Saturday, 31 August 2013

My First Time at Tiger Stadium

Photo courtesy Chicago White Sox
Mother’s Day, May 9, 1976 holds a bittersweet memory for me. It was the day I saw my first major league baseball game in person. What a thrill for a prairie-born Canadian like myself who had always loved baseball! However, one particular scene that sunny, Sunday afternoon still makes me cringe all these years later every time I think of it or describe it to others.

The locale was Detroit’s old landmark, Tiger Stadium, which had  been made an historic site by the Michigan Department of State in 1975, just the year before. Built in 1912, it had once been home to icons like Ty Cobb, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and more recently, Al Kaline. What better place to see your first ball game. Right?  The Chicago White Sox were in town, then owned by the glitzy, never-to-be-forgotten showman, Bill Veeck. The same innovative Veeck who gave baseball the midget pinch-hitter, Eddie Gaedel, the ageless pitching wonder, Satchel Paige, not to mention names on the backs of uniforms, plus carnival events like fireworks after games. The Tigers at that time were run by the not-so-glitzy, John Fetzer.  Mike Ilitch was still a few years off.

I had purchased the tickets in advance by snail mail. No internet to order on back then. Four lower deck boxes at $4.50 a pop! Wow! Who out there remembers those days of cheap seats? I still have my ticket stub…Tier 4, Box 31. I took my wife, Bonnie (nearly seven months pregnant with the first of two), my mother-in-law, Dorothy, and my brother-in-law, Barry. I was fortunate because my in-laws resided across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario. Talk about an ideal situation to see games. And the park was so close to their house too. Minutes away. You could actually see the upper deck facades and light structures from downtown Windsor.

We took Gate 11 on the West Side and once we entered the old piece of concrete and steel history on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, we were met by the steady hum of crowd chatter and the strong aroma of popcorn, hot dogs, and cigarette smoke. I immediately purchased a scorebook and a yearbook from two different vendors, two more items I still have in my possession today. As we made our way to the seats on the third base side, I looked out in awe at the expanse of  freshly-cut, green grass and the gorgeous, brown, clay/sand mix of the infield. The distances to the fences seemed so far, especially the incredible 440 feet to straightaway center. Could a major leaguer actually hit a ball all the way out there…and could a center-fielder cover all that ground up to the fence? The stadium interior was painted in an overall blah, military-style, gray-green. The seats, the fences, the rails, as well as the tiers. The Tigers were on the field, going through the art of infield practice. I do say art because they didn’t drop one single ball, unlike the amateur softball league I was part of back in Hamilton, Ontario. These guys here were pros…

We stood for the American National Anthem, a first time ever for the four of us at any sporting event or anything else. Shortly after we sat down, my mother-in-law bought us the first series of afternoon goodies. She insisted. We all had to have hot dogs. They were thick and very good! Then the lineups were announced over the loudspeakers. The White Sox had a couple notables in Bucky Dent at short and Chet Lemon (who later became a Tiger) in center. The Tigers had the very popular Rusty Staub in right and Ron Leflore leading off and playing center-field. Willie Horton was DH-ing. The catcher was John Wockenfuss who had one of those names that could, I’m sure, be badly-pronounced (sometimes in a vulgar way) after a few drinks, if you know what I mean.

The starting pitchers for the day  were two of the American League’s better ones, Wilbur Wood for the Sox, and Joe Coleman for the Tigers. Coleman, son of a former major league pitcher by the same name, was a reliable 20-game winner twice in the early 1970’s with the Tigers.  Standing  at six-three and weighing 175 (the age before steroids), he threw right-handed. The twenty-nine-year-old was coming off a 10-18 year with an ERA above 5.00 and hoping to establish himself once again as one of the league’s premier pitchers.

The stats on Wood, however, revealed he was a bit of a freak. But I mean that in a nice way. Thirty-four years of age, with a 39-inch waistline, he was one of the best examples of the phrase…pitchers don’t have to run the ball to the plate…they only have to throw it.  A lefty, Wood was a six-foot-tall, cigar-smoking knuckleballer par excellence. He was—without a doubt---the last of the workhorse pitchers…something out of the pre-1920 Deadball Era! Between the years 1971 to 1974 inclusive, he had thrown over 300 innings each year and another 291 innings in 1975, averaging 45 starts per season to boot.  And nearly half of those games were complete ones. His won-loss records were equally impressive, or should I say…well…odd. In 1973, he won 24 and lost 20. We’ve all heard of 20-game winners and 20-game losers, but both by the same person in the same season? The following year, he was 20-19.  Huh? What did the Sox want from the guy? They were wearing him out. The epitome of those years was 1972 when he started 49 games, threw 376 innings, and finished with a 24-17 record and 2.51 ERA. On two occasions, in the decade, he had even thrown both ends of a doubleheader!

The park saw a lot of empty seats that day, as evidenced by the box score I found on  the net recently…only 12,250 paid admission. The game started out as a defensive struggle. There was no score going into the fourth, when the power-hitting Tigers Willie Horton came to the plate. He quickly lined a rocket of a foul ball down the left-field line that looked to be coming right at us in the lower boxes. The ball caromed off some seats five or six rows to the right, bounced into the air and settled somewhere in our vicinity.  For a brief moment no one seemed to know where it was, until my wife and I caught sight of it underneath the occupied seat directly in front of me. What luck. I quickly got on my knees and stretched for it, but the young man in the seat found it first and grabbed it. Rats! Oh, so close. And my first game too.

