SYD HALTER big-league football’s first czar Why
Why did the seven-million-dollar football industry hand unheard-of power this season to a crusty Winnipeg corporation lawyer who has been an amateur sport official most of his life? It's no mystery when you meet Syd Halter in action
Except that Gerald Sydney Halter is the obvious man for the job as Canada’s first national football commissioner, it seems completely incongruous that Canada’s first national football commissioner is Gerald Sydney Halter.
Halter may well be the most paradoxical figure in Canadian sports. By turn gregarious, aloof, companionable, austere, charming and downright rude, he takes to the post of running football’s seven-million-dollar commercial enterprise a record of having been heavily involved with the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada most of his adult life. Put Charlotte Whitton in the line at the Bellevue Casino and the casting is not much more unlikely. To the antiseptic AAU, the very word professional is anathema. Yet Halter, who now receives $17,500 a year for telling football’s money-conscious promoters how to run their business, was the unpaid national president of the AAU for nine years, longer than any man before him.
Then consider these other paradoxes: Halter, a well-heeled Winnipeg lawyer and bachelor, is a severe punctilious person whose public behavior is immaculate; meeting him for the first time you’d think him the last man in the world to do anything unconventional. Yet he's an accomplished crapshooter and an enthusiastic
and skillful horseplayer who never bothered to buy an automobile until this spring when a new race track was built nine miles from downtown Winnipeg. He notes, mattcr-of-factly, that this was no coincidence.
For most of Halter's professional career he held steadfastly to dignified corporation law, shunning public notice, but tor one year he too a brief spectacular fling at criminal law and twice successfully defended people charged with murder. Then, as suddenly as his name had sprung to the front pages, it disappeared; he went back to his corporation-law tomes. Although Halter has been mixed up in various sports all his life, he takes no exercise more strenuous than ticking off an errant football referee in searing dispassionate tones. The picture most people retain of Halter is that of a tall unruffled man in grey suit, navy-blue Homburg, white shirt with French cuffs, shiny black oxfords, drab tie, standing cool and remote on a smoking-hot summer afternoon in the infield at a track meet, surrounded by the sweating contestants he’s directing. Dressing like a banker, he talks like one too. but when he feels the occasion warrants it his language can enjoin open-mouthed wonder at a stag smoker.
Six-foot-four and lean, with thick glossy-black hair greying, and the continued on page 68
Syd Halter — big league football’s first czar
Continued from page 16
“The officials knew when they went on the field that they were to take no nonsense or abuse”
sardonic look and tone of a Basil Rathbone, Halter in his new job has more authority than any man in Canadian football has ever had. His disciplinary powers extend to teams, players and even the club executives who hired him; he can levy fines up to a thousand dollars. He can suspend anyone connected with the professional game, too. He has charge of the training and selection of all game officials, even including the man on the public-address system, whose adjectives, attitude and very nuances must match Halter’s standards. He has complete power to arbitrate disputes between teams, such as those involving rights to players. All arrangements for the Grey Cup game fall under his jurisdiction, and when current radio and television contracts expire this year he will be in charge of all future broadcasting arrangements. If there is anything pertaining to Canadian professional football over which Halter does not have control, he has only himself to blame. He spent the better part of the summer drawing up the constitution of the new Canadian Football League, an amalgamation of the eastern Big Four and the Western Conference, including the section laying down the commissioner’s duties and authority.
Halter got the job and the authority because he declined to take the former unless he was accorded the latter. When he was approached by representatives of Canada’s nine pro teams, he considered
the offer with typical equanimity. When he was assured of a free hand without interference he accepted. As Jacob Gill (Jake) Gaudaur, the burly black-haired president and general manager of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, noted recently, “We gave him anything he wanted because, in considering candidates, we realized there was no one else with his qualifications.”
These had become apparent during the preceding five years when Halter served as commissioner of the once turbulent, unruly and sometimes intemperate Western Conference which, prior to 1953, was dominated by rowdy coaches who grabbed and cursed the referees on the field during games, and by players who talked back to the game officials almost at will. Charges of hometown bias had become so shrill and common in the west that league officers imported referees from the east to handle playoff games.
