Friday, October 31, 2014

A Night of Baseball & Hockey Talk

On Monday night, Mike Wilson ( with his magnificent collection providing a splendid backdrop for sports related talk hosted another doubleheader.

In the lead-off position was baseball historian William Humber. His presentation dealt with baseball in Toronto and the history of Maple Leaf Stadium.

Bill took in his first ball game at Maple Leaf Stadium the day before his 9th birthday in 1958. His Dad, who crossed the pond from England following World War Two, took Bill and his brother to watch a doubleheader. As he pointed out, doubleheaders back then were 7 innings per game. Hopes of a complete afternoon of ball were washed out when, as Bill described, "the heavens opened up and the water flowed through." The outing only lasted until the bottom of the fifth inning in game one with the Toronto Maple Leafs having the advantage on the scoreboard. It was recorded as an official game and the Humber family departed with the knowledge there would be no make-up game to look forward to.

Knowing this, Mr. Humber, contacted the Maple Leafs and arrangements were made for a return visit to the ballpark. But since their initial visit took place on the last day of the season, young Bill wouldn't be watching any baseball. Instead, the Leafs gave him an autographed baseball, which he proudly showed us on Monday evening. "It is my prized possession," Bill said while holding the baseball he received 56 years ago. The key signature on the ball belongs to Rocky Nelson. In 1958, Nelson had a banner year and captured the International League MVP Award. His stats for '58 clearly show why he was so honoured. At the plate he banged out 43 home runs and drove in 120 runs. This resulted in a .326 batting average.

At the Major League level, Rocky Nelson is remembered for his production in game 7 of the 1960 World Series. In the first inning, he belted out a two-run homer for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Later in the game, Bill Mazeroski hit one of baseballs most dramatic round-trippers. In the 9th inning, his walk-off dinger gave the Pirates a World Series victory over the New York Yankees.

Another piece of memorabilia Bill pulled out of his bag of goodies was an old seating chart that showed the layout of Maple Leaf Stadium. An old autograph book included such baseball names as Joe Altobelli and Dixie Carter. In 1983, Altobelli managed the Baltimore Orioles to World Series Championship over Philadelphia. And as Bill stated, "Dixie Walker was basically driven out of Brooklyn due to his antipathy towards Jackie Robinson."

The signatures in the autograph book aren't limited to ball players. Included in the mix are a couple of guys who skated for the other Maple Leaf team. As luck would have it, a trip to the barbershop brought Bill into contact with Dick Duff and Bob Pulford. Naturally, no kid could resist the chance of adding these two names to their collection.

On top of these items, Bill showed a number of game programs and photographs, which were carefully stored in a binder. The decline of the Maple Leaf baseball club is symbolically reflected in the production values of the programs. "This is how they degenerated by the last year (1967)," Bill said displaying a program. "It was just a piece of four-sided cardboard and the price had actually gone from .35-cents to .15-cents. It was a sign of how things had gone as it were from bad to worse in terms of the history of the old Maple Leafs."

One picture from Bill's portfolio provided a view of the Toronto ballpark landscape in the late 1920s. It captured the distance between the old Hanlan's Point Stadium and the new Maple Leaf Stadium. W.A. Hewitt, sports editor of the Toronto Daily Star, gave this description of the closeness between the two locations. "The crowd in the grandstand at the new grounds will get a constant reminder of the old grounds at the island as they will be facing in that direction, the playing field having been laid out from northwest to southwest with the team batting towards Hanlan's Point." The predecessor to the new Stadium is known for being the park where Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run.

Opening day at Maple Leaf Stadium was originally scheduled for April 28, 1926, but the Maple Leafs delayed the christening of their new home. A release put out by the club announced that, "the opening game scheduled for today has been declared off, owing to wet grounds and inclement weather." The statement went on to explain, "the opening ceremonies will take place tomorrow, weather permitting, at the same hour, 2:30pm, with the game at 3 o'clock."