There was no scoring in the game until the top of the sixth. With two one, Sox right-fielder Buddy Bradford ( Buddy who?) scored both runners with a single. Down 2-0 now, the Tigers in the bottom of the inning sent shortstop Tom Veryzer and second-baseman Gary Sutherland  to the plate. Both grounded out to Becky Dent, bringing the lead-off hitter, center-fielder Ron LeFlore up.

Then it happened
Leflore, a straight-away hitter, swung at a Wilbur Wood offering and lined a screamer up the middle. Wood later stated in an interview, “I wasn’t trying to catch it. I was just trying to get out of the way.”  I remember two distinct cracks that day. The first was the sound of the ball shooting off  LeFlore’s bat…the second  was the sound of the ball smashing into Wood’s knee. Wood fell backwards as if he was shot. As the ball skidded away, you could hear a pin drop in the crowd. Flat on his back, Wood’s nerves jerked and twitched. Then he lay there, completely still. Was he dead? Sox players and a few Tigers, too, charged out to the mound. When a stretcher came  to take Wood away, he was still out cold.

We all took a breath. Not a nice sight to see.

The fans seemed quite subdued after that. Chicago eventually won 4-2. Wood got the win, Clay Carroll the save, while Coleman took the loss, in a game that took only two hours and eighteen minutes to play. How many games are that short anymore?  It turned out that Wilbur Wood was never quite the same pitcher after the LeFlore line drive. He was done for the year, coming back in the spring of 1977. He started only another 45 games total after that, spread over two years, his effectiveness and durability gone. Today, he is probably considered the best left-handed knuckleballer in history. It was basically all over about the same time for Joe Coleman Jr too. Traded to the Cubs only a month after the Mother’s Day game, he went on to pitch for Oakland, Toronto, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh before calling it a career in 1979.

Anyway…the four of us discussed the game while returning to the Canadian side. Despite the queasy line drive scene, it was an all-around pleasant day for us…we all saw our first major league game…I was inches away from grabbing a Willie Horton foul ball…and it was Mother’s Day, which seemed ironic because Dorothy bought most of the food…after the hot dogs, by the way, came  peanuts, followed up with ice cream for dessert.

Later that evening, I said to my pregnant wife, “What if we have a son and he doesn’t like baseball?” Bonnie quickly replied two-fold. Her number one concern (mine too, of course) was a healthy baby. Then, she said, “There’s no way any son of  yours will not like baseball.”

Two months later, July 31, our son, Barrie John Wyatt came into this world a bouncing 8 pounds, 6 ounces. And…he doesn’t like baseball. He loves it. He’s a Tigers fan like me. Together, as he grew up, we saw dozens of games at Tiger Stadium up to its demise and demolition following the 1999 season. We fell in love with the park. We had lots of fun and saw a lot of outstanding performances. It was history in the making. Mike Hogan, a  local radio sports commentator in Toronto (I’ve always suspected is a closet Tiger fan) summed it up best when he  once said on the air, “Tiger Stadium was a dump…but a historic dump.”  He knew. You had to be there to live it, to catch the feel. And I’m glad I had the opportunity on many occasions.

The fun continues for us at Comerica Park, one beautiful piece of work. But we still talk about the good times on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, where a great ball park once stood. I like to remember those games, but that awful sight and the sound of the ball smashing off  Wilbur Wood’s knee still sits with me. I saw first-hand that day how vulnerable pitchers can be out there on the mound. They are brave warriors, indeed.

As for Wilbur Wood…God bless you, sir, wherever you are, and I hope you’re in good health. They don’t make pitchers like you anymore.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Big Bands

Benny Goodman and his Big Band with vocalist, Peggy Lee, from the film Stage Door Canteen, 1943 (United States Public Domain)

It was the rock-n-roll of the 1930s and 1940s. It was upbeat. It made you snap your fingers and tap your feet. It got you up and dancing the foxtrot and the jitterbug. The teenagers and young adults loved it, while some parents thought it was the Devil’s music. A few US states below the Mason-Dixon Line wanted it banned because it was too evil, too rebellious, and far too sexual.  Some called it Swing. Others called it Jazz. There were sweet bands. There were hot bands. It was the Big Band era, with Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and others leading their own orchestras. The era produced many individuals who left their employers and went out on their own to develop prominent careers, such as drummers Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, singers Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Billy Holiday, and Doris Day. And others like Harry James and Ziggy Elman on the trumpet, Lionel Hampton on the vibes, and Teddy Wilson on piano.

The Big Bands were before my time. A Baby Boomer, I was raised on the rock-n-roll of the early 1960s. I listened on the radio to Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys…then came the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in early 1964 to change everything. I can still remember all those screaming girls! Interest in the Dave Clark Five, the Rolling Stones, and others followed for me. Then one evening after Hockey Night in Canada—in my late high school years--when my parents were visiting friends, I went to the living room to look through the LPs my parents had in the side of their hi-fi. Remember the terms, LP and hi-fi?  I saw Glenn Miller’s Greatest Hits and I read the cover. Hmmm. I put the record on and actually enjoyed it. This was the music from the World War II generation.  Songs like In the Mood, Tuxedo Junction, Chattanooga Choo Choo, and the St Louis Blues March.

