Soccer Out of Context: the Montreal Expos

imageGhosts & Grandfathers League Member #1: The Montreal Expos

Bonjour! Bienvenue à Montréal! Puis-je vous offrir un peu de fromage et un air renfrogné? Oui?

As soon as you pass over the border into Quebec, the whole landscape changes. Far-upstate New York is, well, scuffed up a little bit - full of stuff that’s either rusty, or made out of plastic (so, just dirty). The gas station names become a little weirder as you move north - you’ll eventually start to question how many “x”’s should actually be in “Exxon” - but if you’ve cruised any basic rock salt & strip mall American landscape in your life, you’ll have the general picture. Just gas up, buy some homemade jerky and get back on the highway before anybody notices your shirt has a collar and starts asking questions.

And then, the border crossing. Assuming this presents no problems for you - and if you can’t cross into Canada, maybe an upstate New York border town is the right place for you to settle down - you emerge in a completely different world. Your latitude hasn’t changed. You’re still under the same sky (but how would you know, given the 130% chance that it’s overcast).  But the feeling of being “somewhere else” is tangible.  Three thoughts cross your mind pretty quickly.

  • What are km, and why are we hundreds of them from anything?
  • Um, I don’t have any rights n’ stuff here, do I?
  • … whoa, everything is pretty.

Eastern Canada seems to care about their land. They have farms. Northern New York has farms too, but a few too many of them look like Walmarts without signage. Canada has farms with, you know, barns and horses. There’s far less litter along the highway. The road signs use kilometers and French, reinforcing that “c’est notre maison” feeling. From the border, you have about 45 minutes of driving-plus-acclimation time, just enough as it turns out. Because once you see the city, you don’t care what the landscape looks like or which verb conjugations you remember from ninth grade.  You’re ready to dive in.  

Author’s note: This is part of a recurring series on the soccer design aesthetic applied in other contexts. When you’re done here, feel free to read on.
The A.L. East
The N.L. Central
The A.L. West
The N.L. West
The A.L. Central
The N.L. East

imageDone with all 30 baseball identities? Soccer Out of Context continues with the Ghosts & Grandfathers League series.

imageIf you love American soccer, check out The Gadsden, a shirt made for US Soccer fanatics, over at my brand new design shop, Clean Sheet.

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Montreal is full of promise - the reason you’re making the trip is likely for entertainment - and soon your only concern will be how much you’re losing on the U.S. dollars-to-Canadian dollars-to-casino chips exchange rate. Or something like that. Coming from the northeastern U.S., there’s a high likelihood that you’ll be partaking in one of the city’s many spectator sports (ahem), and it used to be you could count Major League Baseball on that list. Time was, a well-rounded trip to Montreal would include - ideally somewhere in the middle - a trip to Stade Olympique to watch a midling team play on a luminous green field in front of thousands of empty seats and, eventually, several empty cups of Molson. The promise of late 1960s baseball - bright, space-age, and metric - stayed alive in Montreal for years after that decade ended. You can no longer count baseball on the list of Montreal’s many entertainments; for a time, though, the Expos made the trip to Canada worth it almost all by themselves.

The Design

image click to enlarge

The Montreal Expos debuted in 1969, amongst the last few documented cases of World’s Exposition fever ever recorded. (A vaccine was developed soon after, and is now stored inside the Epcot Center’s geodesic sphere.) Baseball history in Montreal went back decades before that, of course - Jackie Robinson famously joined the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ top farm club at the time, where a relatively enlightened public helped support his transition to playing with an integrated club. There was a nice downtown ballpark, Delorimier Stadium, and the Royals had an absolutely stunning white-and-blue visual identity. When baseball finally placed a major league team in the city, the Royals had been gone for almost 20 years, and visual attitudes had evolved towards 1970s excess. As such, a new identity was never likely to feel “classic” - especially not with a name like “Expos”. Instead of a historic and reverent baseball identity, the first international, cosmopolitain, continental baseball club was born. The Expos le Baseball - (so I really was seeing “ELB” on the hat as a kid!  Update: No I wasn’t. As Chris Creamer from the invaluable points out, it was actually intended to be “eMb”, for “Expos de Montréal Baseball” - and with that info, the 8-year old kid in me loses just a little bit more innocence.) were ostentatious in some ways (just look at the tri-color cap) and surprisingly reserved in others (look at the clean, staid debut uniforms). The club started out at a traditional outdoor stadium, Jarry Park, and then quickly moved into what was intended to be a wonder of its time - the 1976 Olympic Stadium, replete with turf and a game attempt at a retractable roof. In the moment, it all seemed to work; for the first time, a small slice of America’s national pastime tasted more like tarte de pommes than apple pie.

