The Fanning name lives on
By Matt Betts
Canadian Baseball Network
Few can call themselves baseball lifers in the truest sense.
Jim Fanning was one.
The former big leaguer and long time Montreal Expos manager and executive, who passed away in 2015, was not only a baseball lifer but an ambassador for the game in Canada.
Now his son Frank is forging his own path in the father’s pastime just finishing his first season as box office manager with the Vermont Lake Monsters, the Oakland Athletics Class A short season affiliate. He was recently promoted to director of team operations and community outreach.
“He put a bat and ball in my hand once I knew how to stand up,” Frank said of his introduction to baseball from his father. “He was an amazing man.”
Growing up with a father that not only played pro ball but was around it his whole life was special for Frank. It gave him the unique ability to see different facets of the game that other people didn’t have the opportunity to see.
“It was a lot of fun, and I was fortunate to get a glimpse of what the game looked like on the other side,” he said. “My Dad shared the backstage world with my family, friends, and I, and he got us into a lot of front offices, clubhouses, and dugouts in Major League parks and spring training facilities.”
Canvassing through the many great memories he shared with his father can be a tall task. Few Canadian youngsters had the inside track that young Frank did. He looks back to the year 2005, a historic ballpark and a fond memory that has helped lead him in the direction he has taken.
“One of my favourite memories with my Dad was our first time at Wrigley Field, that was great,” he said. “He took me all over the place. Yosh Kawano, the Cubs clubhouse man was still there from my Dad’s Cubby playing days. My Dad nearly lost his mind when he saw him. So I met him, guys like Derek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, and my hero at the time Michael Barrett. I also met Mr. (Andy) MacPhail in his office, and (Hall of Famer) Ron Santo in the dugout. Dusty Baker was with the Cubbies, so I got to smell the cigar.”
A series with the San Francisco Giants on the north side of Chicago opened the youthful Fanning’s eyes.
“I got to see Felipe and Moises Alou, and Mark Gardner. Plus (Hall of Famers) Joe Morgan and Jon Miller on the field, (Legendary scout) Gary Hughes was there and he’s one of the great guys to speak with,” he said. “Seemed like everybody was there. I remember being so in love with baseball at the time that the experience was very ground breaking in my decision on what I wanted to one day do in life.”
As exciting as moments like their visit to Wrigley were, going to the ballpark wasn’t always fun and games. A lot of the time when Frank tagged along with his father to games, he was joining in on a business trip.
“I was a child going to games with my Dad while he was involved in scouting, so it was a little different from other families,” he said. “I couldn’t talk to him because he’d be keeping score and clutching his stopwatch, so there was a lot of quiet learning and observation. I’d point out Youppi and he’d say “Frank, I’m working.” Of course he’d give me lessons on plays when they transpired, but there was no goofing off and certainly no doing the wave. I became a score keeping assistant pretty quickly.”
Jump to last December as the scorekeeper’s assistant looked to start on bigger things. Taking the advice of friend and director of minor league operations for the Detroit Tigers Dan Lunetta, Frank took off for the Winter Meetings in Harbour Md. Lunetta had worked with Jim Fanning with the Expos.
As it turned out, actually getting to the Winter Meetings proved much more difficult than he expected. With the goal of networking and seeking employment on his mind, getting across the border made him feel like a criminal on the run.
“Getting there was a struggle,” he said. “Security at Pearson Airport kept me in questioning for a long time inquiring as to why I had 200 resumes in a briefcase and no return flight booked. It was like watching that border patrol Australia show, but I was the suspect.”
Despite missing flights Fanning eventually made his way to the Winter Meetings. His first stop was the PBEO job fair. The PBEO is the official employment service for Minor League Baseball. After attending various seminars and networking to the best of his ability he found the connection he was looking for.
“I remember the last night at Nationals Ballpark in DC where they had the Gala, I walked around fraternizing, and saw a group of about six sitting quietly in leather chairs and couches off in a corner, not antisocial, just relaxed. I figured they looked like my type,” he said. “I walked over and chatted with them, and they said they were with the Vermont Lake Monsters.”
The Vermont Lake Monsters jogged his memory. He made a connection with his new found friends that was very Fanning-esque.
“I immediately recalled reading once about how they were the last team to be called the Expos, and all of a sudden our conversation became pretty Expos-centric.”
Tim Raines, left and Jim Fanning when the two were inducted into the Montreal Expos Hall of Fame.
The now Vermont Lake Monsters were indeed once the Vermont Expos. From 1977-1993 they were the Jamestown Expos before becoming the Vermont Expos from 1994-2005. They were the New York Penn League affiliate of Montreal and won three league titles in 1989, 1991 and 1996.
“I can recall very clearly the analytical stare of the Vice President Kyle Bostwick,” he said. “He was the GM of the Vermont Expos when they won their NYPL championship in 96, and worked in Ottawa with the Lynx in the mid 2000’s, so he was very familiar with the Expos names and personnel in the later years.”
Fanning points to Bostwick, executive director of sales Nate Cloutier and current general manager Joe Doud as key contacts after their Expos based meeting.
After the Winter Meetings were over he had a few phone calls with Vermont in January. Eager to break into the pro ball world with a minor league club, he called around for weeks to try and get a chance. As it so happened his first offer was not from Vermont, but they weren’t far behind.
“Turns out, on a Monday in January I got an offer to work with a Southern team, and was given until Friday to make my mind up,” he said. “I interviewed with Joe on a Tuesday, and got the call from him on Wednesday that I was hired. It was an ecstatic moment, I remember we kind of laughed on the phone like we already knew each other.”