From then on, I have been an avid listener of the Bands and have read several books on them. I have my personal favorites, of course. Although it was the Glenn Miller recordings that first aroused my interest, I found as time went on that Miller’s music—his stateside civilian band--was a little stiff for me, especially after finding out through research that a lot of people didn’t like working for him because he drove them too hard and didn’t leave any room for improvising. Once I graduated from high school, started working and had my own money, I turned to some of the more free-wheeling bands for my listening pleasure, such as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, both clarinet players, and excellent ones at that. They called Goodman the “King of Swing,” and Shaw the “King of the Clarinet.” I also listened to Count Basie,  the Dorsey brothers, Gene Krupa, and the Andrew Sisters. They all got the joint-a-jumping.

What we call modern dance music may have started  around World War I. Jazz, as it was called in the earlier years. The war over, the Roaring Twenties unfolded. Flappers. Bootleggers. Money everywhere. Jazz music evolved, but it was a restrictive style, with very little improvising.  The main centers were Chicago, New York and Kansas City. Brothers Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey may have invented the first, true-blue Big Band of any distinction when they formed the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in 1934. In the group was trombonist Glenn Miller, drummer Ray McKinley, who later joined the Glenn Miller band, and vocalist Bob Crosby, brother of Bing. A year later, it broke up when Tommy had a falling out with his brother and left to start his own band. The same year, Benny Goodman was making news in the east with his hard-driving style, with talented notables Gene Krupa, Harry James, and Teddy Wilson. But Goodman’s success was limited. Complaints were coming in that his music was too fast and too loud. He then sent his band on a western tour, but played only to dismal crowds. By the time they reached  Denver, Goodman was ready to pack it in.

Then they booked into the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, California, before a big crowd on August 21, 1935. The Palomar was the biggest of its kind on the west coast. The dance floor could fit 8,000 people with ease. For the men they charged 40 cents, and the women 25 cents. After a few stock arrangements, Goodman could sense he was losing the kids. At the break, drummer Gene Krupa, supposedly said to his leader, “If we’re going to die, Benny, let’s die playing our own thing.” They came out charged, switched to their fast stuff and everything clicked. The thousands there were caught up with the music, jitterbugging the night away, while millions listened in on the live radio broadcast of it. It’s been said that Swing was born that day. Maybe, maybe not. Goodman, at the very least, took Swing to greater lengths. Four years later, after some extensive renovations, the Palomar burned to the ground.

Up to the end of the decade, Big Bands now toured North America to meet their many crazy, enthusiastic fans who were buying their records at alarming rates. At one point about 50 nationally-famous bands were recording and/or hitting the road on a series of grueling one-night stands that were tough on everybody. Leaders and business managers faced constant turnovers in staff. Drinking and other addictions were becoming a menace. And the pay was low. WELL, It was the Depression. What made Swing respectable was Benny Goodman’s invite to the hallowed Carnegie Hall in 1938, making Goodman’s orchestra the first Swing band to appear there. They got that joint a jumping, too, looked on by the swizzle-stick crowd of New York City high society in their starched collars, and fancy, full-length  dresses.

During World War II, Glenn Miller kept Swing’s respectability intact by signing up with the US Army Air Force and taking his brand of music overseas to Great Britain, where he recorded and played live before the American troops. In my opinion, his Army Air Force band was Glenn Miller at his best, with some outstanding arrangements, like Flying Home and Jeep Jockey Jump.  By then he had probably learned a few things that he didn’t know back home with his civilian band. He did have some trouble stateside at first with the Army brass who thought that the traditional military music was good enough for the troops because it was certainly good enough for them in World War I. To this, Miller replied, “Tell me something, are you guys still flying the same planes as World War I.” Artie Shaw, on the other hand, joined the US Navy and took his band to the Pacific Theatre of Operations and performed live to the troops over an 18-month period. Sometimes he played as many as 4 concerts a day, with many of those in the battle zones such as Guadalcanal. When he returned to the States, he was exhausted. But at least he went back alive. Glenn Miller never returned. He was reported missing after taking a flight over the English Channel on December 15, 1944. His band was waiting for him to arrive in liberated Paris, France, where they were to play for Army troops who had taken the country after D-Day.

The roof began to cave in for the Swing orchestras in the summer of 1942, when the musicians back home called a strike against the American recording companies over royalty payment disagreements. As a result, no union musician could record in any studio across the US. By the time the strike was settled in mid-November, 1944, the damage had already been done. Also, the war depleted the bands of personnel who had signed up to fight. And the gas rationing killed the one-night stands. Almost as soon as the strike commenced, the recording companies went to Plan B by cutting records that featured the popular vocalists of the day, such as Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bing Crosby. Many in the know realized the writing was on the wall for the bands during a specific Benny Goodman gig on December 30, 1942 at New York City’s Paramount Theatre. There, when Goodman introduced Frank Sinatra to the crowd, all the girls went into a screaming frenzy , and this was 22 years before the Beatles. The females kept up the antics for minutes, not letting up until well after Sinatra finished the first song. It was a milestone. From that day on the singers took over, slipping the bands to second place.

By the end of World War II, the Big Band run was over. But Swing produced many memorable recordings. Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy by the Andrews Sisters. Sing, Sing, Sing by Benny Goodman, thanks to the great drum solo by Gene Krupa. (By the way, Krupa’s parents wanted him to be a priest. Yeah, right). There was Sentimental Journey sung by Doris Day of the Les Brown Orchestra. Drumboogie by Gene Krupa, which he recorded with his own band. Artie Shaw did Begin the Beguine, Duke Ellington did Take the A Train and It Don’t Mean a Thing, and Tommy Dorsey performed Marie. We can’t forget At the Woodchopper’s Ball by Woody Herman and Cherokee by Charlie Barnet. All classics.

