MICHAEL KESTERTON, THE YOUNGER YEARS, AND A BIT MORE. RIP

The unexpected can hit you in the solar plexus. Such was my feeling late December, when I received an email from a former colleague at the Globe and Mail giving me the sad news that the one-of-a-kind Michael Kesterton had died. He was best known to Globe readers as the genius behind the assemblage of arcane facts, news, trivia, miscellanea, humour and occasional bits of string that made up the paper’s beloved daily feature, Social Studies, which ran for 23 years. In the midst of all the superb journalism and writing that filled the Globe in those days when I was on the paper (smile), many readers turned first to Social Studies. A hit from the beginning, his unique creation – Twitter before its time – took up much of his obituary in the Globe. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books/article-social-studies-columnist-michael-kesterton-inspired-deep-loyalty-in/

But for me, the news meant the loss of someone I’d known for more than 50 years, and someone high on my list of unforgettable characters. We met at The Varsity, the University of Toronto’s thrice-weekly student rag. We quickly took to each other, bonding over a mutual love of quirky humour, irreverence and particularly, the “highly-esteemed” Goon Show, that wacky, BBC laugh-fest rebroadcast on CBC and a radio forerunner of Monty Python. To discover someone else addicted to the cult-like Goon Show was an unexpected joy, like the time I discovered a fellow Montreal Expos fan in a Chicago chocolate store. We revelled in our favourite lines. “Hold him up to the light, not a brain in sight.” Or: ”German prison camps were filled with British officers who’d sworn to die, rather than be captured.” Okay, one more: “Warm yourself by this woman. She’s just coming to a boil now….(sound of kettle whistle)…..There she goes!” Laugh, we thought we’d die.

Growing up in cosmopolitan Toronto, rather than in staid, nearby Newmarket as I did, Kesterton was hipper than yours truly (an admittedly low bar). He it was who first introduced me to the brilliant, satirical British weekly Private Eye, which I still buy every time I’m in Old Blighty. He was ahead of me in music, too. When, for some forgotten reason, Kesterton decided to shed his record collection, I wound up with some of his vintage blues records, Woody Guthrie’s classic Dust Bowl Ballads and the very first LPs by the Rolling Stones, when they were far more into covers of American “black” music than being the bad boys of rock and roll. I hadn’t hitched on to the Stones bandwagon until High Tide and Green Grass. Kesterton was there from the start. At the same time, he was forever coming up to me with some new bit of information about something interesting that had completely passed me by. There was little his curious mind missed.

Kesterton also stood out as an oasis of amiable, old-fashioned civility among all us wild and crazy Varsity types plotting to bring down the established order. (PS, we didn’t.) He was polite almost to an absurd degree. “Uh, Rod, I’m going over to Mac’s (a local student hangout) for something to eat,” he would say in his singular, low, quiet voice. “Is there anything I can bring back for you?” That cornball decorum qualified him as the kind of eccentric – in a good way — that student newspapers attract, and appreciate. And he was so funny. It was not your broad, belly-laugh humour, but rather a dry wit, full of quips and wry asides.

Kesterton was a fine reporter, but it was not his forte, even though we were all aware his uncle Wilf had written the definitive academic tome, A History of Journalism in Canada. He excelled at the off-beat, which was basically anything that let his drollery shine. Not many would start an art review as Kesterton did: “The expression ‘neo-classicism’ in most people’s minds conjures up a picture of a bunch of nude guys running around the French stock exchange, but it wasn’t like that at all, according to Hugh Honour.” Later in the review, he wrote: “The neo-classical movement was the first in history to have art critics. Enraptured by visions of a Greek and Roman world populated by naked youths who busied themselves with throwing the discus, they went into fits of praise over the ‘nobility’ of classical stonework.

“It was a great embarrassment to all concerned when Herculaneum was dug out of volcanic ash and it was found that the male phallus was omnipresently used in sculptures as a lamp stand, good luck charm, etc. This was a little less than noble.”

He was jack-of-all-trades – reporter, features editor, paper manager and art critic (see above) for the Varsity’s weekly Review, edited in 1968-69 by some wise guy named Michael Ignatieff. Another fine fellow, Bob Rae, did Books. The late Kaspars Dzeguze (also a good friend of Kesterton’s) presided over Film, once submitting a review of John Wayne’s The Green Berets that said only: “Shit.” It was, and we ran it. Design editor was Len Gilday, who went on to direct the acclaimed documentary Final Offer, featuring autoworkers’ union leader Bob White, as he took on General Motors across the bargaining table, with a strike hovering in the balance. I was assistant Review editor. Among all those stars-to-be, Kesteron and I had a lot of fun.

Unnaturally short in stature and socially very shy, he used to joke about suffering from dwarfism. Coupled with what seemed a fascination for gnomes, I could never tell how much he was kidding.

I left the Varsity in 1969 to seek my fortune in the same mainstream media we all railed against, securing an exalted position as sports editor of the Penticton Herald. Kesterton stayed on for another year as Varsity manager. “To this day, I have no idea what that meant,” confessed then editor Brian D. Johnson. But it was a perfect fit for Kesteron. He could do what he wanted.

