Let’s talk about bye, bye EskimoPie…the Edmonton E-Somethings…when Muhammad was Cassius…being wrong about Bucky…Postmedia’s D’Oh Boy…fake noise and fake fans…lesbian love and Ponytail Puck…splitsville for Aaron and Danica…and other things on my mind

A Sunday morning smorgas-bored…and it’s only fair to warn you that the odds are 2-to-1 that this post will offend someone…

Racist and/or bigoted language was not uncommon in the home of my early upbringing.

Eastern Europeans (read: Poles and Ukrainians) who had found their way to Canadian shores were “dumb DPs” (displaced persons) or “squareheads,” a descriptive I always found notably inaccurate given that, upon examination through the curious, wide eyes of youth, their heads looked no less round or long than any other adult head in the neighborhood.

Italians were “wops,” Japanese were “Japs” or “nips,” the Chinese were “chinks,” and Indians were “lousy redskins.” None of it was meant to be complimentary.

Black people, meanwhile, were “dumb darkies,” and usually “good for nothing,” and my dad reserved his most disgusting verbal bile for one of my favorite entertainers in those 1950s and ’60s, Sammy Davis Jr., who had the (apparent) bad manners to be both Black and Jewish, which made him a “dirty, little (N-bomb) Jew.”

I know, my dad was a real charmer.

Anyway, at no point did it occur to me that the word “Eskimo” was a racist slur. It was either someone who lived in an igloo up north, a tasty chocolate-coated ice cream treat (EskimoPie), or someone like Jackie Parker or Johnny Bright who played football in Edmonton.

Yet here we are today, with the forced rebranding of the Edmonton Eskimos.

Jonesy

The word “Eskimo” is considered offensive by many Inuit people and, in today’s social climate, that will never do, so the storied Canadian Football League franchise soon shall be the Team Formerly Known As The Eskimos.

“It should be considered a dark day,” scribbles Terry Jones, the dean of Canadian jock journos who wrote the book on Edmonton FC (Clearance Sale! Regular $249, now $99 plus tax and shipping; limited number of books remaining). “It’s a crime, considering the traditions involved, that they’re going to have to take down the sign over the dressing room door: ‘Once An Eskimo, Always An Eskimo.’”

Jonesy, who’s old enough to remember all but one or two of Edmonton’s 14 Grey Cup successes, closes his essay with this: “They’ll always be the Eskimos to me.”

I suspect he’ll have ample company on the disgruntled side of the name debate, because the die-hards will want to hang onto the old rather than grab onto the new.

Spaghetti Legs Parker

Let’s be clear about something, though: A name change doesn’t alter the legacy of this model franchise. It still has 14 Rouge Football championships. Spaghetti Legs Parker and the China Clipper and Rollie Miles and Wilkie and numerous others are still in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as Eskimos. (Come to think of it, so is Jonesy, the documentarian of all things green and gold.) And a new handle won’t erase the five successive years Edmonton FC hoisted the Grey Grail (1978-82).

So why would anyone get bent out of shape?

As Gertrude Stein wrote more than 100 years ago, not long after the Esquimaux became the Eskimos: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” Or, as noted football correspondent Willie Shakespeare scribbled, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

And so it shall be with Edmonton FC.

I suppose I’d have different thoughts about this name-changing business if the rabble bullied the Winnipeg Blue Bombers into becoming something other than the Blue Bombers. But there hasn’t been much of a social outcry over airplanes that carry bombs since the Vietnam War, so I think we’re safe.

Apparently Edmonton FC would like to keep the alliteration in the name, thus no logo change, so they’re destined to become the E-Somethings. Here are five suggestions:
1. Edmonton Evolution.
2. Edmonton Empire.
3. Edmonton Emus.
4. Edmonton Elephants.
5. Edmonton Eeny Meeny Miney Moes.
Or…they can go all-in on something completely different, such as:
1. Edmonton Rockies (named after Premier Jason Kenney’s private downtown mountain range).
2. Edmonton Rough Riders (the CFL has gone too long without a second Roughriders team).
3. Edmonton Klondike (a salute to the city’s minimal role in the Klondike Gold Rush).
4. Edmonton Mallers (named after E-Town’s sole tourist attraction).
5. Edmonton Reboot (isn’t everything in sports a reboot these days?).

