Articles

Why They All Hate the Argos

Almost anyone who knows football will tell you that Toronto Argonauts are lucky, stuffy and stingy. What they usually forget to say is that the seven-time Canadian champions are nearly always good and you have to do more than hate them to beat them

TRENT FRAYNE September 1 1951
Articles

Why They All Hate the Argos

Almost anyone who knows football will tell you that Toronto Argonauts are lucky, stuffy and stingy. What they usually forget to say is that the seven-time Canadian champions are nearly always good and you have to do more than hate them to beat them

TRENT FRAYNE September 1 1951

Why They All Hate the Argos

Articles

TRENT FRAYNE

THIS IS the time of year when it becomes an automatic afterthought, at the mention of the Toronto Argonauts' name, to say they are the

luckiest team that ever fumbled a football and recovered it while looking the other way. This is the time of year when gentle ladies dust off the four-letter words their husbands use to change a tire and swap them in unladylike discussions on the Argonauts. A point mentioned all too infrequently in each Argo appraisal is that they also are nearly always good, occasionally great and, over the years, the best football team in the country.

Instead of praising them, though, people who get excited about sport« events have used strong language to describe the Argos ever since football suddenly became in 1935 a national autumn crisis. That was the year Fritz Hanson of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers inspired the first western victory in football history and imparted a germ that afflicts the whole country every fall. To that point, except in a few strongholds like Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa and Sarnia, football was something to fill time between the baseball and hockey seasons, and the Grey Cup final, in which the western champion opposed the eastern champion, was a carnage accepted indifferently by the masses. Today it’s a fever in which sane solid successful businessmen supporting teams east and west strive earnestly to go bankrupt by paying large sums of money to skilled football players.

In this wacky exchange the Argonauts are the cynosure of censure mainly because they have won so much that people just naturally love to see them

lose. This doesn’t happen very often because Toronto is the largest incubator of home-grown football players in the land; with teams restricted by Canadian Rugby Union rules to the use of seven Americans the natives are quite capable of representing the balance in power. The fact that Argos play in the largest, best-appointed stadium and therefore corral the largest banknotes has never sent the rest of the country into great waves of convulsive sympathy either. There is also the point, probably outdistancing all others, that the Argonauts are the heirs of the nation’s hate-Toronto complex.

Even in their own home town the Argonauts are a controversial issue. Last year when they won the Grey Cup for the seventh time since 1933 (which might be regarded as the beginning of the modern or American era) the city fathers revealed even greater-than-ordinary perplexity in deciding whether to regard this as an achievement. City Clerk George Weale, apparently on verbal instructions from Mayor Hiram McCallum (although this point never was definitely established in the ensuing hullaballoo), ordered thirty-five engraved wrist watches as tokens of esteem. When his act became public the rest of the city council popped osselets and hundreds of people sat down to write scathing notes to the gallant clerk, the newspapers and, quite likely, to their mothers-in-law. Their point was that Argonaut players were paid professionals and that the city had no business wasting taxpayers’ money to buy them gifts. The price placed on each watch by the shouting councilors was one

hundred dollars but actually the thirty-five of them averaged about forty dollars. Anyway, the frontpage frenzy abated when the jeweler from whom they had been ordered announced he’d give the watches to the players himself.

Lucky? Sure they’ve been lucky. In 1937 and again in 1947 the Argonauts won national championships when a referee’s decision nullified touchdowns by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. In ’37 two Bomber ends, Bud Marquardt and Jeff Nicklin, smacked an Argo punt-receiver, Art West, with such a belt that the ball popped from his arms. Skinny Marquardt of Winnipeg grabbed the loose ball, loped seventy-five yards on his stilt-like limbs and then discovered that Eddie Grant, a Winnipegger handling the umpire’s duties, had blown a whistle. Grant claimed the ends had not given the receiver the required five yards leeway as he caught the ball. Instead of a touchdown Winnipeg got a no-yards penalty and Argos kept the ball. It was an important decision; the Argos won that game 4 to 3.

