Articles

WHO’LL BLOW THE GREY CUP THIS YEAR?

It's not only the fans who catch Grey Cup fever. Players fresh from a season's stardom suddenly start behaving like high-school scrubs and the real contest seems to be not who can win but who can lose. History again brings up the burning question—

TRENT FRAYNE December 1 1953
Articles

WHO’LL BLOW THE GREY CUP THIS YEAR?

It's not only the fans who catch Grey Cup fever. Players fresh from a season's stardom suddenly start behaving like high-school scrubs and the real contest seems to be not who can win but who can lose. History again brings up the burning question—

TRENT FRAYNE December 1 1953

WHO’LL BLOW THE GREY CUP THIS YEAR?

It's not only the fans who catch Grey Cup fever. Players fresh from a season's stardom suddenly start behaving like high-school scrubs and the real contest seems to be not who can win but who can lose. History again brings up the burning question—

TRENT FRAYNE

THE INK will be just nicely dry on these pages when a few hundred more than twenty-seven thousand people, many of whom think a safety touch is a loan from a friend, will surround Toronto Varsity Stadium’s maligned gridiron in anticipation of seeing the finest football game of the season. In all likelihood, it won’t be. The thousands will assemble in their gay holiday mood to see one of the contenders for the Grey Cup score a glorious victory, and in all probability what they’ll see instead is the other contender blow it. For the evidence from most previous east-west finals shows that nobody wins the Grey Cup—somebody loses it.

The Grey Cup final has blossomed into the most colorful spectacle in Canadian sports and since it involves the champion of the west and the champion of the east it ought to provide the year’s most thrilling plays and its most heroic deeds. But the fact is there hasn’t been an exciting game, by most fans’ standards, since 1947; and the most heroic deed in the last fifteen years was performed in 1950 not by a valiant, near-exhausted knight-errant but by a referee named Hec Crighton. Crighton observed Buddy Tinsley, who played the tackle position for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, lying face-down in one of the hundreds of pools of slush that turned the field into a mudpack. Tinsley had had his wind knocked out and was quietly drowning in full view of the packed stands until Crighton turned him over, and saved his life.

Football-wise, however, there have been practically no heroes. Fritz Hanson, who won the Grey Cup for Winnipeg in 1935, and Red Storey, who did it for the Toronto Argonauts three years later, are among the few exceptions. More often than not the memorable play of the game has been an unaccountable fumble by the star player or the incomprehensible mental machinations of the quarterback or coach or, in some cases, the referee.

The Grey Cup was presented to the Canadian Rugby Union in 1909 by Governor-General Earl Grey and while it stood as the symbol of the senior rugby championship of Canada it became the exclusive property of Ontario teams until 1933 when Winnipeg began to make passes at it in earnest. What opposition the west offered before that was entirely token, and a pretty dubious token it was. For example, in 1923 Queen’s University, led by their touchdown twins, Harry Batstone and Pep Leadley, nosed out Regina 54-0 in the most one-sided Grey Cup game of all.

But in the twenty years since it ceased being a pig-sticking and became a bona fide contest , the Grey Cup final has produced an almost steady procession of reverse-English victories. In that time only two games have been decided, with no room for debate or post-mortem, on the out-and-out superiority of the winner. Mental lapses by players have keynoted the opposing team’s victory five times and mechanical errors by the bare-legged stalwarts have contributed two. Hollow noises in the brainpans of the coaches have engineered three victories for the other team, and referees’ calls on tide-turning plays have directly influenced two decisions.

It was from the Grey Cup game, too, that a newsreel company fled in alarm when the possibility arose that its film might settle the facts if not the result of a wildly contentious play which, in 1947, would have given victory to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers had it not been ruled illegal by an official. While the football firmament swayed—and it sways on small provocation—as it eagerly awaited the developed prints, a company official decreed that the

telltale negatives be snipped from the film and destroyed. “We’re not going to get tangled up in that,” he announced firmly, even though under the rules of the contest the official verdict is binding and the pictures could merely have prolonged the argument without changing the game’s result.