The moral of the story: Don’t name your franchise after people. Or marginalized groups of people. Or people who prey upon the marginalized (which rules out Daniel Snyder naming his National Football League franchise the Washington Trumps or Republicans).

I suppose the most famous name change in sports was Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. to Muhammad Ali. Clay became Ali after whupping Sonny Liston to claim the heavyweight boxing title in 1964, but numerous New York scribes refused to acknowledge his Islamic name. Dick Young described it as a “hate name” and wrote, “I do not believe Cassius Clay or anyone who thinks like him is good for my country. He is for separatism. He is for black man against white man.” Red Smith called him Cassius Clay and described him as one of the “unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.” Arthur Daley refused to call him Ali and would refer to him as “the former Cassius Clay” into the 1970s. When Robert Lipsyte wrote Muhammad Ali in his copy, editors at the New York Times would change it to Cassius Clay. The Times refused to accept Muhammad Ali as his official name until 1970. The great Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times called him Cassius as late as 1967. My guess is Edmonton scribes won’t be so petty with the Edmonton E-Somethings.

I must confess that I was totally wrong about Connor Hellebuyck, Vezina Trophy finalist. When Bucky joined the Winnipeg Jets, he was gangly and awkward and seemingly confused, so I never had him figured for an elite goaltender, but he’s among the three Vezina finalists for the second time in the past three National Hockey League crusades. Who knew? Certainly not moi.

Trudeau the Younger

On the subject of getting it wrong, nobody was a bigger D’Oh Boy last week than Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna. He had himself a right proper Twitter fit on Thursday, scolding Trudeau the Younger and his squints for permitting the Blue Jays to spend what’s left of summer frolicking in the Republic of Tranna. “The government of Canada—do as we say, not as we do—has let us down again,” he harrumphed. “They are allowing the Blue Jays to play home games this summer in Toronto. That is beyond stupid.” No, beyond stupid is sending out that tweet, then doubling down on it (“beyond ridiculous”) when, in fact, Trudeau the Younger had not granted the Tranna Nine permission to set up shop in The ROT. As we suspected, the Jays have been orphaned and shall truck their bats and their balls south of the U.S.-Canada border for an abbreviated Major League Baseball crusade. D’oh!

Simmons took to Twitter on Saturday and offered a mea culpa to the feds. He’s now “proud” of them, don’t you know. I’m sure Trudeau the Younger will sleep better at night knowing that.

Donovan Bailey

Simmons also submits that Donovan Bailey has not been awarded the Order of Canada because—wait for it—he’s a Black man. Yup, if not for the hue of his skin, the former Olympic sprint champion would have received the honor long ago. Hmmm. Apparently the advisory council that selects Order of Canada recipients didn’t notice Herb Carnegie’s skin color. Or Willie O’Ree’s. Or Ben Johnson’s. That’s right, Ben freaking cheater Johnson became a member of the Order in 1987. He has very black skin. Among the original group of recipients was Isaac Phills, a Black steelworker. So to suggest that Bailey has been blackballed due to race is “beyond stupid and ridiculous.” Simmons might want to consider another mea culpa, this one to members of the advisory council for branding them as racist.

MLB plans to use canned crowd noise from video games during the season, and sound engineers will have a selection of 75 audio choices. Apparently, the folks at Fenway Park in Boston have yet to decide if they’ll be using racial or anti-gay slurs as part of their sound package.

Also, a few MLB outfits will place cardboard images of actual fans in their empty ballparks. Lucky stiffs.

Just wondering: Will they still play Take Me Out To The Ballgame during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field?

Alex Rodriguez wants to buy the New York Mets and introduce an economic system that sounds suspiciously like a salary cap. Ya, says the guy who made $448,000,000 under the old system.

Sofia Reideborn

Here’s something you’ll never hear or read about in men’s professional hockey: Romantic relationships between teammates can be problematic. So says Sofia Reideborn, now a former goaltender with SDE of the Swedish women’s league. During a recent Summer Talk podcast she said, “SDE did well last season but my opinion is that we still didn’t reach our full potential because there were so many love relationships and so much drama within the team. The relationships become a problem. I have nothing against homosexual relationships, it is not what I turn against, but it is relationships with a team because it affects the sporting performance. If you want money, prospects or respect, a team in the highest league cannot possibly have five couples. Ten people involved in a relationship with each other. Half the team.”

