The national pastime's Canadian caper began in a National League meeting in Chicago on May 27, when, to the surprise of almost everyone, Montreal was accepted for membership as an expansion franchise in 1969. Unfortunately, about eight minutes later things began to cloud up and they have remained remarkably fuzzy ever since. In fact, it now seems quite possible that Montreal will not have a franchise after next Thursday, August 15. That is the deadline, when, all kidding aside, an initiation fee of $1,120,000 in U.S. money must be handed over to the National League.
As dark as the situation now appears for Montreal, if the city's recent history of rising to and surpassing the occasion is any criterion, National League President Warren Giles will be sitting in his office in the Carew Tower in Cincinnati at 11:59 p.m. next Thursday, when, in a flourish, Sergeant Preston will enter, his loyal husky King panting by his side (the office is 26 flights up), clamping $1,120,000 in crisp $1,000 bills in his teeth. "Down, King, down, you husky," the brave Mountie cries as King jumps up on Giles' desk and starts spewing money all over the road maps spread out there. But look: $1,120,000. "This case is closed," Sergeant Preston intones, as is his custom.
King, being no dummy, sniffs around and finds Walter O'Malley hiding behind a curtain and joyously begins licking his hand. The Montreal Mounties or Phantoms or whatevers go on to become the most successful franchise in baseball. Montreal's promised domed stadium is built on schedule by 1972, the NFL falls all over itself rushing to put a team in there, Montreal is awarded the 1976 Olympics, and everybody forgets what a botch it all was.
But it has been some mess in Montreal ever since May 27, and sadly, one must assume that Sergeant Preston will not close this case. Instead, sometime before August 15 Seagrams whiskey heir Charles Bronfman, who has become chairman of the Phantoms by default (after multimillionaire Jean Louis Levesque quit), will probably call Giles and tell him the jig is up.
August 11, 1968
If this happens, the fun will really start for the National League. The league can choose to switch the franchise to Buffalo, Dallas-Fort Worth, a large barge out beyond the three-mile limit or any number of other places that do not have major league stadiums. Or it can return to the scene of its crime, Milwaukee, which happens to be the only city that does have an available satisfactory park. Either way it will be terribly embarrassing, which is why the National League keeps cooing sweet nothings whenever it is suggested that there just might be a problem in Montreal.
The problem is there, though, and it is the stadium; or rather, the problem is there but the stadium is not. Teams do not really move to cities anymore. They move to stadiums, and Montreal, which does not have to concern itself with messy referendums that involve voters, as do cities in the U.S., got the franchise primarily because Mayor Jean Drapeau, an effervescent little La Guardian dynamo, was able by himself to absolutely promise the league that Montreal would construct a magnificent domed stadium by 1971. For the interim, he also committed the city to refurbishing and enlarging a 26,000-seat Stonehenge called the Autostade.
It certainly was a feasible plan, but even though the mayor's party controls 45 of 48 seats on the city council, which must approve such matters, Montreal was suddenly caught up in a wave of social concern—the same concern that has made it difficult for U.S. politicians to approve such goodies as stadiums that invariably cost up to twice their fanciful estimates ($35 million in Montreal). For essentially the same reasons, the Massachusetts legislature killed a Boston stadium bill last month.
It is probably not just coincidence that Drapeau—invariably voluble on any subject related to his beloved Montreal—retreated from public inquiry, and the owners soon began to accuse him of "hedging" on the domed stadium shortly after a stinging editorial appeared in The Montreal Star on May 29. The editorial, entitled We can't survive only on circuses, said in part:
"This is a city in which too many people go to bed hungry, in which thousands of citizens suffer inadequate housing, in which disadvantaged children have no public-sponsored preschooling, in which free public parks suddenly require a $2.50 admissions tag, in which too many men, women and children are struggling to subsist on inadequate welfare handouts....
"We think we're ready for big-league baseball; we think Montrealers will support their new team. But let the team owners build their own stadium."
Canadian owners, like their American brethren, consider stadium building as strictly a civic enterprise. Besides going to games, what else are taxpayers for? And the mayor, for once, has had some problems of his own. Man and His World, a permanent, reconstituted version of the fantastically successful Expo '67, is an outstanding exhibition, but it is losing money. The mayor did come up with a marvelously fey device called a "voluntary tax"—purists would call it a good old-fashioned lottery—and while it is bringing in $1 million a month, no one expects it to outlast the first court test. It is no time to be asking for a $35 million stadium even if it actually turned out to cost $35 million.
The mayor has tried to placate the owners, assuring them that he is only waiting for a ripe future moment to introduce the stadium bill, but the owners, all sage businessmen, are no longer prepared to proceed on faith. Since the mayor will not talk there is really no way of knowing, but it is not above conjecture to imagine that he may be delaying until he can fill an inside straight. If Montreal is awarded the '76 Olympics and if it can get some guarantee of an NFL franchise, a stadium could then be more easily rationalized. Drapeau is already at work on the 1976 Olympics, even though they fall in the year of the 200th anniversary of the United States, a large republic of gun slingers and credit-card holders that lies directly south of the Dominion.
Gerry Snyder, vice-chairman of the city executive committee, the highest-ranking English-speaking Montreal official and the man who was almost solely responsible for the effort that won the baseball team, says matter-of-factly: "It's unfortunate for Americans and I know it's unfair, but I know the people who vote, and they'll just never give the Olympics to the States." Snyder entertains even less doubt that Montreal will obtain an NFL team as soon as the stadium becomes a reality. But the baseball owners will not play a waiting game.
