Franchises at Birth: The Expos and the Padres (Part One: 1968-1970)

In previous installments of this series, we’ve examined the creation of the Angels and (new) Senators, the Colt .45s and Mets, and the Royals and Pilots/Brewers. This time we’ll take a look at the second National League expansion of the 1960s.

The Expos: Expansion Draft

Major league baseball’s first entry into the Canadian market, under the direction of rookie general manager Jim Fanning, undertook the most conservative draft strategy of any of the four new 1968-69 franchises. Fanning’s 29 selections had accumulated a total of 964 career Win Shares, for a mean average of 33 apiece. Several big-name veterans were chosen by Montreal in the October 1968 draft, including 37-year-old pitcher Larry Jackson, with 225 Win Shares under his belt; 36-year-old shortstop-third baseman Maury Wills, with 201; 33-year-old first baseman Donn Clendenon, with 110, and 33-year-old pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant, also with 110. It was an approach intended to make the ball club competitive right away, but clearly it came at the cost of gathering talent for the long range: the Expos’ draft cohort would accumulate 699 Win Shares going forward, by far the least among the expansion teams drafting alongside them.

Two developments took place in the 1968-69 offseason that had a major impact on the roster the Expos would take to the field. First, Jackson, a steady, durable veteran showing no signs of decline, anticipated to be the bellwether of the pitching staff, announced his retirement. The league ruled that the Philadelphia Phillies, the organization from which Montreal had drafted Jackson, would be required to provide a list of players from which the Expos could select a replacement. None were nearly as good as Jackson; the player Montreal chose was banjo-hitting 30-year-old shortstop Bobby Wine.

The other development was a big trade, announced in January 1969: Clendenon and 27-year-old slap-hitting corner outfielder Jesus Alou were sent to the Houston Astros in exchange for 25-year-old star outfielder-first baseman Rusty Staub. This was a remarkably advantageous parlay for the Expos, but soon a major snag developed. After initially appearing in press conferences in Houston and cheerfully introducing himself, Clendenon had second thoughts. In February, he announced his retirement from baseball.

This set in motion what is colloquially referred to as an excrement-laced atmospheric disturbance, or something along those lines. The Astros assumed that Clendenon’s retirement annulled the deal. But Staub, who’d been embroiled in nasty contract negotiations in Houston and had just signed a lucrative new deal with the Expos, didn’t want to return. The Astros became enraged when Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ruled that Staub and Alou should remain with their new clubs, and the teams negotiate replacement compensation for Clendenon, who for his part contributed to the three-ring circus atmosphere by subsequently un-retiring, re-retiring, and then re-un-retiring (while gaining a big salary increase for himself in the process). The deal was finally settled in April, to the Houston organization’s great disgruntlement, with the transfer of young pitchers Jack Billingham and Skip Guinn and an undisclosed (though presumably not insignificant) amount of cash from the Expos to the Astros. (The irony is that while virtually nothing the Expos could have given the Astros could have been worthy of Staub, Billingham turned out to be substantially better than Clendenon.)

The Padres: Expansion Draft

The construction of the San Diego organization was entrusted to one of the most respected executives in the game: Buzzie Bavasi, longtime GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Since the 1940s, the Dodgers had operated one of the most productive of all farm systems, and excelled at the recognition and development of young talent. Bavasi’s San Diego expansion draft exhibited an extreme youth-oriented approach: his picks had the least experience of any team’s. With a total of 542 pre-draft Win Shares, or a mean average of 19 (and a median of, get this, zero), Bavasi’s initial Padres were younger even than Cedric Tallis’s Kansas City Royals. “Never trust anyone over thirty,” went the campus radical maxim of the era; though he was hardly a hippie, Bavasi was anti-establishment enough to include among his draft picks just three players who had reached their thirtieth birthday (32-year-old outfielder Tony Gonzalez, 31-year-old pitcher Al McBean, and 31-year-old shortstop Roberto Pena).

Bavasi’s cherubic founding roster would generate 945 post-draft Win Shares, for an average of 33. These totals weren’t quite as high as the Royals’ picks would achieve (1,040 and 36), but they were comparable. Seven Padre draftees with little to no prior major league experience would produce substantial major league careers: pitchers Dave Roberts and Clay Kirby, first baseman Nate Colbert, outfielders Jerry Morales, Ollie Brown, and Clarence “Cito” Gaston, and catcher Fred Kendall.

To manage his very young ball club, Bavasi chose a rookie manager as well: 46-year-old Preston Gomez, who had been a coach for the Dodgers, as well as a minor league manager in the Dodgers’ and Yankees’ organizations.

The Expos: Year One

Emerging from their wild-and-woolly off-season, the Expos put a first-year expansion team on the field that looked like it would be moderately competitive, despite the absence of Larry Jackson. In Staub, they had a terrific hitter to play right field, by far the best player of any first-year expansion team of the 1960s or 1970s. They had capable veterans in place at shortstop (Wills), first base (Clendenon, by gosh), left field (power-hitting Mack Jones), and center field (high-average-hitting Manny Mota). Their pitching certainly appeared suspect, but under the lively and clever management of longtime Phillies’ skipper Gene Mauch, Montreal appeared to be ready to avoid the hapless struggles of other maiden voyages.

