Major League Baseball stepped outside of America’s borders as part of its expansion plans in the late 1960s and the Montreal Expos came into existence along with the San Diego Padres, Kansas City Royals, and the ill-fated Seattle Pilots. Topps was on top of getting fans in most of these markets cards featuring players from the new teams into their flagship 1969 set, but Canadian kids ended up with something slightly different instead.
Before we get to that, it should be noted that Montreal had a long-standing baseball tradition leading up to the arrival of the Expos. For many years, the Montreal Royals were the farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson saw action there in 1946. Even before Canadian confederation took place in 1867, the sport had been introduced to the area and the original Royals came around just before the turn of the century. A more modern version of the team came about in 1928 and became affiliated with the Dodgers a little over a decade later.
By 1960, minor league ball came to an end in Montreal, but many locals wanted to see it come back. This prompted a movement to bring a big league team to the city and a franchise was granted in 1968. Named in the aftermath of the World’s Fair, Expo ’67, having brought millions of visitors to town, the team name made sense at the time.
Even with Jarry Park not being at Major League standards, there was a plan for the team to play in a proposed stadium that was to be built in time for the 1976 Summer Olympics. The Expos were able to pick from the players cast off from other clubs to build their initial roster, and they were ready to take to the field against the New York Mets on April 8, 1969.
Here Come the First Montreal Expos cards!
By this point, baseball cards were on store shelves on both sides of the border depicting some of the players expected to be playing for Montreal. On the American side, Topps would be released in multiple series over several months. O-Pee-Chee, who had been producing what was essentially a carbon copy of the first two or three Topps series since 1965, tossed Canadian kids just eight names between cards 22 and 208.
The 1969 edition of the Montreal Expos were a hit off the field, but their 52-110 record was dismal. There were a few highlights during the season, such as the first Major League game being played outside of the United States. They won that contest against the St. Louis Cardinals on April 14 that year, but the love affair between the fans and their team was there from the start.
Here is a breakdown of each player that Topps (and O-Pee-Chee) included in their 1969 flagship release:
#22 Jesus Alou
While it is officially the first card the Expos are represented on, Alou never played for the team as he was traded away to the Houston Astros on January 22, 1969. He was taken from the San Francisco Giants with the 13th selection in the expansion draft.
#45 Maury Wills
A former National League MVP and base stealing sensation that established records in the 1960s, Wills was approaching the twilight of his remarkable big league career when the Expos chose him 21st overall on draft day. This card marks one his few in a Topps set during this era as he had a long-standing beef with the company and depicts him with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
One of the few star players on the roster, he appeared in just 47 games before threatening retirement and was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers with Manny Mota for Ron Fairly and Paul Popovich on June 11, 1969. He stole 15 bases during his brief stint, but only hit a paltry .222 before going back to a team where he had experienced the majority of his success on the field.
One of the first heroes for Canadian baseball fans that emerged in Montreal’s expansion season, Stoneman was a promising prospect for the Chicago Cubs before being selected 19th by the Expos.
He quickly settled in as the club’s main starter and in their ninth game of the year, hurled a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies. Finishing with an 11-19 record, he remained on the roster until the end of the 1973 campaign.
#92 Jack Billingham
Another Expos draftee that never ended up playing in Montreal, Billingham had been trying to crack the Los Angeles roster before being drafted. Instead, he was moved to Houston as part of a compensation package that had to be put together when Donn Clendenon refused to head to the Astros. Later on, he became a key starter for Cincinnati as the Big Red Machine dominated the game in the mid-70s.
#117 Jim Fairey
Fairey spent the 1968 campaign with the Dodgers and likely would have had a card the next season whether he had gone to the Expos or not. He did not make it to Montreal’s roster until the last few weeks of the schedule and hit a home run during a 10-6 win over Philadelphia on September 19. The victory was the first of two that day and ultimately became a three-game sweep. He actually shared his rookie card with Billingham in 1968 Topps.
#138 John Bateman
After six seasons with Houston and having had six Topps cards from 1963 to 1968, the Expos selected Bateman sixth in the expansion draft. Montreal’s second-busiest catcher behind Ron Brand, he did rank fourth among all National League catchers with a 7.55 range factor (calculated by putouts and assists divided by innings played) per nine innings behind the plate.
#183 Don Shaw
Following a rough start to his big league career with the Mets, Shaw got another shot when the Expos took him with the 40th pick. He was credited with the first victory in franchise history as Montreal downed his old club on April 8. He came on during the sixth inning and gave up four runs, but the final score ended up being 11-10 for the visitors. Used as a middle to late reliever, he would not win another contest until July 24, 1969 (vs. Pittsburgh) – his last triumph with the Expos.
