Even to the occasional sports fan the word "playoff' conjures up expectations of intense competition. To an also-ran team it is an opportunity to atone for a "season's shortcomings, a second chance to win it all. But in the 1950s, in the Montreal Royals' Junior League, playoff came to mean something else again.
The league was composed of 10 sand-lot baseball teams scattered throughout Montreal and its suburbs. Because there was an age limit of 21 and no residence restrictions for players, the teams were of college caliber. Financial support came from the Brooklyn Dodgers and their powerful Montreal Royals AAA farm team. The players were well scouted, but in a land where hockey is king, most of those who entered the minor leagues were quickly discouraged by homesickness and hot weather. There were a few former junior players whose perseverance was rewarded: Ray Daviault pitched for the 1962 Mets, Tim Harkness played first base for the Dodgers and the Mets, and Ron Piche and Claude Raymond were members of a Milwaukee Braves pitching staff that included Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette; Raymond also made the National League All-Star team as an Astro in 1966.
The Town of Mount Royal, a suburb north of Montreal, was English-speaking and affluent. In the 1950s its recreational facilities were the envy of the area, and its baseball field rivaled that of the Montreal Royals' Delorimier Stadium, where I had my first glimpse of baseball greatness: Jackie Robinson in his home Royals debut in 1946.
I did not live in the Town, as Mount Royal was called, but I pitched and played outfield for the Town Juniors. With an Irish mother and a French father, I also had the only French surname on the team—an anomaly that was often treated with favor by the French sports press. During my four seasons with the Town Juniors, the team had little success in spite of ample talent. Only once did we win a playoff spot. But I will never forget how this one modest success was aborted by an ill-fated decision that unleashed a chain of improbable events still difficult to believe.
In 1954, when I was 19 years old, the Town Juniors were a good team. At the beginning of the season, we felt we had a realistic chance at the championship. But other teams in the league were also strong, and the standings were tightly bunched throughout the season. Although we won our share of games against the top teams, we ended the regular season in a tie with Plateau Mont Royal, a team from east of Montreal, for fifth place. Because the top six teams made the three preliminary playoff series, both Plateau and the Town had qualified, but a sudden-death twilight game between our two teams would have to be played to determine the final standings and, thus, the pairings for the preliminary series.
When I entered the dressing room on the August evening of the sudden-death game, I sensed immediately that something was afoot. There were a few strange smiles, more like smirks, around the room. Our coach, Nelson Bain, sat in a corner, studying the final standings. As I began to change into my uniform, he asked me which team I would prefer to face, first-place Laval or second-place Ville-Marie. Since we had split our four games with Laval but had been unable to beat well-disciplined Ville-Marie, Laval was my choice. "Good", he replied, "because we're going to throw this game with Plateau." To preserve whatever good reputation we may have enjoyed, we would not overtly concede the game but would simply let the other team win. The ethics were questionable, but it appeared a harmless enough ploy, so I tacitly approved.
Plateau's home turf was Pare La Fontaine, a large public park that was a bastion of French-Canadian youth sports. Since our two communities represented socioeconomic contrasts in Montreal, there was a natural rivalry between our teams. The white-collar English would play the blue-collar French. There was another difference: Most of our players were large that year, while the Plateau players were unusually small. I hated to pitch against them; it seemed as though every strike had to be belt-high. The tallest player was of only average height, and the shortest players, the Samson brothers, could hit anything with surprising power.
Plateau also had a scrappy young shortstop, a friendly kid who spoke pretty good English. His name was Claude Ruel. Like many in the league, he was hoping for a future in hockey. (Unfortunately, an eye injury deprived him of a playing career in the NHL, but he made his mark anyway when he coached the Canadiens to the 1969 Stanley Cup.)
The sudden-death game was played at a neutral field, Jarry Park, which later became the site of the Montreal Expos' first stadium. As the visiting team, we batted first. Although coach Bain wanted us to lose the game, he had not requested a shutout; in fact, he had told us to make the loss look legitimate. This requirement was fulfilled to an unfortunate extreme by one swing of the bat. With a runner on base, Ross Hughes, our rightfielder, found the pitch he had been waiting for all season and gleefully slammed it. The ball landed on an adjacent Softball diamond and rolled to the sidewalk of Boulevard St. Laurent. Fearing for his game-throwing plan, coach Bain ordered, "No more scoring. Strike out if you have to!" The half inning ended, and we took the field.
I was not in the starting lineup. So I may have been the first to observe an uncharacteristic levity on the Plateau bench. Plateau's leadoff hitter, one of the Samsons, was all smiles as he came to the plate. He was greeted with four straight balls. It was after he reached first base that I suspected we might have fallen into a bizarre trap. Plateau was not cooperating: Samson took a lead almost halfway to second base and started a little dance. When we didn't try to throw him out, his coach yelled to him in French, and he quickly scurried back to first base. I guess the Plateau team was concerned about its reputation, too.