Monthly Archives: April 2016

90 Years Ago This Week…

For a building I never set foot in (the team played its last game there shortly before I turned four) and can’t even remember seeing (it was torn down just a few months later), Maple Leaf Stadium has had a big impact on my life. It’s the place that helped create the love of sports in my mother and father (and my aunts, uncles, and older cousins) that’s been passed down to me and my brothers and on to a new generation.

Certainly my parents saw a lot more baseball games at Maple Leaf Stadium than they ever saw hockey games at Maple Leaf Gardens. I know my father’s childhood heroes were Teeder Kennedy and Max Bentley, but he was a big baseball fan too. And my mother LOVED the baseball Maple Leafs (in particular Ed Stevens during the mid 1950s). She still loves baseball and she’s the reason we still have the season’s tickets to the Blue Jays we’ve had since the moment they went on sale before the first season in 1977.

My father, grandfather, and aunt in the mid 1940s. I’ve been told this
is Maple Leaf Stadium (but I think it might be Varsity Stadium)

The Blue Jays are celebrating their 40th season this year, but it was 90 years ago this week that Maple Leaf Stadium opened. Previously (since 1897), the baseball Maple Leafs had played at Hanlan’s Point on the Toronto Islands. Babe Ruth hit his first pro home run there, but it wasn’t the easiest place to get to.

“After years of hope deferred,” wrote Toronto Globe Sports Editor Frederick Wilson on September 5, 1925, “the baseball fans of Toronto are to see their dreams come true, and next season the Leafs will play their games in a magnificent $300,000 stadium on the mainland at the foot of Bathurst Street.” The geographic center of the city at the time, explained Wilson, was “at a point on Harbord Street, about one hundred feet west of Bathurst,” so – forgive me if you don’t know Toronto geography! – the new site was certainly more accessible than the Island.

This was the front page of an 18-page supplement The Globe ran on April 28, 1926.

Work on the grounds at Bathurst and Fleet Street (very close to what is now the Tip Top Tailor lofts near the Canadian National Exhibition grounds) began in October of 1925, and construction on the stadium began in earnest on December 2. Though it wouldn’t be completely finished at the time, Opening Day was scheduled for April 28, 1926, after the team had spent the first two weeks of the season on the road.

Sadly, it seems, the weather has not been very cooperative for the opening of Toronto baseball stadiums. The Blue Jays played at Exhibition Stadium on April 7, 1977, despite snow and freezing temperatures, and while the elements weren’t a factor in the first game at SkyDome on June 5, 1989, it was pouring rain during the official opening gala two nights earlier when organizers insisted on opening the roof anyway!

Wikipedia claims this photo is in the public domain!
Credit is to the Bibliotheque et Archives nationals du Quebec, P547,S1,SS1,SSS8,D1.

Many dignitaries were in Toronto for the 1926 opener, including baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was given a pregame tour of the facility. “Absolutely nothing forgotten over overlooked,” Frederick Wilson quoted him as saying. “[It’s] as near perfection as it is possible to have a baseball park.” But unlike the SkyDome/Rogers Centre, it didn’t have a roof! Cold temperatures and heavy rains postponed the opener.

Torontonians of a certain age will recall Joe Crysdale on the radio, broadcasting the home games from Maple Leaf Stadium and re-creating them with telegraphed reports and sound effects when the team was on the road. For the opener in 1926, Foster Hewitt was set to call the game on Toronto Star radio station CFCA. It’s unclear whether he was there or not a day later, on April 29, 1926, when they got the game in despite a constant drizzle. Only 12,781 fans were on hand as the Maple Leafs fell behind Reading 5-0 heading into the bottom of the ninth. Those who stuck around where rewarded when Toronto rallied for five runs to tie the score, and then won the game 6-5 on a squeeze play in the bottom of the tenth. (The game, by the way, was complete in 2 hours and 15 minutes!)

From The Globe , Toronto, April 30, 1926.

The come-from-behind victory was a good omen. Baltimore had won the International League pennant every year from 1919 to 1925, but in 1926, Toronto had a record of 109-57 to take the league title. They then swept five straight games from Louisville of the American Association to win the best-of-nine Junior World Series. (Oh, and the weather was much nicer for the opener in 1927, and a large crowd was on hand to honor the champions, as this newsreel film shows.)

When it was built in 1925-26, state-of-the-art Maple Leaf Stadium was constructed with an eye towards housing a future Major League team. By the 1960s, Jack Kent Cooke – who then owned the baseball Maple Leafs – felt a brand new park was needed to attract the Majors, but he couldn’t convince City Council to cover the costs. The end was near. Attendance was awful despite championship seasons in 1965 and 1966, and the team was sold and transferred to Louisville after the 1967 season. The Stadium was torn down in the spring of 1968. Only the memories remain – even for those of us who inherited them.

