Charles Rosner Bronfman
Bronfman is the son of Samuel Bronfman, one of the most prominent business leaders in Canadian history, who built his fortune by operating distilleries and selling alcohol to the United States both during and after the Prohibition era. Of Samuel's four children, Charles was closest to his father and he was President of the multinational Seagram Corporation when Montreal, QC mayor Jean Drapeau launched his campaign to obtain a National League expansion franchise for his city. Drapeau and his colleague Gerry Snyder, vice-president of Montreal's executive council, approached a number of prominent local businessmen to put up a share of the franchise fee of $10 million. Bronfman was not the lead name at the time - Jean-Louis Lévesque, owner of the Blue Bonnets racetrack was - but he agreed to put up $ 1 million as a gesture of civic commitment.
When Drapeau and Snyder were unexpectedly successful in securing the expansion franchise in May of 1968, the group of investors they had pieced together began to fall apart. Soon, there was doubt whether they could even make the first payment on the franchise fee due to the National League on August 1. A number of the original investors, who never expected the bid to succeed and had not planned to come up with the money, backed out. This included Lévesque, who was negotiating the sale of many of his assets to Power Corporation, a conglomerate that was among the largest privately-owned businesses in Canada. Drapeau approached Pierre Desmarais, the multi-millionaire owner of Power Corporation, to become the new principal owner, but Desmarais declined and instructed Lévesque not to sign on, as he did not consider professional sports to be a worthwhile business venture and feared that taking responsibility for the new franchise would create untold future liabilities. In desperation, Drapeau turned to Bronfman, who agreed to increase his investment once the city found a temporary ballpark for the new baseball team, Jarry Park.
On August 14 - Drapeau had been given a two-week extension by National League President Warren Giles to come up with the first payment -, Bronfman was introduced as the new principal owner of the team. He controled 45% of the capital, with the rest being supplied by trusted business partners like Lorne Webster, Hugh Hallward and Sidney Maislin and a few local businessmen recruited by Drapeau such as the brothers Charlemagne Beaudry and Paul Beaudry, successful real estate developers. Bronfman hired John McHale, assistant to Commissioner William Eckert and a former general manager of the Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Braves, as team President.
While Bronfman left all baseball decisions to McHale and his team, the Expos were very much his personal project. His role as a chief executive at Seagram remained his principal occupation, but the Expos franchise was something he had personally built and not inherited from his legendary father. He spent a lot of time around the team, even had a uniform with number 83 fashioned for him to wear at spring training - the number would later be retired by the Expos in his honor - and he made sure the team had the financial means available to compete. The team was a great success at first, more at the gate than on the field and was quickly regarded as a model franchise, with Bronfman becoming extremely well-regarded around ownership circles for his business acumen and commitment to the game.
The team appeared poised to become a major power in the sport in the early 1980s, but came up agonizingly short of a World Series participation in three successive years (1979, 1980 and 1981), then fell back to the middle of the pack. In 1986, Bronfman installed one of the senior managers at Seagram, Claude Brochu, as the team's new President. This was a belated attempt to create tighter links between the team and the local community. Until then, besides Bronfman and a few figures on the business management side like marketing director Roger D. Landry and financial officer Claude Delorme, the Expos' top management was entirely composed of Americans with only superficial ties to the host city. At the end of the 1989 season, when the Expos again failed to make the postseason in spite of a promising early-season run, Bronfman made the shocking announcement that he was putting the team up for sale. Reasons given were the team's failure to win a championship, and the ever-increasing salaries paid to players which made the long-term financial viability of Major League Baseball problematic.
The Expos' sale dragged on for some time. No other local business leader wanted to buy the team, especially during an economic downturn and with baseball's labor climate quite sour in the wake of the collusion fiasco. There were offers from outsiders, whose interest was stimulated by the possibility of moving the team to a city in the USA in the short to medium term. To prevent such a move, Bronfman loaned Brochu some money so that he could put together an ownership syndicate that would keep the team in Montreal. Brochu managed to convince a dozen local businessmen to put up shares of approximately $10 million each and the Expos' sale was completed in 1991, with Brochu taking over as principal of the ownership group. Bronfman's son, Stephen Bronfman, was one of the minority partners in the group.
Bronfman has largely escaped the criticism levelled at his successors, Brochu and Jeffrey Loria in the ultimate departure of the team from Montreal, because everyone recognizes that without Bronfman, the Expos would never have taken the field in the first place. He is in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame for good reason. Still, his decision to sell the team came at a very bad time, when Montreal's economy was at its nadir, and resulted in an under-capitalized ownership group that was unable to survive the tumultuous 1990s. As there was no real financial motivation for Bronfman to sell, and since his son Stephen was interested in maintaining a connection with the team, one must ask whether the sale really was unavoidable or simply reflected Charles Bronfman's frustration with the fractious state of Major League Baseball at the time.
In addition to his role with the Expos and Seagram (he became Co-Chairman of the Board with his older brother Edgar Bronfman after his father's death in 1971), Bronfman was noted for his philanthropic work. He is the co-founder of Birthright Israel, an organization that funds visits to Israel by young Jewish adults, was Chairman of the United Jewish Communities, created the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, Inc., a series of charitable organizations active in the United States, Canada and Israel and sponsors the Charles Bronfman Prize for humanitarian contributions. He received the Order of Canada in 1981 for his charitable work and was made an honorary citizen of the City of Jerusalem.
Sources and Further Reading
- 1987 Montreal Expos Media Guide, p. 22.
- Jacques Doucet and Marc Robitaille: "La course contre la montre (1968-1969)", in Il était une fois les Expos, Tome 1: les années 1969-1984, Hurtubise, Montréal, QC, 2009, pp. 33-63.