By Bob Elliott
LONDON _ Maria Fanning can throw a party.
After all the woman has experience.
There was husband Jim Fanning’s 65th birthday.
Guests made the drive from Newmarket, Alliston, Georgetown, Chatham, Dorchester and Toronto on Sunday afternoon to celebrate Fanning, 84, becoming a Canadian citizen.
The door opened at the Eastside Bar & Grill on Hamilton Road, a neighbourhood saloon, sunlight tumbled in and a familiar figure filled the doorway:
Former Montreal Expos owner Charles Bronfman.
Bronfman owned the Expos, made them a success and make no mistake without the early success of the Expos, the Blue Jays might have never come to be.
Do you remember who threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the first World Series game played outside the United States 20 years ago?
Jays president Paul Beeston phoned Bronfman to ask. He threw a strike to Derek Bell.
The man on the Forbes and Canadian Business billionaires list, makes the Fanning list too.
We can’t guess how many other billionaires have Eastside Bar in their day planner?
“Jim and I go back to day one with the Expos, with John McHale, Gene Mauch, Harry Renaud, Gene Kirby, they were our team,” said Bronfman, who flew in from New York for this latest Fanning celebration.
The Expos were awarded a franchise May 27, 1968 and for months the front office was the face of what was to come until Oct. 14 when Manny Mota was selected in the expansion draft.
McHale was the president, Renaud vice-president and treasurer, Kirby travelling secretary, Mauch the franchise’s first manager and Fanning?
“Jim was the talent guy, he chose some awfully good people,” said Bronfman. “He was our catalyst, helped put our management team together. It was rough for a couple of years but we had fun.”
“John McHale is telling Gene how I won’t interfere like some owners, Mauch looks at me and I said ‘that’s right ... as long as I can have a uniform,’” said Bronfman who asked for No. 83.
“Mauch’s looking at me, he’s not saying anything, but I know he’s thinking ‘this guy knows so little about baseball, he actually chose a football number.’”
There was a method to Bronfman’s selection process, Seagram’s 83 Canadian Whiskey was one of the distiller’s brands.
* * *
Report card ...
Mr. and Mrs. Fanning:
James is a good little boy but he is lazy! James only wants to hold his mitt and play ball. He needs to study! He needs to do more homework. Baseball will not get him anywhere.
Vernon L. Kirkland
Moneta Consolidated Schools
Sept. 4, 1939
Grace placement: 8
* * *
Fanning grew up in Moneta, a town with a population of less than 100. In the 1930s there were not any super stations for him to follow in growing up in the northwest corner of Iowa.
How did he fall in love with the game?
“Town teams,” Fanning said quickly.
He was a bat boy, hustling after bats and chasing foul balls by day, listening to Captain Midnight, Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy and The Shadow on his small radio which would take a youngster miles away from home.
He played American Legion eight miles away in the town of Hartley (population 1,497 in 2009), which has since incorporated Moneta.
Hartley’s hated rival was located a few miles down Route 18: Everly (pop: 624 in 2009).
“We drew big crowds every Sunday, maybe 200 or 300 people,” Fanning said. “If you wanted to rob a bank Sunday was the time ... everyone was at the ball park. Or rob a house -- no one locked their doors. Everyone left their car keys in the ignition.”
He’d milk 25 cows in the morning and another 25 at night.
Iowa has been taken out of the boy, but Iowa hasn't forgotten its native son.
Right-hander Vern Fear was signed by the Chicago Cubs in 1946 and made the majors, appearing in four games in 1952.
Fanning was drafted in 1945 ... by the U.S. Army and was finished serving his country in 1947.
He then played semi-pro ball and attended Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa.
After 11 seasons playing in the minors -- class-B Cedar Rapids, double-A Beaumont, Los Angeles, double-A Tulsa, double-A Fort Worth, triple-A Portland and class-C Eau Claire.
At Tulsa he took over for a fired Al Widmar, who later was the Blue Jays pitching coach.
“Tell you what type of guy Al was, he stayed around three days, sat in the seats and came down and told me his observations on the team,” said Fanning. “I was with independent team and needed to get with an organization.”
McHale hired him to manage for the Milwaukee Braves in 1961 at Eau Claire, then he ran the Braves Florida instructional league team, back to Eau Claire in 1962 and Greenville in 1963.
He was running the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau when McHale hired him to join the Expos as their first general manager in 1968.
* * *
Those early years the Expos had a downtown office on Peel. That’s where the work was done, since Parc Jarry was a temporary facility.
Charlie Fox, Fanning and others would go to lunch at the same place and they eventually met a woman named Maria, who ran a marketing firm.
“Charlie would say ‘Jim you’re single, you should ask that girl out,’ he kept it up and kept it up,” Fanning said. “One night the ball club had a function and I showed with Maria.
