In 1969, Major League Baseball expanded beyond the borders of the United States for the first time when it placed a team in Montreal, Quebec. The team, named the Expos after the 1967 Montreal World Expo, played its first game on April 8, 1969, an 11-10 victory over the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. You may be asking yourself what a team in Montreal has to do with New England sports history and the answer is a bit complicated.
For many Northern New Englanders, Montreal is the closest major city. In fact, it is under 100 miles from Burlington, Vermont. Boston is just over 200 miles away. The placing of the Montreal Expos represented a new option to fans in that region, a closer place to watch a game, and a new team for whom to root. It also seemed like a natural fit for the Francophone portions of New England. Many Quebecois had migrated south to New England to work in mills in the 19th century and had settled in pockets around the region. The initial question to be answered is whether or not there was mutual interest. Were the Expos interested in Northern New England and were Northern New Englanders interested in a team based out of Montreal?
The answer to the former question, at least at first, appeared to be yes. In 1968, the Burlington Free Press covered the team’s development and the plans that were being put in place. On December 12, 1968, they reported that Jean Pierre Roy, member of the publicity department for the Montreal Expos, said that the team was open to running buses from Burlington to Montreal in order to transport fans to the game. He reiterated that Burlington figured heavily in the Expos plans. They even kept open the possibility that a minor league team could be placed in Burlington.
When the team launched in 1969, they had a six station radio network across upstate New York and Northern New England, headed by WEAV out of Plattsburgh, New York (which could be caught across Lake Champlain in Burlington). WEAV even kicked the New York Yankees off the air to make room for the Expos. The six stations spanned across Vermont and into the North Country of New Hampshire, including Berlin, home to one of the largest concentrations of French Canadian descendants in New England. These initial broadcasts were offered in New England free of charge by the Expos’s English affiliate, CFCF. This arrangement would continue until 1981.
In the early years, the Free Press treated the Expos as a home team, affording them front page coverage and fairly in-depth reporting. Burlington mayor Francis Cain even declared January 15, 1970, “Montreal Expos Day.” Star player Rusty Staub spoke a week later at the Ethan Allen Club. The Expos held tryout camps in Burlington and other spots in Northern New England, including Laconia, NH, at least through 1972.
But the Expos ran up against some structural barriers in their attempts to grow their fanbase into New England. For one, the Red Sox had already staked their claim and their radio network was far more expansive across the region. By the late 1970s, WSNO out of Berlin, Vermont was still the only Vermont based affiliate carrying the Expos, though coverage could still be gained from WEAV for those living in the Burlington area. From what I found in my research on this piece, they had all but disappeared from the airwaves in New Hampshire. When the Expos landed in 1969, the Red Sox were only a couple of years removed from the Impossible Dream season and were consistently a winning franchise. An expansion team likely was not going to be enough to pull fans away from the Red Sox.
The allure of the Red Sox in the 1970s was perhaps a death knell for the Expos chances in Northern New England. The Sox had stars like Yaz, Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans, and New Hampshire’s own Carlton Fisk, and a consistent record of contending during this period (including a trip to the World Series in 1975). In sharp contrast, the Expos were perennial cellar dwellers who didn’t post a winning season until 1979 and only made the playoffs once in their entire existence. In the 1970s, the Sox were on fire and it was going to be difficult for any team to break into their market.
They also ran into the issue of the growing television market. The Expos were never able to get consistent television in the United States. With television becoming the predominant way to consume baseball, a team with no television was going to struggle to find a fanbase.
As the 70s wore on, the Expos began to disappear from the home papers. The interest just wasn’t there and the team didn’t make enough inroads in Northern New England to make carriage worthwhile. Occasionally you would see an article written about Expos fans in Vermont but they were often treated as outliers in a region dominated by Red Sox fans. When the team departed for DC in 2005, The Washington Post ran a story about a particularly devoted Vermont based fan of the team. Expos fans in Northern New England were a small bunch, but they were devoted to their team.
In 1994, the Expos did finally deliver on putting a minor league team in Burlington when the Vermont Expos began play in the New York-Penn League. And in 1999, new Expos owner Jeffrey Loria did indicate to local Vermont media that he had an interest in bringing in fans from the area. However, Loria’s efforts were largely driven by the fact that he had largely alienated fans in Montreal.
In the end, it was too little too late. The Montreal Expos moved to Washington, DC in 2005, bringing baseball back to the nation’s capital. On October 3, 2004, the Expos played their last game ever, an 8-1 loss against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium, the same place that their journey began. However, that wasn’t the end of the Expos. The Vermont Expos were the last team to carry the Expos name, which they did in 2005 before switching over to the Lake Monsters name, which they continue to carry to this day.
The Expos never really found their footing in Northern New England. The obvious fits, geographic proximity to Burlington (a major population center) and the presence of French Canadian descendants in the region, failed to bear any fruit for the team. When the Washington Nationals won the World Series in 2019, the Stowe Reporter ran a story on Vermont based Expos fans. As the article reiterates, Northern New Englanders already had their baseball hearts elsewhere and it was going to be difficult, if not impossible, to change that.
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