Articles

The Real McGruffey

His column is more crowded with colorful characters than the champs’ dressing room. And they all turn out to be Ted Reeve

TRENT FRAYNE May 15 1949
Articles

The Real McGruffey

His column is more crowded with colorful characters than the champs’ dressing room. And they all turn out to be Ted Reeve

TRENT FRAYNE May 15 1949

The Real McGruffey

His column is more crowded with colorful characters than the champs’ dressing room. And they all turn out to be Ted Reeve

TRENT FRAYNE

THE ROAR of laughter from the two packed tables against the wall of the Bowles Restaurant rattled the butt-cluttered coffee cups. The 20 or so men grinned widely at the rumpled, mournful character whose offhand, dead-pan crack had touched them off. Ted Reeve was holding his daily court.

Not all the brokers, cab drivers, bookmakers and businessmen jammed into the tables heard the quip, but they roared anyway. If The Moaner said it, it was sure to be funny.

Every working day at 10.30 a.m. the gang collects in the Bowles at the corner of Toronto’s King and Yonge Streets. They chew the fat about all kinds of sports, and drink gallons of coffee.

It’s here that Ted Reeve picks up angles for his sports columns in the Toronto Telegram; his courtiers help themselves to belly laughs from his quick and salty wit. Reeve has brought the café a local fame by references in his columns to the Bowles A. C. (Athletic Club).

Edward Henry Reeve, at 47, is a man of many parts -many broken parts.

It’s said that he has broken 47 bones in his chaotic career as footballer, lacrosse player, coach and soldier -but Reeve says this figure is too high. The list includes: skull (2), nose (2), leg (1),

arm (1), fingers (lofs). Broken arches in his feet make him walk as though he has a boil on his toe. A streptococcus attack in 1932 cost him 16 teeth and left him prey to an arthritic condition which plagued him for six years. It also swelled his tongue till it cracked, slightly injuring his speech. He went to work every day during this unpleasantness, because he could see no sense in lying around in bed.

By some curious welding process all this has combined with a natural ability to make Ted Reeve one of Canada’s best-known (and worstdressed) sports columnists; a connoisseur of jazz and rum; an expert on Dickens, Shakespeare and the Encyclopaedia Britannica; a radio quiz artist; an after-dinner speaker; a sort of poor man’s Alexander Woollcott; and perhaps Canada’s best humorist.

Lionel Conacher, once Canada’s most versatile athlete, put on record: “Reeve had all the requisites of a great athlete, except a body strong enough to carry out the things his mind wanted to do.” Conn Smythe, who seldom uses a simple word when a superlative will do, calls Reeve’s stint as a gunner in his (Smythe’s) 30th Battery “the greatest story of the war.”

lie’s No Fashion Plate

AMIABLE Reeve, who has lived in Toronto all . his life, is called The Moaner by his hundreds of friends after a character named Moaner McGruffey he created in his column to typify the legion of chronic sports pessimists.

“The Moaner is a guy who figures every game is fixed,” Reeve explains. “I don’t know how the tag bounced back on me.”

Reeve is not a beefer and yet somehow the cap fits because the man looks like a moaner, or maybe even a mourner. He is long and sloucherl and walks with a slow shuffle that could indicate he has either lost his best friend or just has no place to go. His long, narrow face is invariably glum, like Slim Somerville’s. His most pronounced features are a long, slender nose, a heavy, ski-jump chin, and a pair of expressive brown eyes that twinkle before he smiles and glitter hotly when he’s agitated.

The reputation he gained in the Army as the worst-dressed private soldier in the war was not acquired overnight; he was something less than immaculate before he went, in, and he has not lost ground since he came out. There’s nothing wrong with the quality of his suits, but what happens to them after he gets them on shouldn’t happen to Jeeter Lester’s. The trousers acquire bags at the

knees from the cuffs up and the coats get to look like potato sacks. His overcoat would probably fit Citation.

He has a black mustache and two long black scuffed shoes, size 13.

Columnist Reeve is not unlike the piano player who never had a lesson in his life but can play any tune he hears. With little formal education, Reeve plays a typewriter by ear to produce prose that packs whimsey, irony, hilarity and fact. Unlike most columnists, who ponder fretfully over each sentence, Reeve simply walks up to a typewriter, listens a moment to the whirrings in his brain, and knocks off 1,000 or so flowing words. He shambles away from his beat-up desk in the ancient Tely’s sombre sports department about an hour after his arrival and forgets about the chore that pays him upward of $150 a week until the following day at 9 to 9.30 a.m.

