Category Archives: Sports History

Working Hard or…

My web site recently turned five years old. I posted my first story on October 10, 2014. Seems hard to believe. The intention at the time was to promote my writing and to try and drum up more appearances for me at schools to talk about my kids books. It was NOT to help me work through my problems.

That said, a lot of you have only been reading my site since I started posting stories about Barbara and me. Even for those who’ve followed me since the beginning, I’ve certainly gotten more reaction from these personal stories than anything else … and it helped me. A lot. So, thank you. Still, I’m not one who really likes to talk about his feelings! When I had something to say (or something to work through) I wrote about it. But I haven’t felt the need for a while. I guess that’s good.

When my web site was first set up, I told people that I would use the News and Views section to “share some of the quirky sports history stories I come across during my research.” It was fun for me, so I pretty much shared something every week. But I haven’t had much cause to be poking through old hockey stories lately. Nor much inclination, either. The truth is, the only real lingering side effect that I can detect in myself after 14 months is that I don’t have much enthusiasm for work. That might be a function of aging as much as anything. I don’t know. But even when I’ve had work, and I’ve gotten into it – and expected that would make doing more work easier – I still wake up the next day thinking, “I have to do it again?!?”

Well, I may not like working, but I do like to eat … so early this past summer, I agreed to do a book about football for National Geographic Kids. (Mainly American football, but I slide in the occasional Canadian reference when I can.) The book will be very similar to many of the hockey books I’ve done in the past, but I have to admit it’s been kind of fun to be researching something different. (As it was several years ago when I did a soccer book for NGK.) This one’s going a little slower than I’d like, but I’ll still have it ready for them on deadline at the end of this month. And, recently, while working on it, I came across the kind of story that I love to dig into. So, I thought I’d share it.

J.T. Haxall as a young Princeton football player and elderly Baltimore banker.

The football book is part of a series of Sports by Numbers, so it needs to include as many numbers as it can. Math when possible, but statistical lists are more than acceptable. So, plenty of those. And when delving into the longest field goals in football history (NFL, CFL, NCAA, anything!), I stumbled across the fact that a man named John Triplett “Jerry” Haxall had kicked a 65-yard field goal for Princeton versus Yale … in 1882!

Given how large and heavy a football of that era would have been, this struck me as pretty much impossible! I had to know more.

Fortunately, Wikipedia has a short entry on Haxall. He was from a wealthy Virginia family and later went on to a long and successful career in banking in Baltimore. Not that Wikipedia tells you much about that. But it did have a reference to a story by legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice on November 30, 1915 that proved a fine starting point.

As it turned out, on October 16, 1915, a player named Mark Payne at Dakota Wesleyan University had drop kicked a field goal from 63 yards out, breaking the 1898 drop-kick record of 62 yards by P.J. O’Dea of Wisconsin (both of which also strike me as impossible!) This put Haxall’s 65-yard place kick — which had been noted year in and year out in the Spalding Football Guide – back in the news. And (like me, now) there were people who doubted it.

Old-time kickers must have been pretty good!

Apparently, Grantland Rice asked to hear from anyone who’d been at the game and could testify to Haxall’s record. He got a response from James O. Lincoln, Yale class of 1884. “Dear Sir,” wrote Lincoln. “Luther Price, a newspaper man whom I know well, is correct. Haxall kicked that goal against Yale in 1882. I saw him perform the feat. Although, of course, the spectators did not measure the distance, it was beyond the midfield, and was announced at the time as being sixty-five yards.”

This satisfied Grantland Rice … but I was still skeptical. So, I began looking for contemporary accounts of the game played at New York City’s old Polo Grounds. In reporting on it, the Boston Globe on December 1, 1882, said only that, “This was the greatest kick ever seen.” The New York Sun said, “It was a long distance, and nobody believed that he could make it.” However, the Sun also said the ball “was 115 feet from the goal.” That’s only 38 yards or so, and, apparently, it was this account that led people in 1915 to wonder. But the New York Times (who wrote Haxall’s name as Hoxall) had said in its game report, “He was over 65 yards from Yale’s goal,” and the Hartford Courant (which spelled his name as Hachall) said he “sent the ball 66 yards across the field to the goal.”

But I was still curious, so I kept digging…

This illustration appeared in various newspapers in November of 1915.

Next, I found a story from December 12, 1915, which quotes Parke H. Davis writing a few days before in the New York Herald. “Since I am the compiler of this record,” wrote Davis of his work for the Spalding Guide, “I beg the privilege of defending its accuracy… My authorities for fixing the distance of this field goal at sixty-five yards are the accounts in the Yale News, the periodicals at Princeton, and the testimony of several eyewitnesses of the kick.”

The Yale News of December 5, 1882, quoted by Davis, says that the Yale team knew to look out for Haxall, and that he was 65 yards from the Yale goal, “when he made a kick that would have disturbed the transit of Venus. Slowly, steadily the ball was blown onward by the wind over the heads of the breathless players to drop at last on the wrong side of the goal for Yale. And now pandemonium reigned among the yellow and black. It is said that this is the finest kick ever made. You should erect a bronze statue of Haxall, Princeton.”

As to the players Davis interviewed, many had gone on to be prominent business men. “The members of these football pioneers are strikingly clear as to the events of the game, he says. “While no one of them says positively that the goal was kicked down sixty-five yards, in the absence of any mark except the midfield mark, which was fifty-five yards distant from the goal [NOTE: American fields were not reduced to the 100-yard standard of today until 1912, while Canadian football fields have remained 110-yards long], all of these players, nevertheless, assert that the kick was ‘about sixty-five yards.’”