#208 Donn Clendenon
One of the more interesting early Expos tidbits revolves around Clendenon and it had an impact on the Topps version of his 1969 card. While Montreal took him in the expansion draft after some strong years in Pittsburgh, the company hastily changed up his cards after an ultimately unsuccessful trade to Houston for Rusty Staub.
Why was it a failed deal? In a nutshell, Clendenon refused to report to Houston and chose to retire. He had a rocky relationship with racist Astros manager Harry Walker, who he had to endure while playing with the Pirates, and also had been told to expect a pay cut. As a result, his holdout caused a panic and was eventually resolved by the Expos sending Billingham, Skip Guinn, and cash to Houston to complete the deal for Staub.
Since two versions of this card exist (Houston and Montreal), the logical conclusion modern collectors can draw is that the second series was in mid-production when the correct card was printed. Clendenon does also have a 1969 Topps Decal with an alternate photo in his Expos uniform.
In the end, Clendenon played just 38 games in Montreal. Arguably, his best game there included four hits against the Pirates on April 25, but his time in Canada would not last long. The Mets acquired him in exchange for five players (including Steve Renko) on June 15 and he played a major role in New York’s amazing run to a World Series championship where he was named postseason MVP.
#230 Rusty Staub
Coming off his second All-Star appearance in 1968, Staub was regarded as a rising young star, but the frugal management in Houston soon put him in a situation where he was considering a refusal to report for Spring Training in 1969.
Luckily, the Expos were looking for a marquee attraction to bring the crowd into Jarry Park (aka Parc Jarry) and engineered a deal which saw Alou and Clendenon end up in Houston. As mentioned above, Clendenon refused the move and it eventually had to be altered to the point where all parties could be satisfied.
Soon dubbed Le Grand Orange by fans, Staub became a sensation in the Great White North and generated plenty of offense for a team that desperately needs some clout. The face of the franchise in its early years, fans were distraught when he was traded to the Mets, but he returned for a brief stint in 1979. The Expos retired his number, 10, in 1993.
#236 Manny Mota
Montreal’s first pick in the 1968 Expansion Draft (second overall), Mota was expected to pack a punch for the Expos. Appearing in just 31 games, he was hitting .315 before going to Los Angeles along with Wills. With the Dodgers, he played an important role in runs to the World Series in 1974, 1977, and 1978.
#284 Jerry Robertson/Mike Wegener
The first Expos card featuring multiple rookies, both Robertson and Wegener were true freshmen in 1969 and bore the brunt of pitching for an expansion club. Robertson, who developed in the Cardinals system, went a rough 5-16 wth a 3.96 ERA. Wegener had a somewhat similar 5-14 record, but his ERA was 4.40. By the 1970 season, Robertson had been moved to the Detroit Tigers and Wegener had one more lackluster campaign in Montreal. Neither player made a big league appearance after that.
#306 Jim “Mudcat” Grant
A two-time All-Star that won a league-leading 21 games for Minnesota in 1965, Grant was still somewhat of a name player in the waning years of his big league career and arrived in Montreal through the expansion draft via the Dodgers. He started the first game in franchise history, but was pulled off the mound in the second inning. On April 12, he earned his lone victory in an Expos uniform as they defeated the Chicago Cubs. His 1-6 start to the season made him trade bait and he was shifted to St. Louis for Gary Waslewski on June 3.
#326 Gary Sutherland
Topps was almost right when it pegged Sutherland to be Montreal’s starting shortstop in 1969 and he delivered a decent campaign primarily at second base after struggling to get a shot in Philadelphia.
#351 Carroll Sembera
After a rough 1968 campaign on the mound with Houston, the Expos drafted Sembera and proceeded to use him in a relief role. He went winless with two saves over 23 appearances in 1969 and was even worse in 1970 before finishing out his career in the minors.
#378 Jose Herrera
Another expansion draft pick out of Houston, Herrera saw limited action with the Astros and was given a fair shot in Montreal. Topps was able to slide him into the middle of the set and he gets his only card here. He hit a respectable .286 over 47 games after being called up from the minors, but only made one big league appearance after 1969.
#399 Bob Bailey
Bailey was approaching the mid-point of his 17-year career in 1969 and found himself taken in the expansion draft of two straight seasons in Los Angeles where he hit .227. The team’s general go-to at first base, he earned the first hit (and extra base hit) and RBI with a double off Tom Seaver during the first inning of Montreal’s road opener. He remained with the Expos until 1975.