One of the Grey Cup game’s great oddities, particularly in the last five years when all eight of Canada’s professional teams have reached a point where they’re squandering close to three hundred thousand dollars each in one year’s operating costs, has been the inability of the western champion to measure up on the big day. Although the west attracts some of United States football’s greatest players and invariably whips eastern teams in pre-season exhibition games, its representatives have carried away the Grey Cup only four times in the last twenty years and have contrived some singular methods of blowing it. By 1933 the west’s futility had reached the point where the best team from the prairies was considered only good enough to get into the Grey Cup semi-finals. But in that year the Winnipegs showed up for their

semi-final against. Jjpfe with three imported * payers Rebholz and Greg KÉMEr and Carl Cronin, who^had from Notre Dame Uni versit nipeg lost 13-0 but made sue that a year later the west was elev^atg into the final. AÍ Ritchie, still oner katchewan’s staunchest sportsmen, brodai the Regina Roughriders to Toronto’s Var sity Stadium and, with them, an imported halfback named Curt Schave, whom Ritchie still regards as the best he ever saw. However he rued his affection that day in 1934 because it overcame his better judgment and made him a goat before the game was five minutes old. He had a strong defensive team and when he won the toss he elected to kick off against Argonauts. He reasoned that since his team was strong defensively he would be able to hold the Argonauts in their own end of the field from the start.

That’s when Curt Schave interceded, as Ritchie recalls the day.

“He implored me to receive the kickoff,” he remembers. “He pointed out that the field was in fine condition and he said he felt like running—and, oh my, how that boy could run. So I said, okay, we’ll receive.

“Schave catches the ball and he starts up the field—he was a great runner, that boy.

hive, ten, fifteen, twenty yards he comes

and then he’s at midfield. Bang! somebody hits him. Pop! goes the ball from his arms. Thud ! an Argo grabs it and goes all the way with a touchdown.

“Well. I know now we should have kicked off and Schave comes over to the bench and says, ‘Coach, make ’em kick off again. I’ll get that one back for you.’ He said he felt great, that he felt like running—and, my goodness, how that boy could run! So the Argos kick off to us again and Schave grabs the ball and starts up the field. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty yards he flies and then he’s passing midfield, going like the wind. Bang! somebody hits him. Pop! goes the ball from his arms. Thud! an Argo grabs it and goes all the way! We’re behind 12-0 and the game has just nicely started.

“One of the subs, I forget who now, slides along the bench beside me. ‘Coach,’ he says, ‘I’m sure as hell glad I’m not sitting in your spot.’ I ask him why. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘there’s a lot of people back home hearing about this game right now. Most of ’em know that you’ve got the strongest defensive team in the west. I imagine most of ’em’s gonna be wondering who was the genius who decided we shouldn’t kick off.’

“But, oh my, how that Schave boy could run.”

In 1935, on a slippery field in Hamilton, it was anticipated that the east’s string of victories would be held intact by the Tigers. It probably would have, too, if the Hamilton outside wings, Jimmy Simpson and Seymour Wilson, hadn’t behaved as though they were playing in the middle of a drought. Any coach will claim that the only way to play a runner on a slippery field is to

approach him cautiously, let him commit himself and then tackle him. But Simpson and Wilson forgot all about this when they went in to tackle a little hundred and sixtyfive blond Winnipeg halfback named Fritz Hanson.