Still, from afar, I wondered how he would fare without the relative safety net of university, which had safeguarded his social awkwardness, while protecting him from the need to earn a regular paycheque. In a typically Kesteron manoeuver, however, he did find employment at a newspaper, but not in the newsroom. He went to work in the obscure proofreading department of the Globe and Mail. Eventually, he emerged from its shadows to toil in the Globe’s business section, where he took on a number of mostly mundane responsibilities. That is until one day, Globe editor-in-chief William Thorsell, after a glance at Kesterton’s cubicle littered with clippings of abstruse items and funny stories, realized this was a mother lode to be mined. And Eureka! Social Studies was born.

Looking back, all those qualities he showed at the Varsity — eccentricity, lover of trivia, oddball facts and the offbeat, plus his quirky humour — came together for the success that was Social Studies. It was a wonderful case of someone who never quite fit in finding the perfect job for himself. By the end, he was one of the most cherished columnists at the Globe, complete with his own Wikipedia entry and two books featuring the best of Social Studies.

In 2007, the master of esoterica told a young journalist from Ryerson University’s annual Review of Journalism: “There are hundreds of reporters who can do a better job at [news stories] than I ever could… The light-hearted hack work that I am doing isn’t hugely important and will never win journalism awards, but I’m better at it than anyone I know and readers often love the columns and tell me so. There are worse ways to earn a living.” (The resulting feature is here: https://rrj.ca/social-studies-101/)

Kesterton was a throwback to the old Globe, a rather informal, easy-going place to work, where there was room for whimsy and characters, besides the paper’s terrific reporting. Kesterton would likely have felt adrift in today’s button-down, more serious version of Canada’s national newspaper.

Over the years, distance and different jobs inevitability loosened our friendship, but whenever we emailed back and forth, there were always the same old Kesterton jokes and wacky tidbits about people we knew. And I was relieved to learn from longtime Globe writer John Allemang that he lost none of his trademark peculiarity. Kesterton was part of the long-running baseball pool among number-crunchers in the paper’s Report on Business. Every year, he only selected players who were left-handed, as he was. He never came close to winning.

When I circulated news of Kesterton’s passing to some people from those Varsity days of long ago, they were, like me, shocked and saddened. Of course, part of it was nostalgia for our youth, but we also knew that Kesterton had been different, the kind of person you encounter maybe once in your life. He was, said Brian Johnson, “one of the most delightfully idiosyncratic characters I’ve ever met. He was a sweet soul.”

 

ME AND WILLIE O’REE

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Every now and then, the National Hockey League, even under Gary Bettman, does the right thing. So it was with the recent selection of Willie O’Ree to the Hockey Hall of Fame. O’Ree, 82, was chosen under the hallowed institution’s “builder category”, as the first black to lace ‘em up in the NHL and a long-time ambassador for youth and hockey diversity. In recent years, the honours have piled up for the likeable O’Ree. Banners raised, arenas named, ceremonies, inductions to other, more local halls of fame, and in 2008, the Order of Canada. O’Ree has taken it all in stride, evincing little bitterness over the setbacks and racist taunting he experienced at times during his long hockey career, which lasted until he was 43 years old.

Most of that time was spent in hockey’s minor leagues, a respectable place in those days to earn a few dollars, followed by a summer job to fill out the year’s earnings. Back then, there was nothing pejorative about being “a career minor-leaguer” like O’Ree. And he was a good one. All told, he scored more than 400 goals over 17 seasons, most of them in the Western Hockey League, which included the Vancouver Canucks before they jumped to the NHL in 1970.

Willie O’Ree played only 45 games in the National Hockey League. I was lucky enough to have been at Maple Leaf Gardens for one of them, and I have very clear memories of that magical night. It was my best friend’s birthday, and, baby-boomer parental indifference being what it was, (“go out and play”), we went on our own to the Gardens to watch the Leafs take on the Boston Bruins.

That meant taking the mighty Grey Coach bus from our sweet home town of Newmarket all the way into the big city, about 30 miles distant. This was different from daytime trips with the parents. As a young teen-ager, I remember being awed, and slightly intimidated, by the bright lights and nighttime crowds swirling along Yonge Street, particularly outside the legendary Brown Derby Tavern. But we made our way to the nearby Gardens and plunked down $2 each for standing room tickets. That was the only way to get in, since Leaf games were always sold out.

At the Gardens, you could stand behind the blues, which were best, the greens or the greys at the top of the rink, which were worst. From there, you could barely see the distant players through the haze of cigarette smoke.

 

We lined up in the cold with the other standees. An hour before game time, they opened the doors. Everyone rushed through the turnstiles and dashed frantically up the stairs to get a good place. Rather than risk being crowded out behind the blues, we opted for the lesser greens. We may have been the youngest guys there, but we didn’t care. We were at the Gardens seeing the Leafs, our hockey heroes, for a paltry few dollars.

I also knew that Willie O’Ree would be in the lineup for the Bruins. His historic first appearance had been the year before, but he suited up for only two games, before being shunted back to the minors.. Now he’d been called up again, and the Toronto hockey scribes had been writing about O’Ree and what a curiosity he was, a black player in the NHL. So I was curious, myself, to see him, in addition to rooting for the Leafs.

