Taking Flight

By IAN WILSON

In many ways, Andre Dawson embodied all that was possible for a community that opened its arms to affiliated minor-league baseball.

With the Lethbridge Expos, he was an instant star on a Pioneer League franchise that was playing its inaugural season in 1975. The rookie-level club was truly that – a pioneer. It was Alberta’s first affiliated professional team, one that helped pave the way for other Pioneer League clubs to make a home in Medicine Hat and Calgary.

Dawson wasn’t the only star on that team, but he was its brightest. Just one year after making a name for himself with the Expos in Lethbridge, he cruised through Double-A in Quebec City and Triple-A in Denver and made his Major League Baseball (MLB) debut with Montreal on Sept. 11, 1976. From there he was an MLB regular for 21 seasons over a career that included a 1977 National League (NL) Rookie of the Year award, a 1987 NL MVP honour, eight Gold Gloves and four Silver Slugger awards. His achievements over two-plus decades in baseball culminated in Dawson’s induction in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010.

An 11th-round selection of the Montreal Expos out of Florida’s A&M University, “The Hawk” – as he became known to baseball fans – was offered a $2,000 signing bonus and a shot at starting his pro baseball career in southern Alberta.

Dawson considered the offer and consulted one of his uncles before ultimately making a decision.

“He strongly recommended that I take the offer. He felt that all I needed was a fair chance to showcase my wares and I would be on my way to the big leagues,” said Dawson in his 1994 autobiography, entitled Hawk: An Inspiring Story of Success at the Game of Life and Baseball.

“It wasn’t the money that made me take the Expos offer. Even back then $2,000 wasn’t a lot of money. It was the opportunity to play professional baseball that I craved.”

TAKE ME TO THE BRIDGE

The 19-year-old outfielder discovered a “friendly little town” in Lethbridge, but he also got to know some of the disadvantages of the first Windy City he’d call home.

“I recall the constant odor given off by a nearby slaughterhouse. I had been around paper mills and pulp factories, and they had given off an awful smell. But that slaughterhouse went far beyond awful. It was disgusting,” noted Dawson in his autobiography, which was co-written with Tom Bird.

His other gripe was the “long, long bus rides” that the Pioneer League circuit demanded.

“Our nearest opponent in Montana was nine hours away (and Idaho was even further), and the windy mountainous roads we had to take were hazardous and slow.”

Nonetheless, he was pleased to have a bat in his hands and a plate to swing it over.

“All in all, I was just happy to be playing professional baseball,” said Dawson.

Lethbridge, meanwhile, was just happy to have professional baseball at Henderson Stadium, even if it was unclear what kind of talent would take the field.

Pat Sullivan, sports editor for the Lethbridge Herald, predicted big things from the home team’s outfield in advance of the franchise’s first game against the Great Falls Giants on June 25, 1975.

“To a man the outfielders are equipped with cannon-like arms and great range,” wrote Sullivan. “If the Expos outfield reaches its potential, the rest of the Pioneer League is in for a shock.”

Pioneer_League

Despite committing a costly two-run error in his pro debut, Dawson settled in at the plate and finished the night by going 2-for-4 with a run scored in an 8-7 loss, which was witnessed by a crowd of 1,467 onlookers. In just his second contest, Dawson smacked the first home run of his professional career, a solo shot over the wall in right-centre field.

DAWSON’S PEAK

As the season progressed, the centre fielder punished opposing pitchers. At the Idaho Falls Angels home opener, Dawson went 3-for-5 with two triples, two runs and a pair of runs batted in during a lopsided Lethbridge victory. He also showed the ability to hit against quality pitching. Dawson broke up a no-hit bid from Angels hurler Mike Merritt with a single in the seventh inning of a matchup on July 5th.

The hits kept coming, as did a number of stolen bases, and by mid-July Sullivan proclaimed Dawson, right fielder Andrew Dyes and left fielder Chris Wood “the best outfield in the Pioneer League.”

Even after he threw a no-hitter against the Expos on July 14th, Billings Mustangs pitcher Sam Ferrara tipped his cap to the opposing dugout.

“This is the best hitting club in the league. There isn’t an easy out on the team,” said Ferrara, who took a Dawson line drive to the ribs during the game.

Dawson maintained his reputation as a tough out when he opened up the month of August in impressive fashion during a Friday night double-header at Henderson Stadium.

“Andre Dawson was the star of the first Expo encounter, powering a home run to lead off the Expo half of the first inning and then blasting another solo homer to lead off the Expo fourth,” wrote Herald sports writer Garry Allison of the 8-6 win over Carney Lansford and the Idaho Falls Angels.

“Dawson continued his hot hitting streak into the second game, coming up with three singles.”

MARRIAGE MADE IN HEAVEN

There was love in the air in Lethbridge, and it wasn’t just the infatuation between starry-eyed baseball fans and the Expos.

On Tuesday, Aug. 5th at Henderson Stadium, 1,524 fans were invited to a double-header of a different kind. Prior to the game against the Billings Mustangs, Lethbridge outfielder Rick Hill got hitched to his hometown honey, Sherran. With his father James R. Hill, a Baptist minister, presiding over the proceedings at home plate the couple from Fort Worth, Texas tied the knot.

ExposWedding
Aug. 6, 1975 edition of the Lethbridge Herald, showing Dawson (No. 42) getting thrown out at first base. Rick Hill tied the knot at home plate before the game.

“All in all it was a big night for the local baseball fans, the local ball players, and local wedding goers,” said Allison’s story in the Herald.

“The wedding couple left the field under an archway of crossed bats held aloft by Expo ball players … instead of his usual Take Me Out to the Ballgame, organist Jim McLaren pleased the wedding guests with fine renditions of the Wedding March and I Love You Truly.”

