Montreal Expos postcards

The abstract below is based on a report that was originally delivered before a SABR-Quebec regional meeting on November 5, 2011. It has been revised and updated to reflect events and accuracies which occurred since that date.

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Modest as their success may have been on the field, the Montreal Expos introduced many innovations in their Gallic interpretation of Major League Baseball. During the early years at Jarry Park, it was not uncommon to see fans dancing in the aisles or attending the game with a pet duck. Wearing tricolour caps – bleu-blanc-rouge to honour hockey’s legendary Montreal Canadiens – the Expos introduced a seemingly indeterminate logo which was actually a stylized letter M. Moving to Olympic Stadium, the Expos and their fans often erupted in a chorus of “The Happy Wanderer” during a rally, usually led by an ursine mascot named Youppi. If an opposing baserunner led off 1st or 2nd base but did not steal, chicken sounds were the order of the day on the scoreboard. The Expos were the first team to play two national anthems and the first to sell mineral water. Although the Expos rarely issued a yearbook, they did produce a postcard set in each of their 36 years in the National League.

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The postcards were sold by the Expos at concessions, first at Jarry Park and then at Olympic Stadium. In addition, a supply of postcards was printed every winter for autograph purposes for the Expos’ annual winter caravan. If a fan wrote an Expos player for an autograph in the mail, it was not uncommon for his or her signed personal items to be accompanied by a signed postcard. Several players, including Steve Renko and Ernie McAnally, were sending signed postcards to autograph collectors long after they retired from baseball.

The first postcard series was produced in 1969 and consisted of two series of 16 cards each. The first series was issued in colour, while the second series was issued with monochrome images. The Expos continued with monochrome images from 1970 to 1976; each photo was underscored, for example, by the announcement of “Greetings from John Boccabella!”

In 1971 there were two Expos postcard sets. In addition to the official set produced by the team, a second set was produced by a Montreal company called Pro-Stars.   The photos were colour images taken in spring training at West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium. There were 27 players included in the set, along with manager Gene Mauch. The Don Hahn card is particularly hard to find, as he was traded to the New York Mets as the cards were going to press. Consequently, the Hahn card was issued in very limited quantities. Although the set was popular with collectors, the Expos did not engage Pro-Stars for additional sets subsequent to 1971.

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Most of the postcards during the Jarry Park era were mugshots, or in the case of the 1969 set, posed shots. However, many of the players who joined the team midway through the 1976 season were immortalized on their postcards with action shots. For example, after Andre Thornton was acquired from the Chicago Cubs in June 1976, he was shown batting during a game at Jarry Park on his postcard. The Olympic patch worn on the Expos’ sleeves that summer is easily visible.

In 1977, after the Expos moved to Olympic Stadium, they issued their postcard sets in full colour. Now the postcards were underscored with each player’s name and position, both in French and English. The position identifications disappeared from the postcards in 1980, which was also the year the Expos introduced red and blue racing stripes on their uniforms. The player’s identity disappeared completely from the postcards in 1984, though it was reintroduced in 1991. That same year, the postcards identified Petro-Canada, a Canadian gasoline retailer, as an Expos’ sponsor.

For the last thirteen years of their history, the Expos wore blue pinstriped uniforms with “Expos” written in a cursive, Dodgers-style script. Postcard photos were taken with a blue background from 1992 to 1996, and a beige background from 1997 to 2004. When it appeared the Expos may have been slated for contraction in 2002, the team issued a black and white postcard set depicting the stars of yesteryear. Some of the players to appear in this postcard set included Steve Rogers, Ron Hunt, Ron LeFlore, Buck Rodgers, and Tim Burke. Although the Expos and Major League Baseball survived the 2002 season, baseball in Montreal had only two more years before the franchise was moved to Washington.

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Most of the photos on the Expos postcards were snapped by Denis Brodeur. The official photographer of both the Expos and the Canadiens, Brodeur had been the goalie for Team Canada who won the bronze medal in hockey at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. Brodeur was also the father of NHL superstar goalie Martin Brodeur. In 1996, a collection of Brodeur’s baseball imagery was showcased in a French language coffee table book about the history of the Montreal Expos. Many of the postcard photos were reprinted in the definitive history of the Expos, a two-volume set written in French by Jacques Doucet and Marc Robitaille. Brodeur died in 2013, age 82.