Events quickly proved that assessment wrong. They started out 6-8, and then the wheels fell off. Plus, the axles rusted, and the radiator blew: by early June they were completing a 20-game losing streak, their record was 11-37, and all hopes of a remotely competitive first year were long gone. Staub and Jones were doing fine, as was Coco Laboy, a 29-year-old minor league veteran Mauch had installed at third base, but just about no one else was doing well.

Fanning didn’t hesitate to acknowledge that the going-with-veterans approach wasn’t cutting it. He set the all-time speed record for shifting to rebuilding mode: that June, Fanning made four trades, jettisoning Wills, Clendenon (who didn’t retire upon being traded to New York), Grant, and Mota. Thirty-year-old first baseman-outfielder Ron Fairly was the only veteran coming in return, and the Expos were focused on developing young talent after all.

Following mid-June, they perked up their winning percentage (how could they not?), but it was a long, hard season, winding up with a dismal record of 52-110. But there were genuine reasons for optimism going forward. Two 25-year-old pitchers, thrown into the breech, responded with workhorse performances that, while not immediately effective, were impressive: right-handed starter Bill Stoneman, and left-handed reliever Dan McGinn. Other young pitchers, including 24-year-old rookie Steve Renko, acquired from the Mets in the Clendenon trade, showed promising flashes.

Many in baseball had been highly skeptical about the capacity of Montreal to support a major league team, and indeed the franchise had nearly been awarded to Buffalo. The Montreal ballpark was a hastily remodeled amateur baseball facility in a city park (Parc Jarry) that seated just 28,500. But despite everything, and through all the on-field struggles in 1969, the mood and fan environment surrounding the first-year Expos was colorful and fun, and Montreal supported the ball club wonderfully. First-year attendance was 1.2 million, seventh in the league, in a raucously ebullient bilingual setting. The engaging, red-headed Staub, dubbed “Le Grande Orange,” was spectacularly popular. If ever a 110-loss debacle could be said to have been successful, this was it.

The Padres: Year One

The Padres were the youngest of all expansion teams following draft day, but then Bavasi went to work making them younger still. Two December trades exchanged two of their players with substantial major league experience (shortstop Zoilo Versalles and pitcher Dave Giusti) for five with little to no major league experience. Early in the ’69 season, two of their three draft picks who’d reached the ripe old age of 30 (Gonzalez and McBean) were traded away for prospects. On April 8th, in the Padres’ first-ever game, hard-throwing right-hander Dick Selma tossed a complete-game, 5-hit, 12-strikeout 2-1 victory over Houston, and held a 2-2 record through his first four outings. Selma was just 25 years old, yet on April 25th even he was traded for younger talent, sent to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for pitchers Joe Niekro (24) and Gary Ross (21) and shortstop Francisco Libran (21).

The sacrificing-everything-for-the-future theme could hardly have been any more emphatic. Still, the Padres didn’t perform badly through the early season, and were 24-30 as of June 4th. Then harsh reality arrived, with sickening rudeness: San Diego proceeded to lose 31 of its next 36 games, and overall went an appallingly bad 28-80 the rest of the way, to finish with a record exactly matching the Expos, at 52-110.

The Padres had never expected to be competitive in their initial season, but the specifics of their non-competitiveness were jarring. An illustration of Bavasi’s lack of concern for the present day’s result was the fact that his roster construction seemingly made no attempt to balance left-handed and right-handed batters. The Padres opened the season with just three lefty bats (Gonzalez, first baseman Bill Davis, and utility outfielder Larry Stahl) among their position players – a very low proportion, but at least two of them (Gonzalez and Davis) were generally starting. But by mid-June, both Gonzalez and Davis had been traded away, and the Padres went through the bulk of the season with just Stahl (who put up a 69 OPS+ in 162 at-bats), rookie utility infielder Van Kelly (75 OPS+ in 209 at-bats), and rookie backup catcher Walt Hriniak (62 OPS+ in 66 at-bats) as their only left-handed bats.

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Goodbye for now.

The Padres had three talented young hitters in the lineup, in Colbert, Brown, and Gaston. Twenty-nine-year-old left fielder Al Ferrara was also a very good hitter. But all batted right-handed; all told the ’69 Padres would send a left-handed batter to the plate in just 13.5% of their plate appearances. The circumstance of no lefty threats allowed opponents to largely forget about mixing in southpaws; San Diego faced left-handed pitching in just 20% of its plate appearances in 1969, an extraordinarily low proportion (the other 23 major league teams in 1969 averaged 29% of their plate appearances against lefties). The Padres were committed to a strategy of developing young talent, but they were forcing their young hitters to develop within the most difficult possible environment.

