Thursday, August 3, 2017

Winfield and the "Seagull"

Are you aware of how important a date August 4 is in the history of Toronto and the planet?

Yes, I remember where I was when JFK was shot (Grade 9 English Class, Nelson High School). When Apollo 11 landed on moon I was working at the #2 Rod Mill at Stelco in Hamilton.  And I have a clear memory of September 9, 1956 when this six-year-old surreptitiously crawled down the back hallway, apparently undetected by unsuspecting parents, to watch Elvis gyrating on the Ed Sullivan show.
Dave Winfield - Hall of
Famer and Gull Slayer

I also remember where I was thirty four years ago (August 4, 1983) - an historic date. That day at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium Dave Winfield  “slew a gull.”  My memory is foggy, as the Stadium often was, though. I guess I should have taken notes.

Along with about 36,000 others I was taking in the game from the cheap but covered seats in left-centre field at what later became known as the Mistake-by-the Lake.   Burlington Post reporter Dennis Smith and I spent four dollars each for our seats (Could they really have been $4.00 dollars then?)  Between innings I had my 7x50 Dienstglas binoculars trained on this bird.  It had been sitting in the same place in right-centre field for several innings.  While I looked at the gull through the binos,  it was smacked by a baseball.  Someone sitting near us called out:  “Winfield killed that poor pigeon.”

The “pigeon” was indeed dead.  A hapless ball boy was dispatched to cover and remove the dead bird.  While some booing began I, clearly identifying with that ball boy, flashed back to a similar incident in my past.   As a student Steelworker I had been ordered by the foreman to “bury that poor effing cat” that had been found dead in Stelco’s #2 Rod Mill.  Poor ball boy.

As I’ve suggested some of the details of this important day are lost to me.

The Toronto Star says the charge against Winfield, later dismissed, was “cruelty to animals.” I can’t say I remembered that specific but for some reason I do recall Winfield’s manager’s response to the charge:   Said Billy Martin: “Cruelty to animals?  That’s the first time he’s hit the cut-off man all year.” 

I remember, too,  that the birding community was irked.  Peter Whalen of the Globe and Mail wrote about it. His column lamented the fact that the deceased bird was continuously referred to by the media and public as a “seagull.”    There is no such species, as any birder worth his feathers would tell you.  It was a ring billed gull or larus delawarensis, if you prefer.

Imagine the audacity of a wannabe world class city hauling an American celebrity off to the Hogtown Hoosegow?  I recall, then Metro Chairman, Paul Godfrey grovelling to the Americans over our  misfeasance.   But didn’t that have to do with getting a NFL franchise for Toronto?

All these memories coming back to me……

Oh, and where were you on August 4, 1983?
The Queen and Prince Philip in the North Grandstand...
but not that night
Where they are now. 

Dennis Smith, who attended the game with this Blogger, is semi-retired and does freelance work for the Burlington Post including a regular Entertainment column.  Dennis reminds me, often, that another team  played at the CNE in the ‘Year of the Dead Bird.’  That team, the Toronto Argonauts, won the Grey Cup in 1983.

While the Toronto Blue Jays lost to the Yankees that August day they did go on to record their first winning season in 1983 winning 89 times against 73 losses.  This year they are on pace for a record of 76 wins and 86 loses.

The #2 Rod Mill was opened by the Steel Company of Canada (Stelco) in 1966.  Once North America’s largest manufacturer of hot rolled wire rods, the mill closed for good in 2004.

Dave Winfield is now 65 years old.  A Hall of Famer,  he was member of the Blue Jays 1992 World Series Championship team.

Bob Wood lives in Port Rowan Ontario and hasn’t attended  many games at the SkyDome/Rogers Centre.  He preferred the Mistake-by–the-Lake even if they were cruel to animals there.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Jimmy Breslin on Branch Rickey

The American journalist and author Jimmy Breslin died on March 19th this year.
Jimmy Breslin

Over the years, I had occasionally read his column and essays in magazines.  Some time back I read one of his novels – World Without End, Amen, I think.

Upon his death, it was easy to find some of his better-known pieces like Digging JFK Grave was His Honor and, after John Lennon’s death, A Part of Cop’s Past Live Dies.