The question remained: who got to be photographed on an Expos postcard? Most of the stars and regular players were issued a distinct postcard every year. In 1970 and 1971, as the Expos were marketing Rusty Staub as the franchise’s marquee player, there were several postcard varieties for the affable redhead known as ‘Le Grand Orange.’ Nine players who appeared on Expos postcards were ultimately immortalized with plaques in Cooperstown. Besides managers Dick Williams and Frank Robinson, and coaches Duke Snider and Larry Doby, this roster included Tony Perez, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Pedro Martinez, and Randy Johnson. The Johnson postcard, issued in limited quantities in 1989 in light of his trade to Seattle in May, is considered to be the most valuable in Expos history. It was the Big Unit’s rookie years and has sold for as much as $250 if it can be found at all.

What about the coaches, midseason acquisitions, or September call-ups? In 1969, since the postcards were not issued until midseason, players such as Manny Mota, Maury Wills, Mudcat Grant, and Donn Clendenon were not included because they had already been traded to other teams. In most subsequent years the postcards were released at the beginning of the season in April. Photos for supporting cast members, including coaches, were often reused the following year. For example, Fred Breining was on the disabled list for most of 1984 and all of 1985, his two years with the Expos. The same photo of Breining was used in both sets.

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According to Jacques Doucet, who broadcast Expos games for most of their history, Brodeur snapped most of the player photographs for postcards in spring training. If a player on the 40-man roster spent the season in minor leagues to be recalled in September, his photograph would be ready for a postcard. Take the shortest career in Expos history – one day. That was the extent of Curt Brown’s tenure with the Expos. He was included in the postcard series in 1973. On the other hand, in 1996, Rick Schu’s contract was purchased from Ottawa in August before being outrighted back to the Lynx a week later. Schu was not given a postcard. Similarly, Leo Marentette was recalled from AAA Vancouver in 1969 in time for an Expos’ California road trip. As the team prepared to fly east, Marentette was returned to Vancouver. He never had a postcard either.

As for midseason acquisitions, it often depended on the player and how late in the season he was acquired. After ten second division finishes, the 1979 Expos found themselves in a pennant race with the Cubs, Pirates, and Phillies. Once their division rivals in Pittsburgh acquired Bill Madlock in a trade with the Giants, the Expos had to counter. On July 20, they brought back Rusty Staub in a trade with the Tigers. Considering Staub’s popularity in the early years of the franchise, it went without saying to print batches of a new Staub postcard to be included in the 1979 set. However, the next year, after the Expos acquired John D’Acquisto and Willie Montanez in separate trades with San Diego at a similar juncture of the season, neither player was included in the 1980 postcard set.

75528_14Generally speaking, superstars like Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Vladimir Guerrero, and in 1984, Pete Rose, have generated the most attention for their postcards. However, this was not always the case. When Bill Lee joined the Expos in 1979, he was depicted on his postcard sporting a Grizzly Adams-style beard. The Powers That Be in baseball, already dismayed by admission to sprinkle marijuana on his organic buckwheat pancakes (as it made him impervious to bus fumes when he jogged), pressured him to shave the beard. He complied early in the season and almost as soon as he shaved, his postcard was replaced. The bearded Spaceman postcard remains a collector’s item.

In 1981, Jerry Manuel’s postcard was at the centre of a different controversy. Unlike Jerry Seinfeld’s proclamation in an episode of “Seinfeld” many years later, Manuel never spelled his first name with a G. However, you would not know that by his postcard, which identified the infielder as ‘Gerry Manuel.’ The postcard was quickly recalled and replaced an orthographically accurate ‘Jerry Manuel.’

75748-25fr1One of the more unusual stories surrounding an Expos postcard involves another members of the 1981 Expos, Steve Ratzer. Although his Expos career was limited to 13 games, the Ratzer postcard remains one of the more popular issues in franchise history. First off, the postcard was printed for only two months of the year as Ratzer was assigned to Denver during the midseason players’ strike, not to be recalled when the rosters expanded.

Further to that, Ratzer is a member of the Jewish faith. According to Vancouver-based hobbyist Ernest ‘Kit’ Krieger, the only two ethnic identities whose members collect cards of players who share their identity are Cubans and Jews. There have been several Cubans to play for the Expos and have a postcard, including Tony Perez, Bobby Ramos, and Nelson Santovenia. By contrast, Ratzer is considered to have been the only Jewish player in Expos history. Everyone with a Jewish collection wanted the Ratzer postcard. Furthermore, until the publication of the Jewish Major Leaguers set by Fleer in 2003, the postcard was the only major league card of any sort Ratzer had. When the author sent Ratzer a postcard to be autographed, his request was returned four months later along with a note of apology – he wanted to hold onto the

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postcard because he didn’t otherwise have one! (Ed. Note. Norm Sherry, who coached for the Expos for four years, is Jewish and appeared on postcards)

The Expos, through the lens of their postcard sets, provided a unique history of the team and its players from the expansion season of 1969 through 2004, the final year for the franchise in Montreal. Not only did the postcards tell the story of the players, but for many fans, they evoke memories of particular game or meeting with a particular member of the team. For example, the first postcard I ever owned was a Tom Foley card from the 1988 set. Foley was distributing them on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa as part of the Expos’ Winter Caravan. Along with Rex Hudler and Brian Holman, Foley took part in a skating demonstration. But Canadian winter sports didn’t come to Foley as naturally as baseball had. “What do they want from me?” he asked rhetorically, “I don’t know how to skate – I’m a Georgia boy!” Sixteen years later, as a coach for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, he was reminded of his winter trip to Ottawa. Do you think he remembered? You bet, he remembered!