It’s interesting to note that the Princeton narration of the game says only that “Haxall kicked (a) magnificent goal from midfield among Princeton cheers.” Yet Davis then quotes a player from that game who’d become a well-known clergyman in New York … though he chooses not to mention him by name: “Haxall put the ball down for a place kick fully 65 yards from the goal line,” states the clergyman at the end of a lengthy recollection of the game, “and what is more he stood at least 15 yards towards the one side line from the center of the field, thereby not only making the kick more difficult but in reality making the kick longer than 65 yards. The ball sailed in the wind squarely between the posts.”

Not surprisingly, all the talk of his 33-year-old field goal record came to the attention of J. Triplett Haxall himself. He was then asked by a fellow Prinecton alum to give his account of the kick, which he did for the Princeton Alumni Weekly in mid December of 1915.

Haxall writes that he and Tommy Baker (apparently an uncle of U.S. hockey legend Hobey Baker) had practiced their kicking “for some time preceding the Yale game of 1882.” They discovered that having the holder place the ball practically perpendicular to the ground and then kicking it on the bottom end, “started it accurately revolving on its long axis and resulted in long distance being realized before it began to drop.” Haxall added, “why the tendency nowadays seems to be to kick the ball in its middle and not on its ends I have never been able to understand.” (I guess kickers eventually rediscovered Haxall’s technique.)

As for the big kick in the Yale game – which Princeton lost, by the way: “I have always understood the distance was as recorded by the officials who had such matters in hand. The claim lately advanced that, due to a typographical error, the distance should have been 35 yards and not 65 yards, I think all the writings of the time sufficiently refute.”

Haxall recalls, “the wind was blowing sufficiently to require testing its direction by tossing up a bunch of grass or something of the kind,” but states that his record kick, “was the result of quite long practice by Tommy Baker and myself.”

Following his death on June 5, 1939, an obituary in the Princeton Alumi Weekly from July 7, 1939 (which is quoted on Wikipedia), notes that Haxall had once remarked, “My epitaph will probably be:

J.T. Haxall
Kicked a football.
That’s all.

Well, he did get a larger writeup in the Baltimore Sun, but he wasn’t far off.

It still may not be 100 percent official, but if it wasn’t for that lengthy kick, who’d still be writing about John Triplett Haxall today?

We The North

You’d never call me a Raptors fan, but I’m glad they won … and I’m particularly happy for their fans. It’s a lot of fun when your team wins. As Nuke Laloosh says in Bull Durham (a movie Barbara loved, and a line we quoted often) “It’s, like, better than losing!” So, good for the Raptors, and good for basketball fans all across Canada.

I admit, I was a doubter pretty much right up until they won it in Game 6 last Thursday. (I’m not so disinterested that I don’t know their past history of playoff defeats!) I’d been watching a little since the Philadelphia series, but not very closely. In fact, the championship game is now the only Raptors game I’ve ever watched from start to finish … including the one I attended many years ago.

The crowd at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square is reflected in the
Larry O’Brien Trophy and Kawhi Leonard’s NBA Finals MVP Trophy.

I think the Raptors just came along too late for me. I used to really love basketball. Though I never actually saw them live, I remember the Buffalo Braves and their games in Toronto when I was a kid. I knew who Bob McAdoo was when he was winning scoring titles. I really started paying attention as a teenager, with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the NCAA championship in 1979 and was hooked when their Lakers and Celtics teams were battling for titles throughout the ’80s. But by the time the Raptors entered the NBA in 1995, it was too late for me. I was with Barbara and helping to raise Amanda. It was nothing they did. I still watched a ton of baseball, and hockey was becoming my regular “day job.” I was happy — and I didn’t have any interest in more sports or another team.

Amanda and Barbara were happy to be Blue Jays fans, though they didn’t care much about the Leafs. I did take Amanda to the Raptors Fanfest in January of 1999 after the NBA lockout … but that was pretty much it for basketball.

Although I’m not really a Raptors fan, I’m not truly a basketball band-wagon jumper either. So, I think that I’m allowed to say that it annoys me that so many American commentators seem to think that basketball in Canada didn’t exist before the Raptors! That used to bug me about the Blue Jays too. We had the Maple Leafs baseball team in Toronto from 1896 to 1967. My parents – especially my mother – grew up as huge baseball fans! As for basketball, we had a hoop in our driveway 40 years ago, and I played on a team in Grade Six. (I was terrible, and never played for our school teams in Junior High or High School, but we had them!) I know my Uncle Gerry, who recently turned 90, played basketball when he was in high school. (When Jews were inner city kids, basketball was a Jewish game!)

The Bond Purple Raiders from Owen Sound were Provincial basketball champions.

Everyone seems to know that James Naismith, who invented basketball in 1891, was a Canadian. And many know that the first NBA game in 1946 (when the league was actually called the Basketball Association of America) was played at Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Toronto Huskies hosted the New York Knicks. That’s really it for pro basketball in Canada before the Raptors, but it’s not like the sport was unknown here! It was played by boys and girls, men and women, in clubs and in schools, since the very beginning. Google the Edmonton Grads, if you’ve never heard of them.

One of my favorite images in the Ross family collection is this picture of
Art Ross with the Crescent basketball team, senior champions of the
Westmount Amateur Athletic Association in Montreal during the winter of 1902–03.

