Eight league titles and two allCanadian championships in nine years!—They take their football seriously in Sarnia
LAST FALL as we sat in Varsity Stadium and watched the Sarnia Imperials battle Toronto Argos in the Eastern football final, a man who follows football closely asked: “What's the secret of Sarnia’s football success, anyway? They’ve only been playing senior football for nine years and look at their record. They’ve won the Senior O.R.F.U. title eight times. They’ve won the Dominion Championship twice and been in the finals three times. There isn’t another team in the country with a record to compare with it. What have they got in that little town that other cities haven’t got?”
A fan in the row directly ahead of us turned around with a smirk on his face. “What have they got?” he repeated cynically. “I’ll tell you what they’ve got; they’ve got the Imperial Oil Company.”
What this “wisey” was implying, of course, is that the Sarnia team is a professional outfit so generously subsidized by the Imperial Oil Company that it can go out and buy the players it needs to win championships. And it’s surprising how many fans have the same impression, though it’s wrong in every respect.
The team is not subsidized by Imperial Oil, Limited, it has never been in the market for frxitball players, and there is probably no other team in the country that runs its affairs along more strictly amateur lines.
Some star players from another Canadian senior football club learned this personally when they appeared at the Imperial Oil Company’s offices in Sarnia a couple of years ago. “We heard you were in the market for football players,” they told one of the football club’s officials; “that anybody who could play football could get a job here. Well, we’re looking for jobs. How about it?”
The official knew them and sent them around to the employment office. There they were asked a routine set of questions, and it was found that none of them qualified for any particular available position in the plant. They did not get jobs and they went back to their previous abode and lined up with their team again, though Sarnia could certainly have used them on the fcxitball field. othat sound like a club that deliberately sets out to buy players?
No, the secret of Sarnia’s amazing football success is not the superficial story of sham-amateurism and bought players; it goes much deeper than that and has a far sweeter flavor. It begins away back some forty-odd years ago when Petrolia, seventeen miles away, was an important producer of crude oil. Petrolia was a txxim town then, and the oil drillers organized the first football team ever assembled in that part of the country. They called themselves the Hard Oilers.
There was a small oil-refining plant at Sarnia at the time, so there was considerable traffic between the two towns. It was inevitable that Petrolia’s football enthusiasm should spread to Sarnia. But football was a “natural” in Sarnia right from the start; practically everybody who was old enough to walk and wasn’t a cripple turned out for the teams. It was love at first sight, and it has grown rather than diminished with the years.
Take a man like Ace Van Alstyne. for instance. Ace quit playing football in 1919, after Sarnia went through to the O.R.F.U. Intermediate Championship. He is now a staid businessman, but he has never lost his love for the game. Ace dropped around to Athletic Park one Friday night several years ago, to watch the team go through its paces preparatory to the big game next day with. I think, Balmy Beach. The coach was worried because the weather forecast for Saturday said rain, and the team was not yet equipped with mud cleats.
Ace shared the coach’s trepidation and he decided to do something about it. On Saturday morning he was up before the sun, racing toward the University of Western Ontario in Dmdon. When he arrived in London, the weather conditions were just as he had hoped; the sun was shining
and the sky was the same clear color as the famed blue water in his own River St. Clair. Western had a home game that day, but, assured of a dry field, they did not hesitate to lend the cleats.
The game at Sarnia that afternoon was played in a steady drizzle, but it was the visiting team that was handicapped by the slippery going. Equipped with the borrowed cleats, the Sarnia ball carriers tore past the tacklers, who slithered and slid helplessly in the mud like figures in a slapstick comedy.
So when you play against a Sarnia team, you aren’t just up against another football squad. You take on 18,000 inhabitants who have been nurturing and developing a love of the game for over forty years.
A Town Full of Teams
SARNIA is represented by more football teams than any other town in Canada for its size. Besides its senior team, it has teams in the Intermediate and Junior O.R.F.U. The Sarnia Collegiate has a team in the Western Ontario Secondary Schools Association. And on top of all this, the town operates a Public oLeague and a City League. What’s more, all these teams have the benefit of expert coaching from veteran players or present-day stars.
All these youngsters are pointing for the senior team. Sarnia idolizes its football heroes, and the kids have the incentive to get to the top from their earliest start in public school. A competitive spirit is deliberately cultivated in them. For years there was a rule at the Sarnia Collegiate that school letters would not be awarded to the members
of a team that had dropped as much as a single game to Petrolia in a season.
Under this system. Sarnia has no need to im|x>rt players. In fact, they have them for export. Gord Paterson, Roy Brown, Lyle McKay and Ted Kennedy are a few of the develo|x?d players who wore the colors of Western University. Jim Paterson and Nig Lebel were star halfbacks witli Toronto Varsity. Howie Carter helped Queen’s to several intercollegiate titles with his kicking. And Bruce Sjiears. Ted Newton and Eddie Hanna were standouts witli McGill.
