Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mourning or marketing? The strange afterlife of the Montréal Expos

In 1967, Montréal hosted a world’s fair, Expo ’67. It was Canada’s centenary, and Expo is often looked back at as the moment when both Montréal and Canada came of age and entered onto the world stage. For Montréal, it was a victory, the first Canadian city with an international reputation, and it went on to hold the 1976 Summer Olympics. That didn’t end so well, with the city left under a mountain of debt. The Olympic Stadium, an architectural disaster, took 30 years to pay off. Colloquially, Montrealers refer to it as the Big Owe.

But all of that was in the future in 1969, when the Montréal Expos took to the field for the first time at Jarry Park in the city’s north end. The team’s name, of course, recalled 1967, commemorating and immortalising Montréal’s summer of love with the whole world. The Expos were Canada’s first baseball team (the Toronto Blue Jays followed in 1977). Montréal had a long history with the sport, dating back to the 19th century. It was also in Montréal, on 18 April 1946, that Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier, playing for the Montréal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ top minor league affiliate.

Nevertheless, an entire new vocabulary had to be created to translate the game into French with the birth of the Expos. Much of the credit for this goes to original Expos broadcaster Jacques Doucet. For instance, in French, the field is le terrain, and le lanceur stands on le monticule before throwing to his receveur, unless le frappeur gets in the way and smacks un coup sûr. Montrealers flocked to Jarry Park to watch Nos Amours. In 1976, after the Olympics, the Expos moved to the Big O (the more acceptable nickname for Olympic Stadium).

For their first decade, the Expos lost. A lot. But then, in 1979, in the new stadium, they won 95 games and embarked on a 15-year run as a perennial contender. They made the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1981 season, only to heartbreakingly lose to the LA Dodgers. The irony here is that it was the 1981 strike that got the Expos to the playoffs. The next time there was a strike, in 1994, things didn’t go so well for Montréal and its Expos. When the strike began, the Expos were 74-40, the best team in baseball and comfortably in first place in the National League East. But that was as far as it went: the rest of the season and the entire post-season were cancelled. The Expos lost their chance at immortality and a World Series victory.

The 1994 strike was also the beginning of the end for the Expos. In the aftermath, the owners began a firesale of all their best players, including the Canadian Larry Walker. And the Expos slid into mediocrity, or worse. Ownership was unstable. Plans for a new stadium down the street from the Montréal Canadiens’ new home fell through (the site is now covered with soulless condos). Montrealers fell out of love with the Expos. Crowds dwindled. 8,000 fans in a stadium that seats 50,000 is more than depressing. Ultimately, the team was owned by Major League Baseball (MLB), which farmed the team off to Puerto Rico for some “home” games, and then, in 2005, moved the team to Washington, itself a failed MLB city.

After the Expos left town, Montrealers quickly forgot them, and re-focussed all their passions on the Canadiens, the most successful hockey team of all time. But, in the past few years, the strangest thing has happened. Expos paraphernalia is all over the city. Expos caps, t-shirts, jerseys, toques, hoodies, warm-up jackets (just like the one manager Buck Rodgers wore in 1986). Expos caps come in the traditional “beanie” style, in bleu, blanc, rouge, as well as the more traditional blue version they wore from the early 90s. For the fashion conscious, the cap also comes in purple, black, brown, green, yellow, orange, and even camouflage.

An unscientific study of four sports paraphernalia stores in downtown Montréal this week reveals that Expos’ gear cannot stay on the shelves. It’s easier to find new iPhone than a black Expos cap in this city. I myself own three Expos caps, the beanie, the blue, and a brown one. (In my defence, the beanie and the blue actually date to when the Expos still existed.)

This leaves me wondering how much of this trend is Montrealers mourning the loss of Nos Amours and how much of it is clever marketing? The Expos gear today is part of MLB’s “Cooperstown Collection,” recalling the heritage of the sport. And certainly, vintage sports logos and gear are all the rage. Jerseys and caps of defunct teams are sported by everyone from rappers on MTV to my students. Similarly, disused logos of teams that are still around are just as popular. Thus, one could be excused for forgetting that the New York Titans have been the Jets since the early 1960s. Or that the Hartford Whalers moved to Carolina to become the Hurricanes in 1996. Long-standing clubs like the Chicago Bears and Boston Bruins market their old jerseys as “vintage.” The NFL even mandates certain games as heritage matches, and the teams wear vintage uniforms.

So is the plethora of Expos gear a reflection of this trend? Are we being duped by MLB once again here in Montréal? I know I for one feel slightly queasy in buying Expos gear, or even admiring it. On one hand, it recalls my youth, a time when the Expos were contenders, and it recalls fond memories of games at the Big O, or on the radio or TV, in French or English. And baseball, if nothing else, is a sport that is marketed based on its history, its place in (North) American life. More than that, the mystique of the game also translates north (as well as south) of the border. We have our own fields of dreams here.

And this, ultimately, is the problem when marketing meets nostalgia. Nostalgia isn’t simply some kitschy view of the past, it is a real, tangible emotion. It plays heavily on our hearts, as we recall our pasts. The advertising industry has clearly figured this out. It appeals to our nostalgia in trying to sell everything to us, from cars to beer to food. And, ultimately, the Expos are just another part of this. Certainly, Expos nostalgia is a real, tangible emotion in Montréal, but we are also just the intended targets of a slick marketing campaign. And ultimately, what makes me queasiest is the fact that not only did MLB kill my baseball team, I am now shelling out my money to the very same corporation for a new Expos cap.

