Remembering the Man




when my father died
it was like a whole library
had burned
down

-- Laurie Anderson


Every Remembrance Day in my life I have taken a few moments to think of my father. I have always made a point of calling him, but this year he is beyond contact. My personal library burned down a year ago this month.

Dad was a peaceful, people person who left his family farm in rural Nova Scotia at age 18 to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force. After a year of training in Ontario he served overseas in the last two years of World War II. Luckily for me he made it back in one piece, otherwise I wouldn't be around to write this.

Dad was many things to many people. I touched on some of his many interests in dedicating a published article to his memory in which I described him as a "family man, educator, community leader, WW II veteran, music lover, sports fan, and stroke unit volunteer". Since this blog is mostly about sports, I’ll just focus on that aspect of him here.

There were a few things about Dad that never wavered in the 52 years I knew him: he loved his country, he loved my mother, he loved the Toronto Maple Leafs and he loved the St. Louis (baseball) Cardinals. His watershed year was 1942, the year he met Mum, enlisted in the air force, and cemented his love of the two sports franchises that both happened to win their respective championships.

While training in Toronto, Dad finally got the chance to see the Leafs play. He bought a seat in the "greys", the upper reaches of Maple Leaf Gardens, for some ridiculous price like 70 cents. The last time I saw Dad, 65 years later, he spoke of this experience and still remembered the kindness of a total stranger who saw a man in uniform and brought him down to the reds to see the champs up close.

In those days Toronto had a ball team, also named the Maple Leafs, in the International League. Tickets were cheap and accessible so Dad went to a number of games. His favourite story, which he never tired of re-re-retelling, was of the time manager (and former major league star pitcher) Burleigh Grimes spit tobacco juice on an umpire. Dad loved a good rhubarb.

Dad's sporting heroes of those days were not just athletes but men of the first rank. Syl Apps was a clean-cut all-Canadian, an Olympian and a hockey star who, like many NHLers, interrupted his career to go overseas. Dad always had all day for players who did that regardless of their team affiliation, and he had particularly fond memories of Boston's unfortunately-named "Kraut Line" of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer who left the Stanley Cup champion Bruins late in the 1941-42 season to enlist in the RCAF together, subsequently missing over three seasons before reuniting after the war. According to Dad the RCAF had one heck of a hockey club during his time in training.

Similarly Dad had a tremendous amount of respect for Ted Williams, the oft-controversial, now cryogenic baseball star. The Splendid Splinter interrupted his storied career not once but twice to fight in WWII and the Korean war, shaving five prime years off a legendary career whose counting numbers (2654 hits, 521 homers) are still awesome but much less impressive than they should be.

But of all Dad's sporting heroes the one who remained highest on the pedestal was Stan Musial (statued, above). Stan the Man took the major leagues by storm, hitting .426 during a September call-up in 1941 before delivering the first of 16 consecutive seasons of .310 or better in 1942 when the Cards won the pennant and, to Dad's delight, upset the always-favoured Yankees in the World Series. The Cards would win the pennant again in 1943, 1944 and 1946, the gap explained by Musial's own absence in the Navy that caused him to miss the 1945 season. He returned to cop his second MVP award in '46 before leading the Cards to a thrilling 7-game squeaker over Ted Williams and the Red Sox. Dad never tired of telling -- and I never tired of hearing -- the story of Enos Slaughter scoring the winning run all the way from first base on a single, as Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky held the ball for an extra second, not realizing that Slaughter was not stopping at third. Amazingly, Pesky is still active in baseball, a bench coach for the Red Sox. I saw the occasion that he was honoured this past season and thought of Dad.

In 1948 Musial had one of the great seasons in baseball history, leading the National League in every hitting category except home runs, where his 39 dingers came up one short of the league leaders Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize. The difference between Stan the Man and the Triple Crown was a homer that got wiped off the books by a subsequent rain-out.

It is interesting to note that modern baseball metrics applied retroactively to historic figures reveal Musial to be one of the most underrated of baseball's great stars. According to
Wikipedia:

"The rise of Bill James and the extensive use of sabermetrics has enhanced Musial's credentials as not only one of the greatest of his generation, but of all baseball history. At Baseball-Reference.com, Musial is consistent among the various test leaders: He ranks fifth all-time among hitters according to the Black Ink Test (behind Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Ted Williams), third all-time on the Gray Ink Test (behind Cobb and Hank Aaron), tied with Barry Bonds for second in the Hall of Fame Career Standards Test, behind only Ruth, and ranks first among all hitters and pitchers on the Hall of Fame Monitor Test. Surprisingly, despite his towering reputation with statistic-based aficionados of the game, many common fans are unaware of his achievements, leading ESPN and other organizations to list him as the most underrated athlete of all-time"

Dad had the occasion to see Musial in person a few times over the years, notably a doubleheader against the Braves in Milwaukee County Stadium that the Cards swept, winning the nightcap on a Musial homer in extra innings. A few years later our entire family, en route from St. John's to Edmonton, gathered in that same stadium to see the same two teams meet. I was never quite sure if that was a lucky accident of timing, but it sure worked out. Musial was in his last great season, hitting .330 at age 41, but that day was rested, making a late-inning appearance as a pinch hitter. I was just 6 years old, and I remember Dad saying "Pay attention, you'll want to remember this" and I still do, more the moment than the outcome. There was a buzz in the stadium as one of the game's great gentlemen (3,026 GP, 0 ejections) took his place in the batter's box.