Though the senior team gets most of the attention, there is always someone who makes it his business to see that the others aren’t neglected. Whoever happens to lie their coach can always walk downtown, drop in on the merchants and professional men and say: “Listen, Joe, the juniors are a little hard up this year. How about a buck or two?” And the answer is always, “Okay,” followed by the ring of tile cash register.
Sarnia first llegan to loom up as a power in football about the time that Petrolia started to recede as an oil producer. Sarnia's growing importance as an oil-refining centre attracted many people from Petrolia, football players among them, and soon Sarnia was fielding teams of championship calibre. These were the days of Had Karn, Milt I^issenberry, Polly Parrott. Orv Johnson, Stan Manore, Chick Garvey, Gordon Cole. Bill Perry, Mike Fitzgibbon, I foward Sinclair and Poke McGibbon, to name only a few. Petrolia’s contribution to these teams was such fine players as Red Wilson, Frank Pollard, Sam Stokes, Ace Van Alstyne and Dave Harding. Continued on page 45
Continue:1 from page 19
They were great intermediate teams, and Petrolia, London. St. Thomas. Kitchener. Dundas and Hamilton went down before them. Old-timers around Sarnia claim they were just as good as their senior teams that went through to Dominion titles, only they didn’t get the publicity, because they didn’t have senior rating and so didn’t attract the same kind of attention.
The great Norm Perry played on some of those intermediate aggregations, and he was better then, to hear the old-timers tell it. than he was years later when he was streaking through the best tacklers in the country in All-Eastern and All-Canadian finals. Perry was a wizard on that day in 1934 when Sarnia whipped Regina to win its first national title; a back who rode the waves of tacklers with the indestructible buoyancy of a cork in a stormy sea. When it was all over, an aged Sarnia supporter asked a Toronto football reporter what he thought of the game.
“Now that you ask me.’’ the reporter answered, “I’ll tell you I never saw a better exhibition of open-field running than Perry turned on out there.’’
“Huh,” snorted the old-timer, “he’s slowed down almost to a walk. He’s ready for the barn any day now. But. say, you should have seen him ten years ago when he was really good.”
Jobs Come First
THE SLANT that Sarnians have on their teams is that they were always good, but it took the rest of the country a long time to find it out. The presence of two or three American-born players in their line-up in recent years -players who have been tagged as “imports”—they explain away in most reasonable fashion. Sarnia is a border town, just across the river from Port Huron and not far from Detroit, and the Port Huron and Detroit papers all carry columns of Canadian news.
Back in 1931. when Warren Stevens first came up to Canada and set the country on fire with his forward passing, it was feature news for the Port Huron and Detroit papers. So it was quite natural that a chap like Rocky Parsaca. then in his final year at the University of Detroit, should think while reading of Stevens’ success that he, too, would like to try Canada. But Rocky sought the job; it did not go after him.
When a town has a championship team, it attracts lads from near and far who like to play football, which is how Hugh “Bummer” Stirling got to Sarnia from St. Thomas. But it happened that there was a job open which he was qualified to fill. Incidentally, the name Bummer in no way describes Stirling. The fellows who work beside him say he’s the same horse for work in the office that he is on the field. Even as a small boy he was a remarkable punter, and whenever the ball came his way his companions would yell: ‘‘Bump
her. Hugh, bump her!” His original nickname was Bumper, which somehow degenerated into Bummer.
This is not to say that football players have never been able to get jobs in Sarnia. But they got them primarily because they were equipped to fill them and not because they could play football.
There’s the case of Gil Putnam, the old Balmy Beach player. He wanted to locate in Sarnia, and he wasted some time in the beginning, trying to contact officers of the Imperial Oil Company in Toronto and capitalize on his football ability. Then he got smart. He packed up and went to Sarnia. For days he stood outside the employment gate with the rest of the applicants, waiting to take anything that offered. One day he got a job. After that, he turned out for football. He made a place on the team and people began to take an interest in him. When it was discovered that he had gone to Michigan
Tech, he was given a chance in a position where his technical training was useful to him. He got where he wanted to get by taking the right route.
However, the fact that Gil played a sweet game of football did not stop the company from promoting and transferring him from Sarnia a few years later to a position where his technical knowledge was needed, thus depriving the team of a player with many good years of rugby ahead of him. The same thing happened to Bruce Spears, who was promoted to Toronto at the height of his rugby career.
The Imperial Oil Company had no definite connection with football until the formation of the Imperial Employees’ Athletic and Social Association some ten years ago. This organization fosters football. hockey, basketball, tennis and softball. and has a social side as well. Some 1.200 employees of the company in Sarnia belong to the Association and pay annual dues of $2. As most of the Sarnia football players were employees of the company, the team came under the wing of the Association and took the name Sarnia Imperials.