With that in mind, I was agreeable when a producer from CTV News Channel asked me to talk about the historic significance of the Raptors’ victory. Perhaps you saw it? (But probably not!) Anyway, three or four minutes on TV go by so quickly, I barely had any time to discuss anything beyond the comparisons with the Blue Jays winning the World Series. So, if you’re interested, you can read this (slightly bulked up) exchange below between me and the producer to get a sense of what I really hoped to talk about…

(Oh, and by the way, I was disappointed that I didn’t mention the Women’s World Cup and Canada’s team when Marcia MacMillan asked me what was worth watching now. Barbara never followed anything in sports the way she was briefly hooked on Christine Sinclair and the Canadian women’s team after watching that epic semifinal game with the U.S. at the 2012 London Olympics.)

Hi Eric,
 
Here are some talking points ahead of tomorrow’s interview at 10:45 AM EST
 
1.  How monumental is this victory?

It’s huge. As the only Canadian team in an American sport, it feeds into the love-hate relationship with our neighbours. When they validate our victory, it’s even bigger. Though the Leafs have a following all across the country, there is also that national hatred of Toronto. The Raptors and the Blue Jays seem to overcome that. The big thing is, how much does this do for basketball in Canada going forward… (See more in the “Where does it rank…” question.)

 
2.  How does it compare to other Toronto titles of the past?  The Leafs in 67 and the Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993?

The Leafs in 67 has become much bigger in retrospect than it was at the time, although upsetting Montreal in the Centennial year was noteworthy. Very similar to the Blue Jays (see below). But the next Leafs victory — if it ever comes — will be the big one! Though, of course, while the Leafs have a following all across the country, there is also that national hatred of Toronto. The Raptors and the Blue Jays seem to overcome that, as I said.

 
3.  Where does it rank amongst Canada’s greatest wins?  (please provide specific examples)

The most obvious comparison is the Blue Jays. I think this is at least as big as that. Possibly bigger. As I already said, as the only Canadian team in an American sport, it feeds into the love-hate relationship with our neighbours. When they validate our victory, it’s even bigger. And basketball is such a global game. No Grey Cup team has a shot at that, and, really no NHL team either.

The birth of the Blue Jays, and then the World Series win, increased interest in baseball all across Canada, and we’ve seen record numbers of Canadians in the Majors in recent years. The birth of the Raptors, and the success of Steve Nash, has already led to more and more Canadians making it to the NBA. This should only increase that in the years to come…

Other examples are the Canadian Olympic hockey wins for the men’s team both in 2002 and, especially in Vancouver in 2010. And, of course, Paul Henderson’s goal in 1972. But those only confirmed that we’re a hockey-crazy country. Just having a women’s national team that competes for World and Olympic titles (and often wins them) has been a huge boost for women’s hockey. More and more girls are playing … but it hasn’t done much to help the women’s professional game. 

Donovan Bailey, and the 4 x 100 relay team at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Perhaps there’s no Andre de Grasse without that. (Ben Johnson would have been HUGE). Another historic comparison would be Mike Weir winning The Masters … though I think the Raptors and Blue Jays are bigger. Still, is there a Brooke Henderson without that?

The only other examples are really extremely old. There’s the Paris Crew, four rowers from New Brunswick who won Canada’s first World Championship in any sport when they won in Paris, France in 1867. (There was a Heritage Minute about that) Rowing was a huge sport internationally then, and during the 1880s, Toronto’s Ned Hanlon became a world champion and was probably the most famous athlete in the world.

 
4.  What do you think James Naismith would think about the Raptors success?

I’m sure he’d be pleased. But he’d probably wonder what took so long! Naismith (1861-1939) lived long enough to see how popular his sport became all around the world. In fact, basketball became hugely popular very quickly, even in Canada. Canada won bronze in the first official Olympic basketball tournament in 1936, and the sport was very popular in pockets of the country (particularly Windsor, ON and Victoria BC) much as hockey has always been popular in parts of the United States.

Hockey Helmet History

I guess I’m lucky that my working life has mostly been an interesting one. I’ve always been a person who didn’t like to do anything he didn’t like to do — and I’ve mostly been able to get away with that! Barbara and I always used to say that we may not make a lot of money doing what we do, but we get to meet some very interesting people and have some pretty neat experiences.

As I’ve said a lot lately, I’m kind of burnt out on hockey. But it does still help me pay my bills, so I continue to pay at least some attention. I may not watch very much these days — it’s not my job to do that anymore — but it turns out that I still enjoy poking around in hockey history.

Next weekend, I’ll be attending the Annual General Meeting of the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR) being held in Windsor, Ontario. (That’s the Victoria Day weekend for those you in Canada, or the “they have a holiday before Memorial Day?!?” weekend for you in the United States.)

In the most recent edition of the SIHR Bulletin, Bill Sproule of Houghton, Michigan, posted the following picture he’d recently come across of the 1914-15 Portland Rosebuds of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association…

picture

In this photo, Ernie “Moose” Johnson (third from the left) can clearly be seen wearing a leather football helmet. Bill’s accompanying story dealt with the well-told early history of helmets in hockey, which is always said to have begun with George Owen — a former Harvard football star — of the Boston Bruins in 1928-29. (It appears that football players began wearing helmets as early as 1893!) Bill rightfully wonders if Moose Johnson should be credited as the first pro hockey player to wear a helmet.

Now — surprise, surprise! — I have some doubts about the George Owen story. If he did wear a helmet during his rookie season in 1928-29 (and he may have), it certainly wasn’t widely publicized. Coincidently, when Owen played his first NHL game in Canada against the Canadiens on January 10, 1929, the Montreal Gazette had a story about a player named Nick Carter (aka Fred Carter) wearing a leather rugby football helmet to protect a cut on his head when his Canadian National Railway team faced the Bell Telephone team in a Railway-Telephone Hockey League game (I’m not kidding!) at the Forum the night before. In a story about hockey helmets following the death of Bill Masterton that appeared in The Boston Globe on January 18, 1968, veteran sportswriter Harold Kaese noted that Jack Culhane of Boston College wore a helmet playing hockey during the 1920s. So guys were definitely wearing them that far back, and it was making news when they did.