When long high kicks started falling toward Hanson, the Hamilton pair sped in on him with unrelenting stride. Each time Hanson did a little sidestep in the goo, watched the ends sail past him in midair and then started up the field. Once he gained traction he was a hard man to bring down and he got all the traction he needed that day, thanks to Simpson and Wilson. Hanson made seven runs for gains of from thirty-five to fifty yards and another one of eighty yards for a touchdown. Winnipeg won the game— the first time the west had ever won the Grey Cup—by an 18-12 count, a fact that probably revolutionized the Grey Cup final. The influx of Americans in the west and a resultant argument over rides prevented the east-west, game from being played in 1936 and again in 1940 but the west had smelled blood the day Hanson ran away and bid on the Tigers, and the Grey Cup game had become the biggest event in the nation’s sporting life.

Bob Fritz, who coached the Bombers in the 1935 game, led the charge into Toronto to meet the Argonauts in 1937 and, as quarterback of the team, he decided he was a one-man gang. He ignored the elusive Hanson when calling signals most of the afternoon, preferring to call his own signal. He kept hammering into the Argonaut line with the ball and he so wearied himself that when a break came he was unable to take advantage of it. Argonaut halfback Art West fumbled a punt and Fritz recovered the loose ball. He charged down the field, pursued by determined but outdistanced Argonauts, and as he approached the goal line the demands he’d put on himself began to slow his stride. He was heaving as he crossed the fifteen-yard line and at the nine Bob Isbister of the Argos made a desperate lunge at him from behind, just, tipping Fritz’ heel with an outstretched hand. The quarterbackcoach stumbled and fell and didn’t have the strength to get up before other pursuing Argos had pinned him. The Bombers couldn’t get the ball over from the seven-yard line.

But the play for posterity was still to come in that ball game. As the Bombers tore downfield under a punt they converged on Bill Stukus as that Argonaut player caught the ball and then dropped it. Bill Ceretti, a redheaded lineman, grabbed the ball and set off'. He lumbered across the snow-dotted field into the end zone, apparently carrying victory. But then the delirious Winnipeg bench saw something to still its tumult. One of the officials, Eddie Grant, was signaling that the play was illegal. When Stukus had caught the ball, Grant ruled, the Winnipeg tacklers had not given him the required five yards of leeway before crashing him. Continued on page 62

Continued on page 62

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 27

Grant called a “no yards” penalty and paced off fifteen yards against the Bombers for the infraction. They lost the touchdown and they lost the game 4-3. The irony that none could forget —and few westerners forgive—was that honest Eddie Grant was the game’s western official. Grant’s home was Winnipeg!

The Argonauts and Winnipeg were hack at it in 1938 when a new face leaped onto the scene. It belonged to a United States coach named Reg Threlfall who seldom gave any waking hour the benefit of his silence. Threlfall came from Purdue University to Winnipeg, a glib, spellbinding afterdinner raconteur and a salty-speeched coach. He moved into Toronto and announced that his assassins would eat the Argos. “We’ll cut ’em off at the knees,” Threlfall chortled when newspapermen asked him how he planned to handle the swift Argo backfielders who flipped the ball around as though it were a basketball. “It’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel,” he proclaimed. He was asked specifically about a youngster named Red Storey who had improved rapidly in late season Argonaut games and Threlfall merely scoffed.

For forty-five minutes on a bright December 10 the Bombers, behaving in a manner predicted by their garrulous leader, handled the Argos with brawny disrespect and led them 7-6. And then in the final fifteen minutes a halfback named Red Storey ran twentyeight yards for a touchdown that put the eastern champions ahead. By now the Bombers had grown so weary from chasing the Argonaut end runs that it began to appear that someone had cut them off at the knees. Argos’ Bob Isbister intercepted a pass on his own six-yard line, lateraled the ball to Storey and Red ran a hundred yards down the sidelines to set up another touchdown. He scored two more before the carnage ended. It was just like shooting fish in a barrel, all right. The trouble was, the Bombers couldn’t get out of the barrel. It ended 30-7 for the Argonauts.