Adam Matth, current assistant general manager with the Lake Monsters interviewed Fanning days before. Fanning credits him with being a great influence in his time so far in Burlington, Vt. He is happy to be surrounded by hard working, caring people.
Being a hard worker and good person isn’t something that needs to be addressed for Jim and Frank. Those characteristics were always on display even after the bright stadium lights had dimmed.
“Little actions always spoke volumes with him” he said. “He was always bending over to pick up things that made their way onto the floor. He was not a great Major League hitter, but he was even worse with a vacuum cleaner. He probably blew up at least three of them in my childhood, running over cables. He really helped out a lot when he was able to be home with us, and he had a great relationship with my Mom, Maria, that lasted for 40 years.”
The late Fanning, who was the only Expos manager to lead them to the postseason (a win within the 1981 World Series, beating the Philadelphia Phillies and losing the Los Angeles Dodgers), was always willing to share his stories and enjoyed talking the game with anyone that would listen.
“He was always willing to talk baseball with me (or anyone for that matter) as he got older,” he said. “The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame used to sell a group outing to benefit the Hall where fans could take him to lunch, and he’d give a group of four guys about four hours worth of old Expos stories.”
Frank, who says his father was a great drawer, a jazz fan and an impressive dancer, remembers the winter times in St. Lazare, Que as a special time with his loving dad. Jim would clear a trail, dubbed “Fanning Trail” and take Frank and sister Cynthia through the woods. He also made an ice rink for his children and tried to teach them how to skate even though he didn’t know how to himself Frank recalls.
Frank always believed his father should have written a book with all of his baseball stories and knowledge.
“It would have been the undisputed Expos bible.”
The truest of Expos fans remember Jarry Park or Parc Jarry. Not familiar? It was the home of the Expos from their expansion season in 1969 until they moved into Olympic Stadium in 1977. Stories from the inaugural Expos home surely would be included in the “Expos bible”. It was the place many Canadians first came to know baseball.
“Some of my favourite Expos stories are the fire chief visiting Parc Jarry telling John McHale and Fanning that the overload of people is a severe fire threat,” he said. “To which McHale responded ‘But Monsieur, just think of how many young French boys and girls would be robbed of a chance to fall in love with this great new game.’ Tough to beat that logic.”
Or what about the time Jim Fanning took on the responsibility of finding between inning entertainment?
“My Dad hired a random guy with a dog and a frisbee he saw in a downtown park to be the between-inning entertainment at Parc Jarry,” he said. “The dog under performed and Bob Gebhard shook his head in disbelief. My Dad had never seen a frisbee before.”
Gebhard pitched in one game for the Expos in 1974, tossing two innings and giving up an earned run. He began his front office career with the Expos in 1976 when he filled the role of field director of minor league operations. After a stop on the big league coaching staff in 1982 he was the teams farm system director from 1983-1986 before moving on to run the expansion Colorado Rockies.
Interacting with the likes of Jackie Robinson and Stan Musial, opening day at Ebbets Field and catching against Willie Mays are all stories Jim passed onto his son.
“One story that always stands out is a story of my Dad catching at the Polo Grounds while playing for the Cubs,” he said. “A game got postponed due to darkness or running out of baseballs or rock music or Lord knows what in the 1950s, so they picked up where they left off the next day before the regularly scheduled game, tie game bottom of the ninth. My Dad hadn’t caught the day before, but was going to play the regularly scheduled game. So he went in for the remainder of the ninth, and on the first pitch Willie Mays cracked a home run. My Dad always had a line about being the first catcher to never catch a pitch in a big league game.”
All of those great moments played a part in his father being inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and the Montreal Expos Hall of Fame, both in 2000.
“I can recall some truly great moments, like my Dad’s induction in St. Marys,,” he said. “I was too young to realize how important that was for him, but I knew it was significant, more so in his later years, he did a lot with the CBHOF and loved the association with them. I remember the Expos putting him into their team Hall of Fame in 2000 as well, and he received an incredible painting of himself in uniform.”
Fanning was the only Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee in 2000.
Many people will tell you it is important to have hobbies and interests outside the game. Music also plays a big role in Frank Fanning’s life. He was in a Canadian touring act called “Comet” from 2011-2013. The group called it quits as their first album was coming out. Some may recognize them from some air time the received on the radio in Southwestern, Ontario.
“Our claim to fame is Charles Bronfman saw us play once (in London, Ont.),” he said. “I was wearing leather pants like an idiot.”
Trading in the leather pants for a suit and a seat in the front office of a Minor League Baseball team was probably for the best.
“I love where I am,” he said. “In terms of goals, I want to progress and grow into the community here in Vermont. It is so close to home, Montreal, and it feels like an extension of those great Quebec vibes. I enjoy this place a lot, and I’ll do whatever I am asked. If they believe I can do something, then I’ll do my best at it.”
Life in Vermont is great for Fanning but there is just something missing when he goes back to Montreal.
“Lets bring back the Expos already,” he said. “Montreal hasn’t felt the same.”
Carrying on the Fanning name in baseball is something Frank takes great pride in. If he can even come close to the type of career his father enjoyed, he will surely consider it a tremendous success.
“My Dad had a 65 year baseball career. He died on April 25th, 2015 around 1:40am and after he passed, the Blue Jays, for all accounting purposes, had his official records show that he’d worked up until April 25th at midnight. By technicality, he was only out of the game for less than two hours. Baseball was indeed his life. I want to thank the Toronto Blue Jays for giving my Dad an enjoyable final 15 seasons, and for providing him access to lots of special care later in life. Paul Beeston is a heck of a human being, and he came to my Dad’s memorial with Howie Starkman. My family never forgets those gestures.”
Now these are baseball lifers.