1976 Montréal Expos
Awards and Honors
- All-Star: Woodie Fryman
- Player of the Year: Woodie Fryman
- Best Rookie: Ellis Valentine
- Players of the month:
- Minor League Player of the Year: Andre Dawson (Quebec AA and Denver AAA)
- Minor League Pitcher of the Year: Gerry Hannahs (Quebec AA)
The 1976 Montreal Expos were coming off a very disappointing season in 1975, when their so-called Phase Two, based on "pitching, speed and defense" and the use of young players produced from within the organization, resulted in a tumble to the basement of the National League East. After the season, they fired long-time manager Gene Mauch and replaced him with the manager of their AAA affiliate in Memphis, Karl Kuehl. The idea was that Kuehl was very familiar with all the players in the organization and would know how to use the youngsters to the best of their ability; the reality was that Kuehl had never played or coached in the major leagues, and that he was faced with some difficult on-the-job learning. He made things worse by imposing a set of silly rules in spring training concerning personal grooming, angering the team's few veterans. Most notorious were his conflict with pitcher Steve Renko who was hardly used, and then traded away to the Chicago Cubs, and shortstop Tim Foli, who made no bones about showing up his young manager's lack of experience with Major League strategy. Things came to a head in late May, when Kuehl benched Foli, who was one of the team's better performers, for three days straight, only to see the move blow up in his face when his replacement Pepe Frias committed three errors to cost the Expos the game of June 1st against the St. Louis Cardinals (Boxscore). Kuehl had no choice but to back down, but the rift was never fully resolved.
On September 4th, with the Expos in last place with a record of 43-85, it had become clear to everyone that Kuehl was in over his head, and he was fired, to be replaced by major league advance scout Charlie Fox, who guided the team to a record of 12-22 over the last month of the season. The Expos ended the year buried in last place with a record of 55-107, only three games better than their inaugural season in 1969, and a whopping 46 games behind the division-winning Philadelphia Phillies. General Manager Jim Fanning payed the price for his poor choice of field manager and was fired upstairs to the position of Vice-President for Player Development, while Fox took over as General Manager.
Why did it go so wrong ? The Expos entered the year with basically the same roster they used in 1975, the only notable change being the acquisition of starting pitcher Clay Kirby from the Cincinnati Reds in a trade for OF/3B Bob Bailey. The problem was that just about every young player on the team took a step backward: the previous year's rookie sensation, catcher-outfielder Gary Carter missed 55 games because of injuries, and hit only .219 with 6 home runs when he played; third baseman Larry Parrish saw his average fall from .274 to .232 even if his power numbers held up; first baseman Mike Jorgensen hit .254 with 6 home runs and 23 RBI, after driving in 67 the previous year; outfielder Jerry White, who was scorching hot over the last month of 1975, only hit .245 and slugged .313 in 114 games. Second baseman Pete Mackanin fell back slightly from his already low-level of the previous year, and while catcher Barry Foote and shortstop Tim Foli improved somewhat from their previous year's dismal performance, they were still far from feared hitters, hitting .234 and .264 respectively, with terrible on-base percentages.
As their offense was anemic from the get-go, the Expos did try to make a few trades to improve things, but these failed dramatically. On May 17th, they traded two little-used veterans, pitcher Steve Renko and outfielder Larry Biittner, to the Chicago Cubs for young power-hitting first baseman Andre Thornton. This was actually a good trade talent-wise, but the problem was that Thornton had the worst year of his career, hitting .191 with 9 home runs and 24 runs batted in. On July 21st, they traded center fielder Pepe Mangual, one the team's most productive if underrated hitters, and reserve outfielder Jim Dwyer, who was rotting on the bench, to the New York Mets for veteran outfielder Del Unser and third baseman Wayne Garrett. Unser hit only .227 in 69 games for the Expos, and Garrett, playing mainly second-base in place of the unproductive Mackanin, did no better with a .243 batting average and a .311 slugging percentage. Catcher-first baseman Earl Williams, purchased from the Atlanta Braves on July 24th, hit .237 for his new team.
There were only a few bright spots: the brightest was rookie center fielder Ellis Valentine, who began the season in Kuehl's doghouse - Kuehl felt Valentine was too cocky for someone who had not yet established himself in the majors - and was briefly sent down to AAA, but excelled after Mangual's departure, hitting .279 with power, speed and a great outfield arm over 94 games. The other was pinch hitter José Morales, who set a major league record - since broken by John Vander Wal - with 25 pinch hits, including 3 home runs, for an overall batting average of .316.
Things were slightly better on the mound, but the Expos' anemic offense gave their staff few runs to work with. As a result, Steve Rogers ended up with a record of 7-17 in spite of a very good 3.21 ERA. Woodie Fryman won the team's Player of the Year award and a trip to the All-Star Game thanks to a remarkable 13-13 record with a 3.38 ERA. Don Stanhouse also pitched pretty well, with a 9-12 record and a 3.77 ERA over 184 innings, but the other starting pitchers were not up to the task: Clay Kirby was 1-8, 5.70; Dan Warthen 2-10, 5.30; and Don Carrithers 6-12, 4.44. In the bullpen, Dale Murray led the National League with 81 appearances and saved 13 games with a 3.27 ERA, while rookie Joe Kerrigan pitched well over the second half, even if his record of 2-6, 3.79 was nothing to write home about. The rest of the relievers, Steve Dunning, Chip Lang, Fred Scherman, and Chuck Taylor, all posted ERAs over 4.00.
1976 was the Expos' last season in makeshift Jarry Park, and also the summer of the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, which pushed the team to the back of the sports page. As a result, total attendance was only 646,704, which was 250,000 fans fewer than 1975, the Expos' worst year at the gate until then. Worse, they only topped 15,000 spectators four times all year and had their lowest crowd ever, 2,107 on September 7th. To top it all off, the team was the victim of a no-hitter by Larry Dierker of the Houston Astros on July 9th at the Astrodome . There was one cause for optimism however: the club's AAA affiliate, the Denver Bears, won the American Association championship with some very promising players, including outfielders Andre Dawson and Warren Cromartie, who did play a few games in Montreal towards the end of the season. Help was on the way.
- Danny Gallagher: "1976 was disaster", in Danny Gallagher and Bill Young: Remembering the Montreal Expos, Scoop Press, Toronto, ON, 2005, pp. 41-46.
- Norm King: "Tim Foli Gets on His Cycle; April 21-22, 1976: Montreal Expos 12, Chicago Cubs 6 At Wrigley Field", in Norm King, ed.: Au jeu/Play Ball: The 50 Greatest Games in the History of the Montreal Expos, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2016, pp. 25-27. ISBN 978-1-943816-15-6