I watched him closely in the warm-ups, noticing what a fast skater he was. He also seemed to have a good, hard shot, based on the noise the puck made cannonading off the boards when he missed the net. It was fun to see him on the ice. But the Bruins were a last-place team, and the game went well for Toronto. As an added bonus, Johnny Bower, my all-time favourite player, made one of the best saves I’ve ever seen, Despite losing his goal stick, Bower hurled himself full length across the net to deny the Bruins a sure goal. The crowd rose as one in a roaring salute to the greatest custodian of the pipes the Leafs ever had.

oree_willie_action3But back to O’Ree. He didn’t do much in the game. Indeed, during his 45 games in the NHL, he amassed only four goals and 10 assists, which was not enough to keep him in the league beyond the 1960-61 season. Watching him, you could tell he had the speed to be an NHL-er, and he didn’t shy from mix-ups. Yet, he had trouble hitting the net and making those key passes to set up scoring opportunities.

Only much later in life did O’Ree reveal that an early injury had left him virtually blind in his right eye. He had kept it a secret, figuring, probably rightly, that few teams would want him if they knew he had full use of only one eye. No wonder he missed the target so often. I wasn’t the only one to notice it.

Boston teammate Don McKenney recalled a magazine article on O’Ree headlined “King of the Near Miss”, which highlighted the number of his shots that sailed wide. “I’m sure his eye problem was the cause of that because Willie O’Ree was an excellent hockey player in every other regard,” said the skilled McKenney, who occasionally centred a line with O’Ree and Jerry Toppazzini. In the same 2007 interview, McKenney noted exactly what little ol’ teenage me noticed from my perch behind the greens: “He was extremely fast and had a strong shot.”

So not only was O’Ree the first black to play in the NHL, he might have been the first one-eyed winger, too. Remarkable achievements on both counts.

Playing left wing, as he did, forced him to turn his head over his right shoulder to see a pass clearly. In 1963, however, while with the WHL’s Los Angeles Blades, wily coach Alf “The Embalmer” Pike, an off-season mortician who presumably knew something about the human body, sensed something was wrong with O’Ree’s eye. He switched him to right wing. O’Ree began to score like gangbusters. His 38 goals led the league that year, followed by four more 30-goal seasons, including one at the age of 39. One is left to speculate how good Willie O’Ree might have been with 20-20 vision in both eyes.

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As hockey’s black pioneer, O’Ree is often called the Jackie Robinson of the NHL. It’s a poor comparison. Taking nothing away from O’Ree’s breakthrough, the two situations are miles apart. Whether NHL owners were biased against blacks is an open question, but there was no rigidly defined colour bar as there was in baseball, forcing some of the best players in history to play in the Negro Leagues. Robinson’s signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers caused a sensation. O’Ree’s first NHL game was treated as more of an unusual footnote than anything else.

Outside of the Maritimes, from where O’Ree hailed, few black Canadians played hockey. A handful did well in the minor leagues and might have been denied a chance because of their colour, but there were no obvious stars. O’Ree deserves every credit in the world for preserving in the sport he loved from boyhood (“I loved the feel of the wind rushing by as I flew along the ice.”) and making history by making it to “the show”.

Back in Toronto, after the game ended, my friend and I streamed out of the Carlton St. Cash Box, as sports writers liked to call it, into the late-evening crowds, and headed to the bustling, grim bus terminal at Bay and Dundas for the return trip to Newmarket. We sat quietly in the darkened bus, as the miles flashed by, tired but happy. , It had been a wonderful night. The Leafs won 4-1, with the Big M, Frank Mahovlich, and a young rookie, Dave Keon, among the goal scorers. My hero Johnny Bower was the first star, and I had seen Willie O’Ree.

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THE GREATEST

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A tough week for us sports fans of another generation. Losing two great heroes of our youth: Muhammad Ali, and now, Gordie Howe (he never changed his name to Gordon..). This is about the champ.

It’s been said many, many times, but it remains true. Never again will we see the likes of Muhammad Ali. “For all you kids out there”, it’s difficult to convey just how dominant a figure he was during those first 20 years he reigned as by far the most beloved and admired athlete in the world. Evidence of his unsurpassed skill and courage in the ring are easily found on YouTube. And most accounts written after Ali’s death relate in great detail his bold, in-your-face defiance of white America. He stuck it to “the man’, as few had before, with his loudly-proclaimed conversion to the radical Black Muslims, his name change from Cassius Clay to (gasp) Muhammad Ali, announced while standing beside Malcolm X (another gasp), and most of all, his willingness to go to jail rather than be sent to Vietnam to kill people “who never called me nigger”.

Still, it’s not really possible to capture just what it was like to actually experience those years, when Clay/Ali bestrode the world like the proverbial colossus. With his flashing fists, dancing feet and outrageous, versified braggadocio, he opened up the narrow, closed confines of boxing to the great beyond, as no one had before. The charged anticipation for every one of his big fights was unsurpassed. It was as if a cloak had been thrown over everything else going on, except for Ali’s showdowns against Sonny Liston, or Joe Frazier, or George Foreman. Everyone listened, watched on big pay-for-view screens, or followed round-by-round dispatches sent out by the wire services. Long before social media, we were a global Ali community.

