Saturday, 5 July 2014

JACK KENT COOKE AND THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS



Maple Leaf Stadium  in the late 1920s (Canadian Public Domain)

In the mid-1920s, Canadian businessman Lawrence Soloman had Maple Leaf Stadium constructed along the Toronto waterfront to house his minor league baseball team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. On a rainy 29 April 1926, the park opened as 18,000 fans saw the Leafs beat the Reading Keystones 6-5 in 10 innings. From 1926 to the Leafs disbanding in 1967, and the subsequent demolition of their park in 1968, the Maple Leafs won seven International League pennants, one Junior World Series, and four Governors’ Cups--the playoff winner of the top four finishers in the league.

The 19,000-seat capacity Maple Leaf Stadium was one of the most state-of-the-art minor league parks on the continent. To keep updated, lights were installed in 1934, one year ahead of the major league’s first park to go with lights, Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. From the outside, Maple Leaf Stadium had curb appeal. It reminded people of the Roman Coliseum with its massive, arched windows. Inside, it was a cozy, fan-friendly venue where the box seats almost leaned onto the beautifully-kept diamond of ultra-green grass and red-brown clay infield. Beyond the outfield fences--300 feet to left, 425 to center, and 311 to right--the fans could catch a serene view of the nearby Lake Ontario and Toronto Island.

I knew very little about the Toronto’s Triple A baseball tradition when I moved to the area from the prairies in 1976. Then, at a Saturday garage sale two years later, I purchased a publication, which I still have, entitled the Official Leafs Score Magazine. It was the 1958 summer edition, selling for 25 cents in its day.
In it were several great photos of Maple Leaf players with bios, including legendary slugger Rocky Nelson. I took note of the ticket prices listed on one page…$2 for boxes, $1.75 for loge seats, $1.60 for blue reserves, and $1.50 for general admission.

Working at the Loblaw’s grocery warehouse in Streetsville at the time, I took the program to work the following Monday and what a reaction from several colleagues! It turned out that Maple Leaf Stadium was right across the street from the first Loblaw’s warehouse on the corner of Bathurst and Front, now Lakeshore Boulevard, and the company used to charge fans to park their cars on Loblaw’s property on game day.

When my boss saw the photo of Rocky Nelson, he said, with enthusiasm, “Wow! Nelson was my favorite Maple Leaf! He used to be huge in Toronto.” Translate into today’s term…a rock star. One of the truck drivers added that dozens of kids at any one time used to show up at Nelson’s house on Islington Avenue, asking for his autograph. And Nelson was nice enough to sign every piece of paper they would hand over. 

Back in 1958, the Maple Leafs were owned by the colorful Jack Kent Cooke. Hamilton-born in 1912, the entrepreneurial Cooke went from peddling encyclopedias door-to-door during the Great Depression to selling soap to managing radio stations. He later bought into newspapers, magazines and radio stations. By 1943, he was a self-made millionaire. A sports fan, he purchased the Maple Leafs on 4 July 1951. By then, the team had fallen on some hard times since their last pennant in 1943. Maple Leaf Stadium had also hit the skids, badly in need of repairs. Using his own $60,000, Cooke cleaned the park up and promised the city and fans that he’d return the team to their winning ways.

Maple Leafs owner Jack Kent Cooke (right) with unidentified player in dugout, 1955 (Canadian Public Domain)








At the first game under his ownership, he gave away free hotdogs and pop to everyone in attendance.  From then on, throughout the 1950s, he gave the fans entertainment like the city and league had never seen before. He introduced dignitaries before games, including visiting movie stars. He raffled off items such as bats, ponies, and cars. He hired attractive female ushers. He showcased beauty competitions and staged milking contests in which the players joined in. Between innings, modern hit parade music blared over the loudspeakers. After many night games, Cooke thrilled the fans with dazzling fireworks. He made Maple Leaf Stadium the hottest ticket in town, and the coolest place to be.  He also turned the Leafs into the most-talked minor league team of the Fifties. Some people in the press even referred to Cooke as “Canada’s Bill Veeck.”  FYI--I have a two-part story on Bill Veeck coming to my blog this summer.

