Wednesday, November 28, 2012

past pieces of toronto: maple leaf stadium

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on December 16, 2011.

The paid attendance figure said it all: 802. A venue with a capacity of 18,000 that had once crammed as many as 4,000 more people than that into it was going out with a whimper. The sparse number of fans who witnessed the last baseball game at Maple Leaf Stadium on September 4, 1967 didn’t even have the satisfaction of seeing the hometown Maple Leafs achieve a final victory. A 7-2 loss marked the end of upper-level minor league ball in Toronto and 40 years of play at the foot of Bathurst Street. Ironically, the winning team, the Syracuse Chiefs, later became the farm club for Toronto’s long-awaited major league ball club.

Yet Maple Leaf Stadium wasn’t far removed from its glory days. Under Jack Kent Cooke’s ownership during the 1950s, the Maple Leafs were one of the best draws in minor league ball, with stronger attendance figures than at least two major league clubs. In addition to the competitive team that won four International League pennants between 1954 and 1960, fans were drawn by an endless stream of promotions. As Louis Cauz noted in his book Baseball’s Back in Town, “every night seemed like New Year’s Eve. There were fireworks displays and fan appreciation days. Music blared whenever there was a lull on the field and fans left the park with ponies, baseballs, bats, caps and long chunks of salami.” Not to mention car giveaways, leggy actresses and milking contests.

Plans for Maple Leaf Stadium began when club officials saw attendance drop at the team’s Hanlan’s Point home during the mid-1920s. Despite a winning team, delays ferrying ticketholders on and off the island discouraged fans. Team president Lol Solman found a solution nearby, where the Toronto Harbour Commission had reclaimed seven acres of land at Bathurst and Fleet from the lake. Designed by the architectural firm of Chapman and Oxley, who were also responsible for nearby structures such as the Crosse and Blackwell Building (now OMNI television), Palais Royale, the Princes’ Gates and the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion, Maple Leaf Stadium only took five months to build.

Despite drizzle and temperatures barely above zero, over 14,000 fans witnessed Mayor Thomas Foster toss the first pitch on April 29, 1926. By the bottom of the ninth inning, fans were preparing to head home when the Maple Leafs, who were trailing the Reading Keystones 5-0, suddenly tied the game. Extra innings were few: a bunt by Toronto third baseman Del Capes in the tenth inning allowed outfielder Herman Layne to score. The victory was the first of many for the Maple Leafs that year: the team brought the International League pennant home to the stadium fans affectionately referred to as “Fleet Street Flats.”

By the 1960s, the stadium was viewed as a decaying relic unsuited for a step up in the baseball world. Though many baseball officials and sportswriters declared that Toronto was ready for the major leagues, Cooke repeatedly failed in attempts to lure new or moving franchises. Frustration mounted among fans; as Star sports columnist Milt Dunnell wrote in 1967, “Toronto regarded itself as a big league town. It refused to buy the minor league product any longer.” Both attendance and Cooke’s interest in the team declined. After Cooke sold his remaining shares in 1964, the owners who followed him struggled with disinterested fans, advertisers leery of promotions with little return, mounting municipal tax bills and battles with the stadium landlord, Toronto Harbour Commission.

The demise of Maple Leaf Stadium was swift. Despite interest from the likes of hockey Maple Leafs co-owner Harold Ballard, a month after the 1967 season ended the team was sold to interests who moved the franchise to Louisville, Kentucky. Demolition took place over the first half of 1968, which the Toronto Harbour Commission claimed was necessary due to fears that children who snuck into the decaying stadium would injure themselves. When the site was redeveloped for housing, one of the new streets was named Stadium Road in honour of the old ballpark.

Additional material from Baseball’s Back in Town by Louis Cauz (Toronto: Controlled Media Corporation, 1977) and the October 17, 1967 edition of the Toronto Star. Photo of Maple Leaf Stadium, circa 1950s, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 843.

Monday, November 12, 2012

e.t. phoned home, then complained to the toronto sun


As I once wrote in a Historicist column, it was hard to tell if longtime Toronto newspaper columnist McKenzie Porter believed everything he wrote or pulled the legs of innocent readers. His columns for the Telegram and the Toronto Sun are full of head-scratching passages that are hopefully meant to be satirical. Ranting about pooping is definitely humorous, defending apartheid in South Africa less so. The absurdity of Porter's columns fits comfortably with the contrarion streak that has always filled the Sun's pages.

While researching an upcoming article, I came across this beaut of a Porter column about the movie E.T. It’s one of the oddest attacks of the Steven Spielberg classic I’ve ever read. The film’s problem? It caters to idiots who project human qualities onto animals and other beings!