A newspaper picture (below) of the 1926 squad, which appeared in the April 28th edition, reveals that a couple of hockey players were part of the Maple Leaf baseball team. In the photo are Cecil "Babe" Dye and Lionel Conacher. As a member of the Toronto St. Pats, Dye won a Stanley Cup in 1922. Lionel Conacher won two Cups, one with the Chicago Black Hawks and the other with the Montreal Maroons. The box score for the inaugural game at Maple Leaf Stadium shows that Dye went 2-for-5 at the plate.

In the front row, Dye is kneeling 5th from the left & Conacher is the last man kneeling in the front row
Reporting in the Toronto Daily Star, Charlie Good provided his readers with a preview of what to expect upon making their first visit to Toronto's newest landmark. "There is room to spare for everybody at the new park. It is a tremendous structure and the players were filled with amazement at its magnitude."

In town to help the Maple Leafs settle into their new home were the Reading Keystones. The text under a photo of the opening ceremonies noted that, "despite a downpour of rain all afternoon, which if anything was heavier during the preliminary opening ceremony, 18,000 fans turned out to the opening of Solmon's new Maple Leaf Stadium yesterday." Solmon being Lol Solmon, owner of the club and the man responsible for the construction of Maple Leaf Stadium at the foot of Bathurst Street at Fleet Street.

In a magnificent comeback, after falling behind 5-0, the Maple Leafs stormed back with five runs in the bottom of the ninth, then scored the winning run in the tenth.

For decades, crowds gathered at Maple Leaf Stadium to watch baseball.  Memories were formed when a father took his children to the Stadium and the game came to life. Many at Mike's gathering recalled their trips to the old barn to see the Leafs in action. Besides the game, they fondly talked about the great atmosphere at Maple Leaf Stadium. Things like the smell of fresh cut grass and the hotdogs were mentioned. The names of players and mangers were easily remembered and not forgotten with the passage of time.

The decline of the Toronto Maple Leaf baseball club can be traced back to the 1960s. As one study noted, "The early 1960s and 1970s was a time when civic leaders believed that the international reputation of a city would be enhanced by the establishment of major professional sports clubs." In the case of Toronto, there was a huge hunger to join Montreal as a Major League Baseball city.

Under these conditions in 1967, the Maple Leafs left Toronto and without them, Maple Leaf Stadium became a white elephant. The long-time home for pro ball in Toronto was demolished in 1968.

After Bill Humber slugged the ball deep into the night sky, easily clearing the fence in Mike Wilson's backyard, it was time for part two of the doubleheader.

And the next batter, a switch-hitter (baseball & hockey), needed no introduction.

A native of Toronto, Jimmy Devellano made a decision in his early twenties that would change the course of his life. "I tried to play hockey, but I was a lousy hockey player, so I decided the next best thing to do would be to coach," Jimmy said of the change in direction. "I was coaching a THL team, a juvenile team, out of Ted Reeve Arena. All of a sudden in 1967, I'm 24 years old and I see that the NHL is going to expand from 6 to 12 teams. Unlike most kids that want to be NHL players, I really wanted to run an NHL team like Punch Imlach or Sam Pollock."

Seeing expansion as a possible entrance through the door, Jimmy made his move. "I don't know why I picked this team, but I picked the St. Louis Blues. Don't ask me why. I wrote their general manager a letter a year before they started and his name was Lynn Patrick. I told him that I lived in Toronto and I was a Maple Leaf season ticket holder and I went to all the junior games at the Gardens."

Then, Jimmy laid out his proposal to Patrick. "I told him I'd be willing to scout for him in Toronto for nothing. I'd do it for free. Guess what? He took me up on it and the rest is history." Jimmy explained the importance of his connecting with the expansion club. "It allowed a young guy to get his foot in the door and it was up to me then to make sure I blew it wide open."

In his first year, Jimmy served as a scout in Toronto, and in year two his territory expanded to include the entire Province of Ontario.