The game’s venue shifted to snowswept Lansdowne Park in Ottawa a year later where the home town powerhouse took on the Winnipeg invaders on a raw, grey afternoon. The first time Ottawa got the ball the quarterback, Orville Burke, whipped a pass that Andy Tommy turned into a sixtyeight yard Rider touchdown. Then Burke, apparently mesmerized by the knowledge the Rough Riders had swept to the eastern championship on their powerful running attack, called ground play after ground play, and the grateful Bomber line crushed each with fierce, relentless tackling. Ottawa gained only fifty-five yards on the ground that day yet Burke virtually ignored the passing weapon with which he’d scored in the game’s opening

minutes. Toward the end, with the score tied 7-7, Art Stevenson of Winnipeg kicked a single and that was the Grey Cup.

Burke and the Rough Riders got another crack at the Bombers two years later. Burke played well on an Indian summer afternoon in Varsity Stadium but Ottawa managed to blow the game nevertheless. It developed into a contest of field goal specialists in which Chester McCance kicked two for the Bombers, one from thirty-eight, yards out, and George Fraser put the boot to three for the Riders. But in the final minute of the game, with Winnipeg leading 18-15, Fraser was called upon to try another with the ball on the Bomber eleven-yard line. He’d been scoring bull’s-eyes all season but this time, with the decision hanging in the balance—he missed.

From 1942 through 1946 the Grey Cup final was little more than an interservice competition with the RCAF Hurricanes of Toronto and HMCS Donnacona of Montreal getting their names on the trophy, except in 1944 when the civilian Hamilton Wildcats beat an air force team from Winnipeg. The west had a difficult time reorganizing in the immediate postwar era when the Argonauts twice laced the Blue Bombers, and it looked like a repetition in 1947 when the Argonauts were favored at odds of five to one to win their third straight championship for coach Teddy Morris. But this time Winnipeg introduced a young Minnesotan named Bob Sandberg who almost pulled off the biggest Grey Cup surprise of them all. He failed only because he also committed one of the biggest bonehead plays of them all.

No News in Newsreel

The Bombers, with Sandberg on the rampage, led 9-0 at half time and were still ahead 9-7 in the fourth quarter when they got another scoring opportunity. Don Hiney, who had already kicked a Bomber field goal, went back to try another. Then just as he stepped up to boot the ball he stooped, picked it up and flipped a short pass to Johnny Reagan, who battled past the napping Argonauts and scored a touchdown. But then an official named Bill Roggin blew his whistle and cried, “No, no! It’s illegal.” He ruled that Hiney’s pass had not crossed the line of scrimmage when Reagan caught it. Nowadays passers can practically direct the ball to the blonde in the seventh row but in 1947 passes had to cross the line of scrimmage. Thousands insisted this one had, but they didn’t have whistles. That’s when the exercised customers awaited the newsreel company’s version of the play and thereby sent the newsreel company underground.

Anyway, the play was disallowed and eventually the score became 9-9 as Joe Krol kept hoisting singles for the Argos. With a minute to play Sandberg had a brainstorm. The ball was on Winnipeg’s thirty-two with third down coming up and Sandberg didn’t punt to comparative safety; he called a play on which the ball went to the inside, or guard, Bert Ianonne—who

dropped it. Frankie Morris of the Argos fell on it and Joe Krol kicked a long high punt on first down for the winning point.

Winnipeg’s victory string in the Western Conference was finally broken by the Calgary Stampeders in 1948, a circumstance which caused the Grey Cup game itself to become secondary to the game’s attendant hysteria. It was in 1948 that ordinarily normal people who never lose their tempers except in rush-hour traffic or sand traps suddenly started getting the unshakable notion that they’d rather get their hands on a Grey Cup ticket than the office widow; even ordinarily normal people who think a quarterback is change from a dollar. For it was in 1948, going popeyed over its first western championship in thirty-five years, that Calgary started it all.