My all-time favorite is Bugle Call Rag by Benny Goodman. If that doesn’t get you tapping, then you must be dead. Check it out on YouTube, and you’ll see what I mean. Actually, check out the other classics, too, the ones mentioned above.
Cut a rug, you hepcats!

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Operation Fortitude

General George S Patton (United States Public Domain)

D-Day arrived at 6:30 AM on June 6, 1944. Finally. What the Western world had been waiting anxiously for, the liberation of Nazi-held Europe after 5 years of occupation. The Allied Expeditionary Force commanded by General Dwight D Eisenhower hit the Normandy beaches of France at 5 key areas…codenames of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. All told, 160,000 men, 5000 ships, 2300 individual landing craft and 13,000 support aircraft were involved in the largest amphibious invasion force in the history of mankind. By day’s end, they had secured the beaches, although Omaha had been in doubt for a number of hours.

The Germans were caught off-guard. Well…sort of.  This Normandy attack was only a diversion, so their High Command thought. As a result, they left Normandy weakly-defended. And why did they do that? Because the Allies had put together an  elaborate scheme many months before that had completely fooled Adolf Hitler and his advisors  into thinking that the real attack was still coming farther north at Calais, France. In particular, it was done to hold the deadly panzer divisions of the 15th Army away from Normandy as long as possible. Without this well-executed plan--codenamed Operation Fortitude--and US General George Patton’s enthusiastic participation in it, the Allies may well have been driven back at Normandy that historical morning of  June 6, 1944. Perhaps even annihilated.

The Germans had a ton of respect for Lieutenant-General  George S Patton Jr,  the man Adolf Hitler called the “Cowboy General.”  They believed  the unpredictable and daring Patton would lead the Allied forces  in the coming invasion of Northern Europe. Sporting 2 custom-made, ivory-handled revolvers on his hips like an OK Corral gunfighter, Patton  was a ham, to say the least. To the American Press, he was “Ol Blood and Guts.”  To his friends, he was George or Georgie. He was arrogant. He was a dashing.  But  he was a winner. And an efficient tank commander.

Born in 1885 to a well-to-do family of military significance (his grandfather was a Civil War Confederate general), Patton entered World War II combat by leading his US troops into the Mediterranean Theatre by attacking Casablanca during the North African Campaign. Shortly after leading his 7th Army in the invasion of Sicily, he put himself in Eisenhower’s doghouse by slapping out 2 American soldiers, supposedly for cowardice. Relieved of  command in early 1944 for his actions, he was whisked away to England under great secrecy for his next assignment…commanding officer of the United States First Army Group. In short, FUSAG. This army was reported to be as large as 50 divisions. In actual fact, only a few thousand were simulating the work of a million men.  FUSAG was one big fraud, the Allied version of the Trojan Horse of ancient Troy fame.

Patton’s fictitious army was part of a much greater scheme that fell under the umbrella of Operation Fortitude, which was divided into 2 parts. North and South sections. Fortitude North was called “Syke,” a paper army stationed in Scotland—the British 4th Army—that sent phony messages across the British Isles from fake divisions, ordering specific items necessary for an invasion of Norway, such as snow equipment and ski boots. When German monitors intercepted these messages and word got back to Berlin, Hitler kept 27 divisions entrenched in Norway for a possible North Sea crossing. Fortitude South, or “Quicksilver,” involved Patton and FUSAG.

Patton was the key to making Quicksilver work. Disappointed at first of his phantom army assignment, especially when told that he would not be involved at all in the D-Day landings, he quickly realized how important his new mission as a decoy was. He took the job on with everything he had. On several occasions, he toured the East Anglia section of England where his troops were reported to be stationed. The press loved him and wrote often of his movements around the country. One time, in a crowded London hotel lobby that spring of 1944, Patton joked with his army people and the press. Upon leaving through the front door, he bellowed, “See you in Calais.”

Meanwhile, across the country, things were happening with earnest to make the Germans believe that the Allies were coming across the English Channel at the shortest route...Dover to Calais. Only 22 miles. Besides being the shortest route, Calais seemed the most logical of Allied targets. It was an excellent seaport and it marked the path to the heartland of industrial Germany, the Ruhr Valley. Also, it was in easy range of Allied air cover.  The destructive German V-1 Flying Bombs were coming out of Calais, an Allied target for sure. In addition, Calais made sense to the Germans because FUSAG was supposed to be stationed near Dover. To the north, in East Anglia, a huge concentration of fighters, bombers, and gliders were being assembled in several open fields, closely-guarded and away from prying eyes. Overhead, at 30,000 feet, German Luftwaffe reconnaissance planes were snapping pictures of these 9th Air Force aircraft, the reported air support for the Calais invasion. But up close, these same  fighters, bombers, and gliders were only wood and canvas mock-ups. If the Germans had flown lower, they would have picked up on the charade. The fact was, any plane that did fly lower was shot down. The pilots who flew higher were left free to snap away with their belly cameras because the anti-aircraft gunners in East Anglia were given a strange order: “Don’t hit them. Just get close enough.” Not far away, American Army engineers, with the aid of compressed air and long hoses, were inflating huge piles of rubber that, within minutes, took the form of M-4 Sherman Tanks. More targets for Luftwaffe recon aircraft to photograph as real. 