#442 Ty Cline
Cline’s 1969 Topps card represents the first appearance of a player in an Expos uniform. A light hitter, he was typically a reserve for most of his career and was a collegiate standout before turning pro. Utilized primarily in the outfield, he was on first base when he caught the final out during Stoneman’s no-hitter early in the season.
#466 John Boccabella
For most of his career, Boccabella was relegated to a backup role and outside of the 1966 campaign with the Chicago Cubs, had never played in more than 75 games in a season before the Expos chose him in the expansion draft. Essentially, he was third on the depth chart for catchers in Montreal’s debut season and his biggest offensive moment came on May 30, 1969 as he hit his only home run of the year against San Diego.
#496 Larry Jaster
A 9-13 season in 1968 made Jaster expendable in the eyes of the Cardinals and he was off to the Expos. Things went from bad to worse in the Great White North as he went 1-6 with a bloated 5.49 ERA. After the season concluded, he was shipped off to Atlanta.
#524 Jose Laboy/Floyd Wicker
Topps did a great job in getting some of Montreal’s hot rookies into the 1969 set. Laboy, also known as Coco, was a huge fan favorite for the Expos in the team’s early years and he was a late expansion draft pick out of St. Louis. He delivered an excellent freshman effort, missing only five games and hitting 18 home runs. As a result, he finished tied for second in National League Rookie of the Year voting alongside future Expos star Al Oliver. He would stay with the team until 1973.
Wiker was another Cardinals castoff, coming via the 1968 Rule 5 draft. His time in Montreal was rather brief and he was primarily used as a late-inning sub in the outfield. The next year, he was off to another first-year team in the form of the Milwaukee Brewers.
#549 Ron Brand
Brand’s card in the 1969 Topps set is an attractive piece of cardboard thanks to a great posed shot and he was Montreal’s busiest catcher during their first year. He had previously been more of a backup player in Houston in the seasons leading up to this point, but did not offer much in terms of production. He remained with the Expos for three seasons before being relegated to the minors.
#578 Don Bosch
While the Expos realized they would not be getting too much power when picking him off the Mets’ roster, they quickly learned that a change of scenery was not going to change that, either. He lasted 49 games in Montreal and hit a paltry .179 with a home run to go with four runs batted in.
#606 Gene Mauch
Leading the Expos during their early years, Mauch was a former player that had successfully transitioned into a managerial role with the Phillies from 1960 to 1968. Going from a team that was regularly above the .500 mark to an expansion team was a challenge, but he endured a 52-110 debut eventually took them to the middle of the pack before moving on to the Twins and Angels. All told, he spent 26 seasons in the dugout.
#625 Mack Jones
After just a year in Cincinnati, Jones was the second player taken by the Expos and he was one of the team’s early bright spots. He was second on the roster with 22 dingers and one of them was the first ever hit in Canada. The fans adored him and his spot in left field was dubbed “Jonesville”.
#646 Dan McGinn/Carl Morton
The third, and final, Expos rookie pairing in 1969 Topps, has one of the team’s most reliable pitchers from their inaugural campaign. McGinn went 7-10 with a career-best 3.94 ERA despite only starting just once. Morton, on the other hand, took a little more time to develop. He went 0-3 in 1969, but took on a starting role moving forward and was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1970.
#648 Bobby Wine
A Gold Glove winner during his time in Philadelphia, Wine gave the Expos some solid experience at shortstop going into their first year. As the day-to-day starter for much of the schedule, he led all National League players at his position in errors in 1969. However, his batting average rose to .200 after two years of being under the Mendoza Line – just sitting on it instead.
Putting It All Together
Assembling a complete team set for the first-year Montreal Expos is not a tremendously difficult challenge for most collectors since 1969 Topps is not plagued by an expensive high series. You should be able to find all of them on eBay. While most of the cards themselves are not eye-catching due to most of them featuring close-up shots of bare-headed players with their previous teams or the dreaded dark airbrushed caps that Topps foisted upon kids at the time. The O-Pee-Chee team set is much smaller, but considerably scarcer by comparison. Prices for those cards are higher as well when available. A handful of Expos players were part of the 1969 Topps Stamps set and there is also a tough-to-find Topps Team Poster that the company issued
On top of that, there are plenty of collectibles on the market for the first Expos squad that includes postcards and buttons.
Even though the Expos no longer exist, the franchise lives on as the Washington Nationals. The 1969 edition of the team may have struggled at the best of times, but their legacy is still an important one half a century later.