Jim Fanning is Canadian baseball royalty.
The ebullient former Montreal Expos manager, who turned 84 in September, remains active in Canadian baseball circles.
With over 60 years in professional baseball as a player, manager, executive, ambassador and most recently a fill-in analyst on Blue Jays’ radio broadcasts, the amiable Fanning, who resides in London, Ont., is a living diamond legend and master storyteller.
After playing in the Cubs system, Fanning was hired by fellow Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer, John McHale, as a special assignment scout for the Milwaukee Braves in 1963. The following year he was promoted to assistant general manager.
When McHale agreed to become the president of the expansion Montreal Expos in 1968, he tabbed Fanning to be the first general manager of the club. In his 25-year tenure with the Expos, Fanning helped build the franchise from scratch and served in several different capacities, including two stints as the field manager (1981-82, 1984).
When Fanning took over as the field boss in 1981, he had drafted or helped develop the skills of 21 of the players on the roster. The revered baseball man would guide the Expos to their first and only playoff berth in 1981, leading the team to within one win of advancing to the World Series.
For those of us who are longtime Canadian baseball fans, the 1981 Expos still hold a place in our hearts. Sadly, three members of that beloved squad passed away in 2011. Dick Williams, who started the storied campaign as the Expos manager died on July 7, while pitchers Woodie Fryman (February 4) and Charlie Lea (November 11) also passed away. In 2011, it was also announced that Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter was battling brain cancer.
“Woodie was one of my all-time favourites, if not the all-time favourite,” said Fanning, prior to the Baseball Canada National Teams Awards Banquet in Toronto last Saturday. “He was like a brother to me. He was just a fantastic person. He was great on the club. He was great with the other players. He was an advisor and he was a fun guy. When I lost Woodie, I lost one of my best friends in baseball.”
Fanning also shared fond memories of Lea.
“I remember everything about Charlie Lea,” said Fanning. “I remember when he came through our system he didn’t start below Double-A Memphis. And it wasn’t long before he was in Triple-A and in the big leagues. He was pretty much a natural pitcher, with natural stuff. Pitching coaches didn’t have to do a lot with him. He was a little ahead of his development stage when we first signed him. And he was a fine major league pitcher.”
But it hasn’t been all bad news for the 1981 Expos over the past year. The club’s leadoff hitter, Tim Raines, saw his support jump by 61 votes in the National Baseball Hall of Fame balloting this January. And the fleet-footed outfielder now seems destined to eventually have a plaque in Cooperstown alongside teammates, Gary Carter and Andre Dawson.
“Tim had a long career. He played long enough to have compiled all kinds of stats from base-stealing to extra base hits to home runs for a little guy,” said Fanning. “He is truly for me a Hall of Famer. I think very definitely. He’s one of the top base-stealers in the history of the game, and he has done all of those other things with his offence and what he could do as a player, he could just churn things up. We didn’t have a steal sign with Timmy Raines, he’d just go. I don’t know of a greater baserunner . . . He was a great physical specimen and a really great guy.”
It’s hard to believe that more than 30 years have passed since Rick Monday belted that ninth inning home run that ended the 1981 Expos’ World Series hopes. Fortunately the stories of that team carry on through Fanning, who’s nothing short of Canadian baseball royalty.