A Tale of Tom Phillips

I don’t really have a good explanation for why I like the early history of hockey as much as I do. I still watch plenty of the current game, but as I often say to people when they ask me, I can tell you with a lot more authority why the Kenora Thistles won the Stanley Cup in 1907  than I can tell you why I think a team might win it this year.

Thistles captain Tom Phillips (who I’ve written about extensively for the Society for International Hockey Research and mentioned a couple of times on this site) is one of a handful of early era Hall of Famers (along with Art Ross, Frank & Lester Patrick, Cyclone Taylor, Newsy Lalonde, Joe Hall and Fred Whitcroft) that I find fascinating.

Phillips 3
Tommy Phillips reclines to the right of the huge trophy symbolizing the senior championship of the Manitoba Hockey League, which the Kenora Thistles won for the
second of three straight seasons in 1905-06.

Tommy Phillips was the Sidney Crosby of his day. In his era, he was considered one of the top two players in hockey. If you were from the West, you’d likely pick him; while Easterners were more partial to Frank McGee. McGee was a goal-scoring machine with the Ottawa “Silver Seven” who was famously blind (or at least had his vision impaired) in one eye. Turns out, Tommy Phillips was playing under a pretty severe handicap too.

 Phillips 1
Articles from the Toronto Star on August 4, 1904 and the Ottawa Journal one week later.

Several years ago, I came across the Toronto Star newspaper clipping above claiming that Phillips had injured his hand while working in a lumber mill near his hometown during the summer of 1904. Recently, I went searching for more stories about this, and discovered a couple of clips that make the injury sound a lot more serious than just a bad cut. It seems Phillips had actually lost parts of three fingers on his right hand.

 Phillips 2
Articles from the Winnipeg Morning Telegram and Winnipeg Tribune on November 29, 1904.

Look again at the team picture above, and then have a look at the (slightly blurry) blow up below. Clearly, there’s something up with Phillips’ right hand.

Phillips 4

There appears to be a strap leading to what is either a protective cover or some sort of artificial right index finger. His pinky as well as the finger next to it (which certainly seems to be abnormally short) both look to be similarly protected or replaced.

Unlike Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown of the same era – who had his right hand mangled in farm machine as a youth but learned to grip a baseball in such a way that it gave him an exceptional curve ball – it’s hard to believe that Tom Phillips’ accident gave him any sort of physical advantage.

Phillips Brown

Yet given that Phillips had the best years of his career from 1904-05 through 1907-08, he was clearly able to perform at an extremely high level despite his injury. He may not have been Bobby Orr on wounded knees, or Mario Lemieux beating cancer, or Sidney Crosby coming back from a concussion, but it’s still pretty remarkable.

Nobody’s Perfect…

I was at the Blue Jays’ home opener on Friday. As I no longer live in Toronto, I don’t get to many games anymore, but Opening Day is something special. Forget about Christmas, early April, when spring is supposed to be springing, baseball is getting started, and the hockey playoffs are here… THAT’S the most wonderful time of the year!

The Zweig boys, with their mother/grandmother on Opening Day. For Joyce, Jonathan
and me, this one made us 40 for 40 … but I’m the only one who was also at the
makeup game for the rained out opener in 1980.

Baseball, of course, is a game bound by tradition. And I am a big fan of sports history. But while I admit that I’ve been known to complain that “the game [ANY game] was better when I was younger,” I wouldn’t say I’m truly a traditionalist. I don’t mind modern innovations … but I have to admit that instant replay irks me.

It’s long been called “a game of inches” but now, it seems, that baseball is “a game of painful exactitude which we can measure in fractions of seconds … if we get a good shot in super slo-mo that we can blow up large enough.”

Yes, it’s pretty hard to argue against “getting the call right,” but as others have argued before me, there are rules, and then there is the spirit of the rule. Of course a runner can’t wander off the base with impunity, but is he really supposed to be out if his foot pops off the bag for a fraction of a second? And I really hate the way, in baseball, they linger and waste time while the clubhouse pre-checks the replays first. If you want to challenge a play, I think you should have to challenge it based on what you think you actually saw! After all, that’s how the umpire has to call it.

As I said, it’s hard to argue against getting the call right — and, of course, Armando Galarraga SHOULD have had that perfect game in 2010, and Derek Jeter probably should have been out for fan interference on that Jeffrey Maier home run in 1996. Still, what can I say? The delays (and the fact that they still don’t seem to get the call right every time!) just bother me.