~ Matthew Barlow


  1. Thanks for your post, Matthew. It resonates with me not because I'm a sports fan--quite the opposite in fact, I'm one of those humbugs that never quite gets pro sports--but because my students have grown increasingly interested in retro athletics over the last few years. I had no idea about throwback jerseys and the sort until my undergrads began writing about them and heritage stadiums and 19th-century baseball reenactors and the list goes on and on. It's obviously no surprise to you, but I was really taken aback and couldn't figure out why so many young folks were interested in celebrating an era(s) of athletics that institutionalized some of the nastiest social problems (e.g. racial segregation, gender inequity, body commodification) that we North Americans have wrangled with over the years.

    It didn't take long for me to realize that these kids just didn't know the history. And, at the same time, talking about it didn't seem to at all diminish their enthusiasm for a rosy-colored baseball yesteryear. Because, in their minds, since the story has a mostly happy ending, they can revel in the good parts of the past without confronting the messier stuff. This kind of teleological certainty is, of course, a precondition for nostalgia. And it works really well. I imagine, for instance, that as forward looking as it may have been, Expo 67 probably sowed the seeds of nostalgia in its own narratives about progress and nation. Celebrating how far we've come, after all, almost always requires a romanticization of humble beginnings. As you point out, it seems that today's retro marketers have figured out precisely how to commodify this dynamic of collective memory. And we gobble it up, no questions asked.

    I wonder, though, how you think we can encourage folks to ask the hard questions. How can I, in the classroom or, better yet, a curator in a museum, respond to the retro sports phenom in a way that: 1) encourages us to be careful consumers; 2) reminds us that the story isn't actually over and, in fact, continues to thicken; and 3) explains what nostalgia is and how it works without bogging down in cultural studies speak (this is one of my biggest challenges)?

  2. I think I come at this from a different angle than you do in terms of the vintage sports logos. The parts of the world I spend my time in (Québec and New England) have lost 3 of their major league sports teams in the past 15 years (Québec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers in hockey and the Expos), and Canada has also seen the Winnipeg Jets decamp to Phoenix. So I move in cultures where the kids DO know their history, they do know the economics of small markets (like Québec and Hartford)losing their clubs. And they know notions of foreignness are involved in other clubs disappearing (like the Expos and the Vancouver Grizzlies in the NBA).
    But there is still this question of nostalgia. I sometimes think that the problem we have as academics is two-fold when we approach nostalgia. One, we see it is a bad thing and, two, we DO get bogged down in cultural studies-speak. This is the wrong way to engage nostalgia. It needs to be confronted head on, we need to recognize nostalgia is, in fact, a good thing, or at least can be, because it at least gets people thinking about the past.
    I think we also differ in opinion on the need to educate consumers, judging by comments we've both left on previous posts. I am not in favour of blithe consumerism by any means, but I also think that consumers are savvy, they know what they're doing when they spend their money. And the very fact that retro sports logos and teams are trendy is, I think, a good thing in and of itself, because it does force people to think about history. It leads them to Google to find out why the Québec Nordiques are the Colorado Avalanche now.
    So, from where I sit, those questions are already being asked. Certainly, we are marketed at. There is no doubt about that. And certainly, there are some who just don't get it (like the guy I saw in the stands at a Canadiens' game last week wearing a Nordiques' jersey, the two teams were fierce rivals).
    Ultimately, what we do in the classroom with this phenomenon is what we do with all others. We ask those critical questions, we wonder if they know what it means to be wearing that Expos cap or that Che Guevara t-shirt (another retro phenomenon), and we talk about nostalgia, dismissing our thoughts of elitism, and just accept and approach it for what it is and recognise that this is how the majority of people engage with the past.
    I am an historian of the Irish diaspora, and if there is a culture that likes romantic versions of its past, it is the Irish. I love engaging with students and the general public on these terms, I love seeing their passion and interest in the past, even if it is a romanticised version of it. And then I love working with them to complicate that view of the past. In working on a defunct, inner-city Irish-Catholic neighbourhood here in Montréal, I do often encounter these rose-tinted views of the past. But what is so wonderful about living in grinding poverty, economic insecurity, in slum conditions, I ask? And my audience then often asks me why I have to be so negative, can't I see the community, love, and joy people had, despite all of the above, sure, it was a struggle to survive, but that doesn't mean that your entire world is miserable.
    So I find myself asking another question in those moments, which is why it can't be both/and instead of either/or? Why can't nostalgia be complicated and why can't the misery of a working-class life also have its moments of joy? And the answer I have come to is that there are no reasons why not.
    And so to return to the sports logos and the Che Guevara t-shirts, I think it goes the same way. Certainly, that Expos logo means something, at least here in Montréal, and so we have to ask what it is it means? Does it mean we miss the Expos, as we called them, or are we showing our Montréal identity? And does that mean that the actual logo of the Expos has anything to do with a defunct baseball team anymore, or is it just an easily recognisable symbol for Montrealers, one we all know and recognise?

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