Montreal’s Baseball History Dates back to Canada’s earliest days
Many associate Montreal baseball with the Expos, and, certainly, with Jackie Robinson playing with the Montreal Royals in 1946 prior to cracking the Dodgers’ lineup. But Montreal played a major role in the Dodgers’ success for much more than just a single season and over a dozen Baseball Hall of Famers once called Montreal ballparks home.
Even more, the Montreal Royals have a connection to Canadian political icons past and present.
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According to Canadian baseball researcher William Humber, variations of baseball have been played north of the U.S. border since well before the British North America Act of 1867 united the British colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick.
The Act became effective on July 1, 1867, with the date becoming known as Dominion Day and, later, as Canada Day.
Quebecois immigrants to the United States in the 1ate 1800s, Humber writes, “despaired however of the lost French culture and language skills among their children. They sent them back to Quebec for a high school and college education but of course these Franco Americans brought their new hobbies with them, one of them being baseball.”
The earliest minor league teams known to exist in Montreal played in the International Association in 1890, though the two were short-lived. An early iteration of the Royals won the Eastern League pennant in 1898, but success was fleeting thereafter, even under future Hall of Famer Ed Barrow, who managed the club in 1904 and 1910. In the winter of 1918, Montreal ownership folded the team.
All told, the Montreal Royals would appear in the International League’s championship series 11 times, all but once as a Dodgers’ affiliate. They won the Governors’ Cup seven times and captured the Junior World Series three times. In 1948, the Royals faced off against Brooklyn’s other Triple-A affiliate, the American Association’s St. Paul Saints, and won four-games-to-one.
After moving to Los Angeles – and already having closer Triple-A affiliates – a farm club in Montreal playing to sparse crowds at the aging Delorimier Stadium became expendable for the Dodgers. In Sept. 1960, with no plans to field a team there in 1961, Los Angeles gave a Canadian group the option to buy the Montreal franchise. When that sale fell through, Calvin Griffith, whose newly relocated Minnesota club agreed to a working agreement with Montreal.
Ultimately, a group of Syracuse investors came together in Jan. 1961 and purchased the Montreal franchise, moving it to the Salt City. When National League owners convened on May 27, 1968, to approve expansion teams for the 1969 season, the Montreal bid had seemed like a longshot throughout the process. Walter O’Malley, who sat on the expansion committee with Pittsburgh’s John Galbreath and Houston’s Roy Hofheinz, surely had sentimental feelings about the city in which he once had a prominent farm club.
Gerry Snyder, Montreal’s executive committee vice-chairman, pushed the bid, which was backed in part by Jean-Louis Levesque, owner of the local Blue Bonnets Raceway; Charles Bronfman of Seagram’s; and C. Robert Irsay, an industrialist from Chicago who would later find prominence in National Football League ownership circles.
Snyder said “it was a surprise” to receive the expansion franchise, but that Montreal had “the population, the sports background and we have proven ourselves in other ways – Expo, the subway and other things.”
Bavasi, now part of the other triumphant bid from San Diego, said “he wasn’t surprised at the selection of Montreal,” noting that the club “drew more than 650,000” in attendance one year during his tenure there between 1948 and 1950.
Despite growing pains associated with being a franchise starting from scratch, the Expos developed many of their own stars, including Raines, Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Larry Walker, and Vladimir Guerrero, becoming nos amours to their fans throughout Montreal, Canada, and the world. The Expos were – and remain – beloved, but Montreal’s first baseball love affair was with the Royals.
Matt Rothenberg is the manager of the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum