Recollections of School, Baseball, Hockey 1946 - 1956
Grade School (1950)
Perhaps many of us remember those days of growing -- heady days between the ages of eight to eighteen years of age. Only ten years from the mathematical viewpoint, but to some, it would seem like a lifetime in the doing. Gary was one of those who took changing times and changing thoughts in his stride, or so he thought. At St. Joseph's School, he remembers being one of the little kids, and little was the accurate word to describe his physical size. He recalls weighing 105 pounds, and probably around five feet plus two inches tall when he was fourteen years old, and remained that size until he left the school system at sixteen. Why did that size and shape matter? It didn't affect his participation on the basketball team or the hockey team or the baseball team -- he was good at these sports during grade school at St. Joseph's, it did however present a major challenge when he felt the urge to dance with the girls in his grade nine class at Riverdale Collegiate. They played the base violin -- the big one that one you stand to play -- while Gary played the small one you sit and play tucked under you chin. How did his fellow students get so tall and well developed? He was only a year or so younger than the rest of the class, probably due in some manner to Miss Wallace, an extraordinary white-haired teacher who taught him to add columns of four digit figures faster than you could speak the individual numbers. This took place in grade three and this accomplishment, certainly one of significance, gave Miss Wallace an opportunity to elevate him to grade four in her combined classroom and complete the two years in one. Perhaps this was a way of moving students through the system faster, and therefore a credit to the teacher as well as the system. Oh yeah, he could add like the wind could blow, but he didn't grow in size like the others. It wasn't a problem until he met the female base violinists in high school; they were at least a head taller than he, so you can imagine where that would put his nose when the band played, "Love Me Tender."
How were the nuns at St. Joseph's to know that dancing would be an issue? Boys never came in direct contact with girls until long after their care and teaching was over at St. Joseph's. Perhaps that was a good thing, for these Sisters of St. Joseph were a strange lot he thought. An example in black and white sisterhood was Sister Mary Blanche who fancied herself as a technical teacher of the mechanics necessary to become a singer. An exercise used by her, if it can be described accurately after fifty years, was to place the index finger and the thumb into the mouth, and click the top and bottom rows of teeth with the finger nails so that the sound of tooth and nail increased audibly and effectively designed to force the mouth open wider and wider. This would create a huge canal down the throat, enabling the wind to escape into thin air carrying the sounds of angels ever higher and higher. She was a master at this exercise; unfortunately, her teeth took the brunt of the pounding and protruded almost at right angles pointing toward her cowardly students. She was a dynamic figure in black and white and seemed to sweat constantly. And yell, oh could she yell. She was loudest when she yanked up her long black sleeves and sang from the bottom of her being, yearning for similar devotion and effort from her students that never seemed to come, except perhaps from Colleen Nash. Colleen had a marvelous voice that even the dullest of her students recognized, and her reward was to perform at all the religious functions that year as well as the years to come. At the end of the school year everyone graduated from Sister Mary Blanche's grade five class, all with her well wishes for the future, plus her gift of a small three by five framed print of the Sacred Heart which has been hanging in his home centred over his inside front doorway, some fifty years after his teeth escaped unscathed, and the singing lessons waited for the graduating grade fours.
Adam Beck Atoms (1953)
On the corner of Dundas Street East (formerly Dole Avenue) and Greenwood Avenue, to this day stands a baseball diamond where the near greats played sandlot hardball. The little wannabe ball players in the late 40's had their idols that played for the "Stone Straws", and the "Bonitas." These were the big guys with complete uniforms and pinstripes adorning the gray or white uniform that indicated a home or away game, and the logo of the sponsoring company like The Stone Straw Company and the Bonita Theatre prominently displayed on their backs. He never new any detail regarding The Stone Straw Company (other than they made drinking straws) that he could offer at the time of this tale, but the Bonita Theatre was well known to Gary and the rest of the neighbourhood as the "Show." Going to the Show was a big enough deal for him and his friends because an expense of 15 cents was the entry fee. But to play hardball, you needed only a team of eager kids who wanted to be like the big guys, and a coach like Barry Rule's old man who coached Adam Beck Playground, or the venerable Matty Eckler (a very big man who stood about five and a half feet tall) who earned a living at the Pape Street Playground teaching kids to play games and compete, or the tall thin man with the red face who did the same job as Matty for the East Riverdale Playground; they called him Mr. Flynn -- his teams were Pape's main competitor, along with Moss Park that was coached by Matty's old friend Gordie Hymler, and Regent Park who never really had a permanent coach that he could recall.
Behind the ball diamond and the protecting screen was the place for viewing the game, you could barely see the ball leaving the hurlers hand and arriving in the catcher's mitt, or cracking off the bat toward the berries in centre field, the pitchers were fast and an important part of any successful team, but the hitters always gave them a run for their money. These games played by the guys in the nice uniforms were at night or Saturday afternoon -- and when they weren't playing for the large crowds that gathered there, the mighty Atoms would take over. Adam Beck Atoms consisted of his brother Arch behind the plate, his brother Rich on first base, Johnny Culliton (whose parents moved to Wellesley Street East at Parliament right in the middle of the season) at shortstop, his cousin Bill at second base, Eddy Noonan (whose childhood polio crippled his left hand, forcing his right hand to catch and throw immediately after removing the glove) in right field, Bruce Bracket (one of the Protestant kids you may have encountered in "What Was") in centre field or substitute catcher when Arch went on the mound to relieve his brother Gary (Rubber Arm), who may have left third base to relieve the starting pitcher (Barry Rule) who always needed relief. Bruce Brackett's younger brother Allan rounded out the starting nine ball players, with Barry Rule's old man at the helm. They had substitutes that always got into the game -- winning or losing -- because that's the way it was.
Adam Beck (a local politician whose name appeared on a plaque by the ball field at Main and Gerrard Street East) Playground was the scene of some of the most notable slaughters of Adam Beck's young aspiring ball players, with most of it coming at the hands of East Riverdale and their incredible left-hander Marvin Berbeck. Marv had all the stuff that was needed to fan most of Adam Beck's hitters, while Mr. Flynn's hitters chased the opposition pitchers out of the game on practically every occasion. Losing to those guys was tough to take; they seemed to have some kind of skill that was unfamiliar to their opponents. For example, Marv's old man had Marv pitch hardballs to him constantly when he wasn't working or watching his son pitch in a game, and while he did this, there was always criticism that followed. But Marv only got better, and he could mow the hitters down with precision, a mean fastball and a wicked off speed pitch. Inside the other dugout, lurked a skinny kid with a pencil of an arm, and a curve ball that could move twice the width of the plate by the time it eventually reached its destination. His nickname was Rubber Arm (the protagonist of this story), whose handle was aptly provided by his Uncle Allan (the same one who made only one payment on the bike for Arch) one steamy hot afternoon looking onto the field, as he welcomed Gary to the pitcher's mound with a mighty, "Come on Rubber Arm." With that encouragement from a clearly home town fan, Gary proceeded to throw two wide swinging hooks that confounded the batter for a count of two strikes and no balls; and then the infamous "High Hard One" was offered up to the waiting slugger. Pitchers must have more than one pitch, if they didn't, most batters could get the hang of that pitch and ride it downtown any time they could get the bat on the ball. They never touched the wide hook ever, but the need to develop another pitch such as the "High Hard One" was the downfall of an up-and-coming St. Louis Cardinal. He may have called it high and hard, but it really looked more like a beach ball to Flynn's kids, and they hit it for extra runs almost every time. Curses!
It's fifty-eight years later, June 8, 2013 as I write this addition to RubberArm's memories of Adam Beck Atoms and his exalted baseball career. Elaine Hughes was around in those days and she, after reading this page sent an email filled with glorious memories of their East End Toronto: one in particular was about a fabulous LeftHander named Marvin Berbeck who toiled successfully for East Riverdale (you have read his name directly above this addition). That's the magic. My boss asked her for permission to print it on his pages. She said yes to that too. You will find her contribution to the lore that underpins all of my writing on this link: Marvin Berbeck
Thank you, Alexander McPope June 8, 2013
St. Joseph's Hockey Team (Peewee version, 1952)
Larry Brown, Jim Cowan and Hurricane O'Brien were the stars of the team; Gary's claim to longevity would be the silver cup that stands 6" high on his mantle in his recreation room. The cup is engraved "Good Sportsmanship Award" and is positioned 8 feet away from the other plaques commemorating the runner-up tennis champions of 1968 and other second place finishes in squash, tennis and golf. That little trophy, the one with the good sportsmanship engraving taught him the fundamentals of being a good loser and, if he ever got the opportunity, to be a good and gracious winner, someday.
