜Good luck, youâ€™ll need it.â€™â€
Snyder, an outstanding local athlete in his own right, had gained fame within the neighbourhood as founder of Montrealâ€™s famous Snowden Fastball League. A highly competitive circuit, the league had often included Montreal Canadiens hockey players among its number, and on several occasions during the 1950s it sent teams to the World Fastball Championships.
Snyder had been thinking about and working toward bringing a major league team to Montreal ever since the International League Royals disbanded in 1960.
In 1962, he and a small delegation did get to meet with Commissioner Ford Frick to discuss the possibility. The encounter lasted all of 10 minutes. According to Gallagher, Frick asked if they had a stadium. When the answer was â€œNo,â€ the commissioner snapped, â€œWell, when you have a stadium, come back and see me.â€
Snyderâ€™s baseball project remained on the back burner until 1967 when a couple of things happened. Montreal hosted Expo 67, generally conceded to have been the greatest and most successful Worldâ€™s Fair of the modern era. Suddenly no dream was impossible, no challenge too daunting.
And the American League announced plans to expand into Kansas City and Seattle for 1969. This was the moment of opportunity Snyder had been praying for.
Sensing that the National League would respond with an expansion plan of its own, he got busy. He lined up backers, revisited the stadium question, lobbied different levels of government, fueled the Mayorâ€™s enthusiasm – and made himself known to Major League Baseball.
â€œI started going to a number of NL meetings and Iâ€™d meet up with the expansion committee which included Walter Oâ€™Malley of the Dodgers,â€ Snyder told Gallagher. â€œI got along good with Oâ€™Malley.â€
Oâ€™Malley had assured Snyder, â€œI know what Montreal can do. I made a lot of money there with the Montreal Royals.â€
Together the two men convinced Oâ€™Malleyâ€™s expansion committee colleagues â€“ Roy Hofheinz, Houston; John Galbraith, Pittsburgh; and National League president, Warren Giles â€“ of the merits of Montrealâ€™s bid.
The decision was formally announced in Chicago on May 27, 1968, following an all-day, closed-door meeting during which applications from Buffalo, Dallas, Fort Worth, Milwaukee and San Diego, as well as Montreal, had been considered.
When the committee finally emerged into the light it declared that two dark-horse candidates, San Diego and Montreal, had been selected. These clubs would join a reconfigured, 12-team National League, ready to take the field in 1969.
So unexpected was the announcement that Montreal media were taken completely by surprise. Apart from the French-language daily, La Presse, which had two reporters on site, none had even bothered to send representatives to the Windy City cover the story..
When the Montreal Gazette heralded the good news on the following morning with a banner headline – Major League Baseball Expanding to Montreal: National League Club Here in 1969 – the supporting story was nothing more than an AP release pulled off the wire.
But to be fair, even Gerry Snyder was caught off guard. â€œYes it was a surprise,â€ he told Ted Blackman of the Gazette, â€œIâ€™d say the judgment was reached on the terms of big business.â€
Acknowledging the international communityâ€™s favourable disposition a confident, post-Worldâ€™s Fair Montreal, Snyder added: â€œWe have the population, the sports background and we have proven ourselves in other ways â€“ Expo, the subway and other things.â€
It had been a long time coming. But finally, thanks to Mayor Drapeauâ€™s vision and the dogged determination of Gerry Snyder, we had our team.
Never mind that the road ahead would be a rocky one. We had our team.
And for the moment that was enough.
Gerry Snyder died in Montreal on November 26, 2007 of complications after a fall. He was 87.
Bill, a native of Quebec City, has been a SABR member since 20001 and was a founder of the SABR-Quebec Chapter in 2005.Â He collaborated with Danny Gallagher on the best-selling Remembering the Montreal Expos, and has published a number of articles about minor league ball in Quebec, particularly with respect to the Provincial League.