And the Padres’ hitters struggled mightily. The team scored just 468 runs, far and away the fewest in the majors, with an OPS+ of 81, also worst in either league. By comparison, the three other first-year expansion teams in 1969 achieved team OPS+ marks of 86 (Royals), 93 (Pilots), and 94 (Expos). By any measure, the ’69 Padres offense was one of the very weakest of their era. They earned 59.9 batting Win Shares; of all teams between 1960 and 1980, only two achieved fewer batting Win Shares: the infamously terrible 1965 Mets, with 57.0, and the even more infamously terrible 1962 Mets, with 57.3.

Weak as they were on the field in 1969, that may not have been the Padres’ worst problem. Quite unlike their counterparts in Montreal, the Padres were completely unsuccessful at capturing San Diego’s fancy. Brand-new 50,000-seat San Diego Stadium emptily echoed, game after game, as the first-year Padres drew just 513,000 (6,333 per game), the most paltry attendance of any major league team since the 1958 Washington Senators.

The Expos: Year Two

Despite the bad first year, Fanning basically stood pat with his roster over the 1969-70 off-season; he did nothing but shuffle around a few secondary players. Then the Expos started off 1970 disastrously. They lost ten of their first eleven games, and they weren’t just losing squeakers, they were being annihilated: the combined score in those first eleven games was 74 to 27. But still Fanning sat tight, executing no major transactions all season long.

And soon his familiar cast began to genuinely improve. From June 1st through the end of the 1970 season the Expos went 57-59. They finished in last again, but just barely, their 73-89 final record only a half-game behind the fifth-place Phillies, and just 16 games behind the first place Pirates. The improvement over 1969 was a remarkable 21 wins; in just their second season the Expos were suddenly approaching mediocrity.

An improved result with a stable roster suggests major progress by several players, and that’s exactly what happened. Carl Morton, a 26-year-old right-hander who’d struggled in an eight-game trial in ’69, put together a very strong workhorse season, handling 285 innings and winning 18 games, and was named N.L. Rookie of the Year. Bob Bailey, a 27-year-old one-time huge-bonus prospect who’d fallen on hard times, and been purchased by the Expos in the fall of 1968, suddenly broke out with a phenomenal year in a utility role: he hit .453 with 13 homers in 86 at-bats in June and July, slugging his way into the regular third base job for the second half. John Bateman, a big 29-year-old catcher who’d been a disappointment in ’69, shed more than 30 pounds and emerged as a defensive stalwart.

There were setbacks as well, and the Expos still had big holes. But in their second year they’d put a supporting cast around their young star Staub that had them poised to climb in the N.L. East standings. Attendance at vibrant little Parc Jarry climbed to 1.4 million in 1970, sixth best in the league. Things were going quite well in Montreal.

The Padres: Year Two

Bavasi’s off-season moves following 1969 didn’t indicate anything approaching panic, but he did back off from the youth-trumps-everything approach. He made two trades in December, in each surrendering a young right-handed pitcher who’d done pretty well for the Padres (24-year-old starter Joe Niekro and 25-year-old reliever Frank Reberger). Bavasi received five players in return, all of them older than Niekro and Reberger, as he strove to plug some of the team’s many holes with adequate present-day major leaguers.

One of the five newcomers would step forward with a big year for the Padres in 1970. Pat Dobson, a 28-year-old right-handed pitcher getting his first opportunity as a regular starter, was a pleasant surprise, delivering 251 innings with a 106 ERA+. But for the Padres to make real progress, significant improvement would need to come from their young core.

Such improvement did come, most dramatically in the case of Clarence Gaston. A great big guy (6’4”, 210) with power-and-speed tools, Gaston had hit well in the minors and was given the Padres regular center field job as a 25-year-old rookie in 1969. He performed disastrously that year, hitting just .230/.275/.309 while striking out 117 times in 391 at-bats. But in 1970, Gaston suddenly put it all together: he hit a lusty .318 with 29 home runs, as his OPS+ exploded from 67 to 144. Nate Colbert and Ollie Brown had both done well in ’69, and both did better yet in 1970. Overall, despite retaining its nearly entirely right-handed profile, the Padres’ offense improved remarkably, achieving an OPS+ figure of 98, nearly league-average. It was a one-dimensional attack, featuring lots of home runs and little else, but the 172 homers produced by the 1970 Padres remains the franchise record to this day.

Their pitching and defense didn’t do that well, but they were also better than they had been in ‘69. As a result the Padres in 1970 improved their record to 63-99; still in last place, but an 11-win increase. And on a Pythagorean basis, the ’70 Padres looked better than that, at 70-92. San Diego’s attendance also improved: at 640,000, it was still lowest in the league, but it was a 25% increase over their ghastly first-year total. In their second season, the Padres were still a long way from good, but they did appear to be heading in the right direction.

Next Time

Years Three Through Six, 1971-1974

Steve Treder has been a co-author of every Hardball Times Annual publication since its inception in 2004. His work has also been featured in Nine, The National Pastime, and other publications. He has frequently been a presenter at baseball forums such as the SABR National Convention, the Nine Spring Training Conference, and the Cooperstown Symposium. When Steve grows up, he hopes to play center field for the San Francisco Giants.

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