Whether or not George Owen wore a helmet as a pro hockey player during his rookie season in 1928-29, he definitely wore one during the 1930 NHL playoffs — but so did his Boston defensemates Lionel Hitchman and Eddie Shore. Hitchman, in fact, had already worn a helmet in the regular-season finale to protect a broken jaw, and the article below from the Montreal Gazette on March 20, 1930, mentions that Shore “has worn a headgear in the past.”

Bruins

During the Bruins’ rough opening-round series against the Montreal Maroons, John Hallahan of The Boston Globe noted that “Owen had a brand new one on that made him look something like a halfback.” If it was brand new, perhaps he’d been wearing an older helmet previously? If so, I’ve yet to see that story. And, if Moose Johnson was wearing a helmet during the 1914-15 season, he may well have been the first pro hockey player ever to wear one. But how come?

A brief search through old newspapers turned up the fact that Johnson (like Lionel Hitchman) had suffered a fractured jaw. He was injured either in a practice leading up to, or the pre-game warmup right before, Portland’s first road game of the 1914-15 PCHA season in Victoria, British Columbia, on December 15, 1914. Game stories make it clear that Johnson played for a while with his head bandaged and The Oregon Daily Journal of January 10, 1915, confirms that Johnson had been wearing a helmet in games. Another story from the same paper on January 24 notes that his jaw had finally healed to the point where Johnson might be ready to discard his headgear.

There’s nothing in the papers that claims Moose Johnson was the first pro hockey player to wear a helmet, but he was certainly wearing one long before George Owen. Admittedly, I’m not sure how a helmet that sits on top of your head protects the jaw on the bottom of your head — although I suppose the ear flaps on a football-style helmet help. But what I found most interesting of all was that sportswriters were already taking shots at the relative toughness (or lack-there-of) of baseball players versus hockey players as long ago as 1915, as this Oregon Daily Journal clipping from the January 10, 1915 edition confirms…

story

Season’s Greetings

From the Vancouver Daily World, on Tuesday, December 24, 1912…

Xmas 2017

Who knows how “Extra” becomes “Wuxtry”? And, personally – not to be sexist or racist in this day and age! – I wish All Good Sportsmen AND Sportswomen a Merry Christmas, a belated Happy Hanukkah, or best wishes for any holiday you celebrate at this time of year.

Thank you to everyone who takes a few minutes once a week or so to read these stories, and especially to those who offer comments; either by email or Facebook, or directly on the site.

All the best to everyone in 2018.

Toronto as Title Town

Not that long ago, Toronto was being mocked as the worst sports city in North America. Well, in recent years we’ve had two exciting Blue Jays playoff appearances (though I fear we won’t see that again for a while), a resurgence of the Raptors and a rebirth of the Maple Leafs. And now, within a two-week span from November 26 to December 9, a Grey Cup championship by the Toronto Argos and an MLS Cup win by Toronto FC.

TFC

Once upon a time, titles in Toronto weren’t so rare. In fact, there was a time when it seemed like the Argos and Maple Leafs would never lose. In an eight-year span from 1945 to 1952, the Argos won the Grey Cup five times and the Leafs won the Stanley Cup five times. That’s got to have been a pretty wonderful time to have been a Toronto sports fan! During those eight years, there was never more than 18 months between championships, and often as few as six months:

  • April 22, 1945: Toronto wins Stanley Cup
  • December 1, 1945: Toronto wins Grey Cup
  • November 3, 1946: Toronto wins Grey Cup
  • April 19, 1947: Toronto wins Stanley Cup
  • November 29, 1947: Toronto wins Grey Cup
  • April 14, 1948: Toronto wins Stanley Cup
  • April 16, 1949: Toronto wins Stanley Cup
  • November 25, 1950: Toronto wins Grey Cup
  • April 21, 1951: Toronto wins Stanley Cup
  • November 29, 1952: Toronto wins Grey Cup

This was when my parents grew up. I know it made a big impact on my father, and I’m sure it’s a big reason why sports still runs so deep in my immediate family. I mean, there’s never really been another run like it in all of Canadian sports. Even when the Edmonton Eskimos and Edmonton Oilers were winning all those championships between 1978 and 1990 (and there were 11 in total – although it took them 13 years to do it) the only time they both won in the same calender year was 1987. Toronto did it in 1945 and 1947.

Argos

Montreal comes out on top in terms of twin NHL and CFL titles, although even with their 24 hockey championships dating back to 1916, the only years in which the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup and a Montreal football won the Grey Cup in the same season are 1931, 1944 and 1977. Ottawa almost joins the list of twin wins with Grey Cup victories in 1925 and 1926 and the Stanley Cup in 1927.

American cities have had their multiple champions too, but not very often. In 1927, the New York Yankees and the New York Giants football team were both champions, although the NFL did not have a championship game yet. In 1928, the New York Rangers and Yankees were both champs and in 1969 the New York Jets and New York Mets both won titles too. (The New York Knicks added an NBA title in 1970.) In Pittsburgh, Super Bowl championships by the Steelers in January of 1979 and 1980 bookended a World Series win by the Pirates in October of 1979. And way back in 1935, the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions won the World Series and the NFL championship within two months of each other. (Detroit’s Joe Louis was boxing’s Heavyweight Champion of the World at the time, and the Red Wings would add Stanley Cup titles in 1936 and 1937.)

