Toronto by Newsreel

Originally published on Torontoist on April 24, 2014.


Newsreel and press photographers, Queen’s Park, 1911. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8012.

Before videographers, there were newsreel photographers. Carting their boxy cameras around, they roved the city, covering the top events of the day, racing to disasters, and hunting for oddball human interest stories that would amuse audiences. In their heyday, services like The March of TimeMovietone News, and Pathé News brought the richness of the world to neighbourhood movie theatres.

Last week, British Pathé announced it had uploaded its entire film collection to its YouTube channel. Shot between 1896 and 1976, the 85,000 clips cover a huge range of material dealing with everything from the World Wars to clubs dedicated to waistcoats. Now that they’re easily accessible, you can count on hours of time being gloriously wasted, especially by history buffs.

Given the vast amount of material needed to fill newsreels each week and our city’s ties to the British Empire, it’s not surprising the collection boasts a few Toronto-centric items. Type “Toronto” into the search field and you’ll find royal visits, salutes to home-grown Nobel Prize winnersparades in old Chinatownentertainment for patients in iron lungs, and beauty parlours for dogs. (Some of the related descriptions are quite amusingly matter-of-fact: footage of Nathan Phillips Square from 1969, for example, is called “two semi-circular office blocks with waterfall in front.”)

Here are just a few of the clips that caught our eye.

The Prince of Wales in Canada (1919)

While this film covers the future King Edward VIII’s cross-Canada visit in August 1919, the last four minutes (starting at the 10:30 mark) highlight his stop in Toronto. The Prince attended the Canadian National Exhibition on August 25 and told a luncheon crowd that he was delighted to visit the city he’d heard such good things about from Canadian soldiers. “It seemed to me that a lot of them came from this great city, and I know no finer soldiers or better friends.” He promised that he would do his best “to be worthy of Canada’s friendship and of Canada’s trust.”

Other stops shown in the clip include Queen’s Park (“the Parliament Buildings”) and the Royal Canadian Yacht Club.

The Super Test (1924)

At first glance, it might seem as if this footage of motorcycles failing to conquer a steep incline is the 1920s equivalent of a “fail” video. But there was good reason for all the fumbling—the cyclists were dealing with slippery conditions on a 70-per-cent grade.

These early motorsport enthusiasts had gathered at the ravine by Bloor and Parliament streets on April 19, 1924, for the Toronto Motorcycle Club’s annual “hill climb.” That day, Canadian motorcycle champion Morris “Steamer” Moffatt avenged his loss of the previous year, powering up the hill in nine seconds flat. “American riders present claim the hill used is unequalled for this purpose,” observed the Globe. “The course was well roped off and the police gave splendid protection to both spectators and riders. Not an accident marred the day.”

We can only imagine the kind of complaints that would be generated if someone tried to recreate the event today.

Hooray—We Can Win Something! (1926)

The caption writer was on the ball when it came to this story about the April 29, 1926, home opener for the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball squad. The game marked the opening of Maple Leaf Stadium, which took only five months to build. Fans witnessed an exciting last-minute comeback by the home team against the Reading Keystones. Down 5-0 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, and just as patrons were starting to leave, the Leafs suddenly tied the game. Victory came in the bottom of the tenth, when Del Capes’s bunt allowed Herman Layne to run into home.

The 1926 Maple Leafs captured the International League title with 109 wins, then defeated the Louisville Colonels in the Junior World Series. The team actually included more future hockey hall of famers (Lionel Conacher and Babe Dye, though the latter was traded soon after opening day) than baseball stars (New York Giants pitching great Carl Hubbell).

Let’s All Be Young for a Few Moments! (1931)

Some things in Toronto never change. Arguments over the waterfront. Debates over another downtown subway line. Upside-down clowns at the Santa Claus Parade.

The 1931 edition of the holiday staple, held on November 14 that year, was loaded with bizarre floats and balloons that seemed poised to attack onlookers. Among the cartoon celebrities that took part in the procession were Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse. The Star also mentioned the presence of “Woofus the Tiger,” but we have no clue who he was. Blackface radio stars Amos ‘n’ Andy were also represented.