I’m not really trying to argue that we should do away with instant replay … but then again, no one else in a game gets a second chance if they screw up! And once upon a time, it was clear that people believed it was ridiculous to allow TV cameras to make the final call. Of course, this was a long time ago…

Ten years before the first Blue Jays opener, in the last game of the NHL regular season in 1967, Chicago’s Stan Mikita picked up two assists to finish the season as the scoring leader with 97 points. That happened to tie teammate Bobby Hull’s single-season scoring record … but Mikita thought he’d earned a third assist in the Black Hawks’ finale against the New York Rangers.


Stan Fischler, writing in a special to the Toronto Star on April 3, 1967, reported that: “[Black Hawks coach] Billy Reay was bubbling with anger in the Chicago dressing room… Reay was furious over the confusion surrounding Stan Mikita’s point allotment in the game at Madison Square Garden. Officially, Mikita got two assists … [b]ut unofficially, the belief was that Mikita deserved another assist on Doug Mohns’ goal at 2:14 of the third period.

Official scorer Lamie Crovat promised, “I’m going to study a video-tape of the goal in the Madison Square Garden office on Monday and make a final determination.” Reay snapped back, wondering, “Why doesn’t he (Crovat) keep his eyes on the ice instead of the tape?” And it soon became clear that the NHL had no interest in what a video review might show.

Writing in The Star on Tuesday, April 4, the dean of Canadian sportswriters Milt Dunnell pointed out: “Conn Smythe used to say the customers had a right to know the result when they left the rink. That’s why he never would permit a protest of a Leaf hockey game. Contests were for the ice – not the committee room.


Clarence Campbell, the NHL president,” Dunnell said, “applied the same principle to Stan Mikita’s claim of a third assist in Sunday afternoon’s game at New York. What Campbell said, in effect, is that he doesn’t care what video tapes of the game prove.

So, Mikita didn’t get his extra point, nor a new scoring record … and Dunnell clearly believed this was the right decision. “If [Lamie Crovat] even hinted he might change his decision in the event the film showed Mikita’s claim was justified, he exceeded his authority.

And Dunnell wasn’t finished yet. “The video tape has no official status in the NHL, nor in football, baseball – any team sport you can mention.” He adds that when Stafford Smythe had a TV monitor installed near the penalty box at Maple Leaf Gardens “for the possible guidance of officials,” the referees got rid of it “by refusing to look at it.

The day referees, umpires, linesmen, and judges of play consent to be influenced by the eye in the sky, they will be as dead as the dodo bird,” Dunnell argued. “Hockey coaches being the mourners which, as a group, they are, would challenge every decision of the officials. Any contest that was completed in less than five hours would be a rarity.

But, of course, times change…

A Future NHLer at 3 1/2

Famous as he is for all the NHL records he set, Wayne Gretzky is almost as famous for the fact that he’s been famous since he was 10 years old. Sidney Crosby is said to have given his first newspaper interview when he was just seven.

Gretzky began skating at the age of two, and Crosby at three. The backyard rink in Brantford, Ontario, where Gretzky practiced as he grew up, and the basement dryer Crosby would shoot at in the family home in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, are both a part of hockey lore now … but neither of them was featured on the cover of a Canadian national magazine when they were only 3 1/2. So, does anyone recognize this future NHL player?

Ken Cover

To help me pass the time during my recent recuperation, my wife Barbara bought up a whole bunch of Weekend Magazine issues dating from 1959 to 1963 at a local antiques/collectibles store. They’re pretty great! The little guy in question appeared on the cover on February 24, 1962.

Growing up in Kingston, Ontario, his father was a Senior A hockey player and youth coach from Toronto and his mother was a strong skater from Montreal. He began attending his father’s games at the age of three months, and by his first birthday in August of 1959, he was “chasing around the living room with a cut-down hockey stick,” says writer Bill Trent in the story that appeared on page 23 of the magazine.

Ken Basement

Come the winter of 1959–60, the toddler took to the ice on bobskates. The following winter, when he was 2 1/2, he was skating on tube skates. When the weather didn’t permit for going outside, there was a rink in the basement. “Well, it’s really a make-believe rink,” explained Trent, “with linoleum for ice and a packing case for a players bench. And [boy’s name] has to be careful not to go banging up against the washing machine. But when he faces off at the blue line, it’s almost as good as the real thing.”

So, who is it? Check out the hockey card below…

Ken Rat

Ken Linseman played 14 seasons in the NHL with Philadelphia, Edmonton, Boston and Toronto from 1978 to 1992. He was no Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby, but “The Rat” (who was called that, it seems, in equal parts for his facial features, his hunched-forward skating style, and his ability to agitate) had some pretty good offensive seasons. He had a career total of 256 goals and 551 assists (807 points) in 860 regular-season games and won the Stanley Cup with the Oilers in 1984.