How can he get away with this? Mostly because he knows sports thoroughly, has a prodigious memory for detail and therefore isn’t required to spend time and effort on research. He knows the year, the series and the inning that Hack Wilson lost a fly ball in the sun to permit the Athletics to score three runs and beat the Cubs; he knows

the linemen from end to end who smashed down the Hamilton Tigers in 1935 to permit Winnipeg to win its first Grey Cup.

Reeve doesn’t have to work on his humor, never has to save up a funny anecdote to fit a situation. He just sits down and types out the gags which arrive pat.

It is these spontaneous bursts of humor which lift Reeve’s columns above t hose of his competitors. He has a homely knack for twisting a line of topical chatter into better than average doggerel; he can project his own personality into his writing without stropping his ego; he can make the everyday antics of his dog Bozo and cat Henry seem hilarious. His whimsical chronicle of the doings of the nonexistent. Offshore Yacht Club pokes fun at the ones that exist.

One time he was attending the World Series in New York, penning a sorf of diary. He recorded his wanderings to Broadway shows and bistros. His column read in its/entirety: New York, Oct. 5 —They got me, boys; they got. me.

Another time, during Christmas week, he wrote: Showing all this week at Loew’s, George Raft in “Each Dawn I Die.” Me too, Géorgie, me too.

On Bozo: He is

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good company and getting better. We call him Bozo for short, although, like most kennel dogs, he probably has a name like a Notre Dame fullback. When he first arrived we thought his name must be Old Man River, but he is now getting so well housebroken that we expect to come home any night now and find him in our armchair and slippers reading our favorite magazine.

The “Yacht Club”: All was activity around the Offshore Yacht Club over the holiday week end, with the members spring-cleaning their lockers, most of them getting enough empties to pay their dues.

More “Yacht Club”: Commodore

Fagan predicts a very successful year, as the lake is now much nearer the clubhouse. For a couple of summers the beach grew so big that there was a move to give up aquatics and turn the Offshore into a hunt club.

Needed: One Punch Line

Doggerel like this sets Toronto chuckling:

The baseball owner laughed and said: “These summer showers fall And ruin all our week-end games, but I don’t mind at all.

The maize, the timothy, the oats all need these pleasant rains.”

So, smiling, he surveyed the storm and then blew out his brains.

When fighter Ezzard Charles was ducking a bout with old, though possibly still dangerous, Joe Louis, Reeve came up with:

I do not wish, said Ezzard Charles, To fight with Mister Louis,

Engage that fine old gent in

quarrels, or trade him lumps and bruises.

Why should I test his famous style? His champeenship assault?

For if I just sit still awhile, I’ll win it by default.

At the annual Henley Regatta for the Canadian rowing championships: With thrilling spurts and loud hurrays,

And lots of things to do,

The Henley races last three days, But we can last but two.

After a play-off between Toronto and Boston which the Bruin right-winger, Bobby Bauer, won with a late goal, Reeve rhymed:

There was a young fellow named Bauer

Who let go a shot from afauer,

And the puck hit the nets With our 6 to 5 bets,

And three payments we owe on our cauer.

(Pass the towel.)

There’s not much to the rhyming dodge, Reeve says, as long as you can get a punch line.

Reeve’s friends keep close tab on the cracks he tosses off casualty in his conversation. If you give them half a chance they’ll tell you a dozen. Such as . . .

On a trip to Boston, Reeve was sitting in the Press box observing the Leafs and Bruins after a long social engagement. Between periods he was moodily contemplating his shoes when an attendant, selling chocolate-coated ice cream, thrust one upon him. He got this answer: “No, thank you, son. I’m driving.”

On guard duty overseas one windy, rain-swept night, patrolling a prisoner-

of-war compound that contained 2,000 Nazis, Reeve had just reached a gate and was turning to retrace his steps when a roving spotlight caught him for a moment. He stopped, laid aside his rifle, placed his hands rigidly at his sides and bowed stiffly from the waist in three directions, muttering each time, “Thenk yo’, Thenk yo’, Thenk

yo’-”

On a hockey trip to Detroit, Reeve and another Toronto columnist were ensnarled in the bibulous traps that accompany most such excursions, when Reeve noticed that the deadline for his column was approaching. He went to his room to work and had finished a couple of pages when his contemporary, listing heavily, joined him and began reading Reeve’s prose. Nausea and sickness overwhelmed him and Reeve’s copy got in the way. Reeve didn’t flinch; he didn’t even blink. “If that’s intended as criticism, old boy,” he said, stolidly tapping his typewriter, “you’re not being very subtle.”