In 1952, when the Leafs established their all-time best gate of 512,325 tickets sold, Cooke was voted minor league executive of the year by The Sporting News. During Cooke’s leadership, the team saw more than 3.2 million paying customers jam their way through the turnstiles from 1951 to 1960, easily outdrawing all other International League teams and even an occasional major league team in particular seasons. By acquiring Toronto’s CKEY Radio in 1945, he was able to broadcast his games over the air. An early-day George Steinbrenner, Cooke even had a telephone installed in his box seat that connected him to the dugout.

Besides all his hustling and promotions, Cooke’s teams also won for the fans, taking pennants in 1954, 1956, 1957 and 1960; and a Governors’ Cup in 1960. And he did it by operating independently for most of the years by signing players outright, developing them, then selling them to major teams for more money than what he paid for them originally.

Prior to the 1954 season, Cooke, ever the opportunist,  made an agreement with the New York Yankees to take one of their players, African-American catcher Elston Howard, under his wing to help develop him--plus use his presence at the gate--before sending him up the line to New York. Toronto was also an excellent city for Howard--a true gentleman--to integrate with white players and white society in general.

Playing regularly in 1954, along with other talented black teammates Connie Johnson, Sam Jethroe, and Hector Rodriquez, Howard excelled by hitting .330 with 22 homers and 109 RBIs and taking International League MVP honors. Then he joined the Yankees in 1955 as the team’s African-American, eventually taking over the catching duties from Yogi Berra. In New York, Howard played solidly for a dozen years, including being named American League MVP in 1963.

Cooke’s best team had to be the 1960 Maple Leafs--one of the most prolific minor league teams ever--who finished with a 100-54 record, 17 games ahead of the second place Richmond Virginians. The pitching staff, nicknamed “The Whitewash Crew,” threw a league-record 32 shutouts. However, by then the crowds were dwindling. Not just in Toronto, but all over the minor leagues. Major league games on TV the biggest culprit.

Cooke loved the Leafs. But it was still only Triple A. As far back as 1951, he began making inquiries about purchasing the St Louis Browns, then the Boston Braves, and the Philadelphia Athletics, three teams in financial trouble for years. Every time he was beaten to the punch, as the teams moved one by one to greener pastures in Baltimore, Milwaukee and Kansas City, respectively. Then he made a valid bid to buy the Detroit Tigers for $5.2 million, but was turned down. He also considered the Chicago White Sox, until Bill Veeck bought them in 1959.

Action at Maple Leaf Stadium before a packed house,
1960 (Canadian Public Domain)
Then Cooke and other entrepreneurs looked into forming a new league--the Continental League--that would compete directly against the established majors. That venture fell through once the majors announced expansion plans for the early 1960s. All this time, Cooke tried desperately to convince the Toronto city fathers to work with him in replacing the aging Maple Leaf Stadium with a newer, larger venue, in anticipation of a forthcoming major league franchise. According to a Cooke confidant, the Toronto politicians considered Cooke a con man and refused to take him seriously. As the news of Cooke’s continual rejections reached the press, the fans grew tired of waiting and began to avoid Maple Leaf Stadium altogether. To them, it was the majors or nothing.

Fed up, Cooke moved his business base of operations to California in 1960, where he became a US citizen. Four years later, he sold the Leafs for a fire-sale price of $50,000. Winning Governors’ Cups in 1965 and 1966 to empty seats, the Leafs left town after 1967 and relocated in Louisville. By then, the once-great Maple Leaf Stadium was a crumbling safety hazard and saw the wrecking ball the following spring. Nine years later, in 1977, the City of Toronto had a change of heart and worked with a new group to bring major league baseball to town as the expansion Toronto Blue Jays.

At the time of his death in 1997, Jack Kent Cooke’s vast estate was worth approximately $825 million. He had invested in cable television; New York’s Chrysler Building; the LA Lakers; “The Fabulous Forum” in Inglewood, California that promoted and iced his NHL expansion team, the LA Kings; and the 3-time Super Bowl winning Washington Redskins, to name a few of his ventures.

But he couldn’t to be trusted by Toronto’s city fathers to bring major league ball to Toronto. Some con man.

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