Halter's first move when he became commissioner was to give his officials full authority and to back their judgment at all times publicly. Privately he pointed out their mistakes, running patiently through movies of all league games in darkened smoky screening rooms. He upbraided them occasionally for their errors, sometimes with withering candor, but they knew when they went on the field that they were to take no nonsense or abuse from players, coaches or even club executives. As a
result, western fans began to sit in on the most orderly, sharply alert, and bestrun football the country ever had.
In Halter's five years of control he imposed fines totaling twenty-five hundred dollars for various offenses. His sole aim in ruling with an iron glove, he says, was and is to give the football fan his money’s worth, and he tipped his hand early in his career as western commissioner.
A notoriously tough customer from south of the border named John Henry Johnson descended on the Canadian scene soon after Halter’s appointment, and he carried with him a reputation as long and dark as a winter's night. Joining the Calgary Stampeders, Johnson displayed his boyish enthusiasm even before the season opened. He fractured the jaw of teammate Bill Bewley in an intra-squad scrimmage, sidelining Bewley for the year. When the Stampeders opened their season in Winnipeg Johnson started licking people immediately. He slugged a Bomber player on the chin, knocking him down. Warned by Halter repeatedly that this sort of thing had to go, the officials marched Johnson smartly to the sidelines and expelled him for the rest of the game. The commissioner himself jumped on Johnson with a fifty-dollar fine. Johnson, who returned to the National Football League in the U. S. the following season and took up his rough-house tactics where he’d left off down there, caused the Western conference no further trouble through that 1953 season.
Disbelieving the evidence possibly, or still nostalgic in the memory of the other, happier years when referees were pin-cushions, George Trafton and Frank Filchock, the Winnipeg and Regina coaches, heaped public scorn on the referees during the 1953 season, too. Each was fined fifty dollars by Halter. A hard man to convince, Trafton tried again, and Halter again fined him fifty. From then on, the boys settled down to football.
Fifty dollars may not seem an excessive amount for a man who truly wishes
to vent his spleen on an official, but Halter has a different concept.
“I have always been of the opinion that it is the certainty of disciplinary action being taken, rather than the severity of the disciplinary action, which has a salutary effect,” he says.
He has never relaxed his vigilance, and on one occasion he fined two whole teams. This happened in Regina in 1955. Halter fined the Winnipeg club two hundred dollars and the Regina club one hundred “for permitting players on the bench and members of the coaching staff to swarm on the field” when a minor fracas was being staged by two players.
“Why the discrepancy?” demanded Winnipeg’s then-general manager. Bill Boivin, when the fines were announced. “Why don’t you dock them two hundred, too?”
“Your bench instigated the affair,” said Halter. “They merely followed suit.”
World’s greatest referee baiters
Last year when the irascible Mervyn (Red) Dutton became president of the Calgary Stampeders, he indicated that he had not been listening when Halter had been making his stand on behalf of his officials. As coach of the carousing New York Americans hockey team and later as president of the National Hockey League, Dutton had learned referee-baiting at the feet of some of the world’s most irrational orators. He aimed a few carefully chosen darts at the officiating he witnessed in his first game as Stampeder president. Halter, allowing that Dutton was new in the league, fined him twenty-five dollars to remind him that he was overstepping a president's duties. Dutton turned his attention to other problems after that.
“The fan doesn’t pay to see players and coaches raving,” Halter says. “Consequently I won’t stand for public criticism of an official. Team executives can be critical of the officiating when they feel it is incompetent — but only to me. Public criticism detracts from unbiased
officiating. I want a referee to feel he can make eight consecutive calls against a home team if they are justified.”
This is the cut-and-dried logic Halter uses when he is asked how a man so long connected with the AAU can reconcile himself to an out-and-out professional assignment.
“When I was with the AAU. a couple of Winnipeg amateur boxers wanted to be pud for appearing on an amateur fight card,” he relates. “I said to them, 'Look, if your feeling is that you should be compensated for boxing we have no quarrel with you. All you have to do is turn professional.’
“That is how I’ve always felt about it Amateur sport is for boys who enjoy the spirit of a game. Professional sport if for those who want to augment their incomes. There seems to me to be no inconsistency here. I see nothing incongruous in my interest in both aspects.”
