By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Four former Montreal Expos pitchers, two first basemen, an ex-manager and a beloved coach died in 2021.
As the end of the year approaches, let’s take a moment to remember them.
Ron Johnson, first baseman, January 26, age 64
Johnson, who played five games with the Expos in 1984, passed away from complications from COVID-19 in Morrison, Tenn., on January 26 at the age of 64.
Born in Long Beach Calif., he was selected in the 24th round of the 1978 MLB draft by the Kansas City Royals out of California State University. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound first baseman/outfielder would play parts of five seasons in the Royals’ organization before making his major league debut with the club in 1982. He’d bat .268 in 17 games for the Royals in 1982 and 1983 before he was dealt to the Expos on December 15, 1983 for pitcher Tom Dixon.
Johnson began the 1984 season with the Expos’ triple-A Indianapolis Indians managed by Buck Rodgers. The then-28-year-old was used primarily as a DH and was leading the American Association with a .343 batting average when he was called up by the Expos on June 6.
Two days later, he made his Expos debut when he pinch-hit for Expos starter Steve Rogers in the bottom of the fifth inning at Olympic Stadium and struck out against Mets right-hander Ed Lynch. Johnson’s sole hit with the Expos was a pinch-hit RBI single in the bottom of the ninth the following day. Johnson made three more appearances for the Expos and in two of those, he spelled Pete Rose at first base in the late innings.
Johnson played one more season in triple-A before becoming a beloved minor league manager in the Royals, Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles organizations for more than three decades. He also served as the first base coach for the big league Red Sox in 2010 and 2011 when his former Expos teammate Terry Francona was the club’s manager.
You can read my full obituary about Ron Johnson here.
Grant Jackson, pitcher, February 2, age 78
Jackson passed away on February 2 from complications from COVID-19 at the age of 78.
Jackson made 10 of his 692 big league appearances with the Expos down the stretch in 1981 and helped the club clinch their first and only postseason appearance.
Born in Fostoria, Ohio, Jackson was a multi-sport star in high school, lettering in football, track and baseball. His arm impressed Philadelphia Phillies scout Tony Lucadello and the Phillies signed the young left-hander in 1962.
Though he’d make his major league debut with the Phillies in 1965, it wasn’t until 1969 that he joined the Phillies’ starting rotation. In that campaign, the 6-foot, 180-pound southpaw made 35 starts and finished with a 14-18 record and a 3.32 ERA, while striking out 180 in 253 innings.
After struggling in 1970, Jackson was dealt to the Orioles where he would evolve into one of the most reliable relievers of the decade. He toed the rubber for the O’s in the postseason three times.
After struggling to begin the 1976 season, he was traded to the New York Yankees along with Doyle Alexander as part of a blockbuster deal on June 15 and he became one of Billy Martin’s most trusted relievers down the stretch.
Following that season, Jackson was selected by the Seattle Mariners in the expansion draft but was quickly flipped to the Pirates. In the Steel City, Jackson became a key member of what was considered the National League’s best bullpen for the next three seasons.
The 1979 campaign was the most memorable of Jackson’s career. In that season, he finished with an 8-5 record and a 2.96 ERA with 14 saves in 72 games, and he was even better in six scoreless appearances in the postseason for the World Champion “We Are Family” Pirates.
After parts of two more seasons with the Bucs, Jackson, about to turn 39, was sold to the Expos on September 1, 1981 for $50,000. Jackson joined two other lefties – Woodie Fryman and Bill Lee – in the Expos’ bullpen, along with right-handers Jeff Reardon, Stan Bahnsen and Elias Sosa.
Unfortunately, Jackson was hit hard with the Expos, posting a 7.59 ERA in 10 appearances. More than anything else, however, Jackson provided wisdom and leadership for the Expos down the stretch.
After Jackson watched his Expos teammates lose the National League Championship Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers in heartbreaking fashion, he was traded to the Royals for Ken Phelps on January 19, 1982. The durable lefty would split his final season between the Royals and the Pirates.
In all, in parts of 18 big league campaigns, he posted an 86-75 record and a 3.46 ERA in 692 appearances.
After he hung up his playing spikes, Jackson became the Bucs’ bullpen coach in 1983 and would serve in that role for three seasons. In the following two decades, he made several different stops as a minor league pitching coach and was also employed as the bullpen coach of the Cincinnati Reds in 1994 and 1995.