Nor can one quantify the extent of outrage and villification that spewed down on Ali when he turned his back on everything American. Even those who loved him as a boxer were confused by his decision to join the Black Muslims, an extremist, black separatist group led by the shadowy Elijah Muhammad, who was a long way from Martin Luther King. Yet, with everything to lose, and it did cost him big, Ali stood up for his rights as a black man, loudly and unabashedly, and was hated for it. No wonder he feared for his life.

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(The famous cover from Esquire.)

It was only after he returned to the ring, three and a half years after his title was taken away for refusing induction into the armed forces, that sentiment began to soften. He was now admired, rather than loathed, for remaining true to his convictions, and for his renewed prowess in the ring. No longer able to float like a butterfly and sting like bee, he harnessed raw courage, tactical brilliance, and a frightening ability to take a punch that almost certainly contributed to the Parkinson’s Disease that finally silenced him to claim the heavyweight crown two more times. From the dusty villages of Africa, to the streets of Iraq, to the halls of presidents, he was celebrated and loved. It’s a lesser world without him, even reduced as he was over the years by the relentless scourge of his illness.

I saw Muhammad Ali, once. It was in Pyongyang in 1995, at the strangest event I’ve ever been at. For reasons known only to its alien-like leaders, the crackpot regime of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea staged a series of professional wrestling bouts before upwards of 150,000 bewildered North Koreans at the city’s massive public stadium. They called it the Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. Participants were all from the Japanese wrestling circuit. They included the usual gang of archetypal villains in evil, spiked costumes, tough-looking women with blue hair, Canadian Chris Benoit, the legendary Ric Flair and Antonio Inoki, the most famous grappler in Japan.

The matches took place in almost total silence, as spectators had no idea what to make of competitors slamming their opponents’ head into ring posts, jumping on them from the top of the ropes, or hurling them out of the ring and stomping on them. The only hook for the absurd event seemed to be a tenuous connection between North Korea and Antonio Inoki. His early mentor was Rikidozan, founder of professional wrestling in Japan, who happened to have been born in what became North Korea. That was enough for Rikidozan to qualify as a national hero and for the wacky poobahs of DPRK to stage an entire festival around the first showdown beween Ric Flair and Inoki. Most of the Beijing press corps, complete with cameras, microphones and tape recorders, were among the select group of “tourists” invited to attend.

Just when I thought Wrestling Night in Pyongyang couldn’t get any more bizarre, they announced the presence of Muhammad Ali. But of course. Wasn’t he the world’s greatest athlete, North Korea the world’s greatest country, and the Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace the world’s greatest festival? To the organizers, it made perfect sense. Besides, Ali had once fought Inoki, himself. In the most ridiculous match of all time, Inoki spent all 15 rounds on the mat trying to kick his opponent’s legs, while Ali threw a grand total of six punches. You can look it up. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3vOssizwW4

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Anyway, there was Ali, unmistakeable in the stands. The crowd applauded politely, not quite sure how to greet a representative of the “Yankee wolf”, as English phrase books in North Korea labeled the USA. The champ half stood up and gave a half wave. Even from far away, I was thrilled.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to something I wrote a couple of years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Ali first great victory, his upset over the feared Sonny Liston to give him his first heavyweight championship. Looking back, I still find it hard to believe someone as wonderful and outlandish as Muhammad Ali really existed. As my original blog confesses, however, I was one of Cassius Clay’s many early doubters, a belief that socked me right in the wallet. But I was so spurred by the magnitude of his triumph that I tried a bit of Clay doggerel, myself, for the school yearbook. May you survive it, and may Muhammad Ali be sitting on the right hand of the black God he worshipped. We will never forget him.

SONNY LISTON OWES ME BIG

Fifty years ago today, I turned on the radio, smug in the belief that this was going to be the easiest dollar I ever made. That brash, upstart, crazy Cassius Clay was finally going to get his long overdue comeuppance, his taunts and boasts rammed down that big throat of his by the meanest, scariest fighter who ever lived, Sonny “The Bear” Liston.

An ex-con whose baleful scare frightened even hardened sportswriters was violence personified in the ring, Liston had twice taken on the skilled, much-loved former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Patterson didn’t make it past the first round in either fight, hammered early to the canvas both times by Liston’s murderous fists. Few fighters dared to face him, despite the big payday of a heavyweight championship match.

Not so, Cassius Clay (the “slave name” that he later changed to Muhammad Ali….you may have heard of him…). Just 22, with thefastest mouth in showbiz but a spotty  record of dispatching ho-hum opponents, Clay had the audacity to challenge the seemingly invincible  Liston.  Not only that, he openly and repeatedly taunted Liston, even yelling at him outside his house in the middle of the night. An even-keel Liston was frightening, enough. Now, the Louisville Lip had made him mad. Yikes.

Some worried Clay might not even survive the fight, and just about everyone expected Liston to pulverize him in short order. Everyone, that is, except my friend Gary Toporoski, a bit of a loud-mouth in his own right. (sorry, Gary…). “Topper” was completely convinced Cassius Clay really was “gonna whup that big ugly bear”.  Why? Well, it seems he had seen Cassius Clay’s guest appearance on a CFTO sports show, and Clay started the show by flicking an array of lightening jabs at the camera.  “He’s sooo fast,” said my enthralled Newmarket High School friend. “There’s no way Liston can beat him. He’s too slow.”