"I don't want to criticize the city," says Bronfman, who is a great admirer of Drapeau. "The city does have a problem. It has the stadium on the one hand, and, on the other, it must try to provide some kind of protection for investors. After all, we are prepared to assume legitimate business risks—and we have examined this situation carefully—and a franchise, frankly, at best offers only marginal return."
It is, then, essentially a case where honorable, responsible men on both sides made blithe commitments that were never seriously thought out. The city—Snyder, anyway—may have had at least a hunch that it would win the franchise, but none of the owners ever even imagined that they might actually have a team to own. As a result, almost from the first there were rumors, eventually substantiated, that some of the sponsors wanted out.
This led to a remarkable public confessional that was issued to the league at the Houston Ail-Star Game meetings, when all seven of the original equal partners signed a statement to the effect that they would not desert the enterprise. The league, which has been either terribly indulgent or simply naive all along, was so taken by this that it cooed some more and said the domed stadium would not have to be ready until 1972.
And vengeance rent the Texas air. "The vultures from Milwaukee, Buffalo and Dallas were here," the Montreal team lawyer, Jonathon Robinson, said. "They left disappointed. When the season opens next April, Montreal will be in there."
Back from Houston, however, the malaise only set in deeper as the owners waited for the mayor to fulfill his promise. Additional but futile pressure was also applied to have the Autostade covered as well; the most fetching scheme suggested that it be made to resemble a modernistic tent, like the popular Expo German pavilion. Then, only two weeks after the Houston declaration, the two French-Canadian owners pulled out. One was Levesque, who demanded written assurances from the city on such subjects as the stadium, concession revenues and a tax deal. When none came within the 48-hour limit he set, he quit.
Bronfman, who then moved up to head the team, followed with a private letter of his own to the mayor. The letter was necessary, Bronfman said, to place his own account on the record, and among other things, "to protect myself" from any charges of ethnic bias or strife. Eighty-two percent of Montreal is French-speaking, and the team would enjoy no chance for success if the dominant French-Canadian element was alienated. There is, however, absolutely no evidence of French-English conflict. The French press and community have remained more cordial, in fact, to the operation than have the English-speaking. "Jean Louis Levesque left because he just doesn't like politicians," one of his associates explained. He also, apparently, did not like the chances for his money.
Last week Bronfman made assurances that substitute owners had been found and that one was French. He also said that "understandings" had been reached with eight potential employees, including a general manager who is presumed to be John McHale, Commissioner Eckert's aide. But all signings and operations continue to await the stadium commitment.
Montreal has now squabbled so long with itself that even if the owners are satisfied and hand over the $1,120,000 in time, there are still great problems facing the Phantoms. San Diego, under former Dodger General Manager Buzzie Bavasi, was voted in hours after Montreal, but is already months ahead in its operation. Not one ticket has been sold in Montreal. The other 23 major league teams have gone ahead and set up their spring-training schedules without leaving room for anyone to play exhibitions against the Canadian entry. With time piddling away, the owners themselves are beginning to doubt that the Autostade can be fixed up for the start of the season.
"You know you can't even ask me that question," Bronfman replies, plaintive and honest.
It is ironic, but the chaos of the last months has all but dissipated original emotional arguments against a Montreal membership in the great American pastime. These complaints—that Montreal was too cold and was foreign—were all but specious anyway. Montreal's mean temperature is only 42° in April, but it has no lien on harsh spring weather. It is a balmy 44° in Minneapolis-St. Paul in April, and five other major league cities—"as well as Buffalo and Milwaukee—also average below 50°.
Montreal is, after all, only 30 miles from the U.S. border, and traditionalists and America-firsters might also note that it is closer to Cooperstown than all but one U.S. franchise city. Montreal has, in fact, a substantial baseball heritage, and there is hardly a player who played for the old International League Royals who was not pleased to see Montreal welcomed to the majors.
Charles Trudeau, father of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, was once an owner of the Royals, who were, in the years following World War II, the greatest minor league team in baseball. Buzzie Bavasi ran the Royals. Walt Alston managed them and most of the great Dodgers prepped there. Jackie Robinson began his career, and that of all Negroes, at Montreal in 1946. The team drew as many as 600,000 some seasons, and in 1949 showed a profit of $332,000. The French-Canadians were hardly less enthusiastic about baseball than they are about hockey. They would pile off streetcars and into old Delorimier Downs to see the Royals. Delorimier was not just a stadium. A dance hall, a tavern and a printing press were among just some of the other businesses located on the premises, and Bavasi helped team profits further by striking a bargain with the tavern owner to permit, for a cut, thirsty Royals patrons to repair to the pub between innings.
Montreal itself is not just a city. It is a confluence of human currents, of French and English, of puritan Catholic and raucous libertine, of cosmopolitan and honky-tonk. Expo and the other Drapeauvian wonders have uplifted the citizenry. Once a wide-open Prohibition retreat, which Americans escaped to for good whiskey and bad women, Montreal now is bright and burgeoning. The men talk proud, and the women—short-skirted, saucer-eyed and full-bosomed—walk pretty. The metropolitan area has a population of 2,500,000—larger than 13 U.S. major league metropolises. The ball team would also truly enjoy, as Expo did, a national rooting constituency of 20 million. Television would carry the games all over the Dominion.
The venture is apparently not yet altogether lost, though, and besides, Mayor Drapeau has been fielding hasty epitaphs and throwing them back for years now. "How can anyone dispute him anymore?" asks Red Fisher, the cryptic sports columnist on the Star. "Everytime he has a baby, it's triplets."
On, King, on you huskies, on to Cincinnati.