DEXTER PRESS/COCA-COLA CARDS 1966-68

Despite half a century of improvements in photography and printing — and just as many years’ worth of raised bars for what collectors consider ‘high end’ and what they’re willing to pay for it — it can still be argued that the Dexter Press baseball card sets of 1966-68 are the highest quality baseball cards ever printed. And just to make the set a little more interesting, about 400 unused negatives of photos the company took but never used on cards have just turned up.

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1967 Dexter Press

Dexter is best known for 228 (or by one definition, 229) 5-1/2” x 7” premiums it produced for Coca-Cola in 1967. Collectors opened bottles of Coke, Fanta, Fresca, Sprite or Tab to find black and white head shots of their local players or one of 25 All-Stars on the underside of the bottle caps, then glued them  into matching spaces on a “cap-saver sheet.” When your 35-cap sheet was finished you could trade it in for one set of 12 Dexter photos of your local team, or in non-major league areas, 12 All-Star photos. Even though some of us had enterprising fathers who figured out that the discarded caps from Coke bottles bought from vending machines were collected in a receptacle inside the machine (and that a dollar could get your corner store owner to stash a summer’s worth for you), the promotion still enabled a lot of cavities among eight-year olds (I had seven by September).

Coke and Dexter made sets of caps and photos for 18 of the 20 major league teams. The 1967 Angels and Cardinals were skipped for whatever reason, which is odd given that Dexter had gotten into the baseball card business the year before with a series of different-sized sets of Angels players. The best-known were slightly larger than a standard postcard (4” x 5-7/8”) and included 16 players plus a shot of brand new Anaheim Stadium, but Dexter also made smaller and larger versions of the player photos for sale inside the ballpark and in other unknown ways. At least one 1966 Angel, Paul Schaal, was produced in exactly the same size that would be used nationally a year later and is usually included in the 1967 checklist as a 229th card, although technically it’s debatable as to why it would belong with the ’67 set.

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1968 Dexter Press

The company also made a 4” x 5-7/8” set for the 1967 Yankees, duplicating 10 players and images from the Coke set, which I can remember seeing on sale individually at the souvenir stands at the old Yankee Stadium. Dexter would also reprise the premium role for Coke in 1968, but with smaller (3-1/2 x 5-1/2), fewer (77), and less attractively-published postcards featuring a dozen players from each of six teams and five other players scattered among four teams.

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1967 Dexter Press

The quality of the 1966-67 printing is so good that the cards almost glow. This was evident even to us collectors of 50 years ago. You kept the Topps cards in boxes. You kept the glossy, shiny, richly colorful Coke cards displayed on a shelf or a bulletin board. It would later prove that this was Dexter’s selling point. Mention the company name to collectors of souvenirs from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair and you’ll get nods of appreciation: Dexter was the official postcard supplier to the Fair, and those cards also glisten. Do an eBay search for “Dexter postcard” and you’ll find that the company based in the New York suburbs did high-quality work for restaurants and stores and businesses of all sort around the country, and came back in 1971 with another Yankees set and, later, the official postcards for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

As to 1967, counting the All-Stars there are cards of 32 Hall-of-Famers and many more greats of the era. One of the only complaints you could make is that all the poses are the same: portraits to the waist with the player’s hands at his sides or seemingly crossed near the belt, and his autograph superimposed over his head. Even that monotony earns style points when you see all of the cards together. Then as now, the repetition of the poses somehow made the photos look official.

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Rocky Colavito

The other complaint would have been that even if you lived somewhere where geographical definitions overlapped — say in New Jersey — and had access to trading in the right 140 bottle caps to get the sets of the Yankees, Mets, Phillies, and All-Stars, you would still have only 48 different cards compared to the 609 Topps would make that year. It bothered me then and it bothers me now and it made an item in a recent auction even more appealing to me: a collection of production materials from the Dexter sets, including dozens of the actual player autographs used (and many not used)

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Jim Gentile

on the cards, still more autographs transferred onto clear plastic overlays, and what turned out to be about 500 negatives, around 400 of which showed players not included in the various Dexter sets.