Other Allied ruses were a giant oil depot  and docking area at Dover, complete with pipelines, storage tanks, truck bays, troop barracks and anti-aircraft guns. The Allies made certain that the  British press reported visits to the site by British General Bernard Montgomery and King George VI. Wireless traffic between points in East Anglia and Dover would come to life, then after several days…complete radio silence to simulate a dress rehearsal of an amphibious operation. One signal was: “The Fifth Queen’s  Royal Regiment report a number of civilian women, presumably unauthorized, in the baggage train. What are we going to do—take them to Calais?” Allied agents in the neutral countries of Spain, Ireland, Switzerland, and Sweden were buying up every Michelin map of the Pas-de-Calais region, something that German agents in those countries took note of and reported to the top dogs in Berlin. By late-May, the Allies continued the hoax by bombing the German defenses at Calais day after day to fake a prelude to invasion. They also bombed Normandy, but the ratio was two bombs at Calais for every one bomb at Normandy.

Also, British intelligence that spring went to work, in particular MI-5, and its special branch called the XX Committee. The Germans failed to realize that every spy they had sent to England since the war had started had been captured by the English within hours of landing. The XX Committee, the double-cross organization, gave the captured spies one of 2 options, either work for the British and send back British-controlled wireless information or get hung. Most gave in and helped the English. By the end of May, about 100 German spies were under MI-5 control. The coded messages sent back to Germany spoke of huge armies mobilizing in Scotland and East Anglia, the latter which the Germans were now calling Armeegruppe Patton.

The greatest hoax of all was the weather. The wind and rain was so bad over the English Channel in early June that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander in chief of Army Group B, left France for his home in Germany to be with his wife to celebrate her birthday. He was convinced that the Allies wouldn’t dare cross in such horrific conditions. Other high-ranking Germans were also away from their coastal posts.

Then, in the pre-dawn hours of June 6, the real invasion was in its first phase when over 20,000 British and American paratroopers were dropped behind the Normandy lines to secure bridges and roads. To disguise this, the Allies sent wave after wave of bombers to Calais to soften the defenses. Also, 2  small groups of balloon-carrying motor boats were launched in the direction of Calais, each carrying two 30-foot reflectors that together produced a radar image resembling a 10,000-ton troop transport. In addition, RAF bombers dropped aluminum strips to confuse German radar, creating the illusion of a large invasion force forming off Dover. While the Allies hit Normandy at 6:30 AM on a 60-mile front, the Germans twiddled their thumbs and waited for the much heavier blow at Calais.

In 2005, I met a Burlington resident who was involved in the D-Day landings. With the  Royal Canadian Navy, he was in a small gunboat, just offshore from Juno, the Canadian beach on that June 6. He never set foot on France that day or anytime during the war.  I asked him what he remembered about D-Day. “A whole lot of noise!” he replied. “The big shells came over top of us from the battleships behind us and the concussion would just shake our little craft. My head was buzzing for the next 2 days!”

The crack German 15th Army, under direct control of Adolf Hitler, remained at Calais for those crucial days following June 6 as the Allies gained a foothold on the continent. German intelligence confirmed that Patton had not taken part in the Normandy landings, leaving Hitler to believe that Patton was still coming at Calais, exactly what the Allies wanted Hitler to believe. It took weeks for his generals to finally convince their stubborn leader that Normandy was the real thing. By the time the mighty 3 panzer divisions of the 15Th Army were unleashed at Calais to head south, the Allies had already landed more than a million tons of supplies, a million men, and over 300,000 vehicles.

It was a good thing that one or 2 high-ranking generals did not have the fortitude (now there’s a pun) to stand up to Hitler. If possible, I could just imagine the conversation at Hitler’s headquarters between Hitler and a subordinate general  a week or so after D-Day…

“Ah…mein Fuehrer?
“Yes, what is it!”
“Please don’t take this the wrong way. ”
“Don’t take WHAT the wrong way? Speak up, you fool!”
“When are you going to get it through your thick skull that Patton is not coming to Calais!”
Alas, no German officer had the stones to tell Hitler in such a manner that they had all been duped.

By August, Patton finally did set foot on French soil. But not with his phony FUSAG. It was with his brand, spanking new 3rd Army, a force to be reckoned with. A real army. The race was on for Berlin, with the Russians closing in from the east. In less than a year, the war in Europe was over. Without Operation Fortitude, it would have lasted much longer, and would have cost a lot more lives...on both sides.

FYI (1): During the 1970s, some World War II secrets were released to the public. It was then that we started to hear about the D-Day deception tactics used by the Allies, including Operation Fortitude. Welsh writer Ken Follett picked up on this and wrote Eye of the Needle, a brilliantly-conceived story about a German spy in England who uncovered the truth behind Patton’s phony army. While on the run from MI-5, the spy then attempted to get word back to Berlin. First published in 1978, Eye of the Needle  sold 3 million copies by the time a movie version of it came out in 1981, starring Canadian actors Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan. A good read and a good watch.

FYI (2): Another good watch--NO, a great watch!—is the movie, Patton, starring George C Scott as General Patton. Too bad his movie involvement in Operation Fortitude is skimmed over quickly. However, the opening scene is outstanding, where he delivers a speech with a huge American flag behind him as a backdrop. By the way, the real Patton’s voice was not as gruff as Scott’s. It was higher pitched. Also, one of Patton’s actual speeches can be found on Youtube.

Friday, 9 August 2013

The Best Defenseman in the Game

Eddie Shore. Courtesy:
Quick! Who was the best NHL defenseman ever? As far as I’m concerned there are 4 candidates who dominated in 4 different eras using 4 different styles. Three are Hall of Famers. The fourth will make it in his first year of eligibility, for sure.

