What if the Giants had moved to Toronto?

It almost happened in 1976

January 20th, 2022

In 1958, the New York Giants (along with, of course, the Brooklyn Dodgers) expanded the footprint of Major League Baseball to the West Coast, departing Manhattan to head to California. More than six decades later, the San Francisco Giants are still by the Bay. They're one of baseball’s model franchises, the team that has fielded some of the sport's greatest hitters, winner of three rings in the last dozen years, and now playing in a park that’s considered a modern crown jewel.

That’s how the trip west seems today, anyway: A clean move that ended in glory. An obvious win. The no-doubt best move to make for the future interests of the franchise.

Except, in reality, it wasn’t nearly that simple. It took a lot to get here, and it very nearly didn’t happen this way, multiple times. After arriving in California, the Giants almost landed in other cities. They almost landed in a different country.

Consider this: Halfway through the 1957 season, their last in New York, it still wasn’t clear if the Giants would move to San Francisco or Minnesota or become a tenant of the Yankees in the Bronx or perhaps just not leave the Polo Grounds at all. In 1977, a group tried to purchase the club to move it to Washington, D.C. In 1985, it seemed likely the Giants would leave San Francisco for Denver, unless they were moving to San Jose, unless they were moving to New Jersey, unless they were going to share Oakland with the A's. In 1992, they briefly agreed to leave the West Coast for Tampa Bay. They didn’t, so they were still around for yet another round of San Jose rumors four years later.

Oh, and in 1976, they came ever so close to leaving America entirely. In January of that year, news broke that the Giants would be moving to Toronto, a year before the Blue Jays as we now know them were born. Imagine, if you will, the repercussions of that, of the team of Mays, McCovey, Marichal, McGraw and Mathewson heading north of the border. Imagine the Blue Jays never existing; imagine the A’s suddenly having the Bay Area to themselves. Imagine all the differences we’d see in today’s game, just from that one move.

Or, better yet, let us do it for you. What would have happened if the Giants really did move to Toronto in 1976?

1. They really did come incredibly close to moving.

The Giants had their moments after arriving in California, reaching the 1962 World Series and winning more games in the 1960s than any other National League team. But Candlestick Park was never a beloved place to watch a game, and when the A's arrived in Oakland in 1968, the Giants suddenly no longer had the sole attention of Bay Area baseball fandom, especially when the colorful and competitive A's won back-to-back-to-back World Series titles from 1972-74.

By the mid-70s, the Giants were a second-division team, struggling to find a path after the departures of beloved stars Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal. In 1975, they had the lowest attendance in the Major Leagues. As the A's sold off their own stars in the early days of free agency, it became an open question whether the region should have two teams, especially in seasons like 1977, when the Giants and A's finished last and next-to-last in attendance.

"It is very sad,” said Giants Hall of Fame pitcher and then-club exec Carl Hubbell in 1976. “The [Bay] area is just not large enough for two big league teams. There would have been no problem if the American League [Oakland A's] had not moved in."

Owner Horace Stoneham, who had moved the team west in the first place, was ready to get out, selling the team to Toronto interests bankrolled in part by the brewery giant Labatt. “The San Francisco Giants have been sold for $13.25 million and will be moved to Toronto for the 1976 season if the sale is approved by nine of the 11 other National League teams,” wrote the New York Times on Jan. 10, 1976.

They likely would have still been called the Giants. In 2020, the Athletic obtained a re-creation of the potential uniform they’d have worn, which appears incredibly similar to past looks of Japan’s Tokyo Giants. That look indicates they’d have kept the familiar black and orange that had traveled from New York to California, though there’s some evidence they were also considering a blue-and-green rebrand. Team executives were already posing for pictures in snowy Exhibition Stadium, wearing “G” hats and modeling proposed stadiums.

It didn’t happen, obviously. The city of San Francisco asked for and received a restraining order preventing the sale, buying time for new local ownership led by Bob Lurie to step in, which it did on March 2; within weeks, the move had been announced, challenged and killed. Less than a month later, Toronto won an expansion franchise, to begin play in 1977.

In our alternate history, the court refused the restraining order. The Giants moved to Toronto in 1976, and the utterly forgettable ‘76 team of John Montefusco, Jim Barr and Bobby Murcer goes down in history as the first Toronto club. That’s just the start of it.

