April 8, 2019 11:13 am

For diehards, traces of Montreal’s baseball history are there for the finding

WATCH ABOVE: On what would have been the 50th anniversary of the Montreal Expos, the team seems to still be a favourite among baseball fans.

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As rumours about professional baseball’s return to Montreal continue to percolate, sharp-eyed visitors to the city can find tributes to its rich baseball past.

Patrick Carpentier, a historian who heads the Quebec chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research, says Montreal is very much a hockey town, so you’ve got to travel a little farther and look a little more closely to find those spots.

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“Baseball is almost like second fiddle,” Carpentier says. “We’re trying to enhance the history of baseball in Montreal, and it’s hard, but there are many places you can go and visualize the history of baseball around town.”

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That history begins with several decades of high-level minor league baseball with the storied Montreal Royals franchise, before giving way to the Montreal Expos between 1969 and their departure for Washington following the 2004 season.

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While most fans talk up the exploits of players like Tim Raines, Pedro Martinez and Vladimir Guerrero, it’s an even more legendary baseball figure whose traces are most visible around town.

“Most of the places you can go and see things are related to Jackie Robinson,” said Carpentier.

Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s colour barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, spent the previous season playing for the Royals in Montreal, where he was embraced by local fans.

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Robinson’s single season as a Royal remains a source of enormous pride for the city.

A bronze statue of Robinson by sculptor Jules Lasalle can be found on Pierre-de-Coubertin Avenue in front of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, which served as the Expos’ home for most of the team’s history.

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Inaugurated on the 40th anniversary of Robinson’s major league debut, it depicts the legend giving a ball to one of two young fans.

A more recent tribute to Robinson can be found on Saint-Laurent Boulevard near Napoleon Street, not far from Montreal’s famed Schwartz’s Deli, where a mural was painted in 2017.

And about six kilometres to the north, at 8232 de Gaspe Street, a plaque marks the apartment that Robinson and his wife Rachel shared during that one season.

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As for the venues that hosted baseball, most are unrecognizable now.

Delormier Stadium — the ballpark where Robinson and such future stars as Roberto Clemente, Roy Campanella and Duke Snider would be groomed for their big league debuts — is long gone.

But you can visit a small memorial erected by the city at the corner of de Lorimier and Ontario streets, which includes a backstop where home plate at the old stadium used to stand and a plaque honouring Robinson’s accomplishments.

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Jarry Park, which served as the Expos first home between 1969 and 1976, is now Stade IGA and home to the Rogers Cup tennis tournament.

Enthusiasts have long pushed for a marker of its baseball past and are hopeful it will come this year — the 50th anniversary of the Expos debut at the cozy park.

“I think Jarry is the spot, it’s where it all began,” said Perry Giannis, better known as Perry Gee, founder of the Expos Fest fundraising event.

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The only notable link to Jarry’s baseball past now is one of its bordering streets renamed recently to Gary-Carter Street in honour of the late Hall of Fame catcher who began his career at Jarry Park in 1974.

Carter also has an Ahuntsic-Cartierville baseball field named for him.

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The Olympic Stadium is still around. While it hasn’t had a regular baseball tenant since the Expos’ demise, it has played host to annual Blue Jays preseason games since 2014.

Cedric Essiminy, a spokesman for the Olympic Park, says fans can still take a tour of the stadium itself and there are a few features leftover from its baseball past.

The orange foul lines painted on the rim of the stadium remain — known as the Kingman line for retired New York Mets slugger Dave Kingman.

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His 1977 long ball to left field hit the rim and was declared a foul ball after discussion by umpires. The lines were added later to avoid confusion.

Eagle-eyed fans can also find the spot struck by Willie Stargell in May 1978 when he hit a ball 535 feet into the 300 level of seats in right field — the longest home run in stadium history.

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The yellow seat among a sea of orange, with Stargell’s number 8, was installed to mark the spot, while the original seat was shipped off to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in London, Ont.

The Gary Carter Lounge directly behind home plate remains but is only open for special events. There is a public exhibit of highlights in the stadium’s history since the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, including many baseball moments.

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Talk of a new stadium might bring an opportunity to put part of that history on permanent display. Giannis also happens to be the owner of what is arguably the largest private collection of Expos and Montreal baseball memorabilia.

“We’re hoping when the new ballpark comes, I’ll make the request to have a little corner to display my stuff,” Giannis said.

As for those visiting in the coming months, the City of Montreal has plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Montreal Expos first season — which began with a game on April 8, 1969.

READ MORE: Can the Olympic Stadium’s new roof help bring the Expos back?

Youssef Amane, a spokesman for the city, says events are being planned this summer to mark the anniversary, but details have not been announced.

© 2019 The Canadian Press

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