SDE defender Jacquie Pierri delivered a robust rebuttal to Reideborn, tweeting, “To argue we should ban player relationships because they are inconvenient in one straight-person’s eyes is backwards and not befitting of any airtime or publicity.”

Danica and Aaron

Speaking of relationships, it looks like football hero Aaron Rodgers and former fast-car racer Danica Patrick have hit the ultimate speed bump and arrived at splitsville. Apparently they had a flare-up over driving: He refused to stop and ask for directions, she couldn’t do anything but make left turns.

And, finally, according to Zodiak readings, if I were a pie I’d be a classic apple pie. And if I were Canadian comfort food, I’d be a Peameal Bacon Sandwich. I’m not sure what any of that means, but it’s making me hungry. Time for brekky.

Let’s talk about sexism and homophobia in kids hockey…the 21st century is calling, men…NASCAR ain’t just whistling Dixie…the Dream Gappers playing nice…on the in-isolation book shelf…why would any woman want to date George Costanza?…and other things on my mind

Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and you might want to socially distance yourself from this…

There are times when it’s difficult to know where to begin, but experience has taught me that the beginning is a good place to start.

So, in the beginning…

That’s Delbert Wagner on the drums with the Jimmy King Quartet.

I initially noticed the hue of skin at age five, perhaps six, when the family had gathered for dinner one night on Melbourne Avenue in Winnipeg. There, at one corner of the table nearest my mom, sat Delbert Wagner, local jazz musician. I stared, studying him hard, like I would a freshly opened pack of Topps baseball cards.

“Is something wrong?” my mother asked, observing my fixation with our guest and perhaps thinking there was something about Delbert’s table manners that I didn’t appreciate.

“He’s a Black man,” I said, pointing. “He’s not the same color as us.”

The three adults in attendance tittered, and I made no conscious decision to accept or reject Delbert’s blackness because I was unaware that skin tone might be a matter for disagreement.

Similarly, when treated to a Saturday night out at Haynes Chicken Shack on Lulu Street, I would notice the mixture of black and white faces and think nothing of it, except to acknowledge that there were more black faces than I was accustomed to seeing. In the main, my consideration went to the musicians, who were wonderful, and it was cool when one of the owners/performers, Percy and Zena Haynes (Delbert’s step-father and mother), would work the room and join us at our table for a brief time. I likened it to a visit from Nat King Cole or Ella.

Those were my first inter-racial inter-actions, and I’m happy to report that they leaned heavily toward extremely pleasurable.

Wilma Rudolph

The sporting and/ or entertainment heroes of my youth, meanwhile, were an interesting collection: The elegant Wilma Rudolph, a Black woman, was the athlete I most admired; Sandy Koufax, a Jewish man, was my favorite baseball player; Floyd Patterson, a Black Catholic, was my fave boxer until Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, a Muslim; my favorite singers were Barbra Streisand, a Jew, and Frank Sinatra, a mobster; my favorite actor was Sophia Loren, an Italian.

It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t like any or all of them simply because of skin hue, choice of temple, circle of friends, or place of birth.

So you’ll have to excuse me if I fail to comprehend why anyone would stoop to the verbal and/or literal boot-stomping of Black people. I didn’t understand it in the 1950s and ’60s, when fire hoses and German Shepherd dogs were among the tools used to subdue peaceful marchers, and I don’t get it now.

I give ponder to this matter because of the great group howl that has dominated the conversation pit ever since a rogue cop executed George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis-St. Paul in late May.

Sports organizations and athletes who’ve never used their voices (hello, National Hockey League players) now raise them in a new-born awareness of racial inequity. Their chorus has invited praise. But also skepticism. That is, some wonder if there’s universal sincerity in the squawk against racism, or is the high, angered pitch a product of too many athletes with an inordinate amount of free time on their hands?

The hope, of course, is that it’s meaningful natter destined to bear fruit, but the fear is that it’ll disappear like summer wages.