“I have an undeserved reputation as a rum pot,” Reeve says. “I belt down a few on trips in self-defense, and naturally I exchange camaraderie with visiting firemen, but when there are no trips and when people stay home where they belong I often go weeks without a smash.”

Reeve ambles to the Toronto Men’s Press Club for lunch on days he doesn’t go home and talks shop over a pint of ale. If this should develop into a session the gathering is likely to move on to the Reeve home, a two-story house of semi-Elizabethan design in Toronto’s east end. This is the Beach district which The Moaner cherishes with the same community ardor that a man holds for his old home town.

Mrs. Reeve accepts the invasions with astonishing complacency, philosophically climbing out of bed at 4 a.m., if necessary, to prepare bacon and eggs for boisterous interlopei's. She is the former Alvern Florence Donaldson, born in Neepawa, Man., a former softball and basketball star in Toronto and now a better than average golfer.

Dickens Is “Best Reporter”

She and Ted, whom she usually calls Dad, were married in 1931 and have a son Joe, 10, and a daughter Susan, two.

The living room, where most nocturnal safaris end, is comfortably and informally furnished, highlighted by a bulging bookstand containing a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which Reeve reads frequently because “It contains a lot of historical stuff on guys that you can piece together into a pretty comprehensive picture of their times.” Dickens is there, too. Reeve calls him “the best reporter I ever read, even if his plots were awful.”

Reeve doesn’t belong to book clubs, feels a book ought to survive at least 10 years to be worth reading. His library is actually his college education.

It seems impossible that a man in Reeve’s physical condition could join the Canadian Army, but he made it. He was visiting the World’s Fair in New York when the bugle sounded in September, 1939. He came home and went to a recruiting centre in Toronto.

He was nudging 40 then, and the medical officers told him to beat it. He won a commission in a Toronto Scottish reserve unit and got in touch with Conn Smythe, who in 1941 formed his Sportsman’s Battery, the 30th Light Anti-Aircraft.

Smythe, the commanding officer of the battery, likes to tell the story of how Reeve got into battle dress and then overseas. It seems that certain doctors who had once played football decided that, after ail, heart mattered

more to a soldier than legs and arms.

“I’ll never forget,” Smythe says, “our landing in France in a rough sea with Reeve, his rifle in his left hand, climbing down the ropes to the water, hanging on with that same left hand —his right arm was no good, you know, from that football injury. You can imagine the inspiration it was for a lot of young, scared kids to see that old guy going ashore.”

Reeve helped his entry into the Army by paying for operations on his legs for removal of varicose veins. He carries 400 stitches where the holes were sewed up. He had a local anaesthetic and was conscious throughout a three-hour operation.

The operation was so long that halfway through one of the nurses walked out of the operating room and another nurse replaced her. After a while the surgeon turned to her for an instrument.

“Oh,” he said, “where did you come from?”

“I’ve been here for quite a while,” the nurse replied.

“Where did the other nurse go?” the doctor asked.

Reeve, growing weary of the operation, raised his head. “She won’t be back, doc,” he grunted. “She graduated.”

Farnol Thought of Harvard

Reeve missed only one route march in three years in the Army and that one came on a sunny afternoon in October, 1942. “Not feelin’ too hot today, doc,” he told the M.O. on sick parade. “Feelin’ kinda low because I don’t think the Cardinals can win the seventh game from the Yankees in the World Series this afternoon. Kinda like to hang around a radio and find out.”

In England the battery was stationed near the estate of English author Jeffery Farnol at Eastbourne, and twice Smythe was invited to visit the writer. Each time he took Reeve.

“Reeve’s knowledge of literature astounded Farnol,” Smythe relates. “He wouldn’t believe The Moaner had never got out of high school. Farnol figured him for Harvard, at least.”

Smythe still talks about the first Christmas Eve in England. Everyone else had gone on leave, but Smythe found Reeve in a hospital, passing out stories and cigarettes to the patients.

The Moaner himself ended up in hospital after traveling through Holland with the battery. During the bitter fighting around Caen in midsummer, 1944, Gunner Reeve cracked his left elbow on something and neglected to tell anyone. Six weeks later, though he had disregarded the increasing pain, he nicked it on an ammunition box and finally reported it. The medicos said he had a fractured elbow and sent him home.

The Telegram did not pay Reeve’s salary while he was away and to keep logs in the fire at home he wrote a couple of columns a week at $25 each. He had gone into the Army as a gunner a ad he returned as one, having turned down opportunities to become a war correspondent and a commissioned public relations officer.

