Woodie Fryman

May 16, 2008

Unless I’m forgetting something, always a distinct possibility, there is only one former major league city. I’m not counting the borough where I lived for many years, Brooklyn, which is a part of a larger city that from what I understand has major league baseball affiliation of some sort. Of course, the same can no longer be said about Montreal.

Big league baseball has left other cities before, such as Baltimore, Milwaukee, Washington, and Seattle, but it always returned to those cities like a guy crawling back to an old girlfriend he’d once dumped.

“It can be like it was, only better, I promise,” the guy pleads, a heart-shaped box of candies in one arm, flowers in the other. This from the same guy who’d once explained that the relationship had grown stagnant and empty then packed up everything but some mildewed jockstraps and sped off to his sexy, sun-drenched new life without even turning back to wave. What the guy deserves is a kick in the nuts. But I’ve never heard of a city, even a formerly spurned city, saying no to major league baseball. It is pleasant to imagine Montreal being the first to refuse an attempt at reconciliation—I envision a torch-bearing mob, led by Warren Cromartie and a wine-breathed, filthy-furred Youppie, scalding the sweets-bearing representative of major league baseball with intricate Gallic curses as he flees across the border, head bleeding from a fresh hockey puck wound.

But let’s face it. Major league baseball will probably never return to Montreal, so the act of remembering is the only way for the Montreal Expos to endure. In that sense they are the most important team in the world of the Cardboard Gods, a world created solely to hold onto things as they fade. Because lately I keep finding baseball cards all over the place, I haven’t written about the cards from my disappearing childhood for weeks. Though I enjoyed the feeling that I was for the first time in a long time opening my eyes at least a little to the world of the present moment, I have also started feeling a little thin and empty without the ritualistic attempts to connect to my past. With my latest extended meditation of found baseball cards having run its course, I want to reach for an old card that will bring me back that feeling that what is gone can still have some kind of a life. I want to reach for a Montreal Expo.

And so today’s prayer is to Woodie Fryman, who after over a decade of mostly anonymous toil for several teams, including an earlier stint with Montreal, finally found a niche as an effective left-handed reliever for the excellent Carter-Dawson-era Expos. He looks in this picture to be someone who would know how to handle a crisis, like a former small-town farmer whose unflappability and natural moral uprightness inspired his townfolk to elect him (though he hadn’t campaigned) to the office of town sheriff, where his keen eye and steady hand allowed him to steer the town through whatever troubles came its way.

In fact he looks in this photo as if he may already be in the middle of a crisis. Perhaps a young Ellis Valentine, suffering from a premonition of the beanball that would derail his promising career, has begun raving and screaming and wildly swinging a bat around. While the Rodney Scotts and Scott Sandersons of the world bolt for safety, Woodie Fryman bravely, if also with wise caution, approaches the unstrung rightfielder and attempts to talk him down.

“Whoa there, big fella,” he seems to have just said, his voice a drawling, mellow tenor, like that of a bluegrass great. “Easy now. Take ’er easy.” He is fully prepared all at the same time to continue calming his teammate, to use his glove hand to fend off a lunge from his teammate, or to save another teammate from an attack by taking the hulking maniac down with a skillful leg tackle.

It’s natural that I, a panicky coward, would be drawn to such a card, or drawn, more accurately, to embroider this card with such a fiction. But in fact what first drew me to this card was not a need to imagine myself out of myself and into a more sturdy, capable persona, but the more primal need to be protected by such sturdiness. In other words, if I’m imagining myself into this card, I’m not imagining myself as Woodie Fryman but as the unhinged lunatic Woodie Fryman is prepared to help. In my madness I want to escape the moment, to crash through to oblivion, but if I make a run for the empty seats and artificial turf beyond Woodie Fryman, for the oblivion of the Expos as they are now without the mercy of memory, Woodie Fryman will intercede. He’ll use words, and if they don’t work he’ll drop me with a left cross to the chin or floor me with a shoulder to the solar plexus. One way or another, he’ll stop me from disappearing.


  1. 1.  You really think Woody Fryman can do all that? I dunno. I can never get past the jacket in these cards.

    Who thought it looked better to be wearing a jacket than not in this shot? No, leave it on. We want you to look wrinkly as possible in this one.

  2. 2.  1 : Yes, the thin, buckling legs, the wrinkly windbreaker, the facial expression that could just as easily be one of wilting ennervation as that of a man corageously facing up to a difficult situation: You could definitely make the case that Woodie Fryamn is about to be overpowered, if not obliterated. I think that sometimes–OK always–I see what I need to see.