I told him he was nuts. We decided to bet on the fight, something I’d never done before. In fact, I was so confident Liston would prevail, I even gave Toporoski the going 7-1 odds. His dollar against my seven.  I had already decided to treat myself to a hamburger at the Newmarket Grill with my big winnings. Instead, of course, I ate crow.

With a heavy but wiser heart, I handed Gary seven smackers (a lot of money in them there daze) at school the next day. He only said “I told you so” about 84 times. I’ve never bet on a match since.

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Months later, still stung, I burst forward into doggerel for the 1964 school yearbook. Move over, Longfellow.

THE INCREDIBLE UPSET

The Bear was ugly, mean and detested.

Only once in a fight had he been been bested.

The Louisville Lip had no more chance

To whip the Bear than the Premier of France.

 

But came that decisive night in Miami,

Cassisus Clay had some sort of whammy.

For he blasted the myth that the Bear was too strong.

He proved he could box, as well as talk long.

 

In the fifth, when not a thing could he see,

He displayed some footwork that baffled Sonny.

With a continual jab and by dancing around,

The man with the mouth survived that tough round.

The Bear was a Cub by the end of round six.

The fans in the Hall began to yell “Fix!”.

For he threw in the towel to the man he despised,

And Cassius Clay had our opinions revised.

 

He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

His speed had conquered the ferocious Sonny.

Clay’s gift of the gab was far from the latest,

But who could deny that he was “the greatest”?

— Montana Worthlesswords (c’est moi)

Here’s the famous fight that made losers out of both Sonny Liston and me.

 

 

AL ARBOUR, THE GUY WITH THE SPECS

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One of the fun things about growing up in Newmarket, Ontario, besides knowing where all your teachers lived for purposes of Hallowe’en, was being able to root for the Toronto Maple Leafs the last time they were a truly great hockey team. Under the hard-nosed but savvy guidance of coach Punch Imlach, the team won three straight Stanley Cups – 1962-1964 – and copped a surprise fourth Cup in 1967, the final year of a six-team NHL. They haven’t come close to winning since. But of course, that was only half a century ago….

Back then, my hockey heroes were anyone who wore the big maple leaf, although a special place in my “love bug” was reserved for Johnny Bower, ageless custodian of the pipes, as the knights of the keyboard liked to call him, and The Entertainer, aka Eddie Shack. And, lest we forget, both also made a contribution to the world of music, Mr. Bower with his classic Honky The Christmas Goose and Mr. Shack, subject of the equally immortal Clear the Track, Here Comes Shack.

But I loved all the players, as only kids can, including the guys who didn’t get much ice time. And here I am thinking of good old Alger “Al” Arbour. Although he never came close to making an all-star squad, everyone who followed hockey in those days knew the lanky, durable defenseman. Not only was he a fearless shot blocker, he did so while wearing glasses. 1958-59 topps 64 al arbourImagine that. Hurling yourself in front of slapshots, face first, with nary a thought of what might happen if the puck shattered your prominent specs. That was Al Arbour, as courageous a player as the NHL ever had. In fact, he was the last guy in the NHL to wear glasses on the ice. No contact lens for him. He really stood out for us kids. Sure, a Gordie Howe hockey card was treasured, but so was the card of the guy wearing glasses. It just seemed so insane.

Alas, for all that, Al Arbour was hardly one of the league’s elite blueliners He was slow, and his shot would barely shatter glass, let alone his own spectacles. In 712 games, he registered a mere 13 goals and 66 assists. Still, you never heard a goalie complain about having Arbour out there, as he dove to stop yet another cannonading drive with his body, before it reached the net.

The Leafs were one of Arbour’s four NHL teams. He was there when they won the Stanley Cup in 1962 and 1964. But he had the misfortune of being the fifth defenseman on a team that had two of the best defense pairings in the league: Tim Horton and Allan Stanley, and Carl Brewer and Bobby Baun. The four of them played together for years. It’s not like today, when defensemen are switched around like Parcheesi pieces. On the Leafs, ice-time for Arbour was always a rarity.

Yet it was always a thrill when broadcaster Bill Hewitt would announce his presence on the ice. You felt he was an underdog, too, scuffling for his place among the big boys, as was I in Grade Nine. Despite his lack of flash, I don’t remember him ever making a careless play.

Plus, he was a factor in one of my favourite anecdotes from the good old days of Six-Team Hockey. Punch Imlach was a big fan of the unorthodox, and if that meant putting his five oldest players on the ice during the last minute of the last game of the 1967 Stanley Cup final, he did so. Anyway, one night, with the score close, for reasons known only to himself, Imlach ordered the slow-moving Arbour over the boards to take the face-off and play centre. Unabashed, Arbour calmly stood up and said in a loud voice to the equipment guy: “Get me my stick-handling stick.”

Later, Al was the brains behind the bench of one of the most successful franchises in NHL history, the New York Islanders of the early 1980’s. He was the main reason I became a firm fan of the Isles, who won four successive Stanley Cups, with the no-nonsense, mournful-looking Arbour at the helm. http://www.lighthousehockey.com/2015/9/1/9242695/nhl-islanders-video-tributes-al-arbour

Al Arbour died last week at the age of 82. The hockey world is already a poorer place.