A twelve-car special train for the twenty - five - hundred - mile junket to Toronto was required to accommodate the delirious fanatics who wanted to watch their Stampeders in the national spotlight. Not a soul boarded the train who wasn’t attired in ten-gallon hat (five, actually, was the ladies’ capacity), brilliantly colored silk shirt, woollen vest, chaps or skirts and highheeled boots. Ten saddle horses went along, probably against their better judgment, and there were four Indian chiefs, two chuck-wagons and enough fire-water to float anything lighter than a twelve-car train. Three nights, two days and most of the whisky were consumed in the haul to Toronto and the city was turned into an astonished asphalt corral when the entourage arrived. In an ensuing parade people rode horses, waving hats and shouting; people rode the chuck-wagons, cooking flapjacks and bacon to pass out to awestruck onlookers lining the streets four deep.

But did all of this—which has become an expanding and annual affair— prevent someone from blowing the Grey Cup? No, indeed. In fact, the Ottawa Rough Riders made a better job of blowing it that afternoon than any of their long list of predecessors. For one thing, they permitted the Stampeders to pull off football’s most moth-eaten play, the “sleeper.” Calgary was on the Ottawa fourteen-yard line when halfback Normie Hill, instead of lining up with his teammates in the huddle, moved casually toward the sidelines, just beyond which sat the kilted band of the 48th Highlanders. Probably wishing to be mistaken for a tuba, Hill stood motionless while Keith Spaith, the Calgary quarterback, said quietly to referee Hec Crighton, “Please do not look toward the sidelines.” Then Spaith came out of the huddle and arched a wobbly pass toward Hill. The belatedly alerted Ottawa defense almost knocked down the limping pass but Hill ran toward the ball, grabbed it and dashed into the end zone ahead of the chagrined tacklers.

A little later, Pete Karpuk of the Riders stood gazing vacantly at a loose ball lying stone-still at his feet after Bobby Paffrath had tossed him an errant lateral pass which he hadn’t quite reached. The pass was not a true lateral and an official blew his horn to signify a rules infraction but, as any footballer well knew, the horn did not terminate a play but merely signified an infraction. Woody Strode of Calgary, who confessed afterward that he wasn’t too sure of the rule (he was an import) picked up the ball and dashed to the Ottawa eleven-yard line with it.

“An official got out of the way as I picked it up,” Strode later related, “that’s how I knew 1 could run.”

On the next play, Pete Thodos charged eleven yards past the still-

mesmerized Karpuk to score. The two touchdowns the Rough Riders insisted on providing them accounted largely for the Stampeders’ 12-7 victory.

In 1949 Calgary again took advantage of every scoring opportunity presented them but that still wasn’t enough to offset a fine performance by the Montreal Alouettes in one of the rare Grey Cup games in which somebody didn’t catch up on his nightmares. The Alouettes, with superlative play by Frank Filchock, Bob Cunningham, Herb Trawick and Virgil Wagner, knocked off the westerners 28-15. If there were any skulls, they were committed by the CRU executives who chose to disregard scattered suggestions that investment in a tarpaulin would assure a dry field for a game that seemed at times to be outgrowing its legislators. The field in 1949 was a punishing thing for players.

But that field was a prize-winning garden compared to the fantastic swamp that awaited the Argonauts and the Blue Bombers in 1950. An overnight snow was attacked by tractors and sharp-bladed scrapers that skinned off all semblance of grass and left great pools of water wallowing on the earth and turning it into heavy, gloomy gumbo. Playing at Varsity Stadium that afternoon was like searching for Chloe. Yet no game had attracted wider interest. Tremendous attention was focused on the Blue Bombers and their quarterback, Indian Jack Jacobs, both of whom were heralded as the greatest ever to come out of the west. Jacobs with his running, kicking and passing had been the sensation of the Western Conference and the Bomber lineup was sprinkled with imports lavishly praised as the best ever assembled by a team that had been in the business of luring top Americans for fifteen years.