You can read my full obituary about Grant Jackson here.
Norm Sherry, former catching coach, March 8, age 89
Sherry, who served as a coach with the Expos from November 1977 through the 1981 season, passed away on March 31 at the age of 89.
A former big league catcher, Sherry was hired by Expos manager Dick Williams on November 27, 1977 and assigned to work with Gary Carter to refine the then top prospect’s defensive skills.
Born in New York City, Sherry was raised in Los Angeles. He turned down a full baseball scholarship to the University of Southern California to sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950.
He’d toil in the Dodgers’ organization for eight seasons before getting his first call up in 1959. In a back-up role to John Roseboro in 1960, Sherry enjoyed his finest major league season, batting .283 with eight home runs in 47 games.
Sherry would suit up for parts of two more seasons with the Dodgers, before finishing his big league career with 63 games with the New York Mets in 1963.
After hanging up his playing spikes, he embarked on a long coaching and managerial career. Over the next decade, he’d coach, manage and scout in the Dodgers, Yankees and Angels organizations before he was promoted to serve as the Angels’ third base coach on manager Dick Williams’ big league staff in 1976.
When Williams was fired that July, Sherry took over as manager and led the club to a 37-29 record and an eventual fourth-place finish. He returned as skipper in 1977 and he guided the club to a 39-42 record in the first half before he was fired.
By the fall of 1977, Williams had a season as Expos’ manager under his belt and he hired Sherry as a coach that November.
Sherry, who was initially penciled in to be the bullpen coach, was switched to third base coach prior to the beginning of the season, but he continued to work with Carter and the club’s other catchers.
Sherry, who roomed with Williams in Montreal, continued to work with Carter and the club’s catchers over the next two seasons. Given his friendship with Williams, it was understandable that Sherry was unhappy when Williams was fired on September 7, 1981. And few were surprised when after Williams landed the San Diego Padres’ managerial job that fall, that he hired Sherry as his pitching and bullpen coach.
Williams and Sherry worked together with the Padres for three seasons. Sherry was later employed as the pitching coach of the San Francisco Giants for six seasons.
You can read my full obituary about Norm Sherry here.
Rheal Cormier, pitcher, April 8, age 53
Cormier, a longtime big league pitcher and Cap Pele, N.B., native, passed away on March 8 at the age of 53 after battling cancer.
Selected in the sixth round of the 1988 MLB draft by the St. Louis Cardinals, the crafty lefty would make 683 appearances (second-most by a Canadian pitcher) in a 16-season major league career that included stops with the Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, Montreal Expos, Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds.
In 1996, in his only full season with the Expos, he went 7-10 with a 4.17 ERA in 33 appearances (27 starts) and struck out 100 in 159 2/3 innings.
His best season was 2003 with the Phillies when he finished with an 8-0 win-loss record and a 1.70 ERA in 65 relief appearances.
Cormier also toed the rubber for his country in multiple international competitions, including at the 1988 and 2008 Olympics and in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. He was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012.
You can read my full obituary about Rheal Cormier here.
Hal Breeden, first baseman, May 3, age 76
Breeden, a former Expos first baseman and pinch hitter, passed away on May 3 at the age of 76.
A rare right-handed hitting first baseman who threw left-handed, Breeden played four of his five major league seasons with the Expos from 1972 to 1975 before he became the first foreign player to belt 40 home runs in their first season in the Japan Central League with the Hanshin Tigers in 1976.
Born in Albany, Ga., Breeden honed his baseball skills with his father and his brother, Danny, later a big league catcher with the Cubs. His prodigious power caught the eye of his American Legion coach Paul Eames, who helped him land a contract as an 18-year-old with the Milwaukee Braves on April 19, 1963.
For eight minor league seasons in the Braves’ system, Breeden was a consistent offensive threat.
Following the 1970 season, the 6-foot-2 slugger was dealt to the Cubs in exchange for Hall of Fame hurler Hoyt Wilhelm. He’d make his major league debut with the Cubs on April 7, 1971, but he batted just .139 in 23 contests before he was dealt to the Expos, along with Hector Torres, for left-hander Dan McGinn prior to the 1972 season.
