The tale of the Toronto Giants: Toronto’s forgotten baseball team
For 42 years, Toronto has been the home nest for the Blue Jays; a club responsible for two World Series titles, six division titles, seven playoff berths, two Hall of Famers, two MVP’s and 52 All-Stars.
The origin of the Blue Jays is a fascinating tale, but the rise of that team was precipitated by the fall of another. The Toronto Blue Jays would not exist if not for an unsuccessful bid to move the San Francisco Giants to Toronto in 1976.
Two of the figureheads involved in this venture were Paul Godfrey and Don McDougall. Godfrey, a former North York councillor, found himself in power as the chairman of Metro Toronto in 1973. McDougall was the President of Labatt Brewing Company during the 70s and 80s. Together, they were the political and financial muscle that gave Toronto its first professional baseball team.
“My desire to bring a Major League Baseball team to Toronto started when I woke up one day when I found out the mayor in Montreal, Mayor Drapeau, was successful in convincing Major League Baseball to give Montreal a team called the Expos,” Godfrey said. “I decided: ‘How come Montreal gets a baseball team and Toronto doesn’t have a baseball team?’ As a politician, I felt I was going to set my sights on bringing a baseball team to Toronto.”
On the day he was sworn in as the chair of Metropolitan Toronto, Godfrey made it his top priority to ensure Toronto would be awarded its baseball club. Under his own volition and on his own dime, he attended MLB’s winter meetings to network with baseball’s movers and shakers. Godfrey recalls a crucial conversation he had at those winter meetings with MLB commissioner, Bowie Kuhn.
“He put his arm around my shoulder and he said to me: ‘Son, where are you going to play in Toronto if we give you a team?’. I said: ‘You give me a team, and I’ll get you a stadium built’. Then he said to me: ‘Son, let me tell you how Major League Baseball works. First, you build a stadium and then we decide if we’re going to give you a team.’ So, I was totally deflated and walked out of there with my tail between my legs.”
The dream of professional baseball in Toronto was more or less dead. That was, until an opportunity came calling in the form of a high-profile, deep-pocketed brewer. Herb Solway contacted Godfrey on behalf of Labatt’s hoping to band together with Howard Webster and CIBC to shepherd a baseball team to Toronto.
Godfrey was adamant in his quest to secure a professional baseball team, but Labatt’s motivation in this venture was completely different. Labatt Brewing Company wanted to increase its profile with beer drinkers in Canada, especially within Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area. McDougall and Labatt’s were convinced they could elevate their brand by hitching their wagon to a professional baseball team in Toronto.
“At the time, our competitors were big breweries,” McDougall said. “We were number three in the pecking order. We were losing market share nationally. We were losing in Ontario and further into it, we were losing in Ontario because we were losing in metro Toronto. We had a clear picture of what our problem was. It was to figure out how to turn the ship around in Ontario. It morphed into using sports as a vehicle to getting our name out there.
“We had done that very well in Manitoba with Labatt Pilsner and became associated with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The nickname became so popular that we changed the name of the brand to ‘Blue’. We were looking for a vehicle in Toronto to do for us what the Blue Bombers did for us in Winnipeg.”
Richard Walker — former director of creative services for Labatt’s — confirmed the club’s interest in associating the brewery with a professional baseball team as a marketing vehicle.
“They were trying to counter-balance Molson’s lock on hockey and come up with something that would boost community relations and a marketing tie,” Walker said. “It wasn’t Toronto trying to get a baseball team. It was Labatt’s trying to get a marketing and promotional program. To sell beer, that’s what it was all about.”
Labatt’s jumped at the chance to latch themselves onto a Major League Baseball team.
As the years passed and Godfrey made his presence known to Major League Baseball owners, fate came calling in December 1975. Finally, a viable opportunity presented itself to the Toronto-based consortium in the form of a National League team in San Francisco.
“I got a call one day from a lawyer in New York named Jim Hunt,” Godfrey explained. “He said to me: ‘I understand you’re looking to buy a Major League team. I represent the San Francisco Giants and the owner of the team, Horace Stoneham. How about you guys come down to see me in New York and we can talk about the sale?’”
San Francisco was a fledgling baseball franchise in the mid-70s. Across the bay, the Oakland Athletics celebrated their third straight World Series title in 1974. The Athletics had a stranglehold on baseball in the Bay Area, making the Giants an afterthought.
The Giants posted baseball’s lowest attendance numbers for three consecutive seasons from 1974 to 1976. For a multitude of reasons, professional baseball wasn’t working in San Francisco. As attendance dwindled at Giants games, the possibility of a move looked more and more like an actuality.
McDougall recounted how Labatt’s became involved with Godfrey and Bill Davis.
“We saw that there was a group in Toronto trying to get a baseball team. Paul Godfrey and Bill Davis had made a commission to expand Exhibition Stadium to make it conform and be a home to a Major League franchise.
“We decided what they didn’t have was marketing, so why wouldn’t we try to line up with them and be a marketing partner with them? They could own the team and we could provide the money and the muscle to do a good job of marketing the baseball team. We would be associated with helping to bring a team to Toronto and that would have a positive effect on our image and market share.”