In the meantime, allow me to squeeze an alternative thought into the main holler about racism and direct your attention to the real scourge of boys’ and men’s sports, particularly hockey—sexism/misogyny and homophobia.

The Greater Toronto Hockey League was bullied into releasing some interesting data the other day, numbers that break down misconduct penalties assessed in the past three seasons. In 2019-20, gender/sexism-related infractions numbered 172. Racism? Five. Yup, 172-5. Do the math. That’s 34 times as many.

I’d like to tell you I’m surprised, but I’m not. The go-to slurs, on-ice and in hockey changing rooms, are sexist or anti-gay. It’s an ugly segment of the culture, older than the back of Aurele Joliat’s head. Most disturbing is that it still holds grip at today’s grassroots level, where kids continue to recite a lesson learned from fathers, uncles and older brothers—women are lesser-thans.

Ditto gays. Homophobia is so embedded in hockey that there’s never been an openly gay player in the NHL. Not ever. In more than 100 years. There have been 60-plus Black players, but zero gays have felt comfortable enough to come out. Before or after their tour of duty.

The GTHL numbers tell us that sexism/gender and homophobia are far greater worry points than racism, and I’d suggest you’d find similar results anywhere in Canada.

And here’s a troubling notion: Those kids are our leaders of tomorrow.

At first blush, the GTHL figures don’t seem so disturbing, not when you consider we’re talking about 40,000 kids and 14,000 games per season. But then you contemplate a sound bite from GTHL executive director Scott Oakman: “I don’t think it’s a measure of the real life experiences players have in our league. We’ve heard, over the last week or so, lived experiences of players that were undetected by officials.” So what do we do, multiply the incidents by 10? By 100? Do I hear 1,000? It’s scary stuff.

Megan Rapinoe

I should point out that the women/gays-as-lesser-thans is strictly a male sports thing. Women’s pro hockey and Olympic rosters have featured lesbian and transgender players. Women’s National Basketball Association rosters include numerous lesbians, some of whom are married. Tennis, golf…many gay women. And, of course, there’s soccer and it’s Women’s World Cup where, according to Yankee Doodle Damsel lesbian Megan Rapinoe, “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team. It’s never been done before.” So when will male sports organizations and athletes join the 21st century?

When I called up the Sportsnet website early Saturday morning, there were 10 items on racism. TSN had five on its main page. The Athletic had five. Be interesting to note the numbers a month from now.

Wow, that was some kind of big news from the good ol’ boys in NASCAR—no one is allowed to fly or display the Confederate flag on race day anymore. Most fans actually took the news in stride, but rioting broke out when they were told they also had to put their teeth in.

Excuse me? Did I just stereotype U.S. Southerners? My apologies. I was actually talking about Saskatchewan Roughriders fans.

It looks like scribes who follow the National Basketball Association might be required to live in quarantine at Disney World for 3½ months. No big deal. Most of them are too big for the rides anyway.

I tried watching some of the Charles Schwab Challenge from the Colonial in Fort Worth on Saturday, but it wasn’t working for me. I prefer spectator sports.

So, the NHL’s disgraced and outcast misogynist Brendan Leipsic has apparently found work in Russia. Finally, something the rest of us saw coming before the Houston Astros.

Yogi reads Yogi.

Here’s what’s on my in-isolation book shelf this week…

It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Lady with Three Chins Sings: The Collected Sayings of Yogi Berra (Politically Correct Edition).

Gone with the Blowhard: How Humpty Harold Ballard Huffed and Puffed and Turned the Maple Leafs from Champs to Chumps.

Left Turns & Whistling Dixie: The Illustrated History of NASCAR.

My Pants were On Fire and Your Nose was Growing: Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa Finally Tell the Truth About Their Juiced-Up Home Run Race of 1998.

Hell, Yes, There’s Crying in Baseball: What Every Cleveland Indians Fan Needs to Know.

