CFL/Argos in my Blood — Part 1

TORONTO (June 29) — I wrote a blog here on Father’s Day that struck a chord. As I knew it would, particularly among sports fans in Toronto. It recounted how my father, Irv, took me to my first Maple Leafs game (vs. Detroit on Dec. 3, 1966) and my first Argonauts game (vs. Ottawa on Sep. 20, 1969). And, how Dad purchased a pair of Argos season tickets in the south bleachers of the old CNE Stadium for the 1971 Canadian Football League schedule. After reading the blog, my son, Shane, wondered if we could do the same, 50 years later. It gave me such a warm feeling and I made a beeline for my computer. Five minutes later, Shane and I had tickets for all seven Argos games this season at BMO Field. In Sec. 225, around the 30–yard–line at the north end of the stadium. It’s the best money I’ve ever spent… for quality time with my son, as I once had with my father at the CNE.

BMO Field stands virtually in the same location as CNE Stadium — renamed Exhibition Stadium once renovated, in 1975, for the arrival of baseball and the Blue Jays. The parking lot beyond the south end zone at BMO is directly on the site of the old CNE playing field. That stadium, home of the Argos from 1959–88 and the Blue Jays from 1977–89, had an east–west configuration. BMO is built north–south. The north end zone and plaza sits where the original Hockey Hall of Fame resided between 1961 and 1993. So, yes, there’s a ton of sports tradition on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition. The old yard, with a seating capacity of 33,135, was the site of the Grey Cup game in 1959–61–62–64–65–68–70–73. The choppy grass field was replaced by artificial Tartan Turf for the 1972 CFL season. The enlarged Exhibition Stadium, holding 54,530 for football, hosted the Grey Cup in 1976–78–80–82. The latter game, played in a cold, driving rain (Edmonton beat the Argos), convinced city fathers that Toronto needed a covered facility. And, the Grey Cup didn’t return until SkyDome opened in 1989.


PHOTO TAKEN (ABOVE) FROM THE FAR–WEST END OF THE CNE STADIUM GRANDSTAND ON NOV. 9, 1969 DURING TORONTO–HAMILTON EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINAL. THE 12,000–SEAT SOUTH BLEACHER WAS FILLED TO CAPACITY. IT WOULD BE DEMOLISHED AFTER THE 1974 CFL SEASON AND REPLACED BY STANDS ALONG THE FIRST BASE LINE FOR BASEBALL. JUST SOUTHEAST OF THE FIELD WERE THE BULOVA WATCH TOWER AND THE FLYER ROLLER–COASTER RIDE. THE ARGOS BEAT THE TIGER–CATS, 15–9, ADVANCING TO THE TWO–GAME, TOTAL–POINTS EAST FINAL AGAINST THE OTTAWA ROUGH RIDERS. CNE STADIUM ARGO TICKETS (BELOW) AS THEY APPEARED IN THE 1960’s AND EARLY–70’s. 

 
 
When I first became aware of the Argos, around 1967, a home game was part of the imagination. All seven dates at CNE Stadium were blacked out on local TV. Radio was the lone option — the late John Badham called games on CHFI (now 680 News). During the annual CNE fair, I would ask my parents to go on the Ferris wheel just beyond the east end of the stadium. When the wheel arrived at the apex, or top, I could look to my right and see part of the football field. Also, the stands on each side. The Kochman Hell Drivers would perform stunts in cars while motoring along the running track that surrounded the field. That allowed for my first visit to the stadium. I remember sitting in the grandstand and barely paying attention to the Drivers. Instead, I gazed at the field; the south bleacher across the way and the scoreboard behind the east end zone. Dad told me he had taken Mom to see the Argos and B.C. Lions a few years prior (likely on Sep. 25, 1966, when 18,926 gathered for a 29–27 Toronto win).

Again, I could only imagine being at a live game.

As mentioned in my Father’s Day blog, that finally occurred on a Saturday night in 1969 (Sep. 20) — two months after man first walked on the moon (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11, July 20) and five weeks after the now–legendary Woodstock Music Festival in Bethel, N.Y. (Aug. 15–18). We sat in Row 53 of Sec. A, at the top of the far–west point of the grandstand, slightly beyond the 25–yard end zone. The game was a bit of a rumor from that vantagepoint, but I can still close my eyes and envision the scene. As per usual, the Argos could not contain Ottawa quarterback Russ Jackson, who led a late drive that culminated in a 34–27 win for the Rough Riders.

