William James Fanning
Born: September 14, 1927 (Chicago, Illinois)
Died: April 25, 2015 (London, Ontario)
Member: Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame (2000)
The setting: Olympic Stadium, Montréal.
The event: Game 5 of the 1981 National League Championship Series.
At stake: Winner advances to the World Series.
The date: October 19. A Monday. If you’re a Montreal Expos fan, you know it was a Monday. A Blue Monday.
For the first time in the club’s 12-year history, the Expos had advanced to post-season playoff. After a strike-shortened regular season, the Expos had eliminated the pesky Philadelphia Phillies in five games. The Expos then split four games in the NLCS series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In Game 5, they faced the formidable Fernando Valenzuela, the left-handed rookie phenom who would win the NL Cy Young Award, as well as such honours as NL pitcher of the year, NL rookie of the year, and, of course, NL rookie pitcher of the year.
Against Fernando, the Expos dispatched Ray Burris (9-7). On paper, a mismatch.
When Bill Russell, the Dodgers shortstop and batting second, hit a triple in the first inning, the course of the day seemed to be set. But Burris worked out of the jam without surrendering a run.
Montreal’s Tim Raines hit a leadoff double in the bottom of the first, advanced to third on a fielder’s choice, and scored on a double play. The Expos led, 1-0.
The Dodgers replied in the fifth, scoring the tying run on two singles and a wild pitch.
And so it went into the ninth.
Burris was done, having been replaced for a pinch-hitter in the eighth.
In the Montreal bullpen was Jeff Reardon. Instead, manager Jim Fanning, who had only taken over the team with 27 games left in the season, called on staff ace Steve Rogers.
Only three days earlier, Rogers pitched a seven-hit, one-run, complete game victory over the Dodgers.
Rogers induced a pop out to second from Steve Garvey, followed by a fly out to left by Ron Cey. He then went 0-2 on right fielder Rick Monday. On the third pitch, Monday hit a home run over the fence in right-centre field.
Expos fans can tell you where they were at that terrible moment. (I was watching a small, black-and-white television in a house in the Vancouver neighbourhood of Kitsilano, when I should have been in the basement typesetting for New Star Books.)
The Expos never returned to post-season play and you could not help but wonder about the outcome had Reardon been called on to do a job he’d handled so well all season.
You might second guess Jim Fanning as a manager, but even the most ardent of fans could not stay angry for long with Gentleman Jim, whose contributions to baseball earned him a spot in the Canadian Baseball of Fame in 2000. He became a Canadian citizen in 2012.
Fanning was the Expos first general manager, helping to build a team from scratch. He had two stints as field manager of the Expos and spent 25 years with the club. In more recent years, he supported the campaign to return major-league baseball to Montreal. He was employed by the Toronto Blue Jays as a community ambassador for amateur baseball.
Fanning was born on Sept. 14, 1927, the day after Babe Ruth hit his 51st and 52nd home runs in the famous season in which he would smack 60. His father, a mason, moved the family to Moneta, Iowa, when Jim was a boy. (In Grade 7, his teacher wrote in his report card: “James wants only to hold his mitt and play ball. He needs to study! He needs to do more homework. Baseball will not get him anywhere.”) After graduating from high school, Fanning was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving in Occupied Germany after the war. He then studied at Buena Vista College (now University) in Storm Lake, Iowa, and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The Chicago Cubs signed him as an amateur free agent in 1949, the start of an 11-season odyssey that would see the catcher play for 15 minor-league teams in 11 leagues. He also played in 64 games with the Cubs over four four seasons. In 141 at-bats, he managed to hit just 14 singles and two doubles for a career .170 batting average. He scored five runs and knocked in another five.
A judicious handler of pitchers and a longtime student of the game, Fanning realized he’d have to become a playing manager to extend his career. He did so with the Tulsa Oilers in 1958. He retired as a player in 1961, though he managed until 1963.
He worked in the Milwaukee (later Atlanta) Braves organization under John McHale. Fanning had just taken over as the first director of the Central Scouting Bureau when McHale became president of the fledgling Expos. McHale hired Fanning as general manager. Before the advent of free agency, Fanning stocked the expansion club with castoffs and retreads. He packaged some of those discards to trade for Rusty Staub of the Houston Astros. (Fanning had to recast the trade after Donn Clendenon refused to report to Houston.) Staub, who hailed from New Orleans, became a folk hero in Québec by speaking a few words of French and making an attempt to learn the language.
The Expos home park was not ready for Opening Day in 1969, and it is said Fanning took part in shovelling snow off the field and bolting seats into the grandstand at Jarry Park. He literally helped build the ball park.
Staub also featured in Fanning’s second big trade, when Le Grand Orange was sent to the New York Mets on April 5, 1972, for shortstop Tim Foli, outfielder Ken Singleton and first baseman Mike Jorgensen. The trio played key roles in the Expos contending in the 1973 National League East pennant race.
The Expos had a woeful campaign during the Olympic summer of 1976 and Fanning took front-office job with the club.
Five years later, Dick Williams was fired as a manager to be replaced by Fanning, who had not worn a baseball uniform since 1963. He brought the Expos home with a 16-11 finish, winning the National League East in the second half of the strike-shortened season. He guided them past the Phillies and on to Blue Monday.
Fanning was 86-76 with the Expos in 1982, his only full season as a major-league manager. He then gave way to Bill Virdon, who was fired with 30 games left in the 1984 season. Fanning filled in, with the Expos going 14-16. Buck Rodgers replaced Fanning, whose managing record was a respectable 116-103.
Fanning worked in the broadcast booth for a few seasons before the Colorado Rockies hired him as a scout. He later was employed as an assistant general manager by the Blue Jays.
Catcher Gary Carter celebrates with manager Jim Fanning.