Today in Baseball History: The first non-U.S. MLB game in history is played in Montreal

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Today in baseball history — on April 14, 1969 — the first major league game outside the United States was played. It took place at Montreal’s Jarry Park with the expansion Montreal Expos defeating the defending N.L. champion St. Louis Cardinals 8-7. Mack Jones was the offensive hero for the Expos, driving in five and hitting the first home game home run in Expos history. Nelson Briles got shelled for the Cards, coughing up seven runs.

That game was just one of 162 that season so we’ll let it slip back into history for the time being. Let’s talk now about this history of this quaint little ballpark in Montreal.

The minor league Montreal Royals had a number of forerunners, but the modern club began play in 1928. They were purchased by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1939 and served as one of the team’s multiple Triple-A affiliates, which was not necessarily weird at the time. It was their most successful affiliate too. Under Dodgers’ management, the Royals won seven International League championships and three Junior World Series titles — a playoff between the International League and the American Association — between 1941 and 1958. Most famously, in 1946, Jackie Robinson joined the Royals and led the team to a Junior World Series title in advance of his breaking baseball’s color barrier one year later. Those couple of decades of glory ingrained baseball into the fabric of Montreal but, after declining in the 1950s, the Dodgers eliminated the Royals as one of their affiliates in a streamlining move.

City leaders, most notably Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau, hungered for baseball to return. They missed out on the 1962 round of National League expansion but they successfully applied for a new club in late 1967, to begin play in 1969. Which was wonderful. Except, um, where in the heck was this new team supposed to play?

The Royals had played at Delorimier Downs, which, at 20,000 capacity or so, was pretty big for a minor league park. The problem: it couldn’t be renovated or expanded to major league size because it was in the middle of a residential area, there was no parking and, oh yeah, the place had been sold and the clubhouses and offices were in the process of being converted into a makeshift school to deal with temporary overcrowding. That was out.

To the the expansion club Mayor Drapeau had promised the National League that a domed stadium–would be built by 1971, but as we’ve seen so many times in these history pieces dealing with ballparks and expansion franchises, that was a pipe dream. The Expos needed a stadium — one that could last for at least a few years — to materialize, basically out of nowhere. And one did.

Jarry Park was and remains a roughly 90 acre park in the Villeray neighborhood of the city. It’s got soccer fields, tennis courts, basketball courts, a public swimming pool, and a man-made lake. It also, in the late 60s, had a tiny little community baseball park that held all of 3,000 people. When, in 1968, the National League considered yanking the expansion team from Montreal and giving it to Buffalo, which had War Memorial Stadium — the ballpark where they’d later film the movie “The Natural” — ready to go, Mayor Drapeau told them that the little stadium in Jarry Park was where the Expos would play. It would be expanded to ten-times its size with temporary bleachers and it would bridge the gap until the promised domed stadium could be built. The National League agreed. The actual name of the place was Jarry Park Stadium, referring to the stadium inside the larger park, but it came to be known simply as “Jarry Park.”

Here’s an ariel view of Jarry Park during the early Expos days. As you can see, the little curvy part that makes up the main grandstand behind home plate was the original portion. The vast grandstands down the lines and in the outfield were hastily added on to expand seating capacity and, one presumes, to create a lot of stiff necks:

Jarry Park. Montreal, Quebec. Canada. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

The little L-shaped thing on the bottom right is the public pool. Willie Stargell was the first batter to hit a homer into it, which was no small feat given that the dimensions of the park were fairly expansive: 340 feet down the lines, 368 feet in the alleys, and 417 feet to dead center. The park favored left-handed hitters due to the prevailing winds, however, and no visiting hitter benefitted more than Stargell did. When he retired in 1982, the Expos presented him with a life-preserver in tribute to the homers he hit into what came to be called “Willie’s pool” or, per the French broadcasters, la piscine de Willie. 

The first game at Jarry Park was a cold one. The winter of 1968-69 was cold and snowy even by Montreal standards and there was still snow and ice everywhere as the Expos began their inaugural season on the road. A few nice days helped but on the morning of the home opener, team staff, including general manager Jim Fanning, were on the field at Jarry Park Stadium, shoveling snow off the field. They were also setting up around 6,000 folding chairs, as the metal bleacher seats had not been fully bolted down in certain portions of the new stands. Still: the game went off without a hitch.

As did, for the most part, the next eight seasons in which the Expos called Jarry Park home. Early and late season games could be cold, damp, and there were a lot of postponements, but the cozy vibe of the place and the low expectations of a mostly losing expansion team made for relaxed game-going environment. Nostalgia and the fact that the Expos no longer exist no doubt fuel rosier-than-reasonable memories of games in what was, objectively, an unsuitable major league stadium, but even contemporary accounts of the place characterized it as a pretty fun place to take in a ballgame. In 1969, the great Roger Angell called it “a handsome little field that much resembles a country fairground.” The Calgary Herald referred to Expos games at Jarry Park as “a massive family picnic.” Sports Illustrated said it had something of “a Woodstock vibe.”

Still, its days a big league park were numbered. Jarry Park was home to the Expos from 1969 through 1976. The last series at Jarry was a five-game set with the Phillies, necessitated by rainouts earlier in the year. The Phillies clinched the NL East title that series but they called what was supposed to be the last game — the nightcap of a Sunday doubleheader — in the seventh inning due to a steady rain. In 1977 they moved into the cavernous, Astroturf-over-concrete Olympic Stadium that, while seeing better Expos teams than Jarry Park every saw, did not necessarily see better baseball.

Jarry Park still exists — remember, that’s the whole park, not just the field on which the Expos played — but the stadium has been turned into what’s now called Stade IGA, home of the Montreal portion of the Canadian Open tennis tournament. Note the far end of the grandstand here:

Yep. That’s the main behind-home-plate grandstand of old Jarry Park. Squint and you can almost see Rusty Staub waiting on the pitch from Nelson Briles on April 14, 1969.

 

Also today in baseball history:

1941: Pete Rose was born. Happy Birthday to the man who is second in all-time professional hits behind Ichiro Suzuki.

1955: Elston Howard becomes the first black player to suit up for the Yankees. He singles in his first at-bat.

1966: Greg Maddux was born. He was pretty dang good. MLB Network is running a bunch of classic Greg Maddux games in his honor today if you’re looking for something to watch.

1969: Brad Ausmus was born on the same day Jarry Park opened. No word if, like Jarry Park, Roger Angell ever called him “handsome.”

1990 – Bret Saberhagen gets the win and Mark Davis earns the save as the Royals beat Toronto 3-1. It is the first time ever that two reigning Cy Young Award winners have figured in the same victory. Davis won the NL Cy Young Award after notching 44 saves as a closer for the Padres the year before. He’d be a free agent bust in Kansas City.