John Montefusco, the 1975 NL Rookie of the Year, might have been the first starter in Toronto Giants history.

2. The National League would own Canada.

Remember, there was already baseball in Canada, with the Expos having arrived as an expansion team in Montreal in 1969. That means that instead of having to wait until 1997 for the first regular-season all-Canada game, as we did, the first Toronto/Montreal game would have happened on May 8, 1976, at Jarry Park, and hundreds of times since then. Instead of some mid-season or pre-season exhibitions, Toronto vs. Montreal would be an annual and heavily anticipated matchup.

Is it possible the Giants might have switched leagues to the American League at some point? Not in time for the 1976 season, to be sure, and possibly not for many years, if ever; it's important to remember that the two leagues were far more competitive and disparate entities than they are today. When Toronto received their Blue Jays for 1977, then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said he wanted them to be in the National League, but after the NL clubs failed to vote unanimously in favor of expansion, the Jays and their expansion cousins in Seattle, the Mariners, became the newest American League teams.

3. A new team is born in Washington, D.C.

As we said above, Toronto, along with Seattle, received one of the two AL expansion teams in 1977, just weeks after learning the Giants would not be coming. But in our scenario, they did get the Giants. Who, then, enters baseball along with the Mariners as an expansion franchise? Certainly not San Francisco, at least not at that point, with concerns about a two-team market and no real stadium answer.

We'd argue that the Giants moving to Toronto may have had some serious repercussions in America's capital. Washington, D.C. had lost the original Senators in 1961 (to Minnesota) and the replacement Senators in 1972 (to Texas), but their love for baseball was still strong; Washington business interests had infamously tried and failed to move the San Diego Padres to D.C. in 1974, and the city was seen as a possible destination for the Giants themselves.

No less than the president of the United States, who surely had nothing else to worry about in 1976, had turned his attention to the situation.

“President Gerald Ford himself had told the commissioner for Major League Baseball, Bowie Kuhn, that Toronto couldn't have a team until Washington, D.C. got one,” reported the CBC. Kuhn “gave the American League seven days to work out something to insure some baseball for Washington in 1977,” reported the Washington Post after the expansion Blue Jays were awarded to Toronto.

Which, to be clear, ended up being a lot of empty threats, since the Blue Jays were born and America’s capital remained without baseball until the Expos moved there in 2005. Still, let’s not overthink this one. In alternate 1977, Toronto doesn't get the Blue Jays, because the Giants are already there. Instead, the Washington Stars -- the potential proposed rebranded name of the San Diego Padres upon their aborted move to D.C. in 1974 -- arrive as an expansion club to join the Yankees, Red Sox and all the rest.

Yes, this means that the Expos don’t move there decades later. It’s possible, maybe probable, that they still needed to leave Montreal, potentially to one of the other rumored-at-the-time options in Las Vegas; or Monterrey, Mexico; or Portland, Ore.; but we’ll be kind and say the added popularity of the Giants/Expos rivalry keeps them in Quebec.

4. Realignment (and the Wild Card) comes a lot faster.

From 1969 through 1993, the National League had a pretty odd configuration. The Atlanta Braves were members of the NL West, despite not being anywhere near the West Coast. (Why? The start of divisional play in 1969 came with a complicated set of horse trading, mostly regarding teams caring about who they would play more than where they would play, in part because they were more focused on division rivals than television start times.)

Weird as it may have seemed to have Atlanta and Cincinnati in the West for all those years, it might have been simply untenable to have the Giants move 2,600 miles east, to a town further east than Pittsburgh or Atlanta, and still play in the West -- a division that would have had only two of its six cities (Los Angeles and San Diego) actually in the western time zone.

In reality, in 1977 baseball executives really did consider realignment into three divisions, though they couldn’t get the votes from owners to make it happen. Four years later, in 1981, the AL was in favor of it, but the NL was not, and Kuhn was unwilling to have the leagues be inconsistent in that way. In our scenario, the specter of a West Division Toronto team is motivation enough. Three divisions arrive and, as George Steinbrenner noted, so does the Wild Card.

After a few seasons of aggravating travel, we’ll say the new alignment comes to be in 1980. It looks like this, keeping the leagues unbalanced, because the world of 1980 wasn’t ready for daily Interleague play just yet.