I also attended the final home game of 1969 (Nov. 2) on a dark, rainy, Sunday afternoon. This time, I sat in Sec. M of the grandstand (at the 40–yard line) with my best friend, Jeffrey Spiegelman. I still can see the raindrops hitting puddles on the running track, illuminated by the stadium lights (which were on all afternoon). I also somehow remember that Gerry Sternberg (No. 34) and Mike Eben (No. 32) were the two Canadian–born players returning punts for Toronto. The Argos were in their soaking–wet, dark–blue home jerseys with plain white pants and an ‘A’ on each side of the blue helmet. The Montreal Alouettes wore white jerseys and red pants with red bird “wings” on both sides of their white helmet. It was my first Argos “win” — 22–18. I sat among 28,916 on that soggy day.

In 1970, I got to three Argo games. The first, on the night of Aug. 20, against Edmonton, found me and Dad in virtually the exact location as the season tickets he would purchase for the following season — Sec. 12 of the south bleacher, adjacent to the west goal line. Toronto beat the Eskimos, 16–14, in front of a sell–out crowd (33,135).

Jeff and I went to the final home game of the schedule on a cold, cloudy afternoon (Oct. 31) against Ottawa. It was Danny Nykoluk Day, as the Argos presented their veteran offensive tackle an array of gifts at halftime for his pending retirement. Toronto won, 19–17, before 31,794 fans. The following Saturday (Nov. 7), Jeff took me to the Eastern Conference semifinal. We sat in his season tickets, three rows up in the south bleacher, around the 45–yard line. I’d never been so near the field at a football game. I remember it was a cold, but brilliantly sunny afternoon (Nov. 7, 1970) and the Argos came up with a disappointing performance, losing 16–7 to the eventual Grey Cup champion. Again, the stadium was filled to capacity. By that point, I realized I no longer wanted to miss games at the CNE. I asked Dad to buy season tickets for 1971. That winter, he went to the old Argo office at The Esplanade (101 Richmond St., between Church and Jarvis) and purchased a pair in Sec. 12, Row 35. The walkway, halfway up in the stands, was directly in front of us and people strolled back and forth. But, we got used to it.


THE VIEW FROM OUR ARGO TICKETS IN SEC. 12 OF THE SOUTH BLEACHER. I TOOK THIS PHOTO ON SEP. 10, 1972, DURING A GAME AGAINST HAMILTON. IT WAS THE FIRST SEASON THAT CNE STADIUM HAD ARTIFICIAL TARTAN TURF.

I attended virtually all Argo home games from 1971–74 in our season tickets. Most memorable was the cold, cloudy afternoon of Nov. 20, 1971 when the Argos tied Hamilton, 17–17, thereby winning the two–game, total–points East final, 40–25, and advancing to the Grey Cup for the first time in 19 years. Though the Argos have since won the CFL championship seven times (1983–91–96–97–2004–12–17), that ’71 game still pains me — as it does just about every Toronto fan who remembers the driving rainstorm at Empire Stadium in Vancouver on Nov. 28. How defensive back Dick Thornton intercepted a late, deep pass from Calgary quarterback Jerry Keeling and nearly scored (tackled by Keeling). Trailing, 14–11, the Argos were in position to at least send the match into overtime. A touchdown would win it. But, rookie Leon McQuay, so spectacular in the backfield all season, slipped on the wet turf and fumbled the ball at the Stampeders 11–yard–line. Calgary held on for the three–point victory.

 
TICKET STUBS FROM THE 1962 GREY CUP (LEFT) AT CNE STADIUM: FOREVER REMEMBERED AS THE “FOG BOWL.” AND, THE 1971 GAME AT EMPIRE STADIUM IN VANCOUVER: RECALLED, IN THESE PARTS, FOR LEON McQUAY’S FUMBLE.

