Rosedale Field and the First Grey Cup

This is an expanded version of an article which first appeared as The Grid’s “Ghost City” column on November 20, 2012.

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Rosedale Field clubhouse, November 30, 1921. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 615.

During World War II, Montreal-based Park Steamship Company decided to name additions to its war cargo fleet after neighbourhood parks across Canada. Among those chosen were Hillcrest and Rosedale. Assigned to write historical plaques about each park, poet P.K. Page contacted Toronto civic officials for background information. Parks commissioner Charles E. Chambers provided Page the info she required, but noted at the end of a March 27, 1944 letter that “neither park has any historical importance.”

Chambers forgot Rosedale Park’s key role in Canadian football history. This might be understandable, as the Grey Cup’s debut there on December 4, 1909 was an anti-climatic affair. Fans and media expended their energy during the semi-final at the park the previous week, when the heavily-favoured Ottawa Rough Riders were trounced by the University of Toronto Varsity Blues 31-7 in front of a crowd of 11,000 spectators forced to sit 15 deep around the field. Among those playing for U of T were future Ontario chief coroner Smirle Lawson and future Ontario Rugby Union head Billy Foulds.

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Toronto Star, December 6, 1909.

By comparison, only 3,807 spectators barely flowed out of the grandstand to watch U of T defeat the Parkdale Canoe Club 26-6. Though it was anticipated that the Parkdale squad would be steamrolled, a close score during the first quarter prompted headlines like the Star’s “Parkdale Gave Varsity an Interesting Argument.” The World observed that “the interest in the struggle was probably the least ever shown” in a football final. “Even the college contingent lacked spirit, and choruses led by the Highlanders’ band were half-hearted.”

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Toronto World, December 5, 1909.

There wasn’t even a trophy to hand to the victors; it took a series of frustrated letters from football officials to Grey’s staff to produce the $48 bowl made by Birks jewellers handed to the champs three months later.

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The News, December 6, 1909.

Rosedale Park’s association with athletics stretches back to May 24, 1892, when it officially opened as the Rosedale Lacrosse Grounds. “It is safe to say that the majority of those who attended the grounds yesterday for the first time expected to confront a bare open area, with a grandstand and high board fence as necessary adjuncts,” the Mail reported. “What they did see was a revelation. Five acres of beautifully levelled and sodded ground, broken only by an oval track of a third mile in circumference, by a picturesque club building, and by low division fences, was the scene immediately facing them.” The grandstand held 3,000 spectators, while another 2,000 people filled the grounds to watch Toronto fall to Montreal three games to two in the day’s lacrosse action.

Those disappointed by the home team’s loss during the debut lacrosse match found other distractions during the opening festivities. “The presence of a large number of Toronto’s most charming belles was a noticeable feature,” the Mail noted. “The galaxy of beauty which congregated on the grandstand was enough to turn the head of even the most experienced among the players.”

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Rosedale Park, July 1, 1921. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 52, Item 947.

The site was purchased by the city from the Toronto Lacrosse and Athletic Association in 1917. Following the First World War it considered as a site for a new municipal stadium, but the location was considered too isolated. Arguments over the site’s suitability led to tons of wasted newsprint on the editorial pages of the Star and the Telegram. The grandstand disappeared, leaving more space for sports like cricket, high school football, ice hockey, lawn bowling, and tennis. A few athletic organizations, like the Toronto Track and Field Club, wore out their welcome with neighbours and city parks officials. Despite being denied a permit to continue practicing running and pole jumping on the grounds in 1951, the “Red Devils” continued to use Rosedale Park. Living up to their nickname by hurling “ungentlemanly remarks” at park staff and hanging around the fieldhouse after closing time didn’t help the group’s appeals to Parks and Recreation. After arrangements were made to move the club to Varsity Stadium, the pole vaulting pit was quickly filled in lest they return.

Most complaints about the park during the 1940s and 1950s were directed at the aging fieldhouse. Clubs battled for precious dressing room space—by 1950, women had to use a small lobby to change after a cricket club took over their quarters. The city rejected a request from the Highland Tennis Club to build an addition from fear other users would request their own extensions. Neighbours complained about smoke from the coal-fired building due to a lower-grade rock introduced during World War II continued to be used. The building was eventually replaced by the current clubhouse, which includes changing facilities and offices for the Rosedale Tennis Club.

One of the most tragic events in Rosedale Park’s sporting history occurred on October 25, 1960. During a football game against Jarvis Collegiate, North Toronto Collegiate halfback John Ellwood received a hard hit to the head. After continuing for two more plays, he left the field complaining of a headache. When his coach told Ellwood to tilt his head back, he slumped forward with a brain hemorrhage. Five hours of surgery followed at Wellesley Hospital, but Ellwood never regained consciousness, remaining in a coma until his death in 1972.

The park remains a central part of North Rosedale’s leisure time. For decades it has hosted the Mayfair community celebration. Twenty-first century upgrades include new playground equipment and a revamped historical plaque honouring the first Grey Cup. If he had been on hand for the plaque’s unveiling, Charles Chambers would have eaten his words about the park’s lack of history.

Additional material from the October 20, 1959 and January 1, 1963 editions of the Globe and Mail; the May 25, 1892 edition of the Toronto Daily Mail; the December 6, 1909 edition of the Toronto Star; and the December 5, 1909 of the Toronto World.

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