  3. 3.  But on further inspection of the card, he does have a look of calm determination in his eyes, which may not come across in the somewhat grainier reproduction here.

    Also, fictional scenarios aside, Fryman at the time of this photo was on the brink of capping his long career with his three best seasons, posting ERAs of 2.79, 2.25, and 1.88, respectively.

  4. 4.  In the AL-NL World Series era, I can’t think of any other former major league cities. But pre-1900, the National League did have teams in Louisville, Indy, Buffalo, Providence, Worcester, Troy, NY, Hartford, and Syracuse. I don’t think there’s much lamenting going on in Worcester, though. Well, not about this.

    And you had other “major” leagues as well, with all kinds of crazy burgs represented. The next most recent former major league cities would be Newark and Buffalo, who sported Federal League teams in 1915.

  5. 5.  When I was younger and the Expos were still in all their glory, there was something about that team that really interested me. I could never put my finger on it. I am a Dodgers fan, but when the Dodgers played the Expos, it was like they were visiting an old friend or cousin for a friendly exhibition of ball playing. Especially when Vin Scully would start talking about all the old Dodgers who had stopped thru there when Montreal was a farm team for the Dodgers. Vin would even talk to you in French a little bit and I can never forget when he came on the air in Olympic Stadium to announce that Don Drysdale had died in his hotel room the night before of a heart attack.

    I loved every version of their uniform and loved that they played in what looked like a space station. I even went and bought an Expos hat when I was a kid because it didn’t seem like I was betraying the Dodgers. Anyhow, that is my Expos memory I felt like adding. I guess I just miss those guys.

  6. 6.  4 : Right, thanks for bringing up those 19th century and Federal League versions of the spurned city. Maybe an ABA-esque alternative league will rise up and the Expos will live again.

    5 : Thanks for that memory. Probably Expos fans can’t return the love, what with Rick Monday and all, but Montreal and the Dodgers do go back a ways, the Montreal Royals being their top farm team when they were in Brooklyn (Jackie Robinson broke the pro ball color line while playing for Montreal–I think at a game in the aforementioned city of Newark, come to think of it).

    I’m sure I could find this out, but I was wondering what’s the highest level of baseball being played in Montreal right now. Do they have a minor league team? When I was in Toronto a few years back I saw some really high-level semipro ball, featuring a couple former major leaguers (on a team called the Toronto Maple Leafs); I wonder if there’s at the very least a similar team like that in Montreal. Anybody know?

  7. 7.  6 I guess from an Expos fan perspective there will always be that home run by Monday. It was a bit of payback some years later when the Dodgers basically gave away a hall of fame pitcher for nothing. I have read talk about Montreal maybe being a minor league affiliate for someone again, but that might be a bit humiliating.

  8. 8.  I’m from Montréal. You know, I had yet to think seriously that major league baseball would never, ever come back here.

    Deep down, I suppose that I keep clinging on the tiny little hope; I keep the faith that eventually, in better circumstances and the like, we would get our baseball team back. I’m probably like the people in Québec City and Winnipeg who lost their NHL team a while ago (to Colorado and Phoenix). The difference is that in those two cities there are still strong movements to get a new team. In Montreal, like you said, ‘reconciliation’ is still a long way.

    I’m sad to think that you are probably right, that baseball will never come back here. I hope that this will never happen to anybody else.

  9. 9.  8 : Thanks a lot for offering the hometown perspective. I grew up in Vermont, not that far from Montreal, and I love that city.

    If not a strong movement, is there any kind of movement at all to get a big league team in town? Are any baseball fans switching over to the Blue Jays?

  10. 10.  6 As far as I know, there are no professional baseball teams in Montréal right now. I remember hearing discussions last summer about establishing a A or AA team in Mirabel (about 20 miles north of Montréal), but I don’t think that it was very solid.

  11. 11.  9 The only movement that I know of is Encore Baseball Montréal (http://tinyurl.com/5y6ksc).

    I don’t think that people are switching to the Blue Jays, at least not in the francophone community (not much love there for Toronto). Personnally, I don’t have any team to follow or seriously root for anymore, so I follow baseball in general!

  12. 12.  The Expos are also the only major league team named after an event, the Montreal Worlds Fair (“Expo”) of 1968 (?). I always thought it was strange that they named the team after a past event, so that, year after year, the name became less and less meaningful. Josh, you may want to meditate on this in a future post.

    Of course, for meaningless team names, it’s hard to beat the LA Lakers, LA Dodgers, or Utah Jazz.