In the last few days I’ve tweeted about a dozen of the rarer finds for the sake of other hobbyists like me who hunt the arcane combinations of obscure players

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Alan Schmelz

with teams they only spent a little time with: Rocky Colavito with the White Sox, Jim Gentile with the Phillies (he was cut during Spring Training) and the like. There are literally dozens of these, plus just as many minor leaguers who got no closer to the big leagues than spring training and the Dexter photographer. The company probably grabbed everybody who would agree to stand still for them, and so the image of Arizona State star and two-game Mets pitcher Alan Schmelz comes complete with a couple of Alan Schmelz autographs on ordinary note paper.

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Bruce Howard
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Nick Willhite

And as always when the production materials for any card set are revealed there are inexplicable and/or rewarding quirks discovered. For instance, a Dexter negative showing Nick Willhite with the 1967 Angels implies that even though the company didn’t make a set of the Halos that year, they were seemingly prepared to. The variety of images from 1968 suggests that the second Coke Premium set was supposed to be much bigger: Dexter shot players from the A’s, Mets, Phillies, Reds, Senators, White Sox, and Yankees — and made no cards for any of those teams. And perhaps best of all, photo after photo shows why so many players look like they’re clasping their hands at their stomachs. They are holding ID slates with their own names on them!

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Joe Rudi

Whither the Astros?

One of the unresolved (to me, at least) mysteries from collecting baseball cards from the late 1960s was how Topps handled the Houston Astros. As you likely know, the Houston expansion team was known as the Colt .45s for its first three seasons (1962-64) before becoming the Astros in 1965, coinciding with their move into the brand new Astrodome that April. Houston tried grass for a year, before contracting with Monsanto to install artificial turf (soon known as “Astroturf”) in 1966. That much we know.

armour-part04-1966-robinsonfrankTopps made a point in this period of trying to never show a player in the “wrong” uniform; if a guy was traded from the Reds to the Orioles early enough in the off-season, Topps could correctly move him to the Orioles but would not yet have a photo of him with his new uniform. Instead they would use a headshot with no hat, or with the hat logo blackened out, or some other solution that would protect young kids from the horror seeing Frank in his old Reds togs. Of course kids could usually tell, but at least they tried. In the 1960s this was a particular problem, because there were 8 expansion teams and 5 franchise moves between 1961 and 1971. This led to a lot of blackened or missing hats.

Which brings us back to the Houston Astros.

In 1965, Topps did not react to the Houston name change right away, referring to the team as “Houston” in the early series (and showing the old .45s hats) and “Houston Astros” (with no visible old logo) thereafter.

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But for the next two years (1966 and 1967) Topps put out two great sets and treated the Astros with dignity — the correct name, the correct hats and uniforms. Problem over?

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Not so fast.

In 1968, suddenly the name Astros was not used on either the front or back of any of the cards, nor were the hats or uniforms shown. (The cards for the other 19 teams used the team nickname, not the city.) I was 7 at the time and an avid collector, but I did not really take notice of the missing Astros name until a few years ago. I spent some time tryi86d0f5e8620b13e1f37a5a5ae38ee092ng to figure out why this happened, contacting Topps, former Topps employees, the Astros historian, Rusty Staub, and several knowledgeable bloggers. The most common reaction was. “I can’t believe I never noticed that.”

The most plausible explanation I have heard is that Monsanto was in a dispute with the Astros over the use of the name — though the baseball team used the name first, it was Monsanto that actually trademarked it (says the theory). Topps, seemingly uninvolved, took the cautious approach and decided to avoid using the name.

When this was going on I was already a rabid card collector — especially the cards of my beloved Red Sox. If I had grown up in Houston following the Astros, collecting an entire team’s worth of bland hatless logoless cards like this Jim Wynn card, might I have turned to other pursuits? Maybe 166083become a productive citizen?

The Astros did not stop using the name, nor the logo, nor did they or Major League Baseball stop authorizing the use of the logo to other entities. Dexter Press came out with a beautiful set of postcard-sized cards in 1968 and had several gorgeous Astros photos (like this one of Joe Morgan). If I was a kid in Houston, I would have found these a better option.

In 1969 Topps again avoided the name Astros, and avoided the uniform in the first three series. Starting with Series Four, sometime around June, the uniform finally returned (though not the name). The dispute, whatever it was, had been resolved, but Topps likely decided to keep the team name consistent throughout the set.

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Topps finally restored the Astros to full citizenship in 1970, giving many of us our first good look at the Astros uniform, especially these gorgeous home unis, in several years. It was great for me, but for the kids of Houston, Texas, it must have been glorious.

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