In terms of timing, the ultimate back-to-back championships would be to win the Stanley Cup and the NBA Finals in the same season, given that they have often wrapped up within a week or two of each other. No one city has ever accomplished that double feat. But in past years Toronto has crowned multiple hockey champions in a timeline often tighter than the 13 days between this year’s Argos and TFC titles. Have a look…

  • March 22, 1922: Toronto Granites win Allan Cup
    March 28, 1922: Toronto St. Pats win Stanley Cup
  • April 6, 1932: Toronto Nationals win Allan Cup
    April 9, 1932: Toronto Maple Leafs win Stanley Cup
  • April 22, 1945: Leafs win Stanley Cup
    April 23, 1945: St. Mikes wins Memorial Cup
  • April 19, 1947: Leafs win Stanley Cup
    April 22, 1947: St. Mikes wins Memorial Cup
  • April 15, 1964: Leafs win Stanley Cup
    May 9, 1964: Marlies win Memorial Cup
  • May 2, 1967: Leafs win Stanley Cup
    May 14, 1967: Marlies win Memorial Cup

Toronto doesn’t have a monopoly on this. Montreal has done it too, but not nearly as often.

  • March 30, 1930: Montreal AAA wins Allan Cup
    April 3, 1930: Montreal Canadiens win Stanley Cup
  • May 4, 1969: Montreal Canadiens win Stanley Cup
    May 5, 1969: Montreal Junior Canadians win Memorial Cup

Once again Ottawa comes pretty close, with the Senators clinching the Stanley Cup as champions of the Eastern Canada Hockey Association on March 3, 1909 and the Cliffsides being awarded the inaugural Allan Cup on March 6, 1909 only to lose it to Queen’s University in the first challenge match nine days later.

If anyone’s aware of any twin wins I’ve missed, please let me know!

Jack of All Trades Was a Master Too

I thought this story would be quick and easy. But I was wrong.

A week ago, on November 29, a statue of Jackie Robinson was unveiled at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. What makes this new statue different from others commemorating the man who broke modern baseball’s racial barrier is that this one honours Jackie Robinson’s contributions to football in Southern California where he grew up.

Statue
Jackie Robinson wearing the #55 he sported while starring at Pasadena Junior College.

Robinson was a four-sport star, excelling at football, baseball, basketball and track, at Pasadena Junior College in 1937 and 1938 and then at UCLA in 1939 and 1940. The stories I saw about the unveiling of the football statue mentioned that Robinson played many games at the Rose Bowl and that his 104-yard kickoff return there is still thought to be the longest touchdown run in the history of the storied stadium.

I thought it would be fun to find a newspaper clipping about that run and set out to hunt one down. Generally speaking, the many books and articles written about Robinson over the years seemed to agree that the play happened during the final game of Pasadena’s perfect 11-and-0 season in 1938.

Pasadena
Jackie Robinson and teammates with he Pasadena Junior College baseball team.
(Photo courtesy of John Thorn, Official Historian of Major League Baseball.)

Jackie Robinson was a remarkable athlete, and football may well have been his best sport. He played quarterback and safety at Pasadena Junior College and during that undefeated season in 1938 he rushed for over 1,000 yards. Older sources say he scored 17 touchdowns, but newer research claims he had 18. Robinson also threw seven touchdown passes, kicked one field goal and converted many of his team’s touchdowns too. In all, he scored 131 of his team’s 369 points.

So, I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find evidence of a 104-yard touchdown run. Then again, Robinson was playing at a Junior College in an area of the United States with more universities than anywhere else. His games did get covered in many of the California newspapers I can find online, but there’s not always a lot of detail.

There’s likely more in a Pasadena paper hiding in a library somewhere, but I couldn’t find much from the 39-6 win over lowly Cal Tech on Wednesday night, November 23, 1938. There’s nothing about a 104-yard touchdown, and though I’ve seen stories and books putting the attendance anywhere from 18,000 to 30,000 that night, the newspapers I’ve found show only 3,500.

Both
United Press stories on the Cal Tech game from newspapers in Berkley and Bakersfield.

As I expanded my search, I found several references over the years saying that Jackie Robinson had run for “only” a 99-yard touchdown in the Cal Tech game. However, in the description I found for the 1939 Junior College Annual of Pasadena City College available online at Abebooks (you can buy it for US$540 if you choose!), there’s a very detailed account of the 1938 football season. Of the game in question, it says: “Jack Robinson and 16 other seniors rang down the curtain on their Pasadena football careers as they walloped cross town rival Cal Tech 39-6…. Robinson’s closing chapter was a 104-yard run to the touchdown, climaxing the greatest individual career in jaysee history.”

Beyond that, the next mention I could find of Robinson running for a 104-yard touchdown doesn’t appear until an April 12, 1977, story in the Los Angeles Times marking the upcoming 30th anniversary of Robinson’s Major League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“The season ended,” wrote Shav Glick of Robinson’s 1938 Pasadena football campaign, “with Cal Tech and another 30,000 in the Rose Bowl and Robinson’s final contribution was a 104-yard kickoff return.”

Shav Glick knew Robinson personally. They both attended Pasadena Junior College together. Glick first started reporting sports in Pasadena as a 14-year-old in 1935 and wrote his final column for the Los Angeles Times in January of 2006 at the age of 85. He was likely at the Cal Tech game, and may have been writing from memory, or from old newspaper stories he himself had written and saved. He may well have written that recap from 1939.

Sun
Brief coverage of the Cal Tech game in the San Bernadino County Sun.