In 1947 the Argos were overwhelming favorites to mesmerize Winnipeg for the third successive year as the teams went into another Grey Cup final. But the battling Bombers built up a 9 to 0 lead in the first half and they were struggling to defend it after Joe Krol passed to Royal Copeland for an Argo touchdown in the third period. Then, as the game waned, the westerners appeared to wrap it up when Don Hiney faked a field goal and threw a short pass to Johnny Regan who battled his way into the Argo end zone. But even as the Bombers

Almost anyone who knows football will tell you that Toronto Argonauts are lucky, stuffy and stingy. What they usually forget to say is that the seven-time Canadian champions are nearly always good and you have to do more than hate them to beat them

were jumping up and down in glee the officials were pacing off a penalty against them. The ruling was that Regan had not crossed the line of scrimmage before catching Hiney’s pass and that therefore the play was illegal. Did it matter? It mattered all right; Joe Krol kicked four single points, the last

one on the game’s final play, for a 10 to 9 Argo victory.

These weren’t isolated instances, either. The Argonauts have done so well over the years with loose balls which take weird bounces and wind up in Argonaut arms that they have injected a new phrase into the language; nowadays, when a team —any team—fumbles the ball and recovers it, that team - is said to have been saved by an “Argo bounce.” Even in Hamilton and Ottawa, where small children are told by their parents that the Argonauts will get them if they don’t behave, this bounce is called the Argo bounce. Naturally nobody blames the Argonauts for being lucky but it’s no way to win friends; people don’t cheer when a millionaire holds the winning ticket on a draw for an automobile.

Hate ’em? Nobody ever loved to hate the Argos like Reg Threlfall, who had never seen them until he took the Bombers east in 1938. Threlfall, a flamboyant, fast-talking graduate of Purdue University who coached the Winnipeg club from 1938 through 1943, heard so much beat-the-Argos talk when first he took over as coach that gradually he worked up a pretty good hate against them himself. When Toronto newspapermen buttonholed him before the ’38 game he had a quote for every edition. Such phrases as “We’ll cut ’em off at the knees” and “We’ll separate the men from the boys” and “R’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel” were Threlfallisms that grew into clichés. The Argos laughed off one or two, but as Threlfall continued to wave his arms they got steamed up too.

After Threlfall had gone out of his way to insult Red Storey, an Argo running back, by questioning his courage on the field canny Lew Hay man, the Argo coach, thrust Storey into the lineup after three quarters had been played in the Grey Cup final and Winnipeg was leading 7-6. He scored three touchdowns and Argonauts won 30-7.

In football politics Argos have often created enemies by forcing their views on other clubs on the threat of withdrawing from competition if their wishes aren’t met. Thus for years they successfully opposed the entry of Toronto Balmy Beach into the Eastern Big Four. Joe Ryan, business manager of Montreal Alouettes and formerly of Winnipeg Bombers, points out that Argos refused for years to play Sunday games in Montreal “on moral grounds—yet their executives play golf on Sunday. I claim they opposed Sunday football simply because we wanted it.”

The Argos’ professed attitude toward the Sabbath corresponds pretty well with the traditional Toronto attitude (though a partially “open” Sunday was supported at the polls last year). And many people hate the Argos for the same reasons they hate Toronto. The team is successful and it is well-to-do. It has also been called stuffy, intolerant, greedy and snobbish.

Ryan recalls a CRU meeting in the late thirties in which he declared that if Winnipeg weren’t permitted a nucleus of American imports there was no point in the Blue Bombers going to Toronto for the Grey Cup final. The differences in the standards of play

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would be too great, he believed. He still remembers an Argonaut executive member enquiring gruffly: “Wouldn’t it be a shame if you farmers couldn’t come down here? Who W'ants you down here anyway?