American League (14)

East: Baltimore, Boston, New York, Washington
Central: Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minnesota
West: California, Kansas City, Oakland, Seattle, Texas

National League (12)

East: Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, Toronto
Central: Atlanta, Chicago, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh
West: Houston, Los Angeles, San Diego, St. Louis

If Atlanta in the Central feels weird, it shouldn’t. First of all, they were in the West before, so this is an improvement; second, although Atlanta is in a state that borders the Atlantic Ocean, the city itself is almost directly south of Cincinnati.

In the real world of 1980, the 100-win Orioles went home because they finished three games behind the 103-win Yankees. With the Wild Card in place 15 years earlier than it actually happened, they’d have had something else to play for.

5. The A’s move across the Bay.

“One thing everybody agrees on,” said American League president Lee MacPhail in 1977, echoing Hubbell, “is that the San Francisco Bay Area is too crowded.”

Today's Bay Area is a very different place than the Northern California of the 1970s, though many of the Giants' issues from decades ago are echoed in the ongoing inability of the A's to find a suitable replacement for the Oakland Coliseum today. Still, the truth is that neither team was doing particularly well either on the field or off it by the late 1970s.

Thus, the interesting part about the proposed series of Giants moves is that the A’s were also threatening to move at that point -- to Chicago in 1975, potentially to Washington in 1977, to Denver in 1978 and 1980, to New Orleans in 1979, among others, with one particularly interesting plan having the Giants then play half their home games in Oakland as the “Bay Area Giants” -- and it was somewhat of a staring match to see who would go first, since either team would have enjoyed being the only game in town.

“If it takes playing half our games in Oakland,” Giants first baseman Willie McCovey once said, “that’s OK. Anything that gets them the hell out of there. Until we do that, we won’t be successful.”

With the Giants in Canada, the A’s get the Bay Area to themselves. This time, when Charlie Finley eventually sells the club, it’s to owners interested in being on the western side of the Bay. Today, the San Francisco A’s play next to their fellow Philadelphia ex-pats, the Warriors, in a state-of-the-art stadium.

6. Barry Bonds joins the Yankees, and Joe Torre is forgotten.

Fast forward a few decades, to one of the most impactful free-agent signings in baseball history.

After seven seasons and a pair of MVP Awards with the Pirates, a 28-year-old Barry Bonds signed with San Francisco in 1993, where he’d go on to hit 586 home runs and stir up more than his share of controversy. When he signed with the Giants, he received a six-year, $43.75 million contract, at the time the largest in baseball history.

But there was more to it than that, because Barry had considerable ties to the Bay Area, and to the Giants. Barry’s father Bobby spent the first seven years of his career as an outfielder with the Giants, coinciding with the end of Willie Mays’ time in San Francisco. A young Barry spent plenty of time in and around Candlestick with his father; he went to high school just 20 miles away; Mays is his godfather. There was no shortage of ties to bring Barry home.

“I want to say how excited I am to be able to go back home and share something with my family and the people I grew up with," said Bonds after signing. It’s not likely he’d have said the same about going to Canada, especially since his father had left the Giants before the potential 1976 move would have happened.

In the real-world winter of 1992, the Braves and Yankees were each in a battle for free agents Bonds and Greg Maddux, with New York losing Bonds to San Francisco in part because the Giants guaranteed a sixth year while the Yankees, who still had a record-setting offer out to him, would not. This time around, the Braves still get Maddux, but Bonds, without the draw of his boyhood franchise, chooses the Yankees. Think about what that means.

It’s easy to forget now, but the Yankees were losers each year from 1987-’92. In 1993, under second-year manager Buck Showalter, they pushed forward to 88-74, while Bonds was blasting 46 homers in his first season with San Francisco.

With Bonds in New York instead in '93, the Yankees' rebirth gets pushed up a year, especially because in this world, the Wild Card already exists. This all means that George Steinbrenner doesn’t fire Showalter over a contract dispute following 1995, which means that Torre, who had been unsuccessful as a manager for the Mets, Cardinals and Braves, never gets a chance to revive his résumé with the unstoppable Derek Jeter/Barry Bonds teams of the mid/late ‘90s.

Bonds, spending years taking aim at the short porch in the Bronx rather than the generally pitcher-friendly parks in San Francisco, and with the ability to be a full-time designated hitter as he got older, hits 850 home runs. He still doesn’t get into the Hall of Fame. Maybe, for all the things the Giants moving to Toronto in 1976 would have changed, some things would have always remained the same.