Interviewed for a 1997 story in the New York Daily News, Glick said of Robinson’s football skills, “He was so spectacular. In a game against Cal Tech, Robinson returned a kickoff 104 yards and collapsed in the end zone.” Added Hank Ives, longtime publisher of JC Grid-Wire and the foremost authority on Junior College football: “He must have run 200-plus yards. He reversed his field twice, running back and forth.”

Ives was born in Southern California in 1926, so perhaps he was at the game that night too. And yet…

Many of the biographies of Jackie Robinson mention his 104-yard touchdown run. Most note that it was a kickoff return. But not all. In his 1997 biography of Jackie Robinson, Arnold Rampersad wrote of that 39-6 win over Cal Tech: “In the next game, his last as a Bulldog, Jack said farewell with a masterpiece. Setting up behind his own goal line in punt formation, he gathered in the hiked ball, then raced 104 yards for a touchdown against a muddle of disbelieving Cal Tech players.”

UCLA
Jackie Robinson wore #28 while playing football at UCLA.
(Photo courtesy of John Thorn, Official Historian of Major League Baseball.)

That seems rather incredible. Perhaps even foolhardy, although no doubt the Pasadena team felt they could crush Cal Tech even if this gamble turned over the ball so close to their own goal line. And there’s a little corroborating evidence too. Jules Tygiel made no mention of it in his 1983 book The Great Experiment, but wrote of Robinson’s touchdown prowess in Pasadena in an article for the Los Angeles Times in 2006, “the last [came on] a 104-yard dash on a fake punt.”

At this point, it seems impossible to know for sure, but I’m leaning towards the fake punt rather than a kickoff return. If anyone knows of a detailed, first-hand account of the game, I’d love to see it.

Leon’s Revenge!

I’ve written before about how Canadian Football runs deep in my family. I’d say the Argos, much more than the Maple Leafs, were my first favorite team. I saw my first Leafs game in December of 1970 when I was seven years old. They were only 3 1/2 years removed from their last Stanley Cup victory. I was 3 1/2 when that happened … and I have absolutely no memory of it. It’s ancient history to me. I saw my first Argos game a few months later, in the summer of 1971. They had not won the Grey Cup since 1952 and were coming off pretty close to two decades of misery. But I had no idea about that either. It was also ancient history.

In my first season of Argos fandom, the team went 10-4 and won the East Division … only to lose the Grey Cup to Calgary. Leon McQuay’s fumble wasn’t the only reason they lost that game, but perhaps the 109-yard fumble return for a touchdown that was the key to this year’s Argonauts victory over the Stampeders was Leon’s revenge!

Leon

I am certainly not the Argos fan that I once was. I worshiped Joe Theismann when I was young. I had his Quarterbacking book and tried to run the plays he diagramed with my brother David. It was tough to do with just the two of us! Jonathan was never much of a football fan, but he did have an inflatable Argos souvenir player we used to call Leon. We all played a little too rough with Leon, and the seams in his ankle gave way. My father would try to patch him for us, but our Leon always had a slow leak, which made him look kind of sad.

In my second season of Argos fandom in 1972, Joe Theismann broke his ankle. (It’s a much less famous injury than his career-ender with the Washington Redskins in 1985.) I broke my wrist around the same time. No, I was not trying to emulate my hero … but I did get to meet him at a game a week or two later. Theismann hobbled by my father and me on his crutches as the rest of the team was making its way to the field to start the game. I was too shy, but my father asked him to sign my cast.

“Well, kid,” said Theismann, “signing casts isn’t exactly my bag…” But he was smiling when he said it, and he did sign it for me. I kept it until it virtually crumbled into dust!

Parade
Toronto Star coverage of the 1983 Grey Cup Parade.

For a while after the Blue Jays came to town, we held on to our Argos season tickets, but like many in Toronto, our family’s football loyalty faded. I’ve always continued to follow the team, and we’ve often (though we didn’t this year) made it a point to at least attend any home playoff games. But really, my last great Argos enthusiasm dates back to 1983.

The year before, Toronto had hosted the 1982 Grey Cup. On either the Friday night or the Saturday before the game, my friends and I (all in first year at university at the time) headed downtown on the subway. Someone had told one of us there was a better chance of getting into the best parties if you were well dressed, so we were all in suits and ties … but I don’t recall us getting into any place special.

Win
The Argos celebrate after a thrilling 27-24 come-from-behind
victory over Calgary on a snowy evening in Ottawa.

The Argos lost to Edmonton that year (the last of five straight for that great dynasty), but the next year, Toronto returned to the Grey Cup and defeated the B.C. Lions in Vancouver. This was the first time in my memory that my hometown team had won a championship. Given how long it had taken the Argos since their last Grey Cup, how poor the Leafs had become, and how relatively little the Blue Jays had accomplished yet, I had no idea if I’d ever see one again! So, I did everything you’re supposed to do to celebrate. I went out to the airport to welcome the team home (there was a pretty big crowd there!) and I went to the championship parade. It was all a lot of fun, but I guess the excitement didn’t really last for me.

Rally
The weather was much nicer yesterday for the Grey Cup rally at City Hall in Toronto.

The Argos were founded in 1874, which makes them the oldest team in North American professional sports. It’s a shame to see how far out of favor Canadian football has fallen in the country’s largest city. I hope this year’s championship gives the team a real boost … but I know I’m not the only one who has his doubts about that.

Little Jeff

Last week, I caught some of The Prizefighter and the Lady on Turner Classic Movies. It stars Max Baer, who was a top heavyweight contender at the time, in his first movie role as the Prizefighter, and Myrna Loy as the Lady. It was made in 1933 and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Original Story. Generally speaking, it still gets good reviews. Admittedly, I didn’t see that much of it, but from what I did see, it seemed much more interesting now as a piece of history than it did as a movie.