Today, the Argos are coming off a pair of dreadful seasons: 4–14 in each of 2018 and 2019. If the COVID–19 pandemic provided a balm, it was for football fans in this city. Having lost all of last season to the worldwide virus, there seems to be a groundswell of interest heading into the abbreviated, 14–game schedule that begins on the road at Calgary (Aug. 7) and Winnipeg (Aug. 13). The first home game, against the Blue Bombers, is a 4 p.m. start on Saturday, Aug. 21. This, too, invokes some nostalgia. When I first attended Argo games, the Eastern Conference played a 14–game season (the West, 16 games). And, the regular schedule would begin in late–July or early August. Not in late–June, as with today’s normal 18–game fare. Argos GM Mike (Pinball) Clemons — the most–popular figure in franchise history — has worked diligently with vice–president of football operations, John Murphy, to sign a bevy of CFL and NFL veterans that should improve the club rather dramatically. The Argos return to the University of Guelph for training camp, as in the 1980’s and 90’s. It should be fun. Can hardly wait.


EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

4 comments on “CFL/Argos in my Blood — Part 1

  1. Great piece of nostalgia, I enjoyed the read. As a person who grew up in northern Ontario, my first Argos game wasn’t until November of 1988. At a rain-swept Exhibition Stadium, directly under the drip-edge of the grand stand, I disappointedly watched the 14-4 regular season Argonauts get dismantled by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who went on to win the Grey Cup in Ottawa. Subsequent seasons at the SkyDome ranged from exciting to boring, but I always came out to the games and hoped for best for the double blue.
    Of course, no Argo fan’s life would be complete without a trip down the QEW to watch the Labour Day game at Ivor Wynne Stadium. The first Labour Day game I ever attended there was a night game, filled to capacity. As I entered the stands with my Argos hat, I was greeted by the supporting throng with a hailstorm of plastic beer cup lids and that ever-so-famous Tiger Cat cheer: “Argos Suck”. I’m pretty sure the Argos lost that game, I felt lucky to leave the stadium without splinters in my rear and in one piece!
    For 2021, I am hopeful that the city will return to the Exhibition grounds with a thirst for live sports and that this new-look Argonauts will not disappoint. I’ll have tickets in the same section as the you, Mr. Berger, so I’ll be there cheering with you!

  2. I have worked with the Argonauts for a very long time with this year being my 36th season. But it all began the same you way you talk of. I went to a couple of games with my Dad to see them play in the early 80’s. A few years later I was starting as a ball boy. I got to see the tremendous joy on my dads face when I brought the cup home in 91, 96 and again in 97. He passed away in 99 but I can still feel his grin every time I start a new season with the Boatmen. Here’s to team that is a conduit for family traditions and memories.

  3. Great write up Howard. I have been at almost every Argo game since 1980. Argos and Leafs are the only sports teams I really care about and still at age 53 take losses very hard for both teams. I love that you and your son will be experiencing quality time at these games. Crowds have been small, but still the most passionate of any sports teams fans in the city. People that go to Argos games are fans and not just there to be seen.

    Enjoy the season Howard. I personally can’t wait, and I’m only 2 sections over from you. If I see you, I definitely will say hello.

  4. I have very similar Argos memories … but (being a little younger) just a few years later.
    I attended my first Argos game with my father during the summer of 1971, and became hooked on the team when the Argos went to the Grey Cup that year. (The less said about that the better!) Joe Theismann was my hero. I got him to sign the cast on my broken arm the year he was hobbling on crutches after breaking his ankle. (I remember him signing, “signing casts isn’t my bag.” But he was smiling when he said it!)
    My grandfather had had Argos season tickets for years going back to Varsity Stadium. He and my dad went to the Grey Cup every year back in those days. When my grandfather died late in the summer of 1972, my father expected to inherit the tickets … but they went back to the company my grandfather had co-owned for years. So, my father bought new season tickets on the new open side. We had four seats in a family of five, and my mother and father would go with two of us three boys. (My brother David and I loved football, but youngest brother Jonathan hated it — but my parents still split the games evenly among us.)
    We had the tickets until the end of the 1970s, but having become Blue Jays subscribers too at the very start in 1977, we dropped the Argos for baseball. My father and I, often with a brother or two, would still buy tickets for big Argos playoff games, and continued that tradition for a while after the move to the SkyDome too. A couple of years ago, my nephew was caught up in the fuss about Johnny Manziel, so we went to the the Argos play the Alouettes ad BMO on October 20, 2018. That’s my last Argos game in person.
    Though I’m not the fan I one was, I will always retain a soft spot for the Argos and the CFL.
    I hope you and your son enjoy the seats!

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