I never saw another live major league ball game with Dad but I can't tell you how many we watched on TV. We both loved the play-by-play commentary of former Cardinal Dizzy Dean and his sidekick Peewee Reese on the Game of the Week, perhaps the most unconventional broadcast team in television history. Dizzy took special delight when the pitcher got a hit, and when the game got boring he would take to singing "The Wabash Cannonball" in the late innings. He was also famous for such twisted commentary as, "I'm telling you Peewee, this here pitcher has just throwed up five straight curves."

In the fall of '63 Dad somehow managed to procure four of the hottest tickets in town and took us to an exhibition hockey game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the San Francisco Seals of the old Western League. We boys were all Leaf fans in those days; I had watched my first serious hockey the previous spring as the first-place Leafs rolled through the playoffs to their second of three straight Stanley Cups. So this was our own chance to see the champs up close. It was something of a barnstorming tour as the teams were playing themselves into shape Original 6 style, but the whole team was there and large as life just 8 rows or so down on the big ice surface of the Edmonton Gardens. No masks or helmets either, just the well-known faces of Johnny Bower, Tim Horton, Allan Stanley, Dave Keon, Red Kelly, Dick Duff, Bob Pulford, George Armstrong, Frank Mahovlich ... the most Hall of Famers I've ever seen on one team to this day. Of course the NHL proper was not even on Edmonton's radar at that point.

Dad and I did see a lot of football together. After our family's permanent move to Edmonton in 1971 we got season's tickets to the Eskimos from 1972 to 1983, stretching exactly from Tom Wilkinson's arrival in Edmonton to Warren Moon's departure and encompassing the greatest dynasty in CFL history. Too many tales for this already rambling essay, but the highest moment was probably the Fog Bowl, the 1973 Western final in which the lead changed hands six times in the second half before the Eskimos pulled it out 25-23 over the Green Riders on a late touchdown catch by Dad's favourite Esk, George McGowan.

In later years I had the opportunity to repay a small portion of my vast debt. I took Dad to a couple of WHA games after Gretzky arrived, and Dad recognized instantly what an extraordinary talent he was. He attended a few games here and there in the early NHL years, including what remains the finest regular season game I have ever seen, a 4-3 Oiler win over the champion Islanders in December of 1981. Gretzky set up the first three goals before scoring the winner with 1:02 to play, his 33rd in 32 games, keeping him ahead of Rocket Richard's 50 in 50 pace. Little did we know that later that month he would utterly destroy that record, but that Islanders' conquest might have been his best game of that entire season. Gretzky's game winner was hardly the end of the drama that night, as in the dying seconds the Islanders' bid for a tying goal was denied by a goal line save by Kevin Lowe.

A year and a half later I was able to score an extra ticket for Game 1 of the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals, the only SCF game Dad ever attended. That was the "Billy Smith game", in which Battlin' Billy made a 1-0 lead stand up from the sixth minute through the 60th, blanking the high powered Oilers with an evil admixture of great goaltending, goal posts, stick wielding, head games, and black magic. Results be damned, it was a great game, the best of that series, and vaulted the Islanders to their fourth and final title.

As I used to bug Dad, he remained a Leaf fan in the regular season but an Oiler fan in the playoffs. There wasn't a whole lot of reason for conflict, and when the two played one another in mostly meaningless contests we went our separate ways with good cheer.

Things took a serious turn for the worse in February 1984 when Dad suffered a major stroke that seriously disabled and nearly killed him. The doctors held out little hope for his future quality of life but he persevered and beat the odds by relearning to walk and talk. He was forced to retire from his job, but turned to volunteer work while maintaining his great loves of music, politics, and sports. Despite great difficulties in speaking he remained a people person whose positive attitude towards life was an inspiration to all who knew him.

Dad continued to follow the Cards, Leafs, Oilers, and Eskimos mostly on TV, and took great delight in the Oilers Stanley Cup triumphs in the subsequent years. Our season ticket days were done, but I was able to take him to a very occasional sporting event. It took great effort on his part so we really had to pick our spots. Eventually he and Mum left the snow and ice of Edmonton for the milder climes of Victoria, but our regular phone conversations would always turn to the latest developments in the world of sports. While the Leafs never did come around, the Cards developed another powerhouse in the current decade. Dad became a huge fan of Albert Pujols who continued the tradition of great Cardinals like Dizzy Dean, Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Ozzie Smith. To our delight, the Cards pulled off an unlikely World Series win in 2006, a few months after the Oilers had come oh-so-close to doing likewise. I still recall the phone ringing within minutes of the final out, my Dad's halting voice delivering the words I knew were coming: "The Cardinals have won the World Series!" His once booming voice was weakened by the stroke, but he was triumphant. I silently thanked the baseball gods that he had lived to see that day.

A year later he was gone, a week before Remembrance Day. He had lived his life to the fullest right up to his last days at age 83, having lived on borrowed time and made the most of it for 23 years. A brain scan taken in his last days showed fully a third of his brain had been ravaged by the stroke; the doctor was astonished by what this determined man had accomplished with what was left.

A year has past and on Remembrance Day I again reflect on the most important man in my life. I can't pick up the phone and call him, a particularly bitter pill today of all days. But I think of him often. On Saturday night I watched the Hall of Fame game, and thought of how he would have loved seeing his Leafs put the hurt on the Habs 6-3. I thought of how he would have delighted at the sight of Glenn Anderson, one of his favourite Oilers, finally get the recognition he deserved. And I thought of how he would have thrilled to see Gaye Stewart, who he had seen play for the Leafs that fall of 1942. Stewart would win the Calder Trophy that season before giving the next two years for his country, just as Dad had done. And I thought of how Dad would have wept at Stewart's beautifully composed reading of "In Flanders Fields". I know I did.

Lest we forget.




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