The day, actually it was two days that came on a Saturday morning, they were two Saturday mornings back to back. The first being held in St. Catherines, a city well known for its young budding hockey players, and the second in the great Canadian city of Toronto. The St. Joseph Peewees had their equipment packed in several trucks waiting to be driven by several coaches and enthusiasts who had cheered them on to victory all season. They were on route to St. Catherines to play the first of the home and home series with the winners of the Niagara region's catholic youth organization hockey championships (CYO)--their team (coached and led by Mr. Corry's oldest son Bob) was the overall winner of the greater Toronto and district CYO. Bob was a good guy; he encouraged his charges to be the best that they could be at all times and in all ways. Their spirits were high as they weighed the evidence in their minds as to whose team would triumph, the very thought of a small town team beating the likes of Hurricane O'Brien, Jim (the fiery Scot) Cowan and Larry Brown --the fastest and smoothest skater in the entire league--and Gary, who would soon to be receiving the "Good Sportsmanship Award" was unthinkable as the trucks rolled down Leslie Street to link to highway #2 and carry them westward to victory and their great reward. The excitement continued until the puck dropped at centre ice in their arena. Within minutes the St. Catherines team had scored five fast goals, and the visiting team had none. What was happening? This was a new experience for the team from the big city. Bob calmed them down when he said: "Hurricane, tighten up. Larry, turn on the jets. Jim, let's get busy. Everyone, listen up, were not beaten yet, lets hustle, we can do it." They believed they could because the St. Joseph's peewees were the best in all of Toronto all winter.
St. Joseph's team began to look at their opposition's offence in a different light, the evidence and scrutiny yielded an observation that these guys were large, these guys were fast, their names were not names like Kennedy or Broda or Connacher, they were called Cullen and Hull and others unknown at the time. The game went on far too long; it gave their team time to get five more before the whistle blew ending the misery of this road trip to the city of St. Catherines. On the way back to Toronto that night, Bob told his team that they just had an off night and next Saturday at Maple Leaf Gardens, our team would give them a run for the trophy. He was optimistic and encouraging, if nothing else.
The next 6 nights passed quickly, and, the following Saturday all of the St. Joseph Peewees found their way to the greatest hockey shrine of them all: Maple Leaf Gardens standing majestically on the northeast corner of Church and Carleton in downtown Toronto. As you walk through the doors on Carleton Street, you see pictures of the Toronto Maple Leaf hockey stars adorning the walls, pictures of the Stanley Cup winning Toronto Maple Leaf teams speaking softly on the history of the great game to all who enter, and the players--especially those that enter today--know that they have arrived when they hoist their hockey gear over their shoulders and march to the dressing room. The spectators would surely see a different game with a different result than the humiliation advanced in the Niagara district only a week ago; Bob Corry and his team would not be counted out in such a harsh and cruel manner; he would give the team the pep talk they needed before the biggest game of their entire hockey career and the only one Gary ever played at the Gardens. His parents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, friends and foes were in the crowd waiting to witness the historic event.
At the point of skating on to the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens, the St. Joseph Peewees were ready for this game in every way. They had a healthy respect for the quality and ability of the team from St. Catherines as well as the confidence to give it their all, win or lose. There they were, dressed in the maroon and brown colours of St. Joseph's champion team roaring on to the ice to the screams of appreciative fans from everywhere and the game was soon underway. Larry was faster than he'd ever been. Hurricane was unbeatable in the net. Gary roamed the left wing and Jim stormed the entire ice surface looking for the opportunity to score. The fans went wild when the first goal was scored by St. Catherines. Bob Corry, momentarily at a loss for words, recaptured his enthusiasm and said, "You can score against these guys, I know you can." And he was right, after the allotted time for this rematch, the final score was 6 to 1 for them (the announcer had spoken the words, "Goal scored by St. Joseph's Jim Cowan--assist, Gary McDonald--time, nine minutes and fifteen seconds of the second period). This home and home championship series for the CYO's championship for all of Southern Ontario was won by a score of 16 to 1 by some of the greatest ten-year-old players in the league. And one or two of these kids--unfortunately not Larry Brown, Jim Cowan, Hurricane O'Brien or Gary (good sportsmanship award recipient) McDonald--would, in another eight years, become household names in the big league: the National Hockey League.
Gary saw one of the best guys who ever laced on a pair of skates for St. Joseph's on June 2, 2003. It was 50 years ago and Jim Cowan confirmed the outcome; that he was indeed the goal scorer and that Gary chalked up the assist. His wife Juta said courageously and with tongue in cheek that that was a defining moment in Jim's life. We know differently don't we Jim? Please read below.
As I write this on April 1, 2013 it saddens me to think the goal scorer mention above, my good friend Jim Cowan passed away very soon after we met that day. In several ways we looked alike especially when we wore the St. Joseph's Hockey Club sweaters and streaked toward the goal line, "He shoots, he scores!" I will never forget Jim and his 8 brothers and sisters who lived down the road from us. It was Jim who invited me to visit with his parents and all the kids at their Bala, Muskoka cottage. It was there by the Torrance dock that life's new experiences for an ex-hockey player, ex-student of higher learning, and full-time printer began to unfold and turn this skinny kid into...well...the unfolding is in process.
The above paragraph was written by me: Alexander McPope in the year 2013. Accuracy? I can't vouch for it. I listen. I write.