Montreal·Photos

Montrealer's collection tells the story of baseball in the city

John Elias has had a front-row seat to much of Montreal's baseball history and, as a result, he amassed an impressive collection of baseball memorabilia. He now wants to put it on display so more people can enjoy it.

John Elias struck up friendships with Montreal Expos while working for the team

John Elias shows off an Andre Dawson jersey from his days with the Chicago Cubs. Elias has a collection of baseball memorabilia he hopes to eventually put on display. (Charles Contant/CBC)

While there were many compelling storylines leading up to the World Series, which begins tonight, perhaps the most compelling is all about history.

The Chicago Cubs haven't won a championship since 1908. Cleveland fans have had it somewhat easier; they last won it all in 1948.

Baseball in Montreal also has a storied history, even if it never included a berth in the Fall Classic.

John Elias has had a front-row seat to much of that history. He grew up in Montreal and eventually became a top-tier left-handed pitcher.

Though he never played in the big leagues, his arm helped him enjoy a decades-long career in the sport and create a collection of memorabilia he now wants to share with those who love the game as much as he does.

A job with the Expos

Officially, the collection lives in a small room at the front of his unassuming Côte Saint-Luc home. In reality, his entire house serves as a shrine to his lengthy and remarkable career.

After stints in the minor leagues as part of the Kansas City Athletics and Baltimore Orioles organizations, Elias came back to Quebec and continued playing ball for a few years.

John Elias, second from left, poses with teammates during his playing days in the Quebec Provincial League. (Charles Contant/CBC)

His reputation as someone who could throw a strike eventually landed him a job throwing pitches during batting practice for the Montreal Royals, the city's minor league team.

He parlayed that job into one with the Montreal Expos doing the same, and struck up friendships with all the big-name players — Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Warren Cromartie, Bill Lee.

He collected mementos from all of them. But his favourite items in the collection are those linked to that beloved Expos catcher with the gregarious personality and gorgeous smile — Gary "The Kid" Carter.

Elias can't single out his most treasured item, but takes great pains to point out the photos of Carter, the notes he wrote and the Christmas cards he sent over the years.

Carter died in 2012. Elias heard about his death on the radio, on his way to referee a basketball game.

"It was fun to be his friend," he said.

John Elias looks at a Carter family Christmas card, one of many he received over the years from The Kid. (Kamila Hinkson/CBC)

Balls, bats, caps and more

Every item comes with a story. He apologizes for forgetting certain names and details, but his memory is still largely intact. He barely finishes one story before starting the next, eager to show off his prized possessions.

Most of the items in the collection are things that have been given to him, although he did buy some items, such as a large frame commemorating the sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, which started the storied Curse of the Bambino.

He has countless balls signed by Hall of Famers like Carter, Pedro Martinez, Sandy Koufax and Ken Griffey Jr.. He also has bats from Carter and Dawson, among others, hundreds of baseball cards, photos upon photos of him with baseball and hockey icons such as Jean Béliveau and Gordie Howe (hockey was another passion) as well as mementos from his equally lengthy career as a basketball referee and coach.

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      Elias also ran a summer baseball camp, the Grand Slam Baseball School, which featured the elite coaches and cameo appearances from Expos players.

      One of the kids who attended the camp was none other than catcher Russell Martin, who grew up in Montreal and is now one of the pillars of the Toronto Blue Jays.

      "That kid could play," Elias said.

      Toronto Blue Jays' Russell Martin is pictured during a pre-season game against the Boston Red Sox in Montreal. (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

      A public display

      Elias and the City of Côte Saint-Luc are working out the details to display his collection publicly sometime in the new year.

      Will he miss his collection? Of course, he said, but he is honoured.

      "They're going to do it right. When you come into a place like this, and you're showing people around, all of a sudden a kid wants to grab a ball, so everything will be [encased] and they're going to go through a big expense to make sure it's prolonged," he said.

      "Knowing people will be able to see what I have, and I can go by and visit it ... 75, 76 years old, I'm not going to live forever."

      Elias is flanked by Warren Cromartie and Andre Dawson. (Charles Contant/CBC)