The Imperials receive only a portion of these annual fees, in return for which they give members of the Athletic Association tickets for two home games. You would hardly call this a subsidy. A strict accounting is kept of the team’s finances, and balances are carried over from year to year. There is no divvying up of the spoils at the end of the season, as is said to be the custom with some teams.
The Imperials have kept out of the red thus far, but they have to get into the playoffs each year to do it; it’s those extra gates that pull them through. The closest they ever came to bankruptcy was in 1935. a year when the casualty list was unusually high. George Clarke had a kidney ruptured in a game in Toronto, was hospitalized for months, and finally had to have the kidney removed altogether. The cost of this sad bit of business added up to $2.000, which the club was glad to pay though it did spoil the look of the ledger.
THE GAME they still talk about in Sarnia as standing out above all others was the Dominion Final in 1933 between the Imperials and the Toronto Argos. The Imperials lost this game 4-3, which indicates that the opinions of Sarnia fans are not only bulwarked by knowledge of the game but by broad-minded points of view.
This game was played in a blinding snowstorm, with the mercury in the thermometer hovering around the ten-degree mark. Some of the players had their ears, fingers and toes nipped, hut they played sensational and practically errorless football. Tremendous punts and flashing runs transferred the play from one end of the field to the other with a speed more like hockey than football, and it was anybody’s game until the final whistle blew. But it was such a flawless exhibition that there were no team penalties and only one personal penalty, the latter incurred by the Argos’ Joe Wright for holding in the line.
Norm Perry nearly pulled this game out of the fire for Sarnia in the third last play of the game, when he took a long forward pass and raced seventy yards for a touchdown. But the touchline judge claimed he stepped out of bounds and called the play back. Perry had intended to retire after this game, but he changed his mind in the short time it took him to walk from the field to the dressing room. He wanted to go out with a championship team, and he got his wish the very next year.
This same Perry is the most popular gridder who ever wore a Sarnia uniform. When he stood for alderman in the civic elections a couple of years ago, he polled
more votes than any other aldermanic candidate in the town’s history. They will tell you now that he can be mayor any day he wants the job. His small son has picked up where his dad left off; at the age of seven he has his own football team.
The Imperials got the difference between a Canadian Finalist and a Canadian Championship team when Orm Beach joined the squad in 1934. Beach is a graduate of a university in Kansas, so he was quickly labelled “import.” The truth was that Beach had already been in Canada a year, the employee of an oil company in Montreal. He saw a chance to better himself by transferring his services from one unit to another in the same industry; thousands of men make similar moves every year.
Beach may have thought he was through with football before he went to Sarnia. But in an atmosphere so heavily charged with football fever, he again caught the virus. He turned out to be a 230-pound halfback who hit the line like a runaway train and knocked opposing ball carriers inside out. He was so terrific on his first appearance in Toronto that the stands watched him in silence as he punched gaping holes in the Balmy Beach line on his first few attempts. On his fourth or fifth plunge half the Beach team leaped on his back, but he staggered on another six or seven yards, his powerful legs churning up the turf, finally to go down like Atlas with the whole world on top of him. A wag in the stands broke the silence.
“Youse’ll all have to get off,” he shouted. “This is as far as we go.”
’ I'HE Imperials are one of the prettiest teams in the entire country to watch, and the reason for it is Coach Art Massucci.
He was line coach at the University of Detroit, assistant to the famous Gus Dorais, when Pat Oulette brought him to Sarnia in 1933 to help him with the team. When business took Oulette away from Sarnia the following year, Massucci became head man.
Massucci is a perfectionist, which explains why those Sarnia teams can go through those intricate manoeuvres with such flawless rhythm. He demands a patience in his players almost as great as his own to master that split-second timing. It was Massucci who introduced spring training to Sarnia. For a couple of weeks each May, footballs bounce and sweating aspirants fling themselves about on the lush turf at Athletic Park. His idea is to get a look at the scholastic stars coming up so that he will know exactly what material he has for the fall, which leaves him with more time to put on formations before the season opens.
Last year the team was beaten by Toronto Argos in the All-Eastern Final. How did the citizens react to this setback? They went back home and staged the biggest dinner in honor of the team that the town has ever witnessed. Three hundred people sat down to meat, and literally hundreds of others who couldn’t get in hung around outside.
Now perhaps you understand better how a small town like Sarnia can keep turning out those great teams. For nine or ten months of the year, it’s a sedate little place. But when the frost is on the pumpkin, it glows like a young girl in love. That is when the town is renewing its romance with football.
Editor's Note—T he l ragic death of Ormond Beach in an explosion occurred as the above article was going to press.