"About the fifth year of the St. Louis Blues, we had an owner who was a good-hearted guy by the name of Sid Salomon, but he was an awful meddler. Scotty Bowman and him didn't hit it off," Jimmy said of the relationship between coach and owner.

Eventually, there would be a massive house cleaning in St. Louis. "Quite a few of us actually got fired. Wait until you hear the names of the people that got fired in 1972 by the St. Louis Blues - Scotty Bowman, Cliff Fletcher and Jimmy Devellano."

It wouldn't take Jimmy long to get back on his feet and land another job with a big league club. "As history would have it, that very summer the NHL, in response to a new league, the WHA (World Hockey Association), decided to expand. And they were expanding to Atlanta and Long Island."

On the hunt for work, Jimmy went to the NHL Draft in Montreal with one intention in mind. "I looked up the new general manager of the New York Islanders, Bill Torrey, and to make a long story short, he hired me."

In addition to joining a new organization, Jimmy's job description changed. "I'd gotten fired as the Ontario scout for the St. Louis Blues and a month later, I'm hired by the New York Islanders with a promotion! I became the Eastern Canada scout - sometimes it isn't always bad to get fired if you're in the wrong place." The move to Long Island also had a financial incentive. "In St. Louis I was making eight-thousand dollars and a company car, I went to the Islanders and I got nine-thousand and a company car."

When talking about the early history of the New York Islanders, Jimmy used the term all of hockey voiced to describe his new team, "the hapless Islanders." They finished in last place (78-12-60-6) in their first season and as a result chose first in the Entry Draft. "We got the first pick and a fellow by the name of Denis Potvin was there. As you all know, he became a superstar. We were able to build through the draft around Denis Potvin and we brought in a great coach, who I was associated with in St. Louis because he had been our captain, Al Arbour."

Within two years, Jimmy became the chief scout for the Islanders, and then earned the title of assistant general manager, working alongside Bill Torrey. Together, these two men and their staff built a dynasty. "I don't know if this will ever happen again, but it is hard to believe that we won the Cup in our eighth year of existence after being the worse team I ever saw in the NHL." It was the first of four straight Stanley Cups for Jimmy and the New York Islanders."

After ten successful years with Bill Torrey, another NHL club took notice of Jimmy's contribution to making the Islanders a championship team. Subsequent to purchasing the Detroit Red Wings in 1982,  Mike and Marian Ilitch hired Jimmy Devellano to become general manager of their slumping Original Six franchise. "They looked down the road at the New York Islanders and they saw I was the number two guy on the Island and so they gave me the opportunity to go to Detroit and be the number one guy."

In a situation that mirrored his experience on Long Island, the Red Wings wretched performance on the ice meant Jimmy would go to his first NHL Draft as a GM with the number one selection."We hit the mother-load like we did with the New York Islanders, we drafted a guy, and you all know who I'm talking about, Steve Yzerman. Again, just as Dennis Potvin was, Yzerman was the vocal point that we would eventually build around and eventually develop a competitive team."

The Detroit Red Wings 2014 Media Guide outlines how Jimmy Devellano turned the Motor City club around. "Devellano can be credited with carefully building Detroit's 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008 Stanley Cup Championship teams through the Entry Draft, savvy trades and aggressive free agent acquisitions."

To carry on the winning tradition, Jimmy groomed current Detroit general manager, Ken Holland,  to succeed him in running the Red Wings. In 1990, Jimmy was named to the position of senior vice-president, a title he holds to this day.

In 2001, Jimmy expanded his duties when Mike Ilitch appointed him as senior vice-president of his Major League Baseball club, the Detroit Tigers. "I told Mike I couldn't help him on the baseball side, but I can help you on the business and marketing side, which is what I did."

At the conclusion of Jimmy's talk, a lively Q&A session followed with a number of topics being discussed.

It was another fun and informative evening of baseball and hockey talk hosted by Mike Wilson. Both speakers, Bill Humber and Jimmy Devellano, did an outstanding job.

Bravo! to all three gentlemen.

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