Eric Cradock, part owner of the Alouettes, thinks Argos’ unpopularity stems partly from their apparent attitude that anything new in Canadian football is necessarily bad. “They opposed Negro players when we first signed them and one of their executive members openly chided us about it; then they finally came around themselves. They opposed Sunday games in Montreal, then realized it was the only day on which we could make a buck. Now they’re opposing a split-gate system of receipts distribution, though it’s obvious that the system is the only solution for survival in Hamilton and possibly in Ottawa. Sooner or later the Argos’ll come around, but the waiting can become exasperating.”

Split-gate is a system operated by professional baseball in which the visiting team collects a share of the gate receipts. There is agitation for it in the Big Four because of the difference in the drawing capacity and the seating accommodation in the four cities. Toronto’s Varsity Stadium seats27,000, Montreal’s Delorimier Stadium 21,000. Ottawa’s Lansdowne Park 15,000 and Hamilton’s Civic Stadium 13,000. Those favoring the system argue that j Ottawa and Hamilton, cities of around j 200,000, can’t compete financially with j the other two of more than a million. The Argonauts hold fast to the system whereby each club keeps its own gate receipts.

Well, why don’t the other three teams simply outvote them?

“Can’t,” says Joe Ryan. “They’ll withdraw.”

The Argonaut football club was j formed in 1874 as a minor adjunct to the Argonaut Rowing Club, which was founded two years earlier and still is j the football team’s sponsor. The executive has long been composed of oarsmen who wear blazers bearing the rowing club crest, and double-blue neckties, and it jolly well isn’t an Argo football trip if seven or eight of the “old boys” aren’t dashing off anecdotes in the club car.

Earl Selkirk, former Argo player and ex-team manager, says there’s often conflict between the oarsmen and the I football men. “The oarsmen regard the football people as paid employees,” i he says, “and the football people resent j the oarsmen taking the bows for football’s success.”

Unwept certainly, unsung possibly, j but the Argonauts are by no means *j un honored. The 1950 squad was

named the greatest in fifty years in a poll of Canadian sports editors conj ducted by the Canadian Press. Naturally no such accolade could be bestowed | upon anybody, much leas upon the j Argonauts, without stormy disagreei ment. But the fact remained that in a I year of the most lavish spending in the j history of football the Argonauts prej vailed over teams assembled at up to j twenty times the cost of fielding earlier teams. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats, for instance, spent one hundred and sixty thousand dollars on players’ salaries and operating costs last year. In the days when the Hamilton Tigers were the greatest machine in football (back in the early Thirties) they never spent more than seven thousand.

And this year, risking the wrath of U.S. courts to acquire top American

professionals, most Canadian teams will spend close to two hundred thousand dollars each in the giddiest assault on the Grey Cup ever. Three of America’s greatest players, George Ratterman of the New York Yanks, Dick Huffman of the Los Angeles Rams and Glenn Dobbs of the Los Angeles Dons, have been signed by the Montreal Alouettes, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Regina Roughriders. Two of them, Ratterman and Huffman, were threatened with lawsuits for breach of contract by their outraged American clubs. At this writing the cases hadn’t been brought into court. The three players represented an outlay of close to forty-five thousand dollars by their new Canadian employers.

In the postwar spending spree the Argos have won the national championship four times in six years, but it doesn’t neceasarily follow that they have purchased these championships. In fact, while the Argonauts travel first class, there are several teams in the country which have outspent them, notably Montreal, Calgary and Winnipeg. The Blue Bombers, for instance, declared that last season none of their seven imports received less than six thousand dollars. There was only one Argo player, AÍ Dekdebrun, the team’s quarterback, who received more than that. The Argonauts pay players on a per-game basis and Dekdebrun’s hundred a game added up to sixtyfour hundred dollars for the season.

With a pay increase this season he was proclaimed by President Bob Moran “the highest-paid player in the history of the Argonaut club.” To Dekdebrun that wasn’t enough. As the Argos prepared to defend their title he caused a minor sensation by quitting workouts because he wasn’t satisfied with the money for which he had signed to play.