Jayna Hefford

What’s this? Could it be that there’s an awakening in the world of women’s hockey? Appears to be so. Whereas members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association once took delight in trash talking the National Women’s Hockey League and it’s “beer league” product, the Dream Gappers are suddenly playing nice “What we forget about along the way is any opportunity in women’s sport right now is a good one,” says Kristen Richards, who opted to align with the PWHPA rather than join the NWHL. “Why are we women forced to say that we only deserve one league after all of this?” And here’s Jayna Hefford, main mouthpiece for the Dream Gappers: “When you look at men’s hockey, everybody knows the best players play in the NHL. It doesn’t seem confusing on the men’s side that there’s multiple professional leagues. To put it in laymen’s terms, there’s McDonald’s and there’s Burger King. They do the exact same thing. Are they pressured to be one company?” Could be that it’s just window dressing and the Dream Gappers are still as catty as ever, but I prefer to think they’ve grown some.

Here’s something only a scribe from the Republic of Tranna would write, re the Tranna Jurassics winning the NBA title a year ago: “That life-altering feeling may never go away, even now as we struggle through some of the largest challenges of our lives,” Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna tells us. Say what? “Life-altering?” Good grief. COVID-19 is “life-altering.” The other thing is a basketball game. Get a grip, man.

Simmons also had this to say in his weekly alphabet fart that appears in many Postmedia papers: “We need to do more in this country to make sports accessible and available and cool enough for young women to participate.” Right. That coming from a guy who once said, “I don’t believe there’s a demand from the public for women’s sports.” He also called women’s hockey at the Olympic Games “a charade.” When the discussion is female sports, it’s best if Simmons just sits it out.

The Costanzas

And, finally, I’ve been watching a lot of Seinfeld lately, and I must say that those four main characters are quite unpleasant people. George Costanza, in particular, is among the smarmiest, most annoying people on TV, yet despite that and his lack of physical attractiveness, most of his girlfriends are babes. I don’t know about you, but most women I know wouldn’t date George Costanza on a dare, especially if it meant spending any time with his parents.

The sports media dealing with social/political issues is nothing new

Stick to sports? Why?

Why should jock journalists and opinionists be limited to one-trick pony-ism, writing and gabbing about nothing other than wins and losses, home runs and touchdowns, free throws and three-pointers, and how much air there is in Tom Brady’s balls?

Sam Lacy, Dan Bankhead and Wendell Smith.

I mean, I’m guessing that if Twitter had been around in the 1930s and ’40s, Sam Lacy, Wendell Smith and other black sportswriters might have used their 140-character allotment to say something significant about segregation in baseball. Twitter didn’t exist back then, though. So they used newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American as pulpits from which to openly lobby for desegregation.

For example, when Major League Baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis died in 1944, Lacy used his Afro-American platform to scribble this about the appointment of Happy Chandler as MLB commish: “It appears that his choice was the most logical one for the bigoted major league operators, of which there is a heavy majority on hand.”

Similarly, in the chaotic 1960s, when young heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay joined the Nation of Islam and became Cassius X then Muhammad Ali, (white) sports scribes refused to use his Muslim name in their copy (it wasn’t until October 1970, six years after the fact, that the New York Times issued a directive that sportswriters were to call him Muhammad Ali) and they weren’t shy about spicing their prose with biting social commentary re “Clay,” race and religion.

Here are two examples from New York columnist Jimmy Cannon:

The fight racket since its rotten beginnings has been the red light district of sports. But this is the first time it has been turned into an instrument of mass hate…Clay is using it as a weapon of wickedness.”

And…

Jimmy Cannon

I pity Clay and abhor what he represents. In the years of hunger during the Depression, the Communists used famous people the way the Black Muslims are exploiting Clay. This is a sect that deforms the beautiful purpose of religion.”

The noise became amplified, also more threatening and vicious, when the champ refused to step forward for induction into the United States military in 1967.

Red Smith, legendary New York columnist: “Squealing over the possibility that the military may call him up, Cassius makes as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.”

Really? Those protesting the Vietnam War were “unwashed punks?”

Jim Murray, legendary Los Angeles Times columnist, who mocked Ali by calling him Abdul the Bull Bull Ameer: “Cassius Marcellus Clay, one of the greatest heroes in the history of his people, has decided to secede from the Union. He will not disgrace himself by wearing the uniform of the Army of the United States…From the safety of 103 years, he waves his fist at dead slave owners. Down to his last four Cadillacs, the thud of Communist jackboots holds no dread for him. He is in this country but not of it.”