“G” stands for “God”
There appear to be no shades of grey in Halter’s thinking, and what may suem to be inconsistencies to outsiders are definite blacks and whites to him. He expressed this point as far back as 1935 when the Canadian Rugby Union insisted that football players sign an affidavit prior to the Grey Cup final seating they had not received money for playing football that season. As treasurer of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who were finalists that year, Halter knew that several American players on the Bombers could sign no such affidavit truthfully, and he advised them not to. They didn't. The CRU sanctioned the game anyway, and the following year dropped the practice of presenting affidavits to competing players.
“I raised hell about it with the CRLC” Halter recalls. "I said it was ridiculous.”
When Halter became president of the AAU in 1938 he issued instructions to all provincial branches that no amateur cards were to be issued to football players wanting to compete in other sports as amateurs.
Halter’s coldly analytical, precise manner has marked just about everything he has undertaken in his fifty-three years. He talks forcefully and never leaves the impression that he has considered the possibility he might be wrong. Jack Wells, the phrase-making broadcaster who has been covering Winnipeg sports for twenty years, once remarked that the “G” in G. Sydney Halter undoubtedly stood for “God” and the word was so apt that it has been adopted in conversation by the west’s football reporters. Wells also calls him “Sir Syd.”
Halter is often gruff and abrupt and instead of saying good-by at the conclusion of a telephone conversation he merely hangs up. Girls in the Blue Bomber business office hold the telephone receiver at arm’s length to avoid the sharp click that terminates Halter’s interest in the discussion, and once Shirley Boivin, wife of Winnipeg's former general manager, was livid for two hours after having her ear twanged by Halter when he'd called the Boivin home seeking her absent husband. She swore when he came in that if the commissioner ever called again she’d deafen him. A short time later Mrs. Boivin encountered Halter at the airport where both happened to be taking the same plane to a Bomber game. They struck up a conversation and Mrs. Boivin says she was astonished by Halter’s charm.
“I always thought he was such a typical bachelor,” she recalls, “but I was wrong. He couldn't have been more solicitous.”
Most people who get to know Halter soon learn that his forbidding demeanor and abrupt manner are a façade for a man of candor, conscientiousness and considerable humor. He hurries from airports to planes so that he can lay claim to a rear seat. Asked why, he once replied, “I’ve noticed that women and children usually sit near the front. I can’t stand kids on planes.”
He remarked one day last summer that he was glad the thoroughbreds had finally forsaken Winnipeg's new race track until the fall. “Now I can get a
blood transfusion and settle down to do some work." he grinned.
Halter has given years to the unrewarding task of promoting and running track-and-field meets. He has been supervisor and referee of Winnipeg's annual Catholic Parochial Schools' meet on behalf of the Knights of Columbus for twenty-two years. Fred O'Malley, an executive of the Winnipeg Tribune and a prominent lodge member, says the drive and direction given by Halter, who is Jewish, have kept the K. of C. meets alive. Halter is also credited with keep-
ing the dolorous AAU extant during the war when he filled the twin capacities of president and secretary in spite of his duties in the RCAF, where as a squadron leader he was senior judicial officer of No. 2 Training Command. A man who knew him when Halter was a flight lieutenant recalls that "Halter's chilly bearing and a half-smile-half-sneer made him look more like an air vice-marshal than the air vice-marshal did.”
The AAL! honored Halter at a dinner last November for his contribution to that struggling body from 1938 to 1946.
He was the official handicapper for all track-and-field events in Manitoba for fifteen years, up to 1955, and for the last twelve years he has been and still is referee for the annual inter-high-school track-and-field meet in Winnipeg. Organization is the keynote here, the events following one another, and even overlapping, with crisp precision. Halter stands tall and remote in the midst of ordered confusion, drawing all the threads together. This is how he runs his office on the eighth floor of a downtown building, sitting behind a huge desk piled deep with memos, directives, law books and football-rule books. The desk, as large as a dining-room table, is glasstopped, Halter claims, but no glass is visible under the welter of scattered stationery. Miraculously, however, he has a homing pigeon’s instinct for placing his finger on what he wants, and can wither a protesting football coach or club executive who comes to him with a complaint.
“Haven’t you read my memo of July tenth?” he demands with asperity. His hand disappears into a pile of papers and emerges with the memo of July tenth.
A way with juries
Such pinpointing helped save two people charged with murder in 1947. At one trial a pathologist testified that cause of death was asphyxia—"by force or pressure applied to the neck.”