Breeden was leading the triple-A Winnipeg Whips with 18 home runs and a .308 batting average when he was called up by the Expos on July 21, 1972. For the remainder of the season, he pinch hit and played first base against left-handed pitchers, batting .230 with three home runs in 42 games.
In 1973, Breeden was the Expos’ best pinch hitter and he received regular playing time against left-handed pitchers, finishing the season with a .275 batting average, 15 home runs and six triples in just 258 at bats.
Unfortunately Breeden’s production dropped off in the ensuing two seasons with the Expos and he signed with the Japan Central League’s Hanshin Tigers in 1976.
Following his playing career, Breeden returned to Georgia. He had a farm outside of Leesburg where he grew peanuts and corn. He was also an avid golfer, fisherman and hunter.
In 1988, he became sheriff of Lee County and he held that post for two decades.
You can read my full obituary about Hal Breeden here.
Mike Marshall, pitcher, May 31, age 78
Marshall, a former Expos closer, passed away on May 31 at the age of 78 from complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
Durable, outspoken and non-conforming, Marshall became the first reliever to win a Cy Young Award, when he nabbed the National League honour after a record-breaking season with the Dodgers in 1974.
But it was with the Expos from 1970 to 1973 that Marshall blossomed into a dominant bullpen arm.
Born in Adrian, Mich., Marshall was a multi-sport athlete in high school, starring for the baseball, football and basketball teams. His outstanding baseball skills made him hard to ignore and after his senior high school year, he was offered a baseball scholarship to Michigan State University. At the same time, the Phillies offered him $20,000 to sign. He eventually chose to sign with the Phillies.
His education, however, was always his priority and while he was playing professionally he continued to work towards his degree in physical education at Michigan State. While studying, he developed a keen interest in the physiology of body movements, including the throwing motion.
Not surprisingly, he brought with him some unconventional ideas about pitching, including throwing hard every day and the importance of pitching in short sleeves in all types of weather. He also developed a screwball.
After splitting his first season as a pitcher between class-A and double-A in the Phillies’ organization, he was sold to the Detroit Tigers in 1966 and made his major league debut with them the following campaign. He proceeded to go 1-3 with a 1.98 ERA in 37 relief appearances, despite the fact that Tigers manager Mayo Smith refused to let him throw his screwball.
Marshall spent the entire 1968 season in triple-A as a starter before he was selected by the Seattle Pilots in the expansion draft. Like Smith, Pilots pitching coach Sal Maglie wouldn’t allow him to use his screwball and he finished with a gaudy 5.13 ERA in 20 appearances, including 14 starts. The Pilots, who became the Milwaukee Brewers, sold Marshall to the Houston Astros on November 21, 1969 where Astros manager Harry Walker again restricted his use of the screwball.
The Expos were not terribly concerned about Marshall’s free-thinking ways when they acquired him on June 23, 1970 in exchange for outfielder Don Bosch.
In Montreal, Marshall found a manager in Gene Mauch that gave him freedom on the mound, which meant employing his screwball and his five variations of it.
The against-the-grain reliever joined the Expos in 1970 and after two middling seasons, he would make a league-leading 65 relief appearances and post a 14-8 record, a 1.78 ERA and notch 18 saves for the Expos in 1972.
He returned to Montreal in 1973 to set franchise records for relievers with 92 appearances, 73 games finished and 179 innings. He finished 14-11 with a 2.66 ERA and was selected as the Expos Player of the Year for a second straight season.
On December 5, 1973, the Expos dealt Marshall to the Dodgers for outfielder Willie Davis. With the Dodgers in 1974, Marshall set several records for relief pitchers that still stand, including most pitching appearances (106), relief innings (208 1/3) and games finished (83). He ended up with a 15-12 record and a 2.42 ERA and was voted the National League’s Cy Young Award winner.
The durable reliever closed out his career with tenures with the Braves, Rangers and Twins. In total, in parts of 14 big league seasons, he had a 97-112 record with a 3.14 ERA and 188 saves in 724 appearances.
After hanging up his playing spikes, he became a physical education teacher and coached the baseball team at West Texas A&M until 1994 when he started his own baseball academy in Zephyrhills, Fla.
You can read my full obituary about Mike Marshall here.