Santa’s ride that year began at Geary and Bartlett, then headed down Hallam, Ossington, Bloor, Queen’s Park, and University, before arriving at Toyland at Eaton’s Queen Street. He was scheduled to greet kids at the store from 2 to 4 that afternoon.

Toronto (1939)

The Miss Toronto beauty contest ran from 1926 until 1992, shortly after city council voted to ban the City Hall portion of the event. The year 1939 marked the third year the contest was sponsored by the Amateur Police Athletics Association, which made it part of its annual Police Games at the CNE grounds. During the late 1930s, “real girls” were encouraged to enter, and all makeup other than lipstick was forbidden.

Nan Morris, who won the title on July 8, 1939, fit the bill. A Star headline described her as neither “jitterbug” nor “glamour girl.” Initially, she claimed she was single, but a front-page story a few days later revealed she had been married to her childhood sweetheart for three years. Even though married women were allowed to participate, Morris assumed public knowledge of her status would hurt her chances.

No scandal ensued. “I wondered how long it would be before you chaps would be catching up with me,” her husband Jack joked to the Star. “As long as you don’t start calling me ‘Mr. Toronto,’ though, I don’t mind.” He admitted that he didn’t know she’d entered the contest but said, “I’m mighty glad she won. Those judges and I both know how to pick them.”

By the way—the man draping Nan Morris with her sash? Mayor Ralph Day.

Ice Hockey (1948)

Given the eternal disappointment Toronto hockey fans have grown accustomed to, it’s refreshing to find footage that proves our team was once a contender. As the 1947-48 NHL season wound down, the Maple Leafs had their eye on both first place in the league and the Stanley Cup: they won both.

The game shown here was played in front of 13,874 fans at Maple Leaf Gardens on February 28, 1948. Sportswriters praised both teams for their wide-open, end-to-end play. The game also featured the unusual sight of Leafs centre Syl Apps, known for being a gentlemanly player who served as Ontario Athletic Commissioner on the side, flattening Chicago Black Hawks defenceman Ralph Nattrass. The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond dubbed Apps the “undefeated wrestling champion of the NHL.”

The corniest and most tortured headline—inspired by the play of Black Hawks goalie Emile “The Cat” Francis—came courtesy of the Star: “MUCH ADO-ING ABOUT PUCK WHICH ‘THE CAT’ HAS ‘MOUSED!’”

Additional material from Baseball’s Back in Town by Louis Cauz (Toronto: Controlled Media Corporation, 1977); the April 18, 1924 edition of the Globe; the March 1, 1948 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the August 25, 1919, November 14, 1931, July 10, 1939, July 11, 1939, and March 1, 1948 editions of the Toronto Star.

Sparky’s Start

Originally published on Torontoist on November 5, 2010.


1960 Topps baseball card of Sparky Anderson, the year he joined the Toronto Maple Leafs as a player.

George “Sparky” Anderson, who died yesterday, will be remembered in the baseball world for many things. The pennants he won as a manager with the “Big Red Machine” in Cincinnati during the 1970s and with the Detroit Tigers in the 1980s. His colourful and creative interpretation of the English language that helped sportswriters fill columns. The feisty, entertaining spirit he brought to the game that endeared him to fans, including many in southwestern Ontario who followed the Tigers.

His leadership abilities were evident during his playing days with the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League, who offered him his first opportunity to demonstrate his managerial skills.

Following his sole stint as a player in the majors with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1959, Anderson’s contract was sold to the Toronto Maple Leafs minor league club in early 1960. He spent the next four seasons as the team’s second baseman. General Manager Frank Pollock noted the high number of “smartest player in the league” awards Anderson had received from rival managers and, with the player’s prospects of returning to the majors growing dimmer, intended to offer him the manager’s post for the 1963 season.

However, the team had entered into a relationship with the Milwaukee Braves and were assigned Bill Adair as manager, so Anderson continued