In defending the accused man Halter asked the pathologist, "Is it not possible that the injury might have been occasioned by a sudden jerk of the head or neck?”
“That is quite unlikely.” the pathologist replied.
Then Halter, trying to cast some doubt on the pathologist’s opinion, asked him whether or not medical science was progressive. The doctor agreed that it was.
“In the light of present-day knowledge,” probed Halter, "might the medical conclusions of fifty years ago be improper?”
“They could be,” agreed the pathologist.
“Fifty years from now,” pounced Halter, “is it not therefore altogether likely that present-day conclusions will be improper?”
Coolly confident in his starched wing collar and flowing black robe, Halter told the jury that the crown had not proved that the dead man had been strangled. “Symptoms of asphyxia, as we have seen, may be symptoms of death by other means,” he said. The jury apparently agreed with him. His client was acquitted.
In another murder case, Halter defended a fifty-one-year-old woman charged with shooting a twenty-eight-year-old man and the case seemed to be so cut and dried that the judge, in instructing the jury, called it "a deliberate act.” Halter, taking an hour and thirty minutes to address the jury, contended that his client had shot in self-defense, that she did not intend to kill but only “to stop him resuming his savage attack.”
Newspapermen who covered that trial say now that while the jury was out they were convinced the woman would be found guilty. To their surprise, however, the jurors called it manslaughter, and the woman was sentenced to seven years. One reporter who covered the trial says Halter's “coolly analytical rather than histrionic defense” saved her life.
There have rarely been moments, in or out of courtrooms, when Halter’s
brain hasn't been impressing somebody. When he was a thin gangling youth in grade seven he was in a classroom in which grade-eight students were also taught, and sometimes the classes overlapped. His class was given the opportunity. because of this, to try entrance examinations with the grade eights, and Halter cruised into high school with honors and the second-highest marks in the school. Similarly he took grades nine and ten together. When he passed his bar examinations in 1927 he was the University of Manitoba’s gold medalist, and won the Manitoba Law Society prize for being top graduate.
All this time he had an abiding interest in sports but he’d grown so tall so fast that the family’s doctor advised him to give up participation in games because he was burning up too much body energy. He managed hockey teams all through university and was the law school’s director of athletics. When he went into the law firm of S. Hart Green he also became secretary, and then president. of the AAU’s Manitoba branch, and in 1935, when he was thirty, he joined the executive of the Winnipeg rugby club as treasurer. The team operated that year far over its budget, he recalls. They'd started out on a budget of five thousand dollars, but they imported a handful of American players and the team squandered fourteen thousand dollars in winning the west's first Grey Cup. eighteen to twelve, over the Hamilton Tigers. A fellow named Fritz Hanson, who was lured from North Dakota for one hundred dollars a game, led the way. The Bombers, the new Grey Cup champions, returned from the east with treasurer Halter recording a loss of sixteen hundred dollars on the season.
During his eighteen years as a Bomber executive — he was president in 1942 and left the club to become the western league’s commissioner in 1953 — and in his five years in the top office. Halter has seen football’s budgets grow thirtyfive times higher than they were in his first year. Nowadays, the assistant trainer is apt to get as much as Fritz Hanson was paid, and each team spends at least half a million dollars a year. But Halter has nothing but optimism for the game’s future and has no patience with some club executives who feel the saturation point in spending has been reached and that a couple of rainy Saturdays can spell bankruptcy.
New faces for the parks
“In the east, all four teams are enlarging their parks and will be able to accommodate twenty-five thousand to thirty thousand people in a year or two,” he says. “In the west, it’s true that most clubs are a community effort operating on a non-profit basis, and that sound business requires a reserve. But look at Regina. It has a population of only eighty thousand and the park seats only thirteen thousand. Nevertheless, the Roughriders have still been able to build up a reserve of about $130,000. and they’re in no danger of going broke. With national television probable next year, all teams will benefit. An interlocking schedule between eastern and western teams could bring some new faces into the parks and provide appetizing fare for the fan.”
The whistle - blowers of the old Big Four and Western Conference will travel the country, providing uniform officiating in the new league. With all the new faces, the fans will need a program even to tell the officials. That’ll be all right with Halter — so long as no one tries to tell the officials off. ★