Really? Dead slave owners and Communist jackboots in a sports column?

So, you see, when ESPN anchor Jemele Hill went off on Donald Trump on her personal Twitter account recently, calling the United States president a “white supremacist,” she wasn’t digging a shovel into fresh, unbroken ground. Social/political commentary in print and on air is older than the contract Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers to become the first black player in baseball’s major leagues. Do you think the names and words Jesse Owens, Adolph Hitler, Nazis and Aryan supremacy have never appeared in a sportswriter’s copy?

Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star is among the elite wordsmiths in Canadian jock journalism today, but social/political commentary on his Twitter account heavily outweighs the sports content. Why would anyone find that objectionable?

Red Smith

I think it should be a personal decision, based partly on who employs you,” he said as a member of a Sports Illustrated panel. “But if you’re informed—or even just feel strongly about something—and you’re comfortable making your voice heard, then you should be able to say what you think. Sports are great, but they’re not the world. It’s okay to live in the world a little, too.”

On the night of the 2016 American presidential election, with Donald Trump winning the White House, Steve Simmons of Postmedia tweeted: “The saddest night in American history.” That is, of course, a totally illogical comment, especially coming from a non-American, but is he not allowed his emotional, if uninformed, opinion? Does it reflect on Simmons or Postmedia? I would submit the former rather than the latter, and numerous followers suggested he “stick to sports.”

If I have an issue with sports opinionists and their social/political commentary, it’s when they say nothing at all. Or when they’re inconsistent.

Ray Rice is pilloried for beating up one woman. Floyd Mayweather Jr. is given a pass on his thick file of repeated domestic violence. (I suppose the arrival of Johnny Manziel to a Canadian Football League outfit will be greeted with literary high fives.) That isn’t merely inexcusable, it’s the abandonment of responsible reporting.

Sports and politics/social activism are bedfellows, and to think otherwise is to live in a Utopian world. Social media has upped the ante, to be sure, but jock journos have always been there to write and talk about it. Usually in more than 140 characters.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling mostly about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she’s old and probably should think about getting a life.

About Jim Kernaghan…the Grim Reaper…charismatic jocks…and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Wall of Honor

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

Jim Kernaghan
Jim Kernaghan

The trouble with aging isn’t in the living, it’s in the dying.

Not in our dying, understand, but in the passing of so many of our contemporaries, the people we grew up with, worked with, learned with, played with, laughed with, cried with. The people we watched and admired. The people who inspired and delighted.

No one here gets out alive. We know that (although Keith Richards appears to be pushing the envelop). But the reminders come too rapidly once we have arrived at a certain vintage.

On Friday, Muhammad Ali leaves us. Two days later, Jim Kernaghan is gone.

Those who knew him best might suggest that it’s just like Kernaghan to check out so soon after the former heavyweight boxing champion died. That would be ‘Kerny’. Chasing the story. Still. Always.

Kernaghan, one of the flowers of Canadian jock journalism during a 42-year print run that stretched from 1964 to 2006, was someone to be admired and respected as a person and writer. He spent a considerable amount of time chronicling the fascinating deeds and derring-do of Ali, initially for the Toronto Star then the London Free Press. He was on site to deliver daily dispatches to readers for more than two dozen of the champ’s 61 fist fights, including the night he bade farewell in a cringe-inducing tiff with Trevor Berbick.

That was in Nassau, Bahamas, early in December 1981. I remember spending time with Kerhaghan in a Paradise Island bar, talking Ali, trying to soak up his knowledge and listening to tinny Christmas carols being played by a steel drums band.

I never thought I’d ever be sitting in a bar in the Bahamas, a couple of weeks before Christmas, listening to Jingle Bells and Silent Night being played on steel drums,” I said to him. “It’s real strange and different.”

You can’t have a big fight without strange and different,” he said. “Especially if Ali and his people are involved. They’re always strange and different.”

I never saw much of Kernaghan after the Ali-Berbick bout, because I soon was off on other adventures that landed me at the Calgary Sun and Winnipeg Sun. But I never forgot his kindness and I never stopped reading him. He was terrific.