“Once when I was in the restaurant -- and Charlie wasn’t there -- I asked her out. Charlie was surprised.”
From 1968 to 1992, Fanning worked in various capacities for the Expos, including farm director, scouting director, GM and manager.
Fanning was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys in 2000.
Still based in Montreal at the time, Fanning had been scouting for the Colorado Rockies since leaving the Expos.
Maria kept saying, “Jim, we should come here and live. Look how nice everything is. Look how pretty the scenery is.
Fanning called GM Gord Ash was hired over the phone. He moved to Dorchester and a year ago moved into a condo in London.
* * *
Fanning was always respectful of others whether it was answering questions after an extra-inning loss, explaining a trade from the front office perspective which didn’t work out.
Maria and Jim's children, Cynthia and Frank, both 22, aren’t two apples who fell far from the tree ... no they both shimmied down the trunk of the Fanning family tree.
Cynthia spoke, thanking family members for coming from near and far. Fanning later praised his daughter for winning an award for marks in the Waterloo University sociology program.
Frank wore an blue Expo hoody proudly.
Frank read emails of well wishes from former Expos like
Larry Walker, Felipe Alou, Steve Rogers, Wallace Johnson, Bill Lee, broadcaster Jacques Doucet and former Expo P.R. man Richard Griffin, now of the Toronto Star and Danny Gallagher, who used to cover the Expos for the Ottawa Sun.
Jays Dr. Ron Taylor and Kevin Briand, Pat Daughtery, of the Colorado Rockies (“prizes for anyone wearing purple,”) and Rush’s Geddy Lee were some of the others to send letters to the newest Canadian.
Most asked the same question “what took you so long?”
Frank played for Mike Lumley’s London Badgers.
“I always had a lot in common with my dad,” Frank told the crowd. “We both had light bats, we both caught and we both love the game.
“And we both tend to annoy my mother and we both get yelled as in the same way,” Frank joked.
There were letters from Fanning's cousin Pat Holst and husband Gerry and good friends Donnie Nielsen and wife Marlene, plus six others from former Quebec neighbours and family from St. Leonard, Brossard and St. Lazare, Que.
“Welcome to our country,” said Chatham’s Billy Atkinson, a former Expos right-hander. “Jim Fanning has always been honest and truthful. I’ve known him since I was 16, I call him Dad.”
* * *
In July of 2011 Fanning, then 83, called former Montreal Alouettes place kicker George Springate.
Back when the legendary Ted Teevan (Kingston, Ont.) nicknamed Montreal “the city of champions” Springate booted a field goal and two converts as coach Sam Etcheverry’s Als beat the Calgary Stampeders 23-10 in the 58th Grey Cup. The Als won again in 1974 beating the Edmonton Eskimos 20-7 again in 1977, knocking off the Esks 41–6.
Montreal was aglow from hosting the 1976 Olympics.
And the Montreal Canadiens won six Stanley Cups in the decade: coach Al MacNeil beating the Chicago Black Hawks in 1971, Scotty Bowman’s Canadiens knocking off the Hawks in 1973, beating the Philadelphia Flyers in 1976, the Boston Bruins in 1977, the Bruins in 1978 and the New York Rangers in 1979.
Later Olympic Stadium hosted Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran I in 1980.
Fanning had the Expos in the 1981 post-season.
Springate won three terms of office in the National Assembly of Quebec as a Liberal. He was appointed a citizenship judge in 2000, again in 2006 and in 2008 he was appointed Canada’s senior citizenship Judge for a five-year term.
“George said he’d put me in touch with a woman in London,” Fanning said.
Springate drove from Montreal to London for Fanning’s ceremony Feb. 18. Springate, the former Alouette, told Fanning he was going to hit last in the order.
Everyone had to recite Oh Canada, but Fanning said he didn’t have to study on Sir John A. Macdonald (Kingston, Ont.).
“It’s a solemn occasion, 23 people from 11 different countries, then I heard the woman call my name ... ‘William James Fanning,’ and George gets up, puts his arm around me and says ‘this guy played four years in the majors, he’s so slow he never stole a base.
“Now, it has taken 44 years for Jim to become a Canadian. All of a sudden it has gone from solemn to a happy occasion.”
Fanning and Springate had known each other for 40 years.
Wife Maria, Cynthia and Frank were on hand.
* * *
The Expos have had managers with track records: Mauch, 26 years (3,942 games) including the 1986 California Angels who reached the post season; Hall of Famer Dick Williams, 21 years (3,023 games) winning two Series with the Oakland A’s and losing with the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres; Bill Virdon at the helm for 13 years (1,918) guiding the Houston Astros to the playoffs; the popular Buck Rodgers 13 years (1,559) advancing with the Milwaukee Brewers; Felipe Alou 14 years (2,055) winning with the San Francisco Giants and Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson, who managed 16 years (2,241).
