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Dec-18-2012 19:49printcomments

So Let's Talk Football: The Great Grey Cup Game of 1959

“Give me a “W”!” shouted the cheerleader. “W!” we all responded. “Give me an “I”!” “I”! But there the cheerleading foundered. The guy, well-intentioned, wasn't from, nor could he spell “Winnipeg.”

Image from the 1959 Grey Cup
Image from the 1959 Grey Cup that featured the Hamilton Tiger-Cats versus the Bombers. Courtesy: The Globe and Mail

(DAYTONA BEACH, FL) - "Hockey captures the essence of Canadian experience in the New World. In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold, hockey is the chance of life, and an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive." - Stephen Leacock

The Grey Cup is as Canadian as Stephen Harper's Apology; it's as stirring as the Mounties' Musical Ride. It's pure bitter-sweet Canadiana, like Winnipeg's chill factor or Ontario's maple syrup. Our game, showcased by The Grey Cup, transmogrified somehow out of English rugby (rugger) and resisted the contraction of our American cousins' version from 110 to 100 yards, from 12 men to 11, even retaining the anachronistic drop-kick; it allows a single point for a kick into the end zone, because one-upping Americans is our national pastime – verily, our single point.

Because she was a liberated woman decades before her time, my sainted Mother introduced me to Canadian “rugby” football and the Grey Cup before I was big enough to reach the dials of our upright stand-alone radio. Here's the scene as I remember it:

It must have been before the War sometime. Don't quote me. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (under-dogs, because Western) are taking on the Toronto Argonauts (bad guys from the dominant East). On offense, the Bombers only have two plays. Ten guys are stacked on the line, two are in the backfield: Fritzie Hansen and Wayne Sheley. I suppose Hansen is quarterback, Sheley fullback, but it doesn't really matter. Either Fritzie takes the snap and hands off to Sheley, who runs, or in a surprise move, Sheley takes the snap and passes to Hansen, who runs. That's it. Forward pass? Statue of Liberty or Hail Mary? Fake or double reverse? Forget about it.

Oh, yeah, something else. Fritzie weighs about 145; Wayne's at least 160 soaking wet. They run all over the Argos all afternoon, to the consternation of the Eastern-biased CBC announcer, Wes McKnight. I remember the name because I hated him.


Flash forward to 1959. The game has evolved, Americanized, padded itself. The guys, particularly the linemen, are beefier, they waddle, they grunt as they drop into defensive crouch. They now wear helmets and jockstraps. Most coaches are imports. Players also, NFL cuts for the most part, content with a pay scale about one tenth of the Packers or the Rams.

Bud Grant, an exiled Minnesotan, coaches the Bombers. (He will later, finally, after winning the Grey Cup four times, rise in stature and a huge pay increase to accept the coach-ship of the Minnesota Vikings and proceed to take them to the Super Bowl.)

The 1959 Grey Cup was in Toronto (natch) between the Bombers and the Hamilton Tiger Cats. (Boo.) The Grey Cup has become a week-long festival, Canadian style. Originally a muddy little contest in Varsity Stadium, it now fills the Canadian National Exhibition bowl, not to mention the lobby of the grand old Royal York Hotel the night before. That's not all.

Ever since 1948, when a train load of hooligans from Calgary, boisterously cheering on their Stampeders, the western champions, forever changed the Game Week. From a staid, almost English “try,” reminiscent of tea-and-cricket, and attended by a few friends and family and sportswriters biding their time until Stephen Leacock's hockey season, over night this anally-retentive Canadian exercise became a riot.

After three thousand miles of non-stop partying on the train, like Jackie Gleason's famous invasion of Hollywood (“It's the only way to travel”), the unsteady white-Stetsoned Westerners occupied lower Toronto, cooking flapjacks at the corner of King and Yonge, chanting and singing pep-rally anthems, and trashing the lobby of the Royal York, Toronto's grand hotel – ever thereafter the focal point the Friday night before the game – battened down like a war zone, a veritable wartime London, management annually removing all the furniture, paintings, drapery and anything else worth preserving.

Living in Toronto at the time, my neighbor Don Campbell and I decided to go, to take our wives to The Game, as a ritual that every Canadian should observe once in a lifetime, like skiing at Banff or hanging over the Niagara Escarpment. Don was one of The Curling Campbells, the four Saskatchewan farm boys who in those years famously and routinely won the Canadian Brier Tournament. For American readers, curling is a game that had its roots in Scotland, like golf. Only on ice. With funny looking brooms and granite rocks. “Wi' besom an' stane.” You wouldn't be interested. Forget about it.

Prepping ourselves with a malted elixir that also had its roots in Scotland, Don and I braved the Royal York Hotel the night before the game, with the objective of getting tickets to the Grey Cup Game.

The scene before us when we broached the great brass and mahogany doors of the Royal York was about like Omaha Beach without the landing craft. I should have mentioned that tickets that year (1959) had carried an issue price of $10, a princely sum at the time. By that Friday night before the game, they had skyrocketed, as the financial writers say. A pair, rumor had it, had crossed on the floor of the Montreal Stock Exchange for 80 bucks apiece. (I know, I know. Super Bowl tickets these days make what I'm talking about sound like penny ante, like child's play. But this was 1959, when the world was young, when you could buy a new Ford or Chev for a couple of thousand bucks, a week's groceries for that ticket's issue price.)