Source: the Toronto Sun, August 6, 1982
Please, please tell me that last line about eugenics was a joke…

Friday, November 02, 2012

past pieces of toronto: albert britnell book shop

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on December 2, 2011.

The Starbucks at 675 Yonge Street isn’t your typical branch of the corporate coffee giant. The walls are lined with sturdy old wooden bookshelves while the floor is a checkerboard of black and white. Why this location is not like the others is hinted at on the fa├žade. Look up to the second floor and you’ll notice a legendary name in Toronto bookselling: Albert Britnell. The quality of the literature on the shelves inside doesn’t always match the standards the Britnell family maintained for over a century of book retailing, but it’s a nod to the building’s past that comes in handy while waiting for a friend or first date.

English native Albert Britnell entered the book trade by working in his brother John’s bookstore in London. Both brothers moved to Canada in the 1880s, bringing with them several hundred volumes. After working together for a time, Albert established his own bookstore at 240 Yonge Street in 1893 and quickly established a reputation as a purveyor of collectible books, especially Canadiana. As the Globe noted in 1924, “it was not an unusual thing on a Saturday afternoon to meet in the shop professors, judges, eminent counsel, leading ministers, and always some politicians.” Among early regular customers were prime minister Wilfrid Laurier and Ontario premier Oliver Mowat.

A letter sent to Star book columnist Kildare Dobbs by reader Stewart Cowan in 1973 gave a sense of what the store was like while the founder ran it. If the two clerks in the front were busy, Britnell “would hurry forward to serve you and if you didn’t have an interesting talk about books, the fault was yours, not his. The mere fact that you were seeking a book made you a person of importance. And I had a feeling he never forgot you after the first contact.”

Besides books, Britnell dedicated himself to the temperance movement. Unfortunately, he may have pushed himself too hard crusading against the booze demon: during an October 1924 meeting of the Womens’ Voters League regarding an upcoming plebiscite on alcohol, 60-year-old Britnell suffered a fatal heart attack (a contemporary account noted “the excitement had been too much”). The business was taken over by his son Roy, who purchased 675 Yonge Street in 1927 and moved the store there a year later. The story goes that to test the ability of the new location to handle the weight of so many books, Roy ordered the building contractor to drive a dump truck onto the main floor.

Known for his suits and spats, Roy Britnell also developed the store’s special-order system, which took advantage of publishing warehouses in the city to quickly find whatever a reader wanted. The system also allowed the store to display a greater range of titles, with only one or two copies of most books sitting on shelves. The shop also became a place for writers to sign their works or browse.

By the late 1990s, the store appeared to weather the rise of megastores like Chapters and Indigo. While other independent book stores in the city fell like dominoes, Britnell reported record sales in 1998. But the family was growing weary of the book business—one generation was ready to retire, the next wished to pursue other interests. After determining that it was unlikely any buyer would be able to both purchase the building and carry on the business, the family announced that the store would close at the end of March 1999. Britnell’s special-order business, which was responsible for 60 per cent of sales, was sold to Books for Business, who continues to use the name for its wholesale operations.

During the wind-down, the sign in front read “extinction sale.” Inventory depleted faster than expected, leading to the store’s closure a month earlier than anticipated—on the last day, one customer walked out with $1,000 worth of reading material. Newspapers were full of reminiscences, including writer George Fetherling, who told the Star “It was a charming place, a great institution, a link with Toronto that is not only lost physically but practically passed from memory.” The building’s next main tenant decided, design-wise, that link shouldn’t be totally severed.

Additional material from the October 17, 1924 edition of the Globe, the March 1999 issue of Quill & Quire, and the April 4, 1973 and January 29, 1999 editions of the Toronto Star. Photo of Albert Britnell Book Shop taken between 1966 and 1972 by Ellis Wiley, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 113.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

passing thoughts as halloween passes by

Quick, name things you feared as a child.

For me, it was comic books, films, or TV shows involving transformation sequences or body horror. These scared the beejezus out of me, even if the transformation was merely implied and not shown, such as a deceased Chevy Chase going back to Earth as adorable mutt Benji in Oh Heavenly Dog (a movie which scared Roger Ebert, for other reasons).  At home, I couldn't handle the transition from Bill Bixby to Lou Ferrigno in The Incredible Hulk.

Hearing the Hulk theme music was the cue to scoot elsewhere. Why this shook me up was a good question - maybe I thought it was horrifying that a poor schlep could turn into a raging beast, that he was going through something so unpleasant I didn't want it to happen to me.