Eddie Shore put hockey on the map in the US when he joined the Boston Bruins in the 1926-27 season, coming out of the Western Hockey League with the Regina Capitals and the Edmonton Eskimos, where he was known as the “Edmonton Express.” (Yes, there was pro hockey in Edmonton and Regina back then. The Patrick brothers league. And it was good hockey, too). In Beantown, Shore was a huge drawing card as the NHL’s first rushing defenseman. He scored at least 10 goals in his first 5 seasons (when the schedules were only 44 games), topped off with 15 goals in 1930-31. A First Team All Star 7 times, he won 4 Hart Trophies as the league’s MVP, still a record for defensemen. On 2 Stanley Cup teams, the ill-tempered Shore could play it rough, too, collecting 1,047 lifetime minutes in penalties in 550 games. He retired from playing in the spring of 1940 and was voted rather deservedly into the Hall of Fame 7 years later.

After a gap of nearly 10 years, Doug Harvey of the Montreal Canadiens appeared with an easy, relaxing style that some believed bordered on being lazy. Far from it, though. It was only an illusion. At first the local Habs fans booed him, but after a few seasons they learned to appreciate him for how he got the job done. A smooth skater and excellent puck-handler, Harvey quarterbacked the killer Habs power play of the 1950s consisting of Maurice Richard, Henri Richard, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Jean Beliveau, Dickie Moore, Bert Olmstead, and Tom Johnson. It was a power play performed  so well that the rules were changed in 1957 to allow a penalized player back on the ice once his team was scored on. Before that the player had to stay off the ice for the full 2 minutes. (The epitome was Jean Beliveau scoring a Hat Trick during one single power play on the bewildered Terry Sawchuk). A superb all-around defenseman, Harvey could control the pace of the game all by himself once he had the puck cradled on his stick. He won the James Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman 7 out of 8 years, including back-to-back years with the Habs and the New York Rangers in 1961 and 1962. On 6 Stanley Cup winners in Montreal, including 5 in a row, he was considered a true master at his blueline craft. Red Wings Red Kelly was easily the second best defenseman in the same era, winning one James Norris.

Then…along came a youngster born and raised in Parry Sound, Ontario. The ultimate rushing defenseman, Bobby Orr scored 38 goals and 56 assists in 47 games his last year of junior for the OHA Oshawa Generals. The following spring, he turned pro with the Boston Bruins in 1966-67 at the age of 18, winning rookie-of-the-year honors, the youngest to do so. At the NHL awards dinner that spring, Rangers Harry Howell took the James Norris Trophy. At the podium, he informed the audience that it was a good thing he won that year because there was a kid in Boston who would own the Norris for years to come. The next season, Orr must have made quite an impression around the league because he played in only 46 games (missing a third of the season) and was still recognized enough to win the James Norris Trophy hands down. It was only the beginning. He went on to win another 7 straight  awards at his position, proving Howell right. The graceful-skating Orr was the first defenseman to win a scoring championship when he collected 120 points in the Bruins Stanley Cup winning 1969-70 season. The same season, he made hockey history by winning 4 awards, the Hart, the James Norris, the Art Ross (top scorer), and the Conn Smythe (best playoff performer). No one else has won 4 since. The following year, in which his plus/minus reached a mind-boggling +124 (still the single- season record), he scored 37 goals and assisted on 102 others for 139 points, a points record for defensemen that also stands over 40 years later.

All told, he led the league in assists 4 times, scored 9 Hat Tricks, helped win 2 Stanley Cups, and wound up with 915 points in 657 regular-season games.  His lifetime plus/minus stands at a staggering +597, second to Habs defenseman Larry Robinson and his even more staggering +730. Orr is the youngest player to be elected to the Hall of Fame, which he did in 1979 at the age of only 31, the same year he retired as a Chicago Blackhawk. According to many, he is the greatest all-around player to lace a pair of skates.

Ten years after Orr called it quits, a certain six-foot-one defenseman of Swedish nationality was drafted in the 3rd round, 53rd overall in 1989 by the Detroit Red Wings. Niklas Lidstrom was a gentleman of a defenseman who very seldom drifted out of position. He preferred to poke check and intercept passes, instead of nailing an opposing forward coming over the blue line with a stiff body check. The less rougher style of play worked in Lidstrom’s favor by lengthening his career to a good, solid 20 years in the NHL, where he won the James Norris 7 times, including 6 out of 7 years (3 in a row twice). In his last 14 seasons, he was nominated for the award on 12 occasions. His mere 514 minutes in penalties testifies to his clean play. At the age of 41 in 2011, he was still a standout, winning his last James Norris Trophy. One year earlier, he was the oldest player to record a Hat Trick.  It was also his only Hat Trick. By the time he retired in 2012, he had scored 1,142 points (264 goals) in 1,564 games. A major contributor to 4 Red Wing Stanley Cups, he never missed a post season in his entire NHL career. He’s 10th on the all-time plus/minus list with +450. Note: plus/minus didn’t come into being until the 1967-68 season, leaving Shore and Harvey out of that stat race.