I won’t go into the plot, but it builds towards a big fight scene at the end where Baer’s character (Steve Morgan) fights the real heavyweight champion of the time, Primo Carnera. (In real life, Baer would beat Carnera for the title a year later.) In the film, the fight is promoted and also refereed by Jack Dempsey playing himself, and before the bout begins Dempsey is joined in the ring by other legendary heavyweight champions of the past, Jess Willard and James J. “Jim” Jeffries. I recognized Jeffries right away from his strong resemblance to hockey legend Cyclone Taylor!

Movie
Movie poster plus the hand and footprints of William Powell and Myrna Loy at the
Chinese Theater in Hollywood. W.S. Van Dyke, who directed The Prizefighter and the Lady, would later direct Powell and Loy in the first of “The Thin Man” movies.

I first learned of Cyclone Taylor’s resemblance to Jim Jeffries in Eric Whitehead’s 1977 biography Cyclone Taylor: A Hockey Legend. (Reading that book, and then Whitehead’s biography of Frank and Lester Patrick, inspired me to write my first book, the historical fiction novel Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada.) Whitehead writes of hockey fans in New York City taking to Taylor because of his skill and because of his resemblance to the former heavyweight champ. He says they called him “Little Jeff.”

While I couldn’t find any newspaper references to that specifically, Jeffries was actually in New York at the same time as Taylor and the Ottawa Senators were there to face Art Ross and the Montreal Wanderers in a postseason series in March of 1909. Jeffries was very much in the news, with fight promoters offering him huge money for the time – $50,000 and up – to come out of retirement to fight Jack Johnson. (Jeffries would be the first “Great White Hope” to fight the controversial Black heavyweight champion when he lost to him on July 4, 1910.)

The clipping below doesn’t use the nickname “Little Jeff” but does come pretty close to confirming Whitehead’s account by referring to Cyclone as “Jeffries” Taylor…

TribArticle in The New York Daily Tribune on March 18, 1910, when Taylor
returned to New York as a member of the Renfrew Millionaires.

And while you wouldn’t exactly confuse one for the other (especially considering that Jeffries was about 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds in his prime while Taylor was 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds), there definitely is a resemblance…

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Three Stars in Three Months

Over a three-month period 90 years ago, during the fall of 1926, three of the greatest sports stars of the Roaring Twenties made appearances in Toronto. A time-machine type of moment for someone like me, and yet – given the historical significance of these performers – they don’t appear to have attracted the size of crowds they should have.

First up was Babe Ruth, who appeared on a Friday afternoon, September 10, 1926, for an exhibition game between the New York Yankees and the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball team. The Yankees featured most of their star players, including Tony Lazzeri, Mark Koening and Bob Meusel, although Ruth played first base in this game and when Lou Gehrig came in late it was as the right fielder.

Ruth
Photograph from the Toronto Star, box score from the Globe, September 11, 1926.

The Leafs, behind soon-to-be New York Giants star Carl Hubbell, led 2-1 for most of the game before the Yankees scored four in the eighth and three in the ninth for an 8-2 victory. The whole game was played in just an hour-and-a-half! Only about 6,000 fans showed up at Maple Leaf Stadium, and by most accounts, it wasn’t much of a game. The crowd had come to see Ruth hit home runs, but he managed only two singles. Still, he was swarmed on the field by about 100 young boys the moment the game ended.

A month later, on October 12, 1926, tennis star Suzanne Lenglen of France was in Toronto. Lenglen was the Serena Williams of her day. Not only was she the world’s most dominant female tennis player, she helped to change tennis fashions and was a hard-nosed businesswoman. In an era when tennis was strictly amateur, she was the first to become a professional. In fact, that’s what brought her to Toronto. It was her second stop on a pro exhibition tour across North America that had begun at Madison Square Garden in New York two nights before.

Lenglen’s star power had made tennis a popular spectator sport, and while I couldn’t find a specific attendance figure for her exhibition at Toronto’s Arena Gardens, stories note it was a large and particularly well-dressed crowd. Lenglen defeated American Mary Browne 6-0, 6-2 in a singles match, but she and her French partner Paul Feret were defeated by Browne and fellow Californian Harvey Snodgrass in mixed doubles.

Lenglen
Photo from the Toronto Star, October 13, 1926. Lenglen is wearing the head scarf.

Of particular note throughout her tour was the question of why Lenglen had turned pro – a widely criticized decision that saw the All-England Club at Wimbeldon (where she had won six championships in a seven-year span) revoke her honorary membership. Lenglen was up front about it, saying she did it for the money. She estimated that she’d made millions of francs for others while spending thousands of her own on entrance fees.

“I have worked as hard at my career as any man or woman has worked at any career. And in my whole lifetime I have not earned $5,000 – not one cent of that by my specialty, my life study – tennis…. I am twenty-seven and not wealthy – should I embark on any other career and leave the one for which I have what people call genius? Or should I smile at the prospect of actual poverty and continue to earn a fortune – for whom?

“Under these absurd and antiquated amateur rulings, only a wealthy person can compete, and the fact of the matter is that only wealthy people do compete. Is that fair? Does it advance the sport? Does it make tennis more popular – or does it tend to suppress and hinder an enormous amount of tennis talent lying dormant in the bodies of young men and women whose names are not in the social register?”

Another professional pioneer was in Toronto the next month, on November 8, 1926, when Red Grange was in town to play football. Grange had been a star at the University of Illinois at a time when college football ruled the sport and the fledgling National Football League was barely an afterthought. Grange – known as “The Galloping Ghost” – changed all that with his decision to sign with the Chicago Bears in 1925. He drew huge crowds to NFL games that season, and as a barnstormer afterward, but when he got into a dispute with Bears owner George Halas, Grange and his agent C.C. Pyle (who also represented Suzanne Lenglen!) formed their own team and their own league the following year.