In 1986 Breslin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary "for columns which consistently champion ordinary citizens".

He could write.  I figure I can learn something (well, many things) so I picked up his last published book Branch Rickey.

Breslin liked to talk with his subjects. Rickey, who died in 1965 was long gone by 2011.  Nevertheless, the author was confident he could “rely on big-name historiansand that this (experience) would be immensely pleasurable.”
The historians disappointed Breslin.  “History writers should be put not in jail but under it.”

Breslin’s book used a lot from Arthur Mann’s earlier work on Rickey that had formed the basis of The Jackie Robinson Story, a 1950 film (starring Robinson himself and Sandra Dee).
Branch Rickey

Although I knew a fair bit about Rickey and the story of him bringing Robinson up to major league baseball, I certainly picked up new insights from Breslin.

Robinson was some athlete. It is arguable that baseball wasn’t even his best sport.  
Seventy years ago today (July 26th), at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field he stole home and hit a home run in the same game. 

That feat is perhaps a good indicator of his athleticism.  1947 was his rookie season with the Dodgers.  His numbers that year were .297 (Batting Average), .383 (On Base Percentage- OBP), 29 stolen bases and 12 home runs.  He retired with a lifetime .311 batting average and a.409 OBP.

I have vague memories of Robinson at the end of his career.  I’m sure I didn’t fully appreciate what he had to endure in order to excel over 10 seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Robinson stealing home in 55 World Series.  Yogi Berra says he tagged him out 

Rickey and Robinson faced incredible bigotry.  Significant portions of white America at large, sportswriters and the other owners weren’t interested in change.

The owners, for example, issued a statement in the summer of 1946.  That was the year that Robinson was tearing up the International League playing second base with the Montreal Royals. Entitled Race Question the statement read in part: 

“Baseball will jeopardize its leadership in professional sport if it fails to give full appreciation to the fact that the Negro player and the Negro fan are part and parcel of the game. Certain groups in this country, including political and social-minded drumbeaters, are conducting pressure campaigns in an attempt to force major league clubs to sign Negro players.  Members of these groups are not primarily interested in Professional Baseball.

Signing of a few Negro players for the major leagues would be a gesture-but it would contribute little or nothing towards a solution of the real problem. Let’s look at the facts:”

Those “facts” identified requirements of a major league player.  Things like technique, coordination and discipline. You apparently need seven years in the minors to gain these skills and attitudes.

As a result, the “young Negro player never has a good chance in baseball.  This is the reason there are not more players who meet major league standards in the big Negro leagues.”

Fifteen of sixteen owners voted for this declaration.  Rickey’s was the only opposition.  I guess you could call him a social-minded drumbeater.
Branch Rickey

This particular statement the owners issued was in response to the Ives-Quinn Act of 1945.  Sponsored by the New York Republican Irving Ives, it was the first state law to prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin. Rickey, a Republican himself, had lobbied hard for this legislation.  Its passage meant that the Dodger boss had the legal backing to bring Robinson up to the majors.

It goes without saying that Rickey was a principled man. He jeopardized his own major league career, he was a catcher, as he had promised his mother he would never play on Sundays. Managers weren’t impressed.

Rickey earned a law degree, practiced for a day or so before returning to his alma mater to coach baseball.  And baseball was where he stayed.

Branch Rickey invented the baseball farm system changing the “look of baseball long before he ever heard of Jackie Robinson.”

Rickey was a baseball man but “nowhere in his religious training did he take a vow of poverty.” He sold hundred of players and took a 10% commission on their sale.  

When future Hall of Famer Johnny Mize wanted too much money, Rickey sold him for $50,000 and took his 10%.  That was 1941 and Rickey’s salary was $50,000.

Rickey understood better than anyone that there was a business case for Negro League players to play in the major leagues.

He did a great thing in American life, says Breslin.  Later in the McCarthy era, together with Robinson, he got caught up in attacking actor/singer Paul Robeson alleged communist views and later threw in with Richard Nixon.

Breslin would have told them that “the wise shoemaker sticks to his trade and maintains a mouth filled with nails.

Rickey argued that, “ethnic prejudice has no place in sports, and baseball must recognize that truth if it is to maintain stature as a national game.” 

That was a tough case to make and he made it.