After getting our bearings, Don said, behind his hand: “You stay here. I'm going up to Johnny Esaw's smoke-filled room. If anybody knows where we can get tickets, it'll be Johnny.”

Johnny Esaw was the doyen of Western sports announcers, based in Regina. Naturally, he knew Don. Don and his brothers were like The Four Horsemen of that apocalyptic Province.

I allowed myself to be buffeted around by the surging mob for a while. Then I spotted Big John Bright, a talented fullback with the Edmonton Eskimos. Earlier, living in Edmonton, he and I had shared the same barber shop and endless platitudes. I button-holed him on the subject of tickets.

Johnny snorted. “You're kidding, right? I couldn't even get one for Normie. He decided to stay home.” Normie Kwong, also a figurative Eskimo, together with Johnny Bright made up an unstoppable twin-fullback ground game, a one-two punch in those volatile years. After his glory years, Normie faded into relative obscurity – first as a stock broker with my cousin's shop, and then by default, Lieutenant Governor of Alberta.

Don Campbell was back in about half an hour, somehow finding me in the jostling crowd, just as I was about to go down for the third time. “Any luck?” I hollered over the mob scene.

He grinned and patted a breast pocket. “How does forty apiece sound to you?”

I nodded incredulously. "Fabs," I choked.

“Good, because I scored four tickets @ $40.” He shot me a Steve McQueen grin and we made for the exit.

The seats were excellent; right on the 50-yard line. Check that - 55-yard line, actually, since this is Canada, with its 110-yard field. And the game was wonderful. The Bombers clobbered the Ti-Cats. Ours was a solid Winnipeg section, and a self-appointed cheer leader fronted the group, staggering from the effects, obviously, of the cup that cheers.

“Give me a “W”!” shouted the cheerleader. “W!” we all responded. “Give me an “I”!” “I”! But there the cheerleading foundered. The guy, well-intentioned, wasn't from, nor could he spell “Winnipeg.” We didn't care.

I forgot to mention that before all this happened, a strange thing had taken place as the four of us entered the main gate at Toronto's CNE Stadium. There were scalpers all over the place, but unlike what you would usually expect of scalpers, these guys were offering tickets, ridiculously, at two or three dollars apiece. It might have been a Mad Tea Party or a Santa Claus reception.

I came to understand why the next day at the office, when a friend of mine, Frank Poutney, a stock broker from Regina, dropped in to say hello and good-bye.

“I've been to every Grey Cup Game since the War,” said Frank. “I've never bought a ticket in advance, I just show up at the damn Game. At the gate, I've never paid more than two bucks, sometimes I get them for nothing.

“The point is, the night before the Game, the market spikes and the party rages. But the following morning, most of the party-goers are sick, or hung over, or in some cases still partying, or all three, and totally unenthusiastic about anything remotely connected with football. Or any other physical activity, for that matter. So those guys at the gate aren't scalpers – they're social workers. Or bottom feeders.

“See you next year.”

I've never taken Frank's advice, and I've never bothered going to another Grey Cup Game since. I've done the obligatory, as Stephen Leacock said, like seeing the Tower of London when you're in Blighty.

But I still think it was a great game. Easily worth 80 bucks.

______________________________________________________
Bill Annett grew up a writing brat; his father, Ross Annett, at a time when Scott Fitzgerald and P.G. Wodehouse were regular contributors, wrote the longest series of short stories in the Saturday Evening Post's history, with the sole exception of the unsinkable Tugboat Annie.

At 18, Bill's first short story was included in the anthology “Canadian Short Stories.” Alarmed, his father enrolled Bill in law school in Manitoba to ensure his going straight. For a time, it worked, although Bill did an arabesque into an English major, followed, logically, by corporation finance, investment banking and business administration at NYU and the Wharton School. He added G.I. education in the Army's CID at Fort Dix, New Jersey during the Korean altercation.

He also contributed to The American Banker and Venture in New York, INC. in Boston, the International Mining Journal in London, Hong Kong Business, Financial Times and Financial Post in Toronto.

Bill has written six books, including a page-turner on mutual funds, a send-up on the securities industry, three corporate histories and a novel, the latter no doubt inspired by his current occupation in Daytona Beach as a law-abiding beach comber.

You can write to Bill Annett at this address: bilko23@gmail.com




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Bill Annett December 19, 2012 2:41 pm (Pacific time)

My apologies for a glaring error in the first paragraph. Of course, there are four downs in American pro and college ball, as compared with three in Canadian football, the reverse of what is stated. No particular significance, except perhaps it shows that Canadians can get along on less.

Editor: Now corrected, thanks!


Daniel Johnson December 19, 2012 12:22 pm (Pacific time)

Coincidentally, the 1959 game was the only Grey up I've ever watched. I was at the house of a girl I was trying to date, so I was a sort of captive audience. For some strange reason, of all the memories in my life that have been forgotten, this is one that is still crystal clear. And btw, I never got anywhere with the girl.

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