Burying a Local Legend

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Oct. 16) — I figured that if Ralph Platner made the effort to come to my Bar Mitzvah, I could go to his funeral.

Invitations were sent to neither of us and the events were separated by 42 years, eight months and ten days. But, we both showed up. And in Ralph’s zany world, attendance was all that really mattered.

If you live here in Toronto and follow sports, chances are you’ve heard and/or read about Platner in the past 72 hours. It isn’t often that a guy who sells programs at sporting events is written about on Page 3 of his country’s biggest newspaper. Platner was so honored by the Toronto Star Wednesday morning — two days after he died, at 67, of complications from a stroke. Baseball writer Brendan Kennedy crafted a touching piece. Given that Ralph had been a fixture at Toronto sports venues for half-a-century, a note in the local broadsheet was clearly justified.

But, page three?

“It just shows how prominent Ralph was,” said a mourner who attended Platner’s graveside service Wednesday afternoon at Mount Sinai Park in North York. The fact 200 other mourners were on hand for a guy that had no siblings or next of kin spoke to Platner’s legend. Had Wednesday’s story been written during his lifetime, Platner would have consigned to memory the number of words and characters; the date Kennedy was born, and all relevant information about the author’s extended family. Fifteen years from now, he’d have rhymed off the details in one breath.

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RALPH PLATNER’S FINAL WALK — AT MOUNT SINAI PARK CEMETERY.

Those speaking about Platner have struggled for an appropriate way to describe his quirky temperament — “odd” and “peculiar” most frequently mentioned. Here are a couple of better clues: Dustin Hoffman and 1988. Indeed, Ralph was every bit the “Rain Man” among Toronto sports figures; a savant of the highest order. When giving him a ride home from old Exhibition Stadium one night after a Toronto Blue Jays game, he turned to me and said “Berger, when were you born?” Ralph never once called me Howard, nor can I be certain he knew my given name.

“In 1959… why?” I answered.

“What date?”

“February 3rd.”

“Hmmmmmm, that was a Tuesday.”

“Yeah, how did you know?”

“Just something I can do,” he shrugged.

Something, indeed. Ralph’s brain had the incomprehensible computer-chip that quickly retrieved data the rest of us would have to look up on-line. That alone, while phenomenal, did not place him in an exclusive category. His social calendar in the 1970’s was an altogether different matter. Among Jews in the north part of Toronto, Ralph still holds the career record for “most Bar Mitzvahs attended without an invitation.” For reasons that likely defy logic, Platner became a regular at synagogue ballrooms in the city… thus his richly-earned handle as “Ralph the Bar Crasher.” To most of us, “crashing” a party implies a misdeed, or creating a disturbance. Not with Platner. He never had the slightest intention to cause trouble or even mingle among guests. A danish or two and Ralph was quietly on his way.

Unless you wanted to talk sports, music and politics with him. Or, more accurately, listen to Ralph talk sports, music and politics. He was then a guest of honor.

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RALPH PLATNER’S PAGE 3 SEND-OFF IN WEDNESDAY’S TORONTO STAR.

I was ushered into Jewish “manhood” at Beth Emeth Synagogue in North York on Feb. 5, 1972 – two days after my 13th birthday. With the reception well underway and mere morsels left on the desert table, there was no sign of Ralph. Reliability, however, was not an issue with the man that virtually never missed hawking programs at a baseball or football game in this city dating to old Maple Leaf Stadium in the early-1960’s. No sooner had I wondered about Ralph (already a regional “celebrity” from the Bar Mitzvahs of my older friends and cousins), the ballroom door opened and in peeped a severely under-dressed individual with a marine hair-do and spectacles thick enough to view the rings of Saturn. The Man had finally arrived only to lock eyes with me and scamper away. I dashed out into the hall; gave Ralph the “what took you so long?” shtick and invited him to join us.

That moment – more than four decades ago – came to mind as Ralph was lowered to his eternal resting spot on Wednesday. I felt both relieved and happy for my late friend that so many well-wishers gathered to see him off, having feared a small turnout for a man without immediate family. Instead, and thanks to Brendan Kennedy’s article, a couple of hundred people – most, undoubtedly, strangers to Platner – listened as Rabbi Chaim Strauchler of the Shaarei Shomayim Synagogue said that while “Ralph spoke in an awkward way, he had the ability to love people… and to be loved.” The graveside service had additional meaning for me as my parents, Sandee and Irv, were married at the Shaarei Shomayim on Mar. 16, 1958.

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AS MOURNERS GATHER, RALPH PLATNER IS LAID TO REST ON WEDNESDAY.

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His funeral day was one that Ralph liked — with a nip of Autumn in the air; trees in brilliant color; hockey underway and the baseball playoffs in full swing. Undoubtedly, it would have reminded him of the Blue Jays and their consecutive World Series triumphs in 1992 and 1993. Hours after he was laid to rest, the Kansas City Royals continued one of the most remarkable narratives in recent baseball lore. Royals are in the 2014 World Series after winning a record eight consecutive games to begin the post-season. A team accomplishing that in the Blue Jays years would have swept to baseball’s summit through the League Championship and World Series – there being only two best-of-seven playoff rounds. Today, there are a couple of other hurdles — the Wild Card Game and League Division series.

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ON THE TYPE OF COLORFUL AUTUMN DAY HE LIKED, RALPH PLATNER IS EULOGIZED (BELOW) BY RABBI CHAIM STRAUCHLER OF THE SHAAREI SHOMAYIM SYNAGOGUE.

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Platner had a bizarre yet gut-splitting sense of humor. Not many years ago, at a park close to where I grew up, I came across Ralph. For some frivolous reason, I would often ask him about a fictional book he’d like to write — just horsing around. On this occasion, he replied “An Evening With Moody Jackson.”

Moody Jackson?!

I hadn’t heard that name since the fleet punt and kickoff returner from New Mexico State played for the old Ottawa Rough Riders in the mid-70’s.

How did Ralph come up with these things?

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Approaching Gate 5 at Rogers Centre for a Blue Jays game just won’t be the same.

That was Ralph’s dedicated spot. He would stand behind a riser with stacks of programs in front of him. Occasionally, I would make a point of avoiding Ralph – a move which I somewhat regret today. His voice, with a slight lisp, carried for miles and he’d often summon me rather loudly. “Berger, what do you think of…” so and so? It’s not that I didn’t want to talk to Ralph. But, the stares from other people were a tad uncomfortable and the “Are you Howard Berger of The FAN?” inquiries would hold up whoever had accompanied me to the game.

But, now, I can honestly say that I’ll miss that bellow.

And, that fellow.

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THE SUN SETS ON WEDNESDAY, OCT. 15, 2014.

R.I.P. RALPH PLATNER… from your friends at the ‘Dome.

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