Baseball came to Montreal in 1969, but winning baseball took a decade. The Expos were under .500 each of their first ten seasons, including a 107-loss debacle in 1976. That precipitated the hiring of Dick Williams as manager, who had won two World Series titles in Oakland and led the Boston Red Sox to a pennant.
Williams immediately got the team to respectability, 75 wins and 76 wins over the next two years. And the 1979 Montreal Expos were the breakout team that contended for the NL East title to the final day of the season.
Montreal had a core of excellent young talent that included future Hall of Famers in 25-year-old catcher Gary Carter and 24-year-old centerfield Andre Dawson. Carter hit 22 home runs, while Dawson hit 25 home runs, led the team in RBI with 92 and stole 35 bases.
Rightfielder Ellis Valentine joined the youthful brigade and the 24-year-old rightfielder popped 21 home runs and drove in 82 runs. Larry Parrish, age 25 and playing third base, was the most productive of them all in 1979. Parrish batted .307, drilled 30 home runs and finished with 82 RBI.
These four were augmented by veteran help in first baseman Tony Perez, a big part of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine and now 37-years-old. And though the middle infielders, Rodney Scott and Chris Speier, didn’t hit, both were renowned for their ability with the glove.
It added up to an offense that was built on power—third in the National League in home runs, and that didn’t waste time getting after pitchers—last in the NL in walks. Montreal ended up in the middle of the league in runs scored.
That was more than enough to win though, because the pitching was the best in the league. Montreal had made a big move in the offseason, acquiring veteran lefthander Bill Lee from the Red Sox for utility infielder Stan Papi. Lee, whose free-spirit lifestyle clashed with management, was cut loose for pennies on the dollar. The lefty won 16 games with a 3.04 ERA in a sharp rebuke to the unprofessionalism of his former team.
Steve Rogers was a workhorse, joining Lee in working well over 200 innings and Rogers won 13 games with 3.00 ERA. Two young arms rounded out the regular rotation, with 22-year-old Scott Sanderson and 24-year-old Dan Schatzeder, who finished with ERAs of 3.43 and 2.83 respectively.
Williams made extensive use of his bullpen, at least by the standards of the times. David Palmer, a 21-year-old, worked 122 innings, won ten games and had a 2.64 ERA. Stan Bahnsen and Rudy May, two veterans, each worked over 90 innings and May won ten more. And another big veteran pickup, Elias Sosa, signed as a free agent, saved 18 games with a buck-96 ERA.
Montreal came out of the gate fast, winning eight of their first ten, and then sweeping a seven-game homestand against NL West competition. The Expos led the NL East—which then included the Pirates, Cardinals, Cubs, Phillies and Mets—by a game. A 16-game road trip was a big challenge, but Montreal was able to split at 8-8, including a three-game sweep of the Phillies, who had won the division each of the previous three seasons.
The Expos reached Memorial Day percentage points ahead of the Phillies and four games ahead of the Cardinals. Montreal followed it up with consistent baseball throughout June and early July. They went 22-15, with no winning streak longer than four and no losing streak longer than three. They gradually built a division lead that peaked at 6 ½ games on July 6. Then a homestand against non-contenders in the Padres and Giants went awry—the Expos lost five of seven and the lead shrunk to 2 ½ games at the All-Star break.
It was a packed division race—the Cubs were 2 ½ back, with the Phillies and Pirates not far behind and the Cardinals still with a shot at 6 ½ out. Only the Mets were a non-factor at the break.
Montreal slumped in the second half, losing seven of twelve, including a three-game sweep to a Pirates team that was coming on strong and that sweep vaulted Pittsburgh into first place. When the Expos went 5-8 in the early part of August, they fell behind by 3 ½ games. Finally, they stopped the bleeding and went on a 10-3 run, but the Pirates were hot and the 3 ½ game deficit stood as the season hit its final turn on Labor Day. Pittsburgh and Montreal were the only two teams left in the race.
The Expos responded to the September pressure by sweeping a Labor Day doubleheader over the Mets and in a busy week went 7-1 to trim the lead to a game. One week later, Montreal swept Chicago four straight and pulled even as they hosted the Pirates for two games on September 17-18.
Rogers got the ball for the Tuesday night opener and pitched well, but the Expos only mustered six hits in a 2-1 loss. Lee pitched on Wednesday and gave up three runs in the first inning. But he settled in, didn’t give up any more runs and the offense chipped away to tie the game and it went to extra innings. But Pittsburgh first baseman Willie “Pops” Stargell was keying his team’s stretch drive and he hit a two-run blast in the eleventh to win it 5-3.
Montreal was the young team and Pittsburgh the veterans, so it might have been reasonable to expect the Expos to fold. But the opposite happened. They responded by sweeping the Mets in Shea Stadium, taking two of three in Philadelphia and moving back into first place by a half-game. It was time for another big series with the Pirates, four games in old Three Rivers Stadium to begin the season’s final week.
It’s times like these that baseball promises drama and either ecstasy or heartbreak with thrilling moments. What happened instead is that the Montreal pitching, so good all year, came completely undone. They gave up 31 runs in four games and were fortunate to escape with a single 7-6 win in the nightcap of a Monday doubleheader.
The Expos trailed by a game and a half, but their situation was a little bit better than that might appear on the surface. They had played two fewer games than the Pirates due to rainouts and actually only trailed by a game in the loss column. If Montreal could at least pull even in losses, they could make up the two games and control their destiny.
Philadelphia came north of the border and Palmer pitched Friday night’s opener. He had a 2-0 lead into the sixth when Phillie third baseman Mike Schmidt hit a two-run homer in the sixth to tie it. It was oddly foreshadowing of a year later, when a two-run blast by Schmidt would break hearts throughout Montreal. The Expos missed a chance to score in the bottom of the sixth and ultimately lost 3-2 in eleven innings.
It was a missed opportunity, because the Pirates lost. Another tight game went down on Saturday and again Montreal coughed up a 2-0 lead, with Sosa blowing the save for Lee in the eighth. This time the game had a better ending—backup infielder Dave Cash hit an RBI single in the ninth for the 3-2 win. And the Pirates lost again. The Expos were even in the loss column. Their job now was simple—win Sunday, win two makeup games and possibly win a one-game playoff with the Pirates pending how the makeup games went.
But the best-laid plans ran into Philadelphia lefthander Steve Carlton. The best pitcher of his time, Carlton dueled with Rogers and won 2-0. When Pittsburgh beat Chicago, the NL East race was over.
Montreal wasn’t going to disappear from contention. They battled Philadelphia to the final weekend in 1980 before a home run by Schmidt ultimately beat them. The Expos got into the playoffs in the strike year of 1981 and came within a hair of the World Series before Los Angeles’ Rick Monday beat them with a home run.
The legacy of this cast of Expos is one of missed opportunity—that with all this young talent they never reached a World Series, much less won it. But they also brought winning baseball to their city for the first time and that started with the 1979 Montreal Expos.