  13. 13.  5 Among the other things we would hear on those Dodger telecasts from the Big O, was that despite the games being played in a rather dreary, and usually empty, dome that players loved the trip to Montreal. There was, according to our booth correspondents, wonderful shopping and food. To be sure, Montreal was a more “exotic” locale for a ballclub to visit than, say, Cincinnati or Houston.

    Well, I went to Montreal, among other places, on my honeymoon in 2003. It became one of my favorite cities in North America. The food was fantastic, and not at all limited to French Canadian fare. We had good Chinese. Its the second best city in the world for Jewish food. The famous smoked meat sandwich (available at the ballpark) is really a slight revision of good corned beef. There’s great nightlife and arts. I got the feeling that Montreal is Canada’s version of San Francisco. If you grow up in Canada, and you’re a little different or eccentric, that’s where you gravitate.

    Anyway, during my very own honeymoon, I got to check out an Expos game at Le Stade Olympique (sp? French=not so good). It was a very surprising experience. The Expos were in their very last renaissance, on the cusp of contention behind Vlad, Javy Vazquez, and Fernando Vina. There was a vibe in town that, “Hey we used to love this team, and we’re about to lose them.” There was talk of Staub, and the Hawk, and so on. Anyway, when we got to the park, instead of the crowd of 1,419 that I came to expect from all those tv games, there were nearly 30,000. The lower level was completely full, and loud.

    I compare my desire to “collect” ballpark visits to my wife’s bird-watching. In assembling my life list, I’m very aware of the growing number of “extinct” ballparks I’ve been to (including the ‘stick, where Woodie Fryman is pictured in its brief Astroturf era). As a side note, I’m not sure if I get to count the LA Colisuem (from the March 29 exhibition) on my life list, or as an “extinct” park. Montreal is my only extinct city obviously, and there was a certain sense, when I saw the Expos there, that people were coming out to admire the last dodo bird.

  14. 14.  11 : Merci for that link.

    12 : Interesting point about the team name. The soccer team here in Chicago is also named for an event, ridiculously (The Chicago Fire).

    13 : Great stuff, Jacob L.

  15. 15.  Cherry picking players from Keith Hernandez’s comments on Mets telecasts, I see.

  16. 16.  15 : I don’t get much chance to hear Hernandez out here in Chicago. Does he talk about Woodie Fryman?

  17. 17.  So is that what happened to Ellis? I have no recollection of him being beaned. Just curious because Matt Kemp reminds me of a young Ellis and it was troubling to see how Ellis turned out.

  18. 18.  My wife and I drove from Albany to see an Expos game in their last year, and I too was surprised at what we saw–a town that really seemed to love their team. At least what few folks were there were really into it, and seemed quite knowledgeable. The second game there we was on Gary Carter bobblehead day, and the place was packed.

    Where else could you get poutine at a balpark? (OK, you can still get it in Winooski, but that ain’t the majors.)

    I never could figure out the Expos hat. Was it supposed to me a multicolored “M”? I always saw “elb” in it, and could never figure that out.

    And Woddie Fryman was one of those cardboard gods that looks perpetually 50 years old, no matter what age he was at the time.

  19. 19.  17 : That’s the standard perception about Ellis, but I see after poking around a little that the perception is probably flawed: “A lot of people think the turning point in Ellis Valentine’s career was a severe beaning he suffered in May of 1980,” Rob Neyer wrote in 2003. “It wasn’t.”

    I take Neyer’s word as law, but unfortunately, the article only mentions Valentine in passing, so I don’t know his view on the real reason for Ellis’ rapid decline.

  20. 20.  13 Montreal is also known for its nightlife, especially the “Canadian Ballet.” The shopping and food was nice too, but to most single guys Montreal was all about the ballet.

    I have to wonder that if the Expos averaged more fans per game (15-20k) they’d still be playing in Montreal.

    I’ve also attended a game @ Le Stade Olympique (Vlad was chasing 40-40) and enjoyed the atmosphere there. I’ve been to Montreal as recently as last year, and it’s as if the Expos never existed.

    It’s a shame what happened there. Montreal had shown itself to be a viable baseball city during the 80’s. I figured that if baseball could survive in Cleveland and Atlanta (you want to see pitiful attendance, check out the numbers at The Mistake on the Lake), it could survive anywhere.

    But I do not think we will see baseball up there anytime soon, MLB or MiLB. The Ottawa Lynx, who were up the road a bit, also closed up shop and moved to PA.