During the latter stages of their existence, attendance and passion waned; the “highlight” of the Expos’ later years came in 1994 when they were running away with the N.L. East and looked like a World Series favorite, only to find their season ended in Sopranos finale-esque fashion when the players’ strike hit. A few years later, they would do much to develop, and then trade away, Pedro Martinez (thanks!); soon after that, they were being run by the Commissioner’s office and playing half of their games in Puerto Rico. And then the Expos were gone, the bones of their team becoming what’s now known as the Washington Nationals, and their spirit floating off into the revelry of a Crescent Street evening.

The Expos’ contribution to baseball culture is surprisingly immense. They were the first international M.L.B. club, predating the Toronto Blue Jays by almost a decade; they were also the first club to show many Americans what baseball sounded like in another language. They fused tradition with a progressive attitude that recalled the world-minded influences on our society at the time of their creation - the push for the metric system, hype around Olympiads and Worlds’ Fairs, and a sense - expressed in design - of a whimsical, almost naive futurism (see: the logo, those caps, or the architecture and intended function of Olympic Stadium). The Expos’ place in baseball deserves to be honored - one could even argue convincingly that the club has the best dormant brand in major-league baseball history.

For the Expos project, the first Ghosts & Grandfathers League design, I had to make a few choices beyond those I’ve encountered while designing previous (living) identities. For instance, what era of the club should be interpreted? Should it be a mix of the entire existence, or a specific moment in time? What to do about manufacturers, or sponsors - do I make them up? Leave them off? Or select historically appropriate fits?

I decided, in essence, to take each identity on a case-by-case basis. The Expos were around during an era in which sponsors and manufacturers were conceivable, so I’ve given them one of each - but a different approach might be necessary with, say, the nineteenth-century era Brooklyn Bridegrooms. I also decided to honor what I consider to be several of the clubs’ most distinctive visual tendencies over the course of their entire history - so this isn’t the 1994 Expos, or the 1969 club. It’s an amalgam.

image Let’s start with the jersey color. It’s a light blue - a medium light, or “deep” powder blue, if there is such a thing - to recognize the Expos’ most distinctive jersey - their light blue “away” look that worked perfectly with their red, white and royal blue color scheme. If the Expos were still around today and hadn’t reverted to this color on the road by now, something would be amiss. The light blue carries a few textural flourishes - first, there is a very subtle, fine-grained “grid” pattern woven into the fabric that gets darker and more pronounced near the edges of the shirt. This is both a nod to “retro-futuristic” design, which suits the team’s identity, and a practical touch: the darkening pattern unites and blend the two blue hues, powder and royal, by creating a very subdued transition between light and dark on the jersey’s surface. You’ll also find, in the very lightest blue, a curling, tonal design that unfolds and crosses jersey horizontally and vertically. image This feature is a modern graphic mark created to represent the Ville de Montreal, a cloverleaf shape that introduces both M’s and V’s and that was popular for a time in the 1980s, during the heart of the Expos’ run. Placed on the jersey, the Ville mark lends it a somewhat regal feel.

The famous tricolor M (or ELB EMB) logo sits over the heart as a crest; the ‘E’ portion is the only place on the jersey where bright red appears, giving it a little extra punch. A bit of the crest’s raised, embroidered effect is visible here as lined, horizontal stitching. imageThe manufacturer is French brand Le Coq Sportif; I couldn’t resist the chance to use a Gallic brand in French-speaking Montreal. The sponsor is the common Quebec pharmacy chain Uniprix, who used a version of the logo I’ve depicted (an encircled, tilted U shape) for much of the Expos’ existence. Uniprix also ties in nicely with Expos’ history - they’ve purchased the right to put their name on Montreal’s popular international tennis center, which is built from remnants of Jarry Park, the Expos’ first home.  The sponsor mark is treated subtly, almost as part of the shirt’s pattern rather than as an independent element, which helps to weave the logo more seamlessly into the jersey’s visual identity, and to work with - not against - the flow of the design.  (As comfortable as we’re getting with the idea of jersey sponsorships, even in America, during this series of designs they will be subdued - if present at all - to underscore the more traditional nature of the eras that are represented.)