Grange
Red Grange on the left, an action shot of the game on the right.
From the Toronto Star, November 9, 1926.

Grange was playing with the New York Yankees of the American Football League when he came to Toronto for a league game against the Los Angeles Wildcats at Maple Leaf Stadium. Unlike the huge crowds he attracted in the United States, there were only about 10,000 to 12,000 fans at this game. After a scoreless first half, Grange scored on a 70-yard touchdown run and the Yankees went on to a 28-0 victory.

Legendary Toronto sportswriters W.A. Hewitt (father of Foster), Lou Marsh and Mike Rodden all covered the game. Given today’s NFL-envy among so many Toronto football fans, it’s interesting to note that these writers believed the Toronto crowd was unimpressed with the American rules. Too much passing; not enough running; and not enough kicking. (The game was called football, after all!) And where were the single points? Why didn’t the American players have to run back punts? Why wasn’t the ball turned over when the punting team downed it? Forward passing was not yet allowed in Canadian football, and the fans also wondered why it wasn’t a fumble when an incomplete pass hit the ground.

All in all, the Canadian fans (or, at least, the sportswriters) felt there were just too many rules in American football. And for his part, Grange – who attended a game between Balmy Beach and the Hamilton Tigers at Varsity Stadium earlier in the day – liked all the punting and the running … but he thought the Canadian game was too rough!

Olympic Memories

I wasn’t that excited this year before the Olympics started. Probably all the negative reports about conditions in Rio. I don’t know. But then, once it got going, there I was, tuning in every night. I’m sure the strong Canadian performance had a lot to do with it. Penny Oleksiak and the rest of the swimmers; Andre De Grasse and the Canadian track team. But it wasn’t just the Canadians. Watching the young Brazilian duel with the French champion in men’s pole vault was amazingly exciting. Who knew?

Shatto MunichMy earliest Olympic memories are from Munich in 1972. I was still only eight years old; a little under two months away from my ninth birthday. I can’t really remember how much I saw. I was certainly aware of the hostage-taking and eventual murder of the Israeli athletes. And I knew Mark Spitz won seven gold medals. Pretty sure I saw at least one of his races. Probably on Channel 7, ABC from Buffalo, with Jim McKay hosting.

The Munich Games ran from August 26 to September 11, 1972. My grandfather died that August 26. Team Canada and the Soviets played all four Canadian games of the Summit Series between September 2 and September 8. All three of those incidents seem so separate and distinct to me. Funny how our memories work.

Shatto McNaughtonI used to have an infallible memory. Never forgot a thing! Not so any longer now that I’m on the other side of 50. I’m still pretty good, but there’s just way too much, “You know… That guy… With the thing… We saw him in that movie the other night…” (Strange thing is, when I heard that a Canadian won a gold medal in the high jump at Rio, I knew right away that the last Canadian to win it was Duncan McNaughton in 1932, but without looking it up, I honestly can’t tell you the name of this year’s guy!)

It’s funny what I remember about the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Yes, I know Nadia Comaneci was the star with those perfect 10s in gymnastics, but I’m not sure I ever saw her perform. Pretty sure I did see Greg Joy win silver in the high jump, but I may be mixing that up with how many times I’ve seen it since! Then again, I have very distinct memories of U.S. gold medalist Dwight Stones, so I must have been watching. I also remember Lasse Viren winning double gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters (which he had done previously in Munich). But what I remember best from Montreal in 1976 is Cindy Shatto in platform diving.

Shatto Head ShotI’m not sure why. It may be because she was the daughter of Toronto Argos legend Dick Shatto … but he had retired long before I started watching football. It could be because she was 19 and pretty and I was a 12-year-old boy. (Legendary Vancouver sportswriter Jim Taylor once wrote, “the Canadian diving championships caper was a bonanza for girl-watchers because when Cindy Shatto walked by, you had to book space to fall into the pool.”)

Shatto finished fifth and out of the medals in platform diving at Montreal in 1976. Our whole family was watching (or at least, my dad and I were) and I remember fans booing the judges as she fell out of second place in the second half of the competition. I expected to see a lot more about that when I looked up the stories from that night. The Gazette in Montreal said nothing about the controversy, quoting Shatto as saying: “I feel all right. Just about what I expected.”

Fifth
Montreal Gazette, July 26, 1976.

The Globe and Mail in Toronto had even less to say about it. It was almost enough to make me doubt my memories, but the Toronto Star told it the way I recall. “Shatto had been second at the half-way mark of the eight-dive contest,” wrote Len Coates, “but slipped back on some questionable decisions by judges, who were loudly booed by a crowd estimated at 5,000.

Some of it was good, some was terrible,” said Shatto of the judging. “Some dives I saw got way more than they deserved and some got way less… [but] fifth in the world isn’t too bad. I can’t complain.

Diving

Shatto was more open about her feelings in Paul Patton’s Where Are They Now Column in the Globe and Mail in 1987. Back in 1976, countries with divers in the finals also were allowed to have judges handling the scoring. “There was a lot of controversy about that and they changed the rules after,” Shatto said. “It was won by a Soviet but they say I should have gotten a bronze or a silver. Finishing fifth was a disappointment. I had worked so hard for the Olympics. I was peaking at the right time. This meant everything to me and I had put my whole life into diving.

I didn’t know it until I was writing this story, but Cindy Shatto died of lung cancer back in 2011. She was only 54.