  21. 21.  18 The logo was ‘M’ for Montreal, ‘e’ for Expos, and ‘b’ for baseball.

    Forgot to mention in my previous post, that Parc Jarry has been converted to a tennis stadium.

  22. 22.  The below article on Ellis from the Baseballers Against Drugs website seems to hint that the beaning was part of a larger cluster of injuries and “events” (given the focus of the website, it’s not hard to guess the nature of that euphemism) that proved to be his undoing.


  23. 23.  20 I was completely unaware of the “Canadian Ballet” until just now. In fact, it took me a minute to piece together what you meant. The phrase “but to most single guys Montreal was all about the ballet” didn’t seem to be referring to Swan Lake. Alas, I was there on my honeymoon. I was really lucky just to get to go to a baseball game.

    I forgot to describe my impressions of the ballpark itself. Its architecture is quite striking, but mainly from a distance. The closer you get, the worse it looks.

  24. 24.  Oh, and the smoked meat at the ballpark was great, better than versions I had elsewhere in town. Getting through the concourse area to find the concessions, though, was impossible; reminiscent of the “Hello, Cleveland” scene. Of course, I loved the French speaking PA announcer and the outfield distances in meters. On the other hand, English was more widely spoken at the stadium than anywhere else in Quebec.

  25. 25.  13 I was going to say that there is a long time connection between NYC and Montreal as Montreal became the second choice for thousands of eastern European, Jewish immigrants who, for one reason or another, were denied entry to the U.S., my great-grandmother and my grandfather to name two. Years later they moved south to be with relatives in Connecticut but my mother still remembers family trips to Montreal to visit old friends. And she took our family on trips there when I was little. It seems bizarre to me that I’ve been on the west coast for thirty years yet four generations of my family have eaten at Moishe’s Steakhouse in Montreal. It’s the only place in the world of which I can say that.

  26. 26.  I too have a little trouble buying Woodie Fryman as frontier sheriff.
    The knock-kneed, weak-looking posture kinda gives the game away.
    Nicely written entry, though.

    18 Yes! I always saw it as “elb” too, and was well along in years before I finally understood the “M.”
    Once I started taking French in middle school, I spent a not inconsiderable amount of time trying to reverse-engineer an acronym that would make sense for “elb.”
    “E” was “equipe” (which is French for “team”); “b” was baseball; “l” was always difficult to figure — maybe “league”?

  27. 27.  We could say that the “L” stands for “Les?”

  28. 28.  Josh, I’m with you on the whole no-nonsense angle from Woodie: “This is for your own good,” he’d mutter before knocking a person on their ass, taking no pleasure in the chore. Later, hopefully, that person would come to, in every sense, and buy Woodie his next whiskey neat and talk about the pro bowling tour, that sort of thing. Salt of the earth. Good people. That’s Woodie.

    les Expos frequently vexed my Braves in their years of rivalry in the old NL East, but these Nationals are a poor substitute. Someone (Jonah Keri?) needs to write a comprehensive history of that team before it becomes impossible to explain Ellis Valentine and Rodney Scott to future generations. I’d buy that book.

  29. 29.  28 : Well put thoughts about Woodie. And I’d buy a book about the Expos, too, especially one written by Keri.

  30. 30.  It took me until a couple of years ago to see the “e” and the “b” on the Expo cap. It also took me a while to see the arrow in the FedEx logo. But I could see the “m” and “b” on the old Brew Crew hat.

  31. 31.  18 Agreed. As a kid I always thought Woody Fryman looked much older than the average player.

  32. 32.  28 I picked up a copy of Dan Turner’s “The Expos Inside Out” at a garage sale a while back. That covered the Expos of the 70’s & early 80’s, IIRC.

    There’s a documentary about the Expos history on youtube, narrarated by Donald Sutherland. That was produced sometime in the 80’s as well.

  33. According to Cromartie’s book Ellis Valentine was calmed down during his “episodes” by Billy “Big Country” Gullickson and not Woodie Fryman.

    I think Cromartie got mad at Valentine for having his music blaring in a hotel and came down to his room to kick his ass and then Valentine went nuts and threw chairs and shit. The crisis was stopped by famed tall man and diabetes sufferer Bill Gullickson…not Woodie Fryman.

    You are dead-on with the farm-town man monicker for Fryman, he always won the cow milking contests held at Olympic Stadium which was held in the early 80’s.

  34. horks:
    Thanks for the info. I guess I sensed that somebody would have to be calming Ellis Valentine now and then.

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