Labatt’s couldn’t land the team themselves and the board of directors gave them some stipulations. The company couldn’t own more than 50 percent of the club and Labatt’s had to sell their interest within 5 years and agree to tie up the advertising rates for 20 years.
McDougall and Labatt’s started looking for partners and turned to CIBC and Howard Webster. Eventually, San Francisco became the most viable option for relocation, but it wasn’t the first location they scouted. McDougall said Labatt’s was involved in prior attempts to propel an MLB franchise north of the border.
An unsuccessful bid to move the Cleveland Indians to Toronto fell through, but a deal to move the Baltimore Orioles to Canada was much closer to materializing. If not for the owners changing mid-way through negotiations – owners which were also titans of the beer industry – perhaps the Toronto Orioles may have come to fruition in the mid-70s.
“We got into negotiations with moving the San Francisco Giants, and we went ahead with full negotiations in the fall of ’74. We didn’t have our partnership until the summer of ’75. In the fall of ’75, we got serious about San Francisco. We were at the stage of having to write cheques around the end of December of ’75.”
As the days drew closer, a Major League Baseball franchise in Toronto became one step closer to reality. This had all been happening behind the scenes, but on January 9th 1976, McDougall says the Toronto Giants were ready to be unveiled to the public.
“We all gathered in Paul Godfrey’s office. We all told the press and then the board approved the sale of the team to Labatt’s, subject to approval of the team by the Major League owners. So, we made the announcement, January 9th on TV, we had the logos and everything with the ‘Toronto Giants.’”
The consortium reached an official agreement to move the San Francisco Giants to the Toronto. The first hurdle had been cleared, but there would be many more obstacles to overcome for the ownership group.
Although a campaign spearheaded by Godfrey was set in motion, Major League Baseball was reluctant to upend the Giants and allow them to move north of the border. A ten-year lease at Candlestick Park was another obstacle.
The infrastructure was put in place in Toronto hoping to attract a team. An upgrade to the baseball field at Exhibition Stadium was part of the plan to woo the owners to let the Giants move to Toronto. An $18 million investment to retrofit Exhibition Stadium was put forth to build a brand new retractable roof multi-use stadium.
Eventually, MLB relented and agreed to move the Giants to Toronto. However, behind the scenes, there was a new player in San Francisco. The new mayor of San Francisco — George Moscone — was elected the day before the Giants were sold to the group led by Labatt’s, CIBC and the Globe and Mail. He was dead set on keeping the Giants in the Bay Area.
Moscone would see to it that San Francisco’s beloved Giants wouldn’t become the “Toronto Giants”. Within his first few days in office, Moscone obtained an injunction to prevent the sale of the team.
“We announced it — the Giants were going to move to Toronto — and all hell broke loose in San Francisco,” Godfrey said. “I got calls from the mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, and he says to me: ‘Mr. Chairman, I know you want to take my baseball team away, but you know I can’t let you do that without a fight.’”
As steadfast as Godfrey was in getting a baseball team in Toronto, Moscone was just as determined to keep the Giants in San Francisco. The courts allowed a temporary injunction to halt the sale of the Giants to the Toronto-based group.
The injunction bought enough time for a San Francisco businessman, Bob Lurie, to play the role of white knight as he rescued the Giants franchise from moving to Canada. Despite the $13.5 million offer on the table from Labatt’s, the courts allowed Lurie to purchase the Giants for $8 million and keep them in the Bay Area.
“It was probably the biggest disappointment in my political life,” Godfrey said. “It’s like, you’re there to catch the ball at the end of the game, it’s an easy pop-up and you drop it. It was a major disappointment.”
It was a devastating loss for Godfrey, McDougall and company, to have an MLB team snatched away from their grasp. Fate had it they wouldn’t wait much longer for another opportunity to land a big league franchise. The hope of scoring a National League team had all but vanished, but on the horizon, Toronto had the chance to be awarded an expansion team in the American League.
All those years of hounding owners at the winter meetings paid off as Godfrey had an American League owner in his corner; Ewing Kauffman of the Kansas City Royals.
“[Kauffmann] basically said: ‘Do you really care if you’re going to be in the American League or the National League? Don’t brood over that. You’re going to find out that the city of Seattle has to be happy’. I said: ‘How come you’re so interested in Toronto?’ He said: ‘Look, I married a lady from Toronto and she wants Toronto to have a team. That’s why I’m calling you to tell you that you have a good shot at the American League.’”
To the surprise of the Toronto consortium, the city of Seattle was in the process of suing Major League Baseball for breach of contract after Bud Selig bought the Seattle Pilots and moved them to Milwaukee and renamed them the “Brewers”.
Rather than wade through the red tape, Major League Baseball awarded Seattle its own expansion team, which left the American League with an uneven number of teams. Another club needed to be added to the league, and Toronto was the strongest suitor of all potential expansion markets.
After months of back-and-forth with the commissioner’s office, Toronto was awarded its expansion team, and the purchase was anchored by Labatt Brewing Company. Within one year, the consortium led by Godfrey and Labatt’s watched the Giants team slip through their fingers, only to have the Blue Jays franchise land delicately on their shoulder.
“For me, it was a dream come true,” Godfrey said. “I always take the position that if you want to be in politics, you should leave a legacy that people remember you for. If people want to remember me for bringing baseball to Toronto, I’m happy with that.”