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ANNE OF GREEN GABLES AND THE DEATH OF ‘GILBERT BLYTHE’

statements_524456 Social media reaction to the unexpected death this month of Canadian actor Jonathan Crombie, who so memorably played Gilbert Blythe in Anne of Green Gables, came almost entirely from the distaff side. Not too many guys were fans of the movie, I guess. Well, I’m a fan. A big one.

Like many of my gender, it seems, I was originally pretty dismissive of the whole Anne of Green Gables thing. Who cares about the adventures of some spunky 11-year old orphan girl in turn-of-the-20th century Prince Edward Island? She hates her red hair. Boo hoo. Bring on Anna Karenina.

But my mind was changed when I went to what I had hoped would be a party at a friend’s house, only to discover all the women heading into the TV room to watch Anne of Green Gables. Thinking they couldn’t possibly be serious, I tried cracking a few jokes. They told me to be quiet. So I reluctantly sat down to watch, too. Of course, much to my surprise, once I parked my prejudices by the door, I was charmed. No violence, except for Anne smashing her slate over poor Gilbert’s head, no sex, no deafening sound effects. Just a tender, perfectly made movie, with a superb cast.

Could anyone have been better than Megan Follows as Anne Shirley, Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla and Richard Farnsworth as dear Matthew, the loveliest man on the face of the earth? Then, there was Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert Blythe, the sweet-natured soul tortured by his love for the spirited but flinty Anne. Opinion was divided. He didn’t fit everyone’s idea of Gilbert from the book, and at times, he did appear a bit awkward on screen, a tad too old for the part (18 when the movie was filmed). Others found him perfect. Over time, however, since this is a movie that effortlessly absorbs repeated viewings, even those of us who were at first reluctant have grown to cherish him, too, along with everything else about this fine Canadian film. Anne-07 There’s much to be said for a movie that tells a good story, that’s well-acted and gently escapist enough to let you forget about that increasingly bad old world outside. It’s also unapologetically Canadian, in the good sense of that fine word. So, if you’re like I used to be and still dismissive of Anne of Green Gables, now’s the time to give it a whirl, surrender to its charm, and mourn Jonathan Crombie. He was 48, but forever young as Gilbert Blythe.

Here is a full length obituary of Crombie from Saturday’s Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/television/dreamy-gilbert-blythe-actor-jonathan-crombie-loved-the-stage/article24124077/

And this is an excellent piece from the Guardian that praises the character Gilbert Blythe as superior to many other rejected mail suitors in literature : http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/24/jonathan-crombie-dead-gilbert-blythe-novel-anne-of-green-gables

P.S. A sequel, Anne of Avonlea, was pretty fair, as sequels go, but the less said about Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story the better. Anne and Gilbert don’t belong on the battlefields of World War One.

A further personal postscript. My aunt loved Anne of Green Gables and Canada’s most famous author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, her entire life. She read all the Anne and Avonlea books. Having grown up on a farm in the Fraser Valley, the bucolic splendor of Montgomery’s PEI gave her nothing but pleasure. As noted above, I kind of sniffed at this “defect” in my beloved Auntie Gret with that knowing smugness of someone pleased with himself for being into “serious” literature. Don’t need no stinkin’ girlie stuff! But was won over by the movie.

UnknownMy mother, a high school English teacher, was slow to warm to Anne of Green Gables, too. But my aunt’s view had prevailed  by the time she compiled her pioneering textbook in 1973 with the pulsating title, Canadian Literature, Two Centuries in Prose. Believe it or not, this was the first book designed to introduce high school and college students to our own country’s literature in one distinct volume. And she did not hesitate to include an excerpt from Anne of Green Gables, defending it as far more than a “children’s classic”, with its universal Cinderella theme (Jane Eyre, Pygmalion) and particularly Canadian motif of nostalgia for a world of peace and protection.

Later, we all shared the joys of the long-running, spin-off CBC series, Road to Avonlea, that introduced us to the remarkable Sarah Polley. The series also featured fine Canadian actors R.H. Thompson, Cedric Smith, Lally Cadeau, and of course, the late Jackie Burroughs as the indomitable Aunt Hetty. Sure, it wasn’t The Sopranos or The X-Files, or anything like that, but it was well-made, entertainment that everyone in our diverse family could enjoy. We were in China, my brother’s family was in Thunder Bay, Auntie Gret was in Burnaby, and my mom and sister were in good old Newmarket. Watching it made us all feel together, despite our vast separations. There’s a lot to be said for that. (My brother’s step-daughter loved Sarah Polley in the series. When she heard that young Sarah lived with her father in Aurora, just south of Newmarket, she and my sister ferretted out her address to say ‘hi’, but no one was home.)

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Yet the author who created all this enchantment, Lucy Maud Montgomery, had such a sad personal life, herself. She made an unfortunate, late marriage to a minister who suffered from deteriorating mental health. Despite the world-wide fame of Anne of Green Gables, such were the times that Montgomery loyally followed her husband to his modest church posting in Uxbridge, not that far from Newmarket. Their two children disappointed her. Acutely lonely and battling her own depression, she tried to escape by churning out more and more Anne-style books set in Prince Edward Island. They sold well, but there was only one Anne of Green Gables.

