By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Apr. 7) — You don’t have to be Jewish to remember the first–ever Toronto Blue Jays game. But, it doesn’t hurt.
It’s amazing how many friends of mine recall feeling so desperately cold and hungry 38 years ago this afternoon at Exhibition Stadium. Cold, because it was snowing and windy here in town on Apr. 7, 1977. Hungry, because ethnic conscience — at the time, anyway — prompted many of us to bring a matzo sandwich to the ballpark. That’s right — a matzo sandwich. If not among the “chosen people,” try it one day. Watch it crumble into incalculable pieces on your lap. Tabulate how much of the hardened wallpaper–paste actually makes it down your throat. Then, imagine doing it outside on steel benches in below–freezing weather. I guarantee you’ll still have quite an appetite when you’re finished.
This was my world for three excruciating hours 456 months ago today. I recall how me and my pals boasted about skipping high–school to attend the historic first Blue Jays game. Officially, 44,649 shivering souls turned out at the old CNE park. Un–officially, more than three million were on hand. People not even born that day lie about being at the game. It’s the reason I’ve kept my ticket stub in Sec. 10, Row 22, Seat 34 all these years. Had I remained in that weather 30 minutes longer, the Blue Jays–White Sox encounter would’ve been part of my obituary.
For the love of God, no human should have been outside that afternoon on the north shore of Lake Ontario. Even the seagulls were smart enough to stay away and bide time until real baseball weather arrived in Toronto. Trying to gnaw on my crusty sandwich was futile. Splinters of matzo and gobs of egg–salad (if I recall) littered the cement beneath me. I used both hands to help my frozen jaw move up and down on the limited portions in my mouth. And, all the while, these valiant baseball players somehow executed 8½ innings of the 1977 season opener. Bill Singer threw the first pitch to Ralph Garr of Chicago. Plate umpire Nestor Chylak called it a strike. The late Doug Ault — remember him? — smacked a pair of home runs for the Blue Jays. Long before the final out, I was watching Don Chevrier and Tony Kubek call the game on CBC from the warmth of my parents’ den. I bailed after four innings. The biting cold was too much… and there was a hockey game to attend that night.
ENDURING PROOF (TOP–LEFT) OF MY ATTENDANCE FOR THE FIRST–EVER TORONTO BLUE JAYS GAME 38 YEARS AGO THIS AFTERNOON AT SNOWY EXHIBITION STADIUM.
I wanted to thaw out and have a bite of dinner before heading back downtown to watch the Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 2 of a best–of–three preliminary Stanley Cup playoff series. Toronto had won the opener at Civic Arena two nights earlier and was poised to eliminate the Penguins at Maple Leaf Gardens. That plan went up in smoke when the visitors took a 3–0 lead in the first period and won the match, 6–4. It guaranteed that Apr. 7, 1977 would be a microcosm of professional sport in our city. The fledgling Blue Jays were expected to lose; the soaring Maple Leafs to win. Naturally, it happened in reverse.
So, this date always brings to mind the inaugural Major League game in Toronto. Up in the Hewpex Radio broadcast booth, Tom Cheek called his first of a remarkable 4,306 consecutive Blue Jays games — a streak that lasted more than 27 years before Tom attended his Dad’s funeral and missed a game in Oakland on June 3, 2004. Tragically — and, again, remarkably — Tom would be absent once more just nine days later (June 12) to undergo surgery for a malignant brain tumor. Cancer took his life at age 66 on Oct. 9, 2005. Having developed a strong friendship with Tom and his wife Shirley while writing Tom’s autobiography (below) after the Blue Jays won the 1992 World Series, Apr. 7 each year brings to mind one of the nicest couples I met during my tenure at The FAN–590.
YOUR FATHER’S MAPLE LEAFS
They didn’t win the Stanley Cup. In fact, they didn’t come close. But, there’s something about the character–rich Toronto Maple Leafs of the mid–to–late–70’s that continues to resonate. Just tune in (or be on hand) the next time a player from that era is introduced in a pre–game ceremony at the Air Canada Centre. Not even the youngest Leafs fan will need to ask, “Who is that?” No team other than Montreal was going to win the Stanley Cup back then. Scotty Bowman, Ken Dryden, Guy Lafleur and Co. raised the mug in four consecutive springs (1976–1979). But, the Maple Leafs had their lone period of relative success during the Harold Ballard ownership era and proudly watched as three of the best players in franchise history (Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Borje Salming) were later inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
These players — and others — were featured on the cover of Maple Leaf Gardens programs between 1976 and 1978. From my sports collection:
MIKE PALMATEER: b. Toronto, Ont. — Jan. 13, 1954. Current Age: 61.
DARRYL SITTLER: b. St. Jacob’s Ont. — Sep. 18, 1950. Current Age: 64.
BORJE SALMING: Born Kiruna, Sweden — Apr. 17, 1951. Current Age: 63.
LANNY McDONALD: b. Hanna, Alta. — Feb. 16, 1953. Current Age: 62.
IAN TURNBULL: b. Montreal Que. — Dec. 22, 1953. Current Age: 61.
DAVE (TIGER) WILLIAMS: b. Weyburn, Sask. — Feb. 3, 1954. Current Age: 61.
ERROL THOMPSON: b. Summerside, P.E.I. — May 28, 1950. Current Age: 64.
WAYNE THOMAS: b. Ottawa, Ont. — Oct. 9, 1947. Current Age: 67.
DAN MALONEY: b. Barrie, Ont. — Sep. 24, 1950. Current Age: 64.
JACK VALIQUETTE: b. St. Thomas, Ont. — Mar. 18, 1956. Current Age: 59.
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