imageThe shirt’s collar, side panels, and bottom edge are royal blue, off-setting the lighter tone and balancing out the colors. This trim carries around back, where (besides the M.L.B. logo) I’ve placed a player number, set in an appropriately demonstrative serif face and rendered in royal blue. I am going to forgo a name here (if only because it didn’t seem to fit with the expansive idea of the Ghosts and Grandfathers project), but #30 is a nod to one of the best Expos ever to swipe a base or beat out an infield hit. imageA final touch: the lowercase “expos” wordmark, so distinctive of the clubs’ design language, is centered at the shirt’s tail, where it accomplishes some branding while looking good, too.

I miss the Expos; they were an adventure, and their presence had a spirit (even when apathy took over) that baseball misses. (I also feel that if they’d been allowed to stick around and, say, moved into the A.L. East, they’d be prospering, but that’s a different article.) Here’s hoping french-speaking, poutine-eating, meter-home-run-distance-measuring baseball returns again one day - because as familiar as baseball makes us feel, it’s good to wonder where you are some times.

Ballot No. 2

It’s that time again. The Montreal Expos won the first ballot; who’ll be the next to join the league? I promised some ballot turnover based on performance and feedback from you, and it has arrived. Of the 12 initial identities on the ballot, five won’t be returning - the Expos won, of course, so they’re off, freeing up a slot - and the lowest vote-getters - the Chicago Orphans, Indianapolis Clowns, Louisville Colonels and Troy Trojans - are also falling off the ballot. (The Boston Bees actually fell into the “relegation zone” as well, but seeing as I’m running this thing, I live in Boston and I really want to do something for them one day, I gave them a one-time pass.) Here’s how the final table looked:

 %v  Team
---- inducted
46.1 Montreal Expos

---- roll over to next ballot
14.7 Seattle Pilots
 7.8 Houston Colt .45s
 7.4 Washington Senators
 5.8 St. Louis Browns
 5.0 New York Highlanders
 3.9 Cleveland Spiders

---- relegated
 2.7 Indianapolis Clowns
 2.3 Troy Trojans
 1.6 Louisville Colonels
 1.6 Chicago Orphans

---- 1-time save via divine intervention
 1.2 Boston Bees

Replacing the five departing identities are four new ones: the Minneapolis Millers, New Orleans Pelicans (the minor league baseball identity), St. Louis Perfectos, Hollywood Stars and Homestead Grays. These new teams are pulled from your write-in suggestions - which I’m happy to keep receiving. (Just find me on Twitter or via email with your Soccer Out of Context G.&G. League club idea. ) Here’s how the ballot looks now; you can brush up on the identities (if you like) using these links to Wikipedia, then let democracy prevail, by voting at the link below.

Voting is now closed. Thanks!

The Expos won the innaugural vote by quite a landslide; I have no idea what to expect in the race for G.&G. League team #2.  Keep the votes and the suggestions coming, and we’ll call it in about a week.  

Get The Look

If you enjoyed this piece, and/or the entire Soccer Out of Context series, you can always show your support (and your great taste) by grabbing a S.O.O.C. Ghosts & Grandfathers League t-shirt. Two designs to choose from, good-looking, high-quality and only $23 apiece. 


Click here for the G.&G. “typographic” shirt (white on black) update: the black shirt is temporarily out of stock!, or click here for the “logo” shirt (black on heather grey).

And with that: see you back State-side next week for a new S.O.O.C. design. 

If you made it this far, you might enjoy a few other uniform, soccer and identity-related pieces I’ve written: Re-booting the New England Revolution and What Makes a USA Soccer Kit?. I’m also tracking seasonal soccer tables, beautifully, at the Seasons project. If you like tech writing, I do a little of that too now and then. Thanks again!

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