Big league baseball makes its way north

By Kelly Anne Griffin

Canadians have been playing in various major baseball leagues since the 1870s. The first to do so was New Brunswick native Bill Phillips, who played first base for the Cleveland franchise. In 1883, Ontario native Tip O’Neill, the greatest pre-1900 Canadian player, would make his Major League Baseball (MLB) debut. Since then many have followed suit. The only Canadian to earn his place with a plaque on the walls of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, is Chatham, Ontario, native Ferguson Jenkins. Jenkins had a remarkable pitching career with 284 major league wins.

A black-and-white photograph of a pitcher throwing the ball from the mound. Behind him is a large score board displaying the score and outfielders preparing for the ball to come into play.

Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins pitching for the Chicago Cubs in a game against the Montreal Expos on September 19, 1970. Jenkins is now active in philanthropic work, including the Fergie Jenkins Foundation based out of St. Catharines, Ontario. Credit: Montreal Star (MIKAN 3195251)

While Jenkins is the only Canadian in Cooperstown, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in Saint Marys, Ontario, honours Canadians’ contributions to the game both on and off the field. Canada has also been home to two MLB franchises, starting with the National League expansion in 1968.

The Montreal Expos – Nos Amours

The Expos had an exhilarating first week. At Shea stadium on April 8, 1969, “O Canada” played at an MLB game for the first time, bringing team owner Charles Bronfman to tears and giving rise to “Les Expos, Nos Amours”, the nickname affectionately given to the team by fans. The exciting game ended with an 11 to 10 Expos win over the New York Mets. On April 14, in the first MLB game played outside the US, the Expos won over a packed house of fans at Jarry Park in Montreal. Three days later pitcher Bill Stoneman threw a no-hitter against the Phillies. Montreal was captivated and the wild ride began.

A coloured poster designed for the 1976 Olympic Games. It depicts three different views of the Olympic stadium built for the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.

The Olympic Stadium in Montreal was built for the 1976 Summer Olympics, and the Expos started playing there in 1977. The stadium was problematic as a baseball venue for many reasons, including structural issues with the roof and a thin astroturf that was notouriously hard on players’ knees. Since 2014, the Blue Jays have hosted exhibition games there. © Canadian Olympic Committee (MIKAN 3929420)

Despite an excellent farm system and outstanding talent, the Expos made it to the postseason only once, in 1981. Under the guidance of Canadian Baseball Hall-of-Fame manager Jim Fanning, the ’81 season saw Warren Cromartie, Andre Dawson and Gary Carter all hitting over .300, and Hall of Famer Tim Raines stealing a league-high 71 bases. The season, interrupted by a strike, saw them win the National League East title. They went on to play the Dodgers and came within one win of advancing to the World Series when Rick Monday hit a 9th inning home run securing Dodgers victory. That hit ended the Expos’ run and the fateful day became known as “Blue Monday” to fans.

A black-and-white cartoon showing a line of luxury cars driving in a circle around a baseball stadium. In the cars are characters leaning from the windows and holding signs with slogans, including "Unfair," "We Want Rights" and "Major League On Strike."

An editorial cartoon depicting Expos players on strike outside Olympic stadium in Montreal during the 1981 players’ strike. The strike caused the cancellation of 713 games in the middle of the season. Credit: Rusins Kaufmanis (MIKAN 2841681)

Ironically, a second work stoppage dashed fans’ hopes in 1994. In that magical season, manager Felipe Alou had the Expos sitting on top of the baseball world with a 74 wins and 40 losses record. The 232-day strike resulted in commissioner Bud Selig cancelling the World Series and so ending the chances of an Expos playoff run.

The franchise never recovered from the strike, either on the field or in the stands. In 2004, after 36 years, the Expos played their last game at Olympic stadium. The Expos’ first French-Canadian player, Claude Raymond, who had played in their inaugural 1969 season, gave a tearful final speech to fans, providing a bookend for the franchise.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Toronto Blue Jays were founded in 1977 as part of the American League expansion. The team has won six Eastern Division titles, two American League pennants and two World Series titles.

The Blue Jays first game in franchise history took place at Exhibition Stadium on April 7, 1977. Fans braved the unseasonably frigid temperatures to witness the historic event that resulted in a 9 to 5 win over the Chicago White Sox. An unknown first-baseman named Doug Ault slammed two homeruns to become the first Jays hero.

A black-and-white photograph of a baseball game. There’s a man who has just swung at the ball. Behind him is a man wearing catcher equipment and crouching, while behind him is an umpire, also crouching. In the background are players in baseball uniforms and a man wearing police uniform, all watching the action. Behind them spectators are seated in the stands.

The Toronto Blue Jays play the Kansas City Royals in their inaugural season on August 12, 1977, at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. They played at Exhibition Stadium until 1989, when the Skydome (now Rogers Center) opened its doors. Credit: Toronto Star/Frank Lennon (MIKAN 3796691)

After many turbulent years, the Blue Jays finally made 1992 a historic one for Canadian baseball. They won their first American League championship and became the first team based outside the United States to win a World Series Championship. As a sign of respect for the team that had paved the way, the Jays asked the Expos’ original owner, Charles Bronfman, to perform the ceremonial first pitch prior to Game 3 of the series. The impressive six-game World Series concluded with Dave Winfield driving in the winning runs in the 11th inning. Jays catcher Pat Borders was awarded the series MVP.

The Blue Jays’ success continued into the 1993 season as they defended their title of American League champions. John Olerud became the first Blue Jay to win a batting title. The Jays went on to defend their World Series championship, defeating the Philadelphia Phillies in six games. In a moment forever etched in the memory of fans, Joe Carter hit a theatrical home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the deciding game. It was only the second time in World Series history that a series had ended on a home run.

The luck ended two years later when the Jays finished dead last in the American League East. Jump ahead to 2015, however, and the 22-season streak of failing to reach the post-season was broken under Manager John Gibbons, with the Jays winning their sixth American League East Division title. They then came back from a two-game deficit to beat the Texas Rangers in the Division Series. That series included the iconic home run and bat flip by right fielder Jose Bautista. In the American League Championship Series, the Jays lost to the Kansas City Royals, who would go on to win the World Series.

For the Jays, the 2016 regular season proved inconsistent and found them in second place in the American League East. However, they battled to make it to the sudden-death American League Wild Card game, where, in a nail-biter, they defeated the Baltimore Orioles 5 to 2, thanks to Edwin Encarnacion’s dramatic walk-off homerun in extra innings before a packed Rogers Centre crowd of roaring Canadians. A new generation of Canadian baseball fans had arrived.

Canada and baseball have not always had an easy relationship, but it has been one full of exciting and individual moments. Baseball in Canada has served as an introduction for children to the importance of team work, it has been there for soldiers in wartime, and it has united the country in times of both triumph and defeat.

A black-and-white photograph of five men standing around a counter. Two of the men are wearing baseball uniforms with a large letter ‘C’ on the chest. The other men are wearing suits and hats. One of the uniformed men is holding up a drink and looking towards the camera.

Players in Cobden, Ontario, grab a refreshing drink after a game in 1909 (MIKAN 3379777)

“Cheers” to many more memories and many more moments for the history books as Canada plays ball!

Other resources


Kelly Anne Griffin is an archival technician in the Science, Environment and Economy section of the Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

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