Years after she died in 1942, her personal journals were published. They sold well, attracting many new readers with her Unknownfrank, adult descriptions of her struggles with life and the hardships of being a woman, long before feminism. My mother and my aunt read every word. When Auntie Gret came east for a visit, she and her sister went prowling around the wilds of Kettleby and mighty Zephyr, looking for the manse where Lucy Maud lived with her difficult husband. Sort of like us younger folk searching out Dylan landmarks in Hibbing.

When my aunt was forced to move into an assisted-care facility, she took only one book with her. It was, of course, her life-long companion, Anne of Green Gables.

FAREWELL, THEN, MINNIE MINOSO

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What is it about being a kid that makes you attach yourself to certain ballplayers, none of whom you’ve ever come close to seeing in a real game and only rarely on television? Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax were obvious targets for our affection, of course, although in my schoolyard it was always either Mantle or Mays, never both. Even when I was barely knee-high to a Baltimore Chop, this lifelong Yankee hater was a Mays man all the way.

harmonkillebrewBut the guy who really had the number one claim on my heart was Harmon Killebrew, a big, strong-armed power hitter from the potato state of Idaho. He was hardly Mr. Colourful. Asked once whether he had any hobbies, the devout Mormon thought for a moment. “Just washing the dishes, I guess,” the soft-spoken slugger eventually replied. So why did I latch onto Killebrew, from among all those flashier stars? Other than the fact that he was a hell of a hitter, who knows? It’s just one of those unfathomable mysteries of youth. But he remained my favourite ballplayer for 15 years, until his retirement in the mid-1970’s.

Another ballplayer I loved almost as much in those lazy, hazy carefree days of baseball was good old Minnie Minoso. He found his way into my young heart through the usual vehicle of silent box score and baseball cards, plus the entrancing rhythm of his name. I knew nothing about him, really, other than that he stole a lot of bases, played the game with enthusiasm, and, a solid clutch hitter, he knocked in a lot of runs. But most of all, as a kid, what was there not to love about someone baptized Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Minoso Armas, who gave himself the sweet tag of Minnie Minoso?

As he kept on playing, oblivious to Father Time’s order to hang up his spikes, my fondness grew. He didn’t seem to know the meaning of retirement. When his major league career was done, the ageless Minoso drifted down to the Mexican League, where he played through his 40’s. At the age of 45, he hit .359 to win the Mexican Winter League’s batting title. In his final season, by then nearly 48, he played 120 games, hit 12 home runs, knocked in 83 runs and batted.265. Three years later, Minoso was brought back to his beloved White Sox by owner Bill Veeck, the best baseball impresario in all the world. Two months short of his 51st birthday, Minoso faced major league pitching for the first time in 12 years. He went one for eight, knocking a single off a Sid Monge fastball. That made him the fourth oldest player in big league history to get a hit. The Gordie Howe of baseball. (Minoso might have been even older for these landmark moments. His birth date tended to bounce around like a Mexican jumping bean.)

Someone with a lot of time on his hands added up everyone’s major and minor league lifetime statistics, and figured out that Minoso stood second, behind only Pete Rose, on the list of most total hits in professional baseball. Ty Cobb was third.

Much later, I learned that the Cuban-born star was also a baseball pioneer, the first black from Latin America to play in the allyn2majors, suiting up with the Cleveland Indians in 1949, and the first black to play for the Chicago White Sox. That was in 1951. In his first at bat, he hit a home run, launching a lengthy tenure with the White Sox that made him one of the most popular players in team history, with his own statue at what I will still call Comiskey Park.

When Minoso passed away a few days ago, there was universal sadness at the loss of someone whose embrace of the joy of baseball was unsurpassed. I’m also sure I wasn’t the only one taken aback by his death, despite his many years on Planet Earth. Heck, if anyone could defy the odds and live forever, surely it would have been Minnie Minoso. I kind of thought he would live forever.

Here’s the NYT obit on this great man. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/02/sports/minnie-minoso-dies-treasured-white-sox-ballplayer.html?_r=0 Even better, if you’re obsessed, like I am, about Minnie Minoso, and have a few spare moments, this is a marvellous, definitive look at his long career, with incredible detail and photos from his days in Cuba and early years in the majors. Outstanding. http://www.cnlbr.org/Portals/0/Hero/Orestes-Minoso.pdf

Fidel Castro Sitting Next to Baseball Player Minnie Minoso

(Actually, Minoso hated Castro and left Cuba, never to return, in 1961. But late last year, after President Obama announced a landmark rapprochement with his homeland, Minoso expressed the hope that he might now go back and revisit the sugar cane fields where he laboured as a youth.)

Meanwhile, although I never saw him play, I do have one Minnie Minoso anecdote. It goes back to my time in Newmarket, Ontario, when our gang of four seemed to be the only true-blood baseball fans in town. Besides myself, there were Doug Cane, Dennis Myers and the great Paul Ingledew, who might have been a slugger in his own right, except for a bad eye.

One evening, we were playing home run derby. You got three tries an inning to hit the ball far enough for a homer. We had set up Ingledew’s bike out in the field as the home run marker. But it was too far. As dusk approached, not one of us had even come close to belting the ball over the bike for a homer. Up came Paul Ingledew for his final at bat. For who knows what reason, he suddenly announced in a loud voice: “Pinch hitter, Minnie Minoso!” Whereupon, he whacked a towering blast that soared way over his heretofore-unreachable bike for the only home run of the game. We laughed ourselves sick. Then we went home.