But it was not a day for Jacobs who turned in one of the most disappointing individual efforts in Grey Cup history. With more than twenty-seven thousand people staring at him Jacobs elected to call the same hot-potato game that had won in the west on dry fields. It was impossible to throw the mud-sloshed ball accurately and almost as difficult to hand it off to halfbacks on tricky ground plays requiring perfect timing. In the second half the disconsolate coach, Swede Larsen, benched Jacobs and put in Pete Petrow, the second-string quarterback.

Meanwhile, as Jacobs was calling plays that would have ostracized a high-school quarterback on such a day, the Argonauts crawled into the shell dictated by the conditions, moving ponderously—but moving. They won the game 13-0 aided considerably by the fact that quarterback Al Dekdebrun had taken the precaution of taping filed-down thumb-tacks to his fingers to better control the wretched ball.

The game and its attendant shenanigans had reached unprecedented heights of fervor by 1951 when the celebrated Glenn Dobbs led the Saskatchewan Roughriders into Varsity Stadium to meet Ottawa. The long grind to the final had inflicted crippling injuries to key players on both teams but Saskatchewan was in the worse S physical condition. With ace passj catcher Jack Russell sidelined by inI jury, the westerners were victimized by j the brain wave of their coach, one j Black Jack Smith, who decided for this Í game of games to shift Jack Nix from i his regular left end position into Rusj sell's spot at right end, which Nix had ! never played. In Nix’s position Smith inserted Jack Wedley who had never j before played that position. In the ! confusion, the Ottawas kept exploiting j * the ends with long sweeps and, mean1

while, Dobbs was revealing no signs of prowess on offense. He was, in fact, beginning to look about as mediocre as a quarterback can when suddenly in the fourth quarter, with customers suppressing yawns and Ottawa leading 20-2, Benny MacDonnell and Howie Turner of Ottawa came up with a couple of timely fumbles which, together with two touchdown pitches by Dobbs, got the western idol off the hook and turned the score into something respectable, if flattering to the western champions. That one ended 21-14 after a long dull day. The cheeriest note of all was provided by the CRU which had finally purchased a twelve-thousand-dollar tarpaulin. If the actors in ’51 were inept the stage, at least, was perfect.

And so into 1952 when Frank Filchock returned to the east as coach of the Edmonton Eskimos. He’d had a stormy season in the west where his team liad emerged as the surprise

winner over Winnipeg in a playoff in which Filchock was sidelined by an injury. His regular quarterback, Claude Arnold, seemed to respond favorably to the fact the coach was unable to relieve him, and was the star of the Winnipeg victory. He did so well, in fact, that the Edmonton executive wanted Filchock to stay out of the Grey Cup final and direct the team from the sidelines.

But Filchock insisted upon dressing as the Eskimos took on the Argonauts, who were making their tenth appearance in the final. Thanks to Filchock, they turned it into their tenth successive triumph, for Frankie spent most of the day yapping at quarterback Arnold and then being party to the day’s prize faux pas. With the Argos clinging precariously to a 15-11 lead, the two ends AÍ Bruno and Zeke O’Connor went down field for a pass. They were covered by Filchock and Rollie Miles. Then they crisscrossed and, with Miles sticking to Bruno, Filchock stayed with him, too. Thus, (here was nobody within fifteen yards of O’Connor and while Filchock cast a horrified glance over his right shoulder O’Connor caught the ball and scored easily. Bruno, meanwhile, permitted himself a sly smile, tapped Filchock lightly on the shoulder and pointed to O’Connor easing into the end zone. “He went thataway,” said Bruno. So, of course, had Edmonton’s last chance.

Any moment now they’ll be at it again, with the Grey Cup for 1953 in the balance. People who never go near a football field all fall will be employing every device they know to lay hand to a Grey Cup ticket. The game has developed into something more than a mere contest between East and West and ignorance of the subject will cause no one to pass up a ticket. These days, in fact, only the people on the field throw away their Grey Cup chances. ★