1971 Montréal Expos
Managed by Gene Mauch
Awards and Honors
- All-Star: Rusty Staub
- Player of the Year: Ron Hunt
- Best Rookie: Ernie McAnally
- Players of the month:
- Minor League Player of the Year: Pepe Mangual (Quebec AA)
- Minor League Pitcher of the Year: Paul Sullivan (Quebec AA)
The 1971 Montreal Expos headed into the season with confidence after a 21-game improvement the previous year. Their objectives were to move out of the National League East cellar for the first time in their history, and maybe to reach .500. They succeeded on the first score, but not on the second, as they actually receded from 73 wins to 71; they also came to the realization that they would need to move away from trying to squeeze a few last seasons of production from aging veterans if they were to take the next step forward.
As had been the case in 1970, the team was not particularly active in the off-season, but the one move they made was a brilliant success. On December 30th, General Manager Jim Fanning managed to convince his counterpart with the San Francisco Giants to trade him veteran second baseman Ron Hunt, who was still a productive player even if on the wrong side of 30, in return for minor league veteran first baseman Dave McDonald, who had had a solid season at AAA Winnipeg the previous year, but was not a real prospect. To make things worse, the Expos got McDonald back by the end of spring training when he failed to make the Giants' roster, and he got to play a few games with the team later in the season, without making much of an impression. For his part, Ron Hunt was rejuvenated by his new surroundings. Used as the Expos' lead-off hitter, he collected 145 hits, walked 58 times, and demonstrated that he was the best player in baseball history in one very specialized skill area: getting hit by pitch. He was plucked a record-setting 50 times, to give him a nifty .402 on-base percentage. He was a bit of a downgrade from his predecessor Gary Sutherland in terms of defensive prowess, but the extra offense he contributed more than made up for it, earning Hunt the team's Player of the Year award. As for Sutherland, freed from the pressure of an everyday job, he had his best season in an Expo uniform, filling in ably behind Hunt and shortstop Bobby Wine, whose own offensive production went from bad to absolutely awful, as his slugging average of .235 with 16 runs batted in 119 games attest.
The star of the team remained right-fielder Rusty Staub, though. Le Grand Orange was beloved by the Expos' fans and journalists covering the team. He had a genuine love for the city of Montreal, being a lover of fine food (in those days, Montreal was second only to New York among North American cities in terms of top-notch restaurants) and even made an effort to learn French. It also did not hurt that he was a terror at the plate: he hit .311 that year, a team mark that would not be bettered until 1982, while walking 74 times, with 94 runs scored and 97 runs batted in. Staub was the personification of the team, the only player who had worn the Expos' unique tri-color cap at the All-Star Game, and a hero to youth throughout Canada. Little did the fans know at that time that he would not return in 1972... Veteran Bob Bailey took sole possession of third base that year, as Coco Laboy, 1969's surprise hero, had a second consecutive off-year, slugging a paltry .298. Bailey walked 97 times and drove in 83 runs, even if he only hit .251 that year. First Baseman Ron Fairly quietly had another solid season, even if his slugging percentage fell below .400. Catcher John Bateman also contributed with 10 home runs and 56 runs batted in, but by the end of the season he started to show signs of his age and of the strain of catching over 130 games for two consecutive years, ending the year with a meager .242 average and only 19 walks. Another veteran who could no longer keep up was left fielder Mack Jones, who had been one of the team's best hitters in their inaugural season; by 1971, he was washed up, managing only a .165 batting average with little power before he was released in July. In contrast, Boots Day was a pleasant surprise in his first season as a regular player: although he had very little power, he hit .283 and scored 53 runs while playing a fine center field.
The Expos' starting pitching had become quite respectable by the end of the 1970 season, and the trend continued in 1971. Hard-throwing Bill Stoneman, who had had a very good month of September the previous year after a difficult season, proved that he really had turned a corner by standing among the top pitchers in the National League with 251 strikeouts, 17 victories, 20 complete games and an excellent ERA of 3.14, even if he led the league for the second time in three years with 145 walks. He was supported in the starting rotation by Steve Renko, who had another good season with a 15-14 record and a personal best 3.75 ERA, but who showed a worrying sign by walking 135 batters while striking out only 129 - this would come back to haunt him the next year. Rookie Ernie McAnally, a converted outfielder who had been the team's top minor league pitcher in 1970, was inserted in the starting rotation to start the year, but lost his job after going 1-6 with a 5.85 ERA. After a short stay in AAA Winnipeg, he came back with a vengeance on July 17th, finishing the year on a 10-4 run and bringing his ERA for the season down to a respectable 3.90. Unfortunately, 1970 Rookie of the Year Carl Morton had a bad case of the sophomore jinx (and likely suffered the after-effects of overuse the previous year), finishing the year with an ugly 10-18 record, an equally poor 4.79 ERA, and only 84 strikeouts.
In the bullpen, Manager Gene Mauch made a brilliant - if unpopular at first - decision, replacing local hero Claude Raymond as the team's closer by Mike Marshall. In fact, even if Raymond had saved 23 games the previous season, he had little left in the tank, and pitched poorly when he was used in 1971, finishing with a 1-7 record, a 4.67 ERA, and no saves. The supremely self-confident Marshall, on the other hand, was about to become one of the National League's best relief pitchers, matching Raymond's 1970 total of 23 saves in 66 outings. He would have little help in the bullpen however, as members of the veteran cast that supported him, starting with Raymond but also including Jim Britton (2-3, 5.67), Dan McGinn (1-4, 5.96) and Howie Reed (2-3, 4.26) were all nearing the end of the line. In fact, age was catching up to the team in a big way by the end of the season, a result of the team's decision to pick veterans in the 1969 Expansion Draft. The team would need to find some young players if its climb out of the cellar was to be more than a one-year phenomenon.
- Gary Belleville: "August 17, 1971: Expos, Padres brawl after Ron Hunt gets plunked in consecutive plate appearances," SABR Baseball Games Project.
- André Rousseau: "1971, the Year of Ron Hunt", in La Revue Baseball, vol. 15, n. 3 (June 1983), pp. 43-50.