RIP, Minnie Minoso. And shame on all those sports writers who broke your big heart by keeping you out of the Hall of Fame. “Even if it hurts on the inside, I will always be smiling on the outside,” said Minnie, after falling short once again in 2011.

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GOD BLESS US, EVERYONE

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First of all, a big, blustery “Hum……bug!” to CBC, which is “celebrating” Christmas Eve by showing the washed-out, colourized version of A Christmas Carol, the one with Alastair Sim at his most brilliant as the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge. All the gloom, dark shadows and winter bleakness that are such a part of the classic 1951 British version of Dickens’ oft-filmed tale are gone, in return for vapid browns and greens. I could barely bring myself to watch the promos. When it comes to CBC management, I am forced to ask, as Scrooge did: “Are there no prisons.”

To make up for this travesty, I offer those of my blog followers who are as devoted to A Christmas Carol as I a pair of web stocking stuffers sure to delight them. But first, a few preambles.

“Waiter. More bread!….Ha’penny extra, sir…..No more bread!”

“Business???!! Mankind was my business!”

“Fetch down Master Scrooge’s box!”

“Isn’t that old Fezziwig?”

“It’s such a goose, Martha!”

“The one as big as me? It’s hanging there, still.”

“I don’t deserve to be so happy….Label, label, label, label, label.”

“Merry Christmas, Mister Scrooge. In keeping with the situation.”

“You’ve made Fred so very ‘appy.”

“I am behind my time, sir. I was making rather merry yesterday….I’m sure you were. Step this way, Mr. Cratchit. I’m not going to put up with this sort of thing, any longer. Which leaves me no alternative…but to raise your salary…. No, I haven’t taken leave of my senses, Bob. I’ve come to them.”

Yes, like millions, I watch it every year, as much a part of my Christmas tradition as the pudding singing in the copper. I know as many of the wonderful lines as those in Casablanca. (Come to think of it, both Scrooge and Rick turn from cynics into guys with a heart, however bruised…a similarity little remarked upon….until now.)

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And so it came to pass, long ago, in the little town of Newmarket, that I first became aware of Dickens’ classic tale. On a snowy morning just before Christmas, a time no one referred to as ”the festive season”, all the kids on our street were talking about what they had seen on television the night before. Something about ghosts and chains and a mean old guy named Scrooge and being scared out of their wits. It was, of course, Alastair Sim and A Christmas Carol. But, like the Cratchits without a turkey, we were a family without a television. So it was not until a year or two later, when a small “idiot box” finally made it into our house, that I finally got to see A Christmas Carol for myself.

My appetite for the movie, which is perfect in every way, was whetted by our Grade Seven teacher, who might have been our own version of Scrooge. She was the meanest, crabbiest, fiercest teacher you could imagine, with a well-used black strap she didn’t hesitate to use on whomever might be in her bad books on a particular day. But as Christmas approached, she miraculously turned into a big softie. We sang Christmas carols, put up decorations, and best of all, she read us Charles’ Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It was if she, too, had been visited by the Three Spirits.

Before there were videos, my mother, who also loved the movie, would scour the TV listings every Christmas Eve to see which channel was playing Alastair Sims’ great tour-de-force, and when. Once, I seem to recall, the only showing was midnight on CKVR in Barrie. We watched late into the night, barely disturbing Saint Nick as he filled our stockings ng with such care. Like Christmas Day without Martha in the Cratchit household, it would not have been Christmas Eve without A Christmas Carol.

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But last week, I did something completely different. For the first time since Rocket Richard retired, I read good old Dickens’ original. Verrrrrrrry interesting, as they say. Many scenes in the movie were taken directly from Dickens, word for word. However, much to my surprise, some of the best bits were not even hinted at in the book. They were the creation of the movie’s perfectly-named screenwriter Noel Langley. He did the seemingly impossible. Yes, folks. In my opinion, believe it or not, the movie version is better!

The sheer, unbridled giddiness that courses through the movie Scrooge on Christmas Day, with Sim prancing around in his nightgown, standing on his head, scaring himself in the mirror, frightening Mrs. Dilber before giving her a guinea, hollering at the boy to buy the turkey, and on and on, far surpasses what’s in the book. And is any scene more wonderful than the 1951-xmas-maidheart melting moment when the reformed Scrooge hesitates nervously before going into his nephew’s drawing room? He receives a nod of encouragement from the sweetest maid in the history of filmdom. With the strains of Barbara Allen playing softly in the background, I choke up every time.

Okay, enough of me. Here are those promised treats. First is a definitive account of all the scenes from the 1951 movie that were not written by Dickens. That’s followed by the pièce de résistance, an interview with the young actress who played the maid all those years ago. It was her last appearance before the cameras.

http://www.sheeplaughs.com/scrooge/alastairsim.htm

http://dickensblog.typepad.com/dickensblog/2013/05/meet-the-maid-an-interview-with-theresa-derrington-cozens-hardy.html?cid=6a010536c2d604970c019101ddedd5970c

As Stompin’ Tom liked to say: Merry Christmas, everybody!

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