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali

I know Kernaghan was there. I know legendary Toronto Star columnist Milt Dunnell was there. And I know I was there. If there were other Canadian jock journalists at the final Ali fist fight in Nassau, I don’t recall. Two of our unholy trinity are dead. As are five of the boxers on the Drama in Bahama card: Ali, Berbick, Greg Page, Scott Ledoux and Jeff Sims. Makes me wonder why the Grim Reaper has spared me.

Just wondering: Would there be a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or an Ahmad Rashad if Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. hadn’t become Muhammad Ali in 1964? Somehow I doubt it. There’d most likely still be a Lew Alcindor and a Bobby Moore.

Ali’s passing put me in ponder of the charismatic jocks and/or sportsmen I was fortunate enough to meet and write about during my 30 years in mainstream media. They are:

  1. Muhammad Ali: One of a kind.
  2. Pinball Clemons: A pure joy to be around.
  3. John Ferguson: The former Winnipeg Jets general manager was a keg of dynamite, but he had a compelling, powerful personality. Everyone knew when Fergy was in the room.
  4. Cal Murphy: Yes, the former Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach and GM was curmudgeonly and oft-cranky, but he was also a sackful of howls. Oh, how he would make us laugh. And he filled notebooks.
  5. Vic Peters: The curling legend had an every-man air that was very inviting and appealing.
  6. Chris Walby: The big man on the Bombers’ O-line seemed ever-present. Even when he wasn’t in the room, he was in the room. If you catch my drift.
  7. Pierre Lamarche: Most of you probably don’t recognize the name, but Pierre is a long-time big shot in Canadian tennis. I covered him at the Canadian National Tennis Tournament in the early to mid-1970s, when the event was staged at the Winnipeg Canoe Club. He was a big, happy-go-lucky French-Canadian who delivered great quotes and brightened your day.
  8. I’d say Bobby Hull, but I can’t get past the domestic violence stuff.

Indian Jack Jacobs
Indian Jack Jacobs

So, the debate is on: Which names belong on the Wall of Honor at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry? And in what order? Well, much respect to Chris Walby, one of my top-five fave Winnipeg Blue Bombers, but no, he ought not be the starting point when the Canadian Football League club begins to salute its legendary workers. You begin with Indian Jack Jacobs and the Galloping Ghost, Fritz Hanson. I never saw either of them play, but I know what they did, and anytime you need to build a new stadium basically because of one man (see: Jacobs, Jack) he has to be first in the roll call. Next up would be Bud Tinsley, then Ken Ploen, Leo Lewis, Herb Gray, Gerry James, Frank Rigney and Walby. That’s your starting nine. Old friend Paul Friesen of the Winnipeg Sun has other ideas, but it’s apparent that he’s unaware they played football in River City prior to the Bud Grant era.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 45 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.

 

Muhammad Ali: Kicking the ‘shit’ out of Sonny Liston and getting a kick out of life

I don’t pretend to have known Muhammad Ali, even though I am like many folks of my vintage who like to think we knew him.

Ali arrived in my consciousness early in the 1960s, when he began shooting off at the mouth (a la flamboyant grappler Gorgeous George) and wrested the world heavyweight boxing championship from the dreaded, mob-linked thug Sonny Liston. He was called Cassius Clay then, and I recall listening to the first of his two fights with Liston on the radio.

The grownup men had gathered in our kitchen, the non-interested women sat in the living room.

“Come on, Clay!” I yelped with the enthusiasm of any 13-year-old sprig. “Kick the shit out of him!”

This was the one and only time in my youth that I used profanity in the presence of grownups and, although there was mild tittering at the kitchen table, I was scolded, yet spared the harrowing punishment of my mother shoving a bar of soap in my mouth and giving it a good scrubbing. Perhaps it helped that Clay did, in fact, kick the “shit” out of Liston.

Whatever, little could I have imagined that, not quite 18 years after that Feb. 25, 1964, incident I would meet the great man.

***

ali6It was early December, 1981, and I stood within heckling distance of Greg Page, a growing concern among the world’s preeminent heavyweight fist-fighters.