Back in civvies at his battered desk, Reeve resumed the promotion of his perpetual love—the Balmy Beach football team. Some people criticize his blind devotion to the Beaches, which he coached without pay last season, and wrote about fairly constantly from the time they started training for a western trip in mid-July until they were eliminated from Grey Cup contention by Hamilton Tigers in mid-November.

He noted somewhat testily in his column the morning of an Argo-

Ottawa game that he was being phoned constantly by people asking for tickets and he wondered where all the gladhanders were hiding the preceding Saturday when the Beaches played Sarnia in front of thousands of empty seats.

Reeve says he is through with coaching, that it’s too tough to run a practice every night for four months. He looks back on 10 seasons as coach; six at Queen’s where he won three intercollegiate championships; one at Montreal in the Big Four; and three with Beach, in two of which he won the ORFU crown. The most disastrous season was in Montreal where it was planned to amalgamate the Royals and the Westmounts to produce a good Big Four club. But internal dissension between the two factions broke the club wide open and they were kicked by everybody.

During his coaching career Reeve gained a reputation for being a cautious and unspectacular coach, strong defensively, but of the old two-bucks-anda-kick attacking school.

In defense of his tactics Reeve says his teams always happened to be manned that way. “I had to play things close to the vest because I seldom had enough kids to go around and couldn’t afford to waste them on razzle-dazzle stuff.”

As a player Reeve was a great middle, or tackle, whose specialty, besides getting his bones broken, was blocking kicks. In the Eastern Canada final of 1926 he blocked six against Ottawa, but the Beach lost 7 to 6.

The game for which he is most remembered, however, was the 1930 East-West final between Balmy Beach and the Regina Roughriders. He didn’t get into the game for three quarters because he had a separated shoulder and couldn’t bend his arm. When Regina appeared to be on their way to the winning, touchdown Reeve plugged the hole and culminated his defense by blocking a kick. Regina never recoverc'd and the victorious Beach players lugged Reeve off the field on their shoulders. It was his last game.

The “Big Train’s” Tribute

Reeve was a great lacrosse player in the early ’20’s when the game flourished in Canada. He played with national senior championship teams three ‘¡mes, twice for Brampton and ones for Oshawa, and in 1931 he played professional for Lionel Conacher’s Montreal Maroons.

Conacher, who played senior against Reeve, recalls that in a game against Brampton Reeve was assigned to check him. “I couldn’t shake him so I slammed him into the goal while he was covering me,” the “Big Train” relates. “A couple of seconds later he was back around my neck again. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘it’s possible you might be able to lick me but you can’t scare me.’ ”

Reeve’s father died when Ted was two and he was raised by his mother and sister. His mother ran a store which carried magazines and papers. He claims that poring over the sports pages and the record books accounts for his ability to name pennant winners, hatting averages and world’s heavyweight champions right down the line.

During World War 1 he worked in a munitions plant and played lacrosse and football at the Beach. Neighborhood pals were Neis Stewart, Harold (Baldy) Cotton, Hooley Smith, all renowned hockey players, and footballers Ah Box, Ike Commins and Yip Foster. He began contributing a lacrosse column to the Telegram.

On May 4, 1928, C. O. Knowles, then

Tely publisher, told Reeve he’d decided to give him a steady job.

“Do you think you can write a column like those guys in the States, writing about all sorts of sports?” Knowles asked.

“1 can try.”

“Well, go ahead,” said Knowles. “See how it goes and if it’s no good we’ll fire you.”

J. K. Munro, an old sports writer and lacrosse man who became a leading political writer for the Tely, gave Reeve an early tip which he took. “Don’t be so serious. You’re writing about games. You’ve got a million dollars’ worth of fun in you. Get some laughs into the stuff. Leave the serious side to us.”

It’s unlikely that Ted Reeve will ever tap that million bucks, but he seems to get a great kick out of life anyway. He’s strong on plugging for sports for ! kids, and is always ready to produce I one of his Will Rogers’ brand after-

dinner speeches to groups interested in recreation for kids.

This sort of stuff always gets a smile. “Ike Gommins here beside me played snapback so long that when he sees a football movie he has to go into the aisle and look at it through his legs.”

He’ll tell about the problems of accommodating imported football players in these days of housing shortages by mentioning that one night his Murphy bed went up and he lost an entire back field.

Although he’s out a lot Reeve insists he is becoming a homebody as the years move on. It’s seldom that the Reeve house isn’t cluttered with people listening to his stacks of Dixieland records or crowding the table while Mrs. Reeve empties the icebox.

“We aren’t party people, particularly,” says Ted above the din, “but the house is kinda the headquarters for a lot of old stiffs with no place better to go.” ★