No one took the Expos to the post season.
Only Fanning did.
Fanning took over for Williams on Sept. 8, 1981 at Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia. He had not managed since class-A Greenville in 1963. He guided the Expos to a first-place finish in the second-half of the strike-shortened season, a win over the Philadelphia Phillies and within one game of the Series, when Rick Monday homered off Steve Rogers. Fanning went with Rogers when closer Jeff Reardon was bothered by a bad back.
Now Fanning continues his passion with the Jays as an ambassador, amateur ball, his 63rd year in baseball.
* * *
Frank is part of the band Entropy.
That would be the one on stage, the one with the large Expo logo on Matt Chabot’s drum.
After the speeches singer Jesse Wideman, base player Matt Minshall and Frank all sported Fanning’s old Expos jerseys: the 1982 all-star jersey, a blue Expos warm up top, manager Fanning’s gamers, home and away.
Despite the fact they did not play any country music, this rock band appeared to have a bright future from these old ears.
They did have the ability to adapt ... with Jesse playing the Expos theme song on the organ.
* * *
This citizenship ceremony was the reason for Sunday’s celebration.
Fanning took the microphone and said “I’m proud to be a Canadian.”
He also explained what a rough year it had been with the deaths of Hall of Famers, former Expos manager Dick Williams, 82, and former Expo catcher Gary Carter, 57, lefty reliever Woodie Fryman, 70, right-hander Charlie Lea, 54 and his dear friend Ron Piche, 75, who was involved in a car accident on his way to St. Marys. Kristinia Piche sent maybe the best letter of the day disussing her father’s friendship with Fanning. Rick Williams, and his wife Sue, sent a lovely letter as well. Rick is a scout for the New York Yankees and the son of Dick Williams.
Fanning told of taking Maria on her honeymoon in 1985 to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
“Jay Alou our scout in the Dominican picked us up at the airport and on the drive to the hotel said ‘Jim we are working out six kids in the morning, I’ll pick you up at 8:30 a.m.’” said Fanning, who noticed the glare he was getting from Maria.
“Jay can we made it 9:30?”
Fanning and Alou signed five players off the workout, including one player over dinner that night.
“Now that guy became one of the best relievers in the National League and was earning $1 million,” Fanning said. “Maria said ‘I was there when we signed Mel Rojas.’ That story kind of turned around.”
Having a street named after you is a great compliment, but my father always said that the highest compliment a baseball man could be paid was to have a ball field named after him ... while he was still involved in the game.
Here's Frank at Jim Fanning Field in Hartley Iowa.
* * *
The final word goes to London’s top party planner, Maria:
Jim Fanning ... Who is he?
Chicago baby, Iowa boy,
Frank and Gladys’ pride and joy.
Leaping haystacks, kicking cans
Moneta High School, Buena Vista Man.
Glove-holding, bat-toting, racing to school on last call.
Borrowed bats, feet in cleats, baseball pants,
Catcher’s stance, explain to me, master’s degree, with missed classes and failing grades
Just C’s and D’s, no A’s at all. His only letters ... b-a-l-l... ball.
Teammate, roommate, never learned how to skate.
Minor leaguer, turned Baseball Great.
Favorite dish? home plate.
Brought the Big Leagues to Canada, no doubt about it
Threw a fastball right down the pipe...
And Montreal caught it!
Baseball Guru, did you know, dubbed by Charles, Mr. Expo!
Long-time bachelor, single swinger.
Story teller, silly-song singer.
Banana-frying, chocolate hog, cheesy nachos, ballpark dogs.
One of his greatest feats, climbed Germany’s Watzmann Mountain; 8,956 Feet!
True friend, true mate, loving husband, soulmate. Loving father, playmate, playpens, wiping ends!
Collaborator, mentor, teacher, philosopher, truth-seeker, realist, generous, philanthropist.
Treats all he meets with charm and grace – the years don’t show upon his face.
Problem-solver, mediator, God-fearing, never wavers.
Catcher, player, front office exec. General manager, giving heck. Negotiator contract renewer no baseball man was ever truer.
Milwaukee Braves, Chicago Cubs, Montreal Expos, Rockies Club.
Rookie to Majors, unknown to renown, humble beginnings, good fortune abounds.
Health in wealth, wealth in health, Canada’s Ambassador of Goodwill...
Respected Dad ... tough but sweet the nicest guy you’ll ever meet
Inner power Man of the Hour character outstanding
Ladies and gents a round of applause welcome to Canada
Our own Jim Fanning