The Argos have invariably been able to instill a strong team spirit in their football players but they have also profited handsomely from the talents of three coaches whom they have employed in the modern era. Lew Hayman joined them as coach in 1933 as a graduate of Syracuse University, where he’d starred in football and basketball. He combined the fancy ball-handling of basketball with sound football fundamentals and won three national championships up to the end of 1941 when the Big Four disbanded because of the war. Hayman quit the Argos over a salary dispute when the league reassembled in 1945 and went to Montreal; with Eric Cradock and Leo Dandurand, he formed the Alouettes.

The Peerless Two Platoons

His successor as Argonaut coach was Teddy Morris, an outstanding Argo tickler and plunger in the Thirties who coached a Navy football team representing Toronto’s HMCS York and brought to the Argos most of his Navy kids. They romped to three successive national championships, whipping Winnipeg each time in the final. Then they started to fade and through the next two years, as their opponents brought more and better Americans to their lineups, the Argonauts finished third and out of the playoffs.

Morris claims that imports were recruited haphazardly and that neither he nor his manager, Earl Selkirk, was consulted. One time, he says, two executive members went to Cleveland to scout surplus material of the renowned Browns while the coach and manager stayed home. “One of them went,” asserts Morris, “because he’d never seen an American pro club in

training and thought he’d like the experience.”

With the Argos floundering, a new coach, Frank Clair, was hired and Morris made manager for the 1950 season. Then Morris went over to Balmy Beach as coach and finally left football when the Argos bought the Beach club last fall. Clair, meanwhile, was assembling “the greatest team in fifty years,” introducing the full twoplatoon system—a defensive unit and an offensive unit—into Canada for the first time. The Argos presented six competent Americans too: Dekdebrun, the deft T-quarterback; Crazy-Legs Curtis, a tremendous runner; Billy Bass, outstanding defensive fullback; John Kerns, the line coach and a bulwark at tackle; Marvin Whaley, a skinny pass-catching end; and Buckets Hirsch, a murderous tackier and linebacker.

Canadian youngsters like Toogood, Nick Volpe and Byron Karrys in the backfield, and Freddie Black, Pete Bennett, Don Scott, Jake Dunlap and the veteran Jack Wedley in the line gave the Argos a spectacular crew.

Guiding them was the lean scholarly Clair, former end for Ohio State University and the professional Washington Redskins, who gave painstaking devotion to his job. He had movies

made of all Argonaut games and studied them for days, running them through thirty and forty times and noting each move of each player. Once, after Ottawa had gone particularly well offensively, Clair’s scrutiny uncovered an Ottawa habit-pattern. He invented a countermove which completely harnessed the offense and set up a 30 to 7 Argo vit tory.

He doesn’t miss a trick. In last year’s travesty of the Grey Cup, played in a pool of watery mud, Argos clearly were the better equipped for the conditions. When the players discovered before the game that ordinary cleats were tractless in the goo Clair had them switch to special cleats owned by the University of Toronto and described by Argo assistant trainer Walt Huntley as “the biggest, longest danged cleats I ever saw.” Quarterback Dekdebrun wore a special taping on the fingers of his throwing hand that enabled him to grip the greasy ball. Indian Jack Jacobs, Winnipeg quarterback and a flashy passer all season, had no such advantage and showed dismally. Winnipeg linemen in ordinary cleats slithered helplessly.

It wasn’t the first time the sharp Argos had outwitted the westerners. In 1937, when the Blue Bombers trained for the Grey Cup final at Ann Arbor, Mich., Harry Sonshine, the Argonaut centre, went down with Winnipeg supporters and returned to Toronto with diagrams of the Bomber attack. They may have spelled the difference in Argos’ 4-3 victory.

Now, with the 1951 season shaping up as the most lavish ever, another assault on the lucky and unloved Argonauts is under way. Lucky and unloved? Well, maybe. But, as their opponents keep discovering, to beat the Argonauts you’ve got to do more than hate them, if