Baseball and society are better places for his contribution.  Breslin’s too.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Chuck Ealey Quarterback

More than four years ago, I was asked to do a couple of stories for of Forever Young related to the 100th Grey Cup. TSN had commissioned a series of eight documentaries on the Grey Cup and to my delight I was asked to write on the 1972 Cup and specifically one of the heroes of that game, Chuck Ealey.  I’ve reworked those stories in honour of Black History Month.

The 1972 Grey Cup held Dec. 3 at Hamilton’s Ivor Wynne Stadium was decided by a last-second field goal. The Hamilton Tiger Cats won an exciting match 13-10 over the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Rookie quarterback Chuck Ealey was the star of that game and that whole season for the Cats.

The game represented much more than the typical east-west Cup contest and this is why: Ealey shouldn’t have been in a position to earn the game’s MVP award, because in a just world he would have been quarterbacking in the National Football League.

Bowl victories and an undefeated college record (35-0) at the University of Toledo weren’t enough to get Ealey drafted by an NFL team. Prior to the draft, his agent sent a “well-thought-out, professional, not harsh” letter to all NFL teams, Ealey recalls.

The essence of the letter went like this:

“The only position I’m interested in playing is quarterback. Thank you for your consideration.”

He wanted to play QB because clearly, that was the position where he excelled. But an Afro-American had no chance to compete for a quarterback position in the NFL of the seventies. There were no takers among NFL general managers.

“There was an overall stigma in the NFL at that time that African Americans were not to be playing quarterback,” recalled Ealey. 

And so, Ealey, the quarterback, moved on.

This story isn’t unique, of course.

I talked with Charles Officer who directed the movie Stone Thrower.*
Charles Officer, Director
Officer, had considered doing a “bigger picture” that would have looked at other Afro-American quarterbacks who came up here to play. Standouts like Warren Moon, Condredge Holloway, Damon Allen and Bernie Custis all had to come north for their opportunity.

In 1951,Custis, a star quarterback at Syracuse University, was drafted sixth overall by the Cleveland Browns. But the Browns had no intention of letting him play the pivot position so let him go to Hamilton. Custis became the first Afro-American regular starting quarterback in North America. Earning all-star recognition in ’51, he was moved to halfback the next season.

It’s the same story,” says Officer. “Bernie Custis coming up here and then getting switched over. He had to come here for a reason.”

Officer, an Afro-Canadian actor, writer, director and former semi-pro hockey player, believed that by documenting Ealey’s journey he could tell the bigger story of what was going on in American society in the seventies.

Meanwhile, Jael Richardson, Chuck’s daughter, has been on a journey of her own, recounted in her 2012 book, similarly called The Stone Thrower: A Daughter's Lessons, a Father's Life.** Richardson was born after her father’s football career had ended. As an adult, she would go to Ohio with her Dad.

“When we went back to Toledo, people would start screaming ‘Oh there’s Chuck Ealey’ and ask for autographs,” Jael’s father recalls.

She’d go, so who are you? What did you do?”
Jael and Chuck go to Portsmouth

Ealey acknowledges that he “never shared a lot of story of how I got here.”
It is hard today to fully appreciate the barriers Chuck Ealey faced growing up poor in the racially divided city of Portsmouth, Ohio, a typical American small town. Portsmouth was the kind of a place that valued football players but didn’t let black children swim in their public pools.  Located on the Ohio River and bordering Kentucky, the city was a significant pass-through point on the route of the Underground Railroad and the opportunity for freedom in Canada for fugitive slaves.

Ealey remembers the prejudices that held him and others back and contrasts that with the freedom “to do things a lot differently” that he found when he arrived in Hamilton.

“There were none of the issues that socially held you back or that seemed to hold you back in the States,” he stated. And so, Ealey was able to continue with his winning ways that memorable rookie season, 1972, in Hamilton, all the way to the Grey Cup win.

Director Officer documents how Ealey, denied the opportunity to play quarterback in his native land, essentially followed that same path that slaves had taken to get to Canada. 

As Officer told me of his movie:

It is a significant African American story that has everything to do about being Canadian.”
*You can find Officer’s movie these days on youtube at

**The Stone Thrower - A Daughter's Lessons>  A Father's Life. A Memoir
is available at