Jim “Mudcat” Grant, pitcher, June 11, age 85
Grant, who threw the first regular season pitch in Expos history, passed away on June 11 at the age of 85.
The 6-foot-1 right-hander, who was also an accomplished blues singer, registered 145 wins in a 14-season major league career, but he’s best remembered for his 21-win campaign with the Minnesota Twins in 1965 which made him the first black pitcher to win 20 games in a season in the American League.
Longtime Canadian baseball fans, however, might recall Grant as the Expos’ Opening Day starter in their first regular season game, played against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium on April 8, 1969. Facing Tom Seaver, Grant surrendered three runs on six hits and got just four outs, but the Expos rebounded to win 11-10. Grant made nine more starts for the Expos before being traded to the Cardinals.
Born in Lacoochee, Fla., Grant was a multi-sport athlete in high school and he earned a baseball and football scholarship to Florida A&M. But Grant was forced to leave the college during his sophomore year because his family was struggling financially and needed him to work. Fortunately for him, Cleveland scout Fred Merkle had seen Grant pitch and signed him.
From 1958 to 1964, he was a dependable starter and reliever for Cleveland before he was dealt to the Twins on June 15, 1964. Grant notched an American League-leading 21 wins for the Twins in 1965 and was named The Sporting News American League Pitcher of the Year.
Following the 1967 season, he was dealt to the Dodgers. The pitching rich Dodgers employed him as a reliever in 1968 and he thrived in that role, posting a 6-4 record and a 2.08 ERA in 37 games.
After that campaign, the Expos selected Grant from the Dodgers with the 36th pick in the expansion draft. Grant didn’t allow an earned run in 25 Grapefruit League innings, which convinced Mauch to name him their Opening Day starter. So it was Grant who would throw the first regular season pitch in Expos history on April 8, 1969 against the Mets at Shea Stadium.
Grant struggled to find consistency with the Expos. Just four of his 10 starts would be quality starts by today’s standards. After not recording an out against the Reds in his 10th and final start with the Expos on May 24, Grant was moved to the bullpen and he tossed a scoreless inning in relief in a 6-2 loss to the San Diego Padres on May 31. Three days later, with his record at 1-6 and ERA of 4.80 in 11 appearances, Grant was dealt to the Cardinals.
He would finish his career with stints with the Cards, A’s and Pirates. After hanging up his playing spikes, Grant worked in a number of roles, including as an analyst on Cleveland and A’s broadcasts, a minor league pitching coach and in various corporate positions outside of baseball.
You can read my full obituary about Jim “Mudcat” Grant here.
Bill Virdon, manager, November 23, age 90
Virdon, a former Expos manager, passed away on November 23 at the age of 90.
He was the dugout boss of the Expos in 1983 and for most of the 1984 season. He would compile a 146-147 record during his tenure with the club.
Signed by the Yankees in 1949, Virdon played parts of four seasons in their organization, before he was dealt to the Cardinals and proceeded to bat .281 with 17 home runs with them in 1955 and be voted the National League’s Rookie of the Year.
After a slow start in 1956, he was dealt to the Pirates. He’d suit up with the Bucs for 10 seasons and evolve into one of the best defensive centre fielders of his era.
He was released by the Pirates in 1965 and he almost immediately began his second career as a manager, starting with two seasons in the New York Mets’ organization before the Pirates hired him as a coach in 1968. He continued in that role until 1972 when he was promoted to be the club’s manager.
In his first season as a big league skipper, he guided the Bucs to 96 wins and an National League East title. He returned to the Pirates in 1973 but was let go after leading the team to a 67-69 record. He then managed the Yankees for just over a season and a half prior to being hired by the Houston Astros. Virdon would serve as the Astros manager for eight seasons and lead the club to their first division title in 1980.
By the time the Expos hired Virdon in October 1982, he had garnered a reputation as a drill sergeant who expected his players to abide by a strict set of rules. Unfortunately, his managerial style never really clicked with the Expos players. The club finished a disappointing 82-80 and in third place in the National League East in 1983 and they were three games under .500 and 14 1/2 games behind the first-place Cubs the following season when Virdon was let go.
Virdon returned to coach with the Pirates in 1986 and aside from a season with the Astros in 1997, he continued to be an instructor at Bucs’ spring training until 2002.
You can read my full obituary about Bill Virdon here.
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