Interesting enough, it just so happened that three of these defensemen were involved in newsworthy scuffles in their careers, scuffles that show the darker side of the dog-eat-dog sport of hockey. First, in December, 1933, at Boston Garden, Eddie Shore hit Leafs forward Ace Bailey from behind  hard enough to flip him into the air causing his head to smash to the ice. Leafs defenseman Red Horner skated over to Shore. With one punch, Horner cold-cocked Shore, who fell backwards, his head hitting the ice. Both Shore and Bailey were down, bleeding, unconscious, and taken off on stretchers. Shore recovered first. For the incident, he was suspended 16 games for his cheap shot, the longest NHL suspension up to that time. Horner received 6 games. Meanwhile, Bailey suffered a fractured skull and never played again.

In a 1956 game with the New York Rangers, Doug Harvey was flattened by a pesky forward named Red Sullivan, who had a bad habit of kicking skates from under opposing players, a very dangerous maneuver for anyone on the receiving end.  Harvey decided that Sullivan had to be taught a lesson. The very next game the 2 teams met, Harvey took matters into his own hands by deliberately spearing Sullivan severely enough to send Sullivan to hospital with a ruptured spleen. With the Ranger player close to death, it’s reported that a Catholic priest was called in to administer last rites. After being out of action for 3 months, Sullivan came through it and continued to play until 1963. Unapologetic, Harvey was never even penalized for his stick work because the officials didn’t see him do anything.

In a 1969 playoff game at the Boston Garden between the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs (2 teams with bad blood between them all season), Bobby Orr came out of his own end with the puck, his head down. Leafs young, tough-guy defenseman Pat Quinn stepped up and nailed Orr, smashing him to the ice and rendering him unconscious for several minutes. Quinn received a 5-minute major for elbowing. While in the penalty box, Bruins fans pelted him with beer and garbage, forcing the police to escort him to the Leafs locker room once he returned to the ice.

After putting this article together, I realized that the 4 candidates were born and raised in 4 different areas of the globe. Shore was from Saskatchewan, Harvey from Quebec, Orr from Ontario, and Lidstrom from Sweden.

So, who was the best defenseman ever? How much longer are we going to wait for the next great defenseman to rise above the rest and dominate the game? Is he going to be drafted this year or has he already been picked or is he far in the future? Can anybody be as good or better than Eddie Shore, Doug Harvey, Bobby Orr, Niklas Lidstrom, or Ray Bourque? By the way, I have to give Bruins Ray Bourque, another Quebecer, at least an honorable mention for his 5 James Norris awards and his +528, third on the all-time plus-minus list. Or what about the often-overlooked Larry Robinson (Ontario boy) with his +730, 2 Norris Trophies and one Conn Smythe?

Hmmm. Get’s ya thinking, don’t it?

Saturday, 3 August 2013

My Grade Six Teacher…and the Sleeper Play

Ron Lancaster (23) and George Reed (34).
Photo courtesy Saskatchewan Roughriders

A Canadian Football League game played on Remembrance Day, 1963, may have been the most unusual contest the Saskatchewan Roughriders ever participated in. And they’ve played in some weird ones. Yes, I know, the 13 men on the field in the 2009 Grey Cup. You don’t have to mention it.

The following is not just a football story, per se. To set the stage, the Riders finished third in the Western Conference in 1963 with a 7-7-2 record. The team was on the rise, with Ron Lancaster, George Reed, Hugh Campbell, and Clyde Brock all in their first season as Riders, with some great years still ahead for all 4. Their opponents in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs would be the mighty 10-4-2 Calgary Stampeders, who had scored a whopping 427 points to lead the entire CFL. They also had the league’s leading rusher in Lovell Coleman and the leading passer in Eagle Day. I always loved that name…Eagle Day.

The semi-finals back then were a silly, two-game total-point affair…which, thankfully, they don’t do any more. On November 9th, the Riders lost the first game in Calgary by an embarrassing 35-9. When the Riders returned to Regina on the 11th to play the second and final game at Taylor Field, no one gave them a chance. The stands were nearly empty. How could the Riders score 27 points or more to take the semi-final? Impossible.

Calgary  kicked off to start the game and the Riders returned the ball to their 34. On the first play from scrimmage, while his teammates were in the huddle, Rider halfback Ray Purdin calmly strolled over to the far sideline directly in front of the Calgary bench. The Riders snapped the ball, and before the Stampeders knew what happened, Lancaster threw the ball over the startled opposing defensive backs to a wide open Purdin who raced 76 yards for a touchdown. After that, as it’s been said many times, all hell broke loose! The handful of fans at the park came alive. So did the Rider bench with lots of hooting and hollering. After a quick 7 points, the Roughriders all of a sudden believed in themselves.

As the game went on, everything went right for them, while the Stamps floundered. More and more Rider fans—who had been listening on the radio--flowed into Taylor Field. By the third quarter, the place was full and it was rocking. By the end of the wild and whacky game, the Riders won 39-12 and the semi-final total-point by a slim 48-47 margin.  With his career in doubt all season long, Lancaster rose to the occasion by completing 26 of 45 passes for 492 yards and five touchdowns.  Reed topped the game off by scoring the winning touchdown on a 10-yard run.  The Stamps' Larry Robinson missed 4 field goals from inside the 30-yard line, QB Eagle Day couldn’t hit his receivers, and running back Lovell Coleman was stopped cold by a stingy Rider defense.

To this day, the game is carved in stone as “The Miracle at Taylor Field.”

I was living in Regina’s east end at that time, attending St. Mark’s Catholic School, near Park Street and Victoria Avenue. For those of us going into grade six the following September, 1964, we were given a tall, solidly-built, young teacher named Brian Doege. A bachelor, he was new to the school, originally from Toronto, we had heard. And he drove a foreign make, a yellow VW Karmann Ghia rag top that stuck out like a sore thumb wherever he went. That year, a flag football league (somewhat new at the time) was established with St. Mark’s and the other Catholic schools in our district. I think there were 4 or 5 teams. St. Thomas, St. Joseph’s, and Holy Rosary, for sure, from what I can remember. A big football fan, Mr. Doege took on the coaching duties with gusto. Instead of going only with the older, bigger grade eights, he wanted me and a friend of mine, Don Chalupiak, on the team because we were fast, especially Don who could run like a deer. So, we joined up as receivers. Two other grade sixers were chosen. The rest of the team were from the two older grades. We played our games after school. Eight-man football in our league. We didn’t have uniforms or anything like that, not even a jock strap to protect those vital areas. Just our street clothes, what we went to school with that day. Strange, because we did have blocking in our league. We scrimmaged the ball. No sissy steamboat counts for us prairie boys.

It was zone football. Each zone was 15 yards long, with 4 in all, meaning a 60-yard-long field. Four downs to make a zone. With the Purdin touchdown catch still fresh on the mind of every Rider sports fan, Mr. Doege came up with his own modified sleeper play. And…he said to us under great secrecy, that we were going to use it once on each team throughout the year. So, we had to make sure that we did it right. Don was elected the guy. Our Ray Purdin. Mr Doege’s instructions were simple. When it was time for the play, Don was to go to the far side of the field, away from the opposition bench, just inside the playing field by a foot or so, kneel down on one knee and make sure his flags were “accidentally-on-purpose” not visible. Make like a spectator. And don’t go off-side at the snap of the ball!

We tried it in our first game. We were deep in our own end. A quick huddle on our part and…Don got behind the defenders, made the catch and was gone for a touchdown.  It worked about 3 or 4 games in a row. We were winning games, too. On one occasion, Don couldn’t make it to school on game day, the flu or something, and I took his place as the sleeper guy. My one and only chance for stardom. When the time came, I did everything I was supposed to do. No one on the opposition took note of me on the other side of the field. We snapped the ball and I got behind the startled defenders, just like Purdin the year before, but…I was overthrown. I think it was the only time all year that the play didn’t work.  Due in part to our sleeper play, we were the team to beat that year. By the end of the season, word got back to our principle that we were pissing off the other Catholic schools. Some of them even accused us of cheating! My word! The Roughriders weren’t cheating…

Mr. Doege was known for several other things that year at St. Mark’s. First off, he was our protector against the grade eights. We used to play a lot of soccer before the morning and the afternoon bells and during the recesses. And we usually doubled-up with the older guys because there was only so much playground room for everybody involved. Over the course of a few days, Mr. Doege noticed that one of the grade eight’s—Conrad was his name--was pushing around the younger, smaller guys, like me. Conrad was big for his age, 6-foot-1 or so, about the same height as Mr. Doege. So, one day, our teacher decided to come out to play soccer with us. I always thought that soccer was a non-contact sport. Not that afternoon. The first time Conrad touched the ball, Mr. Doege—in full shirt and tie--nailed him with a shoulder check that nearly knocked poor Conrad out cold. Once the dust settled, Mr. Doege helped Conrad up, but warned him to dispense with his bullying of the younger kids. Posters against bullying in the halls or the playground weren’t needed in our day, not with a teacher like Brian Doege around. Calmly walking away, Mr. Doege winked at me and a couple others nearby. Conrad never bothered us again.

Next, sometime near the end of May, Mr. Doege informed our grade six class that we didn’t have to write our year-end tests. Throughout the higher grades in those days, the kids had to write those brutal Provincial Departmental Exams, as they were called. He said that most of the teachers didn’t pay any attention to them and would just throw them in the garbage without even looking at them. Our subject average was based on the school year only, he claimed. So, why write them. (I asked my sister-in-law school teacher about that very topic a few years after and she confirmed what Mr. Doege had said).

And lastly, with June drawing  to a close, Mr. Doege told the school principle that he wanted to dig a hole to use for an open-pit BBQ at one end of the playground for the sole purpose of us having a wiener roast to celebrate our finished year. The principle said, no way. Too dangerous, against regulations, or something like that. Mr. Doege then called the city fire department. And they too said he couldn’t do it. Too bad.  Mr. Doege went ahead with the open-pit BBQ idea anyway. We even had hamburgers to go with our hot dogs. Pop, the whole bit. And lastly, Mr. Doege dared to grow a then-controversial goatee during the school year. Now the female teachers were thinking he was a pretty cool guy. Meanwhile, we had known that all along. The principle, however, was not impressed with facial hair on one of his male teachers. For some strange reason, Mr. Doege wasn’t invited back for a second year at St. Mark’s. Or maybe he just quit. No one told us. Maybe Conrad’s mom had something to do with it. But we sure missed him.

Then, in my last year of high school, I was reading the weekend edition of  our local Regina newspaper, the Leader-Post. I turned to the Star Weekly supplement in the middle and there was a color picture of Brian Doege, wearing a full goatee, complete with a feature story on how he had become a very successful art dealer in the Maritimes. Our “Sleeper Play” Brian Doege had made the big time.

Where is he today? I wish I knew. He’d be in his 70's, for sure, perhaps 80, if he’s still alive. Over the years, I’ve tried to track him down by way of the internet. But no leads. He could be anywhere around the globe. By far, he was the best teacher I ever had, as well as the most memorable. Every time I read anything about the Ray Purdin sleeper pass and “The Miracle at Taylor Field,” I think of Brian Doege.