On Opening Day 1977, the Montreal Expos unveiled one of the most promising young outfields in major league history. The ride was short-lived, however, as three seasons later the trio was no more.
The expansion Montreal Expos joined the National League in 1969. By the middle of the next decade, the franchise had assembled the most talented outfield in baseball. In left field was Warren Cromartie, a 23-year old hit machine. Andre Dawson, 22, patrolled center. Ellis Valentine, also 22, manned right field. Their youth, speed and power soon made them the talk of the baseball world.
Born within ten months of each other, Cromartie, Dawson and Valentine – The Triplets — were discovered as teenagers by Expos scouts. Cromartie and Dawson were from Miami, while Valentine was signed out of Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, which eight years later produced Darryl Strawberry as the first overall pick of the 1980 MLB draft. The trio joined a Montreal farm system that was quickly becoming one of baseball’s richest.
Selected in the 11th round in 1975, Dawson took a rocket ride to the majors. St. Louis manager Vern Rapp, who managed the silent centerfielder in Triple A, said, “Dawson is the kind of complete player who comes along once in a lifetime.” Drafted out of Florida A&M, Dawson spent the 1975 season in the Pioneer League, then ascended through Double-A and Triple-A the following year. The Hawk played in 24 games as a September call-up in 1976 and never looked back. The stoic Dawson became an everyday player in 1977 and remained a fixture in centerfield for 11 seasons.
The most gregarious of the trio, Warren Cromartie’s path to the big leagues required patience. Drafted by the Chicago White Sox coming out of high school in 1971, he opted to attend Miami-Dade College. Cromartie was then selected by three other teams but did not sign with any. After being picked 5th overall by Montreal in 1973, the smiling southpaw inked a pro deal. After three years in the minors, Cro joined the big club for the 1977 season.
In one four-game series against division leader Chicago in early July 1977, the trio produced a total of 21 hits, six homers and 20 RBI.
Ellis Valentine was the most promising of the Triplets. He was as natural a ballplayer as you would ever want to see: a five-tool talent destined for Cooperstown. At 6’4”, 205, Valentine appeared to be chiseled from stone. After being drafted in the second round of the 1972 draft, he was sent to the Florida Coast League, where his manager, Karl Kuehl, praised his 18-year-old outfielder as “the finest hitting prospect I’ve ever seen.” In addition to having one of the coolest names in baseball, Valentine had a throwing arm that rivaled that of the great Roberto Clemente. “There’s a plateau where you can’t throw the ball any harder and you can’t be any more accurate,” said former Montreal manager Felipe Alou. “That was Ellis Valentine.”
The first of the trio to emerge as a star, Valentine was the Expos’ sole representative at the 1977 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium. Prior to the game, he engaged in an impromptu throwing contest with Dave Parker, Dave Winfield and Reggie Smith – established superstars who owned three of the biggest cannons in the game. Gunning bullets, the quartet awed the fans – as well as their NL teammates. “We threw some clotheslines,” said Winfield, a seven-time Gold Glover. “We left the fans with their mouths open.” Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey, who served as their cutoff man, added, “These guys put on a show with their arms.”
The Triplets took the National League by storm in 1977. Fleet of foot, they beat out grounders for infield hits and stole bases [Dawson led the team with 21 swipes]. Cromartie struck out only 40 times in 662 plate appearances, hit 41 doubles, and collected 175 hits, finishing second to Dave Cash for the team lead. The 22-year-old Valentine batted a team-best .293, belted 25 homers and amassed a .504 slugging percentage. Dawson scored 64 runs, drove in 65 more, and was named 1977 NL Rookie of the Year.
The following season, The Triplets each led the NL in assists from their respective positions, solidifying their reputation as the best outfield in baseball. Valentine won a Gold Glove and hit 25 homers for the second straight season. Cro batted .297 with 180 hits, both club bests, while Dawson led the Expos with 84 runs scored. Hawk added 25 jacks, tying him with Ellis Valentine for the team lead.
Prior to the 1980 season, the Expos obtained leftfielder Ron LeFlore from Detroit. Warren Cromartie was moved to first base, dissolving the Triplets after just three seasons. Meanwhile, Ellis Valentine’s once-promising career began careening out of control. Erratic behavior, injuries and an escalating drug problem caused his on-field performance to plummet. Valentine’s chance for greatness may have been ruined on the night of May 30, 1980, when a pitch from St. Louis reliever Roy Thomas hit him in the face. The ball shattered Valentine’s check in six places, and he was concussed. He was never the same player after the accident. Once the most promising of the Triplets, Ellis Valentine was out of baseball by 31.
Not only was Montreal’s trio of outfielders talented, they were also a bargain. In 1977, Cromartie and Dawson each earned $25,000, while Valentine received $35,000.
Warren Cromartie played nine seasons in Montreal. He helped the Expos reach the postseason for the only time in franchise history, in 1981 – where they lost to the Dodgers in the NLCS – before bolting for Japan following the 1983 season. In seven seasons with the Yomiuri [Tokyo] Giants, Cro batted .321 and was named to three All-Star teams. He also developed newfound power, clouting 171 homers [compared to the 60 he hit in nine seasons in Montreal].
Andre Dawson blossomed into arguably the greatest player in franchise history. As an Expo, Hawk was a three-time All-Star, won six Gold Gloves, and garnered three Silver Slugger Awards. He signed with the Cubs in 1987 and went on to be named NL MVP. In 21 seasons, Dawson batted .300 five times, drove in 100 runs four times, and is one of eight in history with at least 300 home runs and 300 stolen bases in his career.
In June 1977 – two months after The Triplets debuted as the most promising outfield in baseball, Montreal selected Tim Raines, a speedy outfielder out of Sanford, Florida, in the fifth round of the amateur draft. Raines replaced Ron LeFlore in left field in 1981. He set a rookie record by stealing a league-leading 79 bases and made the first of seven straight All-Star teams. Raines would finish second in Rookie of the Year voting to Fernando Valenzuela, who also won the Cy Young and MVP Awards in 1981. Although Raines played a dozen seasons in Montreal, 1981 was the only year that he and The Triplets played together, as Valentine signed with the New York Mets 22 games into the season. Tim Raines was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2017, seven years after Andre Dawson was inducted.
On this date in 1977, the Expos fell to Houston, 6-5, in ten innings. Warren Cromartie went 2-for-5, doubling and scoring in the 5th, then singling in the 9th. Andre Dawson collected one hit – a seventh-inning single – in five trips to the plate. Ellis Valentine did not play.