Added Allison: “Rick, who stuck around after the wedding to play a little baseball, contributed to the Expo cause with two singles, a walk and two runs batted in.”

Any wedding nerves were also worked out early in the game, a 20-8 shellacking of the Mustangs.

“The first two balls hit in the game went out to Rick Hill in left field … the groom proved his mind was on baseball however, scooping up the grounder with no problem and shagging the fly ball with ease.”

Content to let his teammate enjoy the spotlight, Dawson finished the game with a 1-for-5 effort that included an RBI and a run.

DINNER WITH ANDRE

Pitcher Mike Grabowski, who started the first game for the Lethbridge Expos that year, remembered grabbing a meal on the road with his teammates and watching Dawson play peacemaker.

“He was a very quiet man. Andrew Dyes always roomed with Andre and one day at lunch another one of our teammates, Art Miles, a high draft pick, started to run his mouth to Andrew. I have no clue why. Andrew could have broken Art in half. Andre said, ‘Don’t let that young boy upset you.’ Andrew calmed down and we finished our lunch,” Grabowski told Alberta Dugout Stories.

Grabowski, who went 3-6 with a 3.38 earned run average for Lethbridge over 72 innings, was also called upon to defend the team’s star slugger now and then.

Dawson had the dubious distinction of leading the Pioneer League in the hit-by-pitch column in 1975. He was plunked six times.

“Andre would get drilled a lot. One night in Billings, I was the staring pitcher. Andre hit a home run in his first at bat. His next at bat, they drilled him. He took it and just headed down to first base. Our manager, Van Kelly, hollered down to me in the dugout, ‘Grabo, first batter down.’ That’s the way the game was played and our manager was tired of Dawson getting drilled all the time,” said Grabowski, who was later rewarded by Dawson with an invitation to the 1982 MLB All-Star Game in Montreal.

Grabowski, who attended Dawson’s Hall of Fame induction in 2010, is still in awe of the power his hard-hitting teammate possessed.

“When Andre hit a home run, it disappeared into the night sky. You often didn’t see it leave the park,” recalled the 65-year-old, who now calls Shrewsbury, Vermont home.

HARDWARE FOR HAWK

The last home game of the 1975 Pioneer League season for the Lethbridge Expos was fan appreciation night, which provided the opportunity to celebrate player achievements.

Dawson missed out on the team MVP and most popular player selections – captured by his roommate and outfield companion Dyes – but he took home the batting title trophy.

The 6-foot-3 phenom ended his Pioneer League campaign on the road and when his first pro season was complete, the numbers were impressive. Over 72 games, the 20-year-old led the four-team league in plate appearances (336), at bats (300) and home runs (13). He also set league records for hits (99) and total bases (166).

Dyes led Lethbridge in RBI with 58 (ahead of Dawson’s 50) and stolen bases – swiping 40 to Dawson’s 11 – but the Hawk beat out his buddy in most offensive categories. Dawson posted a .330 batting average and a .383 on-base percentage while collecting a team-high 52 runs and seven triples.

Defensively, Dyes posted superior numbers, including a .948 fielding percentage, 19 assists and eight errors. Dawson had a .937 fielding percentage, seven assists and 10 errors.

The standout performances earned both men a call up to Montreal in September to work out with the parent club. Neither saw game action, but it was recognition for a job well done in Lethbridge.

DawsonHitByPitch
July 2, 1975 photo from the Lethbridge Herald

The accolades didn’t end there – the National Association of Baseball Writers picked Dawson as the Pioneer League Player of the Year and he earned a spot on their Class A Rookie All-Star Team.

From there, Dawson, who returned to Lethbridge in 2016, was on the fast track to a successful MLB career. He was also used as a prime example of the talent on display in the Pioneer League.

Dawson went south to the Venezuelan Winter League, where his manager Bobby Cox – later a Hall-of-Fame skipper in Toronto and Atlanta – was impressed with what he saw.

“I haven’t heard from Cox in over a week. But the last thing he said was that if we had any more Dawsons to send them right down,” Expos business manager Kevin McHale told the Herald.

LES EXPOS LEGACY

Bill MacKenzie, the assistant scouting director for the Montreal Expos, recalled the satisfaction of watching Dawson climb through the minor leagues.

“It’s nice to watch them advance. That’s what it is all about,” MacKenzie said in an interview with the Lethbridge newspaper in 1976.

“Scouting is the most inconsistent job there is. Take a man like Dawson, we drafted him in the 11th round, and now look at him.”

Allison did look at him and saw what Dawson could mean to baseball observers who saw him up close.

“Andre Dawson was with the Lethbridge Expos last year, and now, within one year he may be being watched again by Lethbridge and district ball fans; only this time in a Montreal Expo uniform on television,” wrote the Herald scribe.

“It is the realization of that dream that will spur Southern Alberta youngsters … somewhere in the future they see themselves following the trail being blazed by Dawson. The trail to major league stardom.”

The Expos returned to Lethbridge in 1976 and the team’s affiliation changed to the Dodgers from 1977 through 1983.

When Russ Parker brought the Calgary Cardinals to the Pioneer League for the 1977 season, he mentioned Dawson’s meteoric rise as an example of what fans can witness in the minor leagues.

“I don’t expect we’ll see this happen too often,” Parker told Calgary Herald sports editor Hal Walker.

“But it does illustrate that anything can happen to a young man with talent like Dawson.”

Dawson wore No. 42 in Lethbridge, a number made famous by Jackie Robinson. The Andre Dawson Classic – a tournament that celebrates baseball’s diversity each February – is a part of MLB’s recognition of Black History Month.

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