SPORTS WATCH

Forty-two Kentucky Derbys and counting

‘Eighty-eight is a little old for this line of work,’ allows Milt Dunnell, who at just 87 is still producing three columns a week

TRENT FRAYNE May 10 1993
SPORTS WATCH

Forty-two Kentucky Derbys and counting

‘Eighty-eight is a little old for this line of work,’ allows Milt Dunnell, who at just 87 is still producing three columns a week

TRENT FRAYNE May 10 1993

Forty-two Kentucky Derbys and counting

SPORTS WATCH

TRENT FRAYNE

When Milt Dunnell first became a sports editor on a daily newspaper, Joe DiMaggio had not yet joined the New York Yankees, the Stanley Cup champions were the Montreal Maroons (yes, the Montreal Maroons) and the National Hockey League’s most valuable player was Eddie Shore. And now, 58 years and a few million words later, Milt has decided at age 87 that he has been an ink-stained wretch long enough. “This is definitely it,” Milt said the other day, watching the Blue Jays from the press box at the SkyDome. “I’m not sure just when, but it will be before I hit 88. Eighty-eight is a little old for this line of work.” Whereupon he was off to Louisville to cover his 42nd consecutive Kentucky Derby last weekend.

Practically nobody knew it was Dunnell’s 42nd consecutive Derby. As far as is known, 42 is a record for what he would likely describe as a working stiff. There is not a drop of self-importance in him. Being as active as he is at 87, Milt is surely the most remarkable working columnist in the country, perhaps in North America, maybe the world.

Still, a crowbar helps if somebody wants to know where he’s been and what he’s seen. He was there in Zaire when Muhammad Ali took the heavyweight championship from George Foreman with his “rope-a-dope” tactic in 1974, and a year later he was there in the Philippines when Ali beat Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila,” one of the all-time great fights. And he was there in Churchill Downs the fabled afternoon in 1964 when Canadianbred Northern Dancer won the world’s most ballyhooed contest for quadrupeds.

But Dunnell is a quiet, calm, pleasant man who seldom drops a name. He rarely writes about the past in The Toronto Star column that he began in 1949. He figures that only the present intrigues readers, so it is the present he writes about. Here is a guy who actually saw and talked to Howie Morenz, the legendary centre for the Montreal Canadiens of the

‘Eighty-eight is a little old for this line of work,’ allows Milt Dunnell, who at just 87 is still producing three columns a week

1920s, but the only way to find that out is to ask if he’d ever seen Morenz. Howie became a part of the national folklore, a symbol of a time when ice heroes were a rough-hewn and usually hard-drinking bunch, fiercely loyal to their teams. To the millworkers, tram drivers and off-duty cabbies who jammed one end of the Forum in Montreal and called themselves, with magnificent irony, the Millionaires, Morenz was a superhuman figure.

Morenz and Dunnell were born three years apart in the western Ontario towns of Mitchell and St. Mary’s, respectively, both near Stratford where Morenz played junior hockey. Morenz became known as the Stratford Streak; in 1935, Dunnell became the sports editor of the Stratford Beacon Herald. “I often went over from St. Mary’s to watch him play junior,” Milt remembers. “He skated with tremendous power. He had legs on him like a linebacker’s. In later years Clancy told me many times that Morenz was the best he ever saw.”

Clancy was King Clancy, a good friend of Dunnell’s after Milt became Star sports editor and Clancy went into Maple Leaf Gardens as vice-president of anything Harold Ballard could think of for him to do. Milt became a

close friend of Ballard’s, too. Nonetheless, in spite of hoarding so much lore, the idea of setting down his memoirs is anathema to Milt These days, he writes three columns a week, almost always topical, never using the first person singular and not often critical of people or events. Typically, he writes interviews, seeking out authorities and giving them their say. Over the years, he has built scores of contacts and even now he goes to the Star office on off days to phone people and ask what they’re up to. If he casually encounters a coach or a public relations guy or a team owner, he’ll say, “Hi, what’s new?” It’s not a rhetorical question; he really wants to know.

The tall figures of sports are always glad to see him. Partly, of course, this is because he writes a column in Canada’s largest circulation newspaper, but it’s also because he’s a cordial, well-informed man—good company. Among his admirers is John Bassett, former publisher of the Star’s old rival, the Telegram, and at various times an owner of the Argonauts football club and the Maple Leaf hockey team. It wasn’t unusual for Bassett to phone Dunnell with news that scooped his own Tely sports department. Once, I asked Bassett why. “Well, why wouldn’t I?” he replied tartly. “He had great integrity and he was a great pal of mine. If I had a story today, I’d call Milt.”

On at least three occasions Dunnell has tried to retire, but the former Star publisher and current chairman, Beland Honderich, won’t let him. On the first occasion, some 30 years ago, Bassett called from the Telegram and offered Milt more money than he was earning at the Star and a holiday to Bermuda. Heading off for a world championship fight between Ingemar Johannson and Floyd Patterson in New York City, Milt decided to accept and dropped a note to the Star’s managing editor, advising him.

In New York, he got a wire from Honderich saying he was joining him there. When the publisher arrived, he told Milt he hadn’t known he was unhappy. “I’m not,” Dunnell protested. “It’s just that there’s considerably more money.”

‘Well, I’m telling you right now,” Honderich said. “You’re not going to the Telegram!” And he matched the offer.

When Milt turned 65, he resigned as sports editor and columnist. Honderich arranged an elegant dinner attended by E. P. Taylor, NHL president Clarence Campbell and Maple Leaf owner Conn Smythe, among other sports icons. When it ended, Honderich said to Milt, “See you in the morning.”

“No, not me,” said puzzled Dunnell. “I’ve retired, remember?.”

“That’s as sports editor. Now you’ll just have your column.” And he gave Milt the same money he’d been making in the two jobs.

Five years ago, all of 82, Milt tried again but Honderich still wouldn’t hear of it. “Look, you can’t quit, it wouldn’t be good for you,” admonished Honderich.

“But I’m tired of writing five a week. It’s tough,” protested Dunnell.

“So write three,” replied the boss. “Same money as five.”