Page was moving briskly to and fro in a makeshift ring, bobbing and weaving and flicking left jabs and right crosses into the thick air of anticipation that accompanied all big bouts back when boxing still was big. In a few days, the product of Louisville, Ky., would be throwing down against Scott Ledoux, a Minnesota miner’s son and a plodding palooka best known for his mental toughness and inadvertently knocking the toupee from the head of bombastic broadcaster Howard Cosell. This was Page’s final prep as part of the undercard to the Drama in Bahama and its main event, Muhammad Ali vs. Trevor Berbick.

As I watched Page punch at shadows while all manner of misfits consorted with seedy, nefarious-looking leeches on the periphery, I felt a presence to my left flank. It was heavy. Imposing. I turned, ever so slightly. The man standing beside me was dressed in black. Shoes. Trousers. Untucked shirt hanging over a substantial girth. All black. I looked up. Way up.

Muhammad Ali was listed at 6-feet-3 and he would weigh in at 236 and change for his bout with Berbick, but he seemed so much taller. His crop of short, curly hair surely seemed at least seven feet above the soles of his shoes.

“Hi Muhammad,” I said. “How’s it going today?”

“The kid,” he said, nodding in Page’s direction, “thinks he’s as pretty as me. But he ain’t. Ain’t nobody as pretty as me.”

When I met Ali during the run-up to his Dec. 11, 1981, bout with Berbick, he wasn’t pretty anymore. His belly was layered with flab and he shuffled along. Parkinson’s syndrome had begun its assault, although we didn’t know it at the time. We just thought he was punch drunk, which is why no athletic commission in the United States was willing to grant him a license to fight again. He was forced to take his act to Nassau, Bahamas, where he and Berbick pitched duel on a parched patch of earth known as the Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre.

The entire production was patchwork. The ring was set up on a pasture disguised as a sandlot baseball infield, at second base. Nobody thought to bring an official timer, so a stopwatch was used. Nobody thought to bring a ringside bell, so a cowbell was located. There were only two sets of gloves for a dozen fighters. All but Ali, Berbick and Thomas Hearns were required to squeeze together in one tiny, cramped changing room, like so many cattle in a pen.

ali1Only a month shy of his 40th birthday, by the time Berbick was done boxing his ears, Ali looked to be on the far side of his 60th birthday. It was to be the last of his 61 professional fist-fights, the final two of them humbling losses at the fists of Larry Holmes and Berbick.

All considered, it was an inglorious way for the most glorious of gladiators to bid farewell to a sport that for the best part of two decades had ridden the coattails of his boxing skills, charm, charisma and social awareness.

Still, I often cite covering that event for the Toronto Sun as the signature assignment of my 30 years in jock journalism.

In the few hours since his death on Friday, there has been an outpouring of admiration and affection for Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (his “slave name,” as he called it). Many have said he was larger than life, but we know that isn’t so. No one is larger than life. But Ali’s life was larger than most. From the moment he whupped Liston, his life was large.

His joining the Nation of Islam, changing his name and refusing induction into the U.S. military amplified it.

It has also been submitted that Ali was the first athlete whose impact transcended sports. Again, no. Jack Roosevelt Robinson beat him to that punch when, in 1947, he became the first black man to perform in a Major League Baseball game. The difference was that Robinson was advised to zip his lips. To play the part of the humble worker. Ali, on the other hand, never shut up.

Much of what the three-time heavyweight champion had to say was silly, spoofish stuff. He would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” He’d recite hokey poems predicting the outcome of his fights, and the round in which his foe would fall. That part of his shtick entertained and amused the masses. He was a man-child, walking through life with a wink and a nod.

Yet for every chuckle there was a harsh criticism. And flat-out hatred.

ali4Many, like myself, saw him as a hero for saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” and refusing to be shipped off to a senseless battle on the other side of the world. But his anti-Vietnam War stance rankled and raised the ire of millions of Americans. Even the aforementioned Jackie Robinson turned on him.

Ali didn’t care, though. He was willing to forfeit his lucrative boxing career and, indeed, go to jail, but he was not willing to compromise his beliefs and go to Vietnam.

Each of us is a song of life, and I’ll always remember Muhammad Ali as a song of joy and freedom.

“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” he once told the braying jackals who would condemn him. “I’m free to be what I want.”

Words to live by.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 45 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.