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The national pastime's Canadian caper began in a National League meeting in Chicago on May 27, when, to the surprise of almost everyone, Montreal was accepted for membership as an expansion franchise in 1969. Unfortunately, about eight minutes later things began to cloud up and they have remained remarkably fuzzy ever since. In fact, it now seems quite possible that Montreal will not have a franchise after next Thursday, August 15. That is the deadline, when, all kidding aside, an initiation fee of $1,120,000 in U.S. money must be handed over to the National League.
As dark as the situation now appears for Montreal, if the city's recent history of rising to and surpassing the occasion is any criterion, National League President Warren Giles will be sitting in his office in the Carew Tower in Cincinnati at 11:59 p.m. next Thursday, when, in a flourish, Sergeant Preston will enter, his loyal husky King panting by his side (the office is 26 flights up), clamping $1,120,000 in crisp $1,000 bills in his teeth. "Down, King, down, you husky," the brave Mountie cries as King jumps up on Giles' desk and starts spewing money all over the road maps spread out there. But look: $1,120,000. "This case is closed," Sergeant Preston intones, as is his custom.
King, being no dummy, sniffs around and finds Walter O'Malley hiding behind a curtain and joyously begins licking his hand. The Montreal Mounties or Phantoms or whatevers go on to become the most successful franchise in baseball. Montreal's promised domed stadium is built on schedule by 1972, the NFL falls all over itself rushing to put a team in there, Montreal is awarded the 1976 Olympics, and everybody forgets what a botch it all was.
But it has been some mess in Montreal ever since May 27, and sadly, one must assume that Sergeant Preston will not close this case. Instead, sometime before August 15 Seagrams whiskey heir Charles Bronfman, who has become chairman of the Phantoms by default (after multimillionaire Jean Louis Levesque quit), will probably call Giles and tell him the jig is up.
If this happens, the fun will really start for the National League. The league can choose to switch the franchise to Buffalo, Dallas-Fort Worth, a large barge out beyond the three-mile limit or any number of other places that do not have major league stadiums. Or it can return to the scene of its crime, Milwaukee, which happens to be the only city that does have an available satisfactory park. Either way it will be terribly embarrassing, which is why the National League keeps cooing sweet nothings whenever it is suggested that there just might be a problem in Montreal.
The problem is there, though, and it is the stadium; or rather, the problem is there but the stadium is not. Teams do not really move to cities anymore. They move to stadiums, and Montreal, which does not have to concern itself with messy referendums that involve voters, as do cities in the U.S., got the franchise primarily because Mayor Jean Drapeau, an effervescent little La Guardian dynamo, was able by himself to absolutely promise the league that Montreal would construct a magnificent domed stadium by 1971. For the interim, he also committed the city to refurbishing and enlarging a 26,000-seat Stonehenge called the Autostade.
It certainly was a feasible plan, but even though the mayor's party controls 45 of 48 seats on the city council, which must approve such matters, Montreal was suddenly caught up in a wave of social concern—the same concern that has made it difficult for U.S. politicians to approve such goodies as stadiums that invariably cost up to twice their fanciful estimates ($35 million in Montreal). For essentially the same reasons, the Massachusetts legislature killed a Boston stadium bill last month.
It is probably not just coincidence that Drapeau—invariably voluble on any subject related to his beloved Montreal—retreated from public inquiry, and the owners soon began to accuse him of "hedging" on the domed stadium shortly after a stinging editorial appeared in The Montreal Star on May 29. The editorial, entitled We can't survive only on circuses, said in part:
"This is a city in which too many people go to bed hungry, in which thousands of citizens suffer inadequate housing, in which disadvantaged children have no public-sponsored preschooling, in which free public parks suddenly require a $2.50 admissions tag, in which too many men, women and children are struggling to subsist on inadequate welfare handouts....
"We think we're ready for big-league baseball; we think Montrealers will support their new team. But let the team owners build their own stadium."