Saturday, 14 December 2013

Gerry James…A Tale of Two Sports

Gerry James, Toronto Maple Leafs
(courtesy www.beehivehockey.com)

From what I can recall, I first heard of Gerry James when I purchased some Canadian Football League bubble gum cards at the local corner store in Regina in the late-summer of 1960. I was 8 at the time and just starting to really like sports. The Big Three. Hockey, football, and baseball. The football cards—as were the hockey and baseball cards in the 1960s—came in a pack of 4 cards, complete with stale gum that we chewed and sucked the life out of anyway, all for a nickel. We Baby Boomers remember those days. James’ card had him in a brushcut and a Winnipeg Blue Bombers uniform.

Later in the year, when hockey season came upon us, I raced to the local store once again and purchased the new hockey cards. In one of the packs was a photo of a Toronto Maple Leafs player in dark, curly hair and his name too was Gerry James. How about that, I thought. There’s a Gerry James who plays hockey. Back at home, I compared the 2 card photos and saw a resemblance. When I flipped the hockey card over to read the back, it stated that James also played for the Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League. Hey, what do you know! It was the same guy!

Gerry James was one of those unique athletes…a two-sport professional, long before Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders had a fling at it. Edwin Fitzgerald “Gerry” James was born in Regina, Saskatchewan in 1934, a Great Depression year. But his parents moved to Winnipeg when he was a baby and that’s where he was raised. Once he took to sports, his life was set for him. His father, Eddie James, nicknamed “Dynamite,” was a rock of a running back in western Canada football with the Regina Roughriders (long before they became known as the Saskatchewan Roughriders) and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and good enough to be elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1958. In his day, Eddie was the Babe Ruth of the Western running backs. For most of his career, Gerry was often compared to his dad. Could he cut it? Would he be as good? It turned out Gerry may have been even better, so much so that they called him “Kid Dynamite” and he too made it to the CFL Hall of Fame in 1981. He’s also in the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame, as well as the Saskatchewan equivalent. When James retired from football in 1964, he had 18 CFL records to his credit and was the second all-time Canadian-bred  running back with 5,554 yards and 57 TDs, behind only to Edmonton’s great Normie Kwong.

Growing up in Winnipeg, James played junior hockey as a defenseman for the Winnipeg Monarchs, a team that had a working agreement with the Toronto Maple Leafs. This was back in the sponsorship era before Expansion in 1967 and the amateur draft. James impressed Leaf scouts at the age of 16 during the Memorial Cup finals in 1951, when the Monarchs lost to the Toronto Marlboros, and was asked to move East to play for the Marlies. In Toronto, he was converted to left wing. In 1952, he signed on to play pro football with Winnipeg at the tender age of 17, making him the second youngest to ever play in the league. At the “Peg,” he was a part-time running back and a superb full-time punt returner. In Toronto, he helped his new junior team win the Memorial Cup in 1955, and this was only a few months after winning the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian award in its first year of voting. A few days after the Memorial Cup win, James was called up to the Leafs for one game to play on the top line with Teeder Kennedy and Sid Smith. Whew! All this in a five-month timespan.

Later in the year, he had his first 1,000-yard rushing season for the Bombers—where he was a West all-star--by gaining 1,205 yards with a 6.4 yard average per carry. After the end of the football season, he joined the Leafs for 46 games, becoming a penalty killer and enforcer. In the first round of the playoffs, the Leafs were knocked out by Detroit in five games, but James scored a breakaway goal on goalie great Glenn Hall, outskating icon Gordie Howe who was right on his heels.  This was James’ only playoff goal as a Leaf in 15 total playoff games. In regular season play as a Leaf for six seasons, ending in 1959-60, he played in 149 games, netting 14 goals, 26 assists and 257 minutes in penalties. In one game near the end of the 1957-58 season, he decked Red Wings tough guy Ted Lindsay. Even Lindsay was impressed. He didn’t realize James had a left hook. During a time that overlapped the 1959 CFL season and the 1959-60 NHL season, James was the only player to play in a Grey Cup (which the Bombers won in November 1959 over Hamilton) and an NHL Stanley Cup final (which the Leafs lost in April to Montreal) in the same season.  In the same vain, on 30 November 1957, he played in the Grey Cup game in Toronto (a loss to Hamilton), then that night he suited up for his first game of the season for the Leafs when they faced the Boston Bruins.

It was around this time that sportswriter Jim Hunt wrote in the Toronto Daily Star…”There’s only one thing that seems likely to keep Gerry James from being one of the great stars in Canadian Football. That’s hockey. And there’s only one thing that seems likely to keep the same Gerry James from being a star in the National Hockey League. That’s football.”

But it was James’ football career that really stood out…

On more than one occasion, he received offers from the NFL’s New York Giants, but he chose to stay in Canada simply because the CFL paid better at the time and he had a family to support, which was a another reason why he took up 2 pro sports in the first place...to pay the bills.  He was on 4 Grey Cup winners in 6 appearances. He ran for 100 or more yards in 10 different games. In 1957, he scored 18 touchdowns rushing and one receiving. His 18 rushing TDs stood as a record for over 30 years. He also ran for 1,192 yards in 1957, his second season netting 1,000 yards. He twice won a Schenley Award as the top Canadian, 1954 and 1957. Then in 1960, James also became the Winnipeg place-kicker, a left-footed one at that. In the 1961 Grey Cup against Hamilton, James scored 14 of Winnipeg’s 21 points in a 21-14 OT victory, including the rushing TD and the convert to tie the score at 14-14.

Gerry James, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (courtesy Post Foods)
The following year, during the notorious Fog Bowl played in Toronto, James converted all 4 of Winnipeg’s touchdowns, while Hamilton’s kicker, Don Sutherin, missed on 2 of his team’s 4 TDs. Final score…Winnipeg 28 Hamilton 27. It was James’ last time in a Bomber uniform. In the off-season, after finishing second in scoring in the West with 116 points, he was asked to take a pay cut from $13,000 to $8,500. He refused and was released by coach Bud Grant. After coaching hockey in Switzerland for 2 years, he returned to the CFL in 1964 as the Saskatchewan Roughrider place-kicker, lasting only half the season before they too released him.

His football career over, he turned to senior hockey and the Yorktown Terriers of the Saskatchewan Senior League. Between 1966-70, Yorkton won 4 straight provincial titles, the first 3 of those with James as player-coach.  When the World Hockey Association came into being in the early 1970s, many of the senior leagues across Canada quickly folded as the new WHA teams needed players. This opened up  a new career for James…coaching junior hockey which he was very successful at. He was ahead of his time with playbooks as in football and proper conditioning for the players.  Above all, he wanted his players to have fun.  Between the years 1972 to 1985, he coached in the Tier II Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League with the Yorkton Terriers, the Melville Millionaires, and the Estevan Bruins. His best player was Melville’s Brian Propp who set the SJHL record of 168 points in only 57 games in 1975-76. James’  last fling at coaching was spent with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Tier I Western Hockey League in 1988-89, where his forces finished 27-42-3, one of only 3 junior seasons below .500 for him. He packed in coaching after that.

James now lives in Nanoose Bay, British Columbia on Vancouver Island.  For some strange reason, he was left off the 2006 TSN list of Top 50 CFL players of all time, shunted instead to the Honor Roll.  And Hamilton great QB Bernie Faloney is there too. Huh!

What a shame for such a remarkable Canadian-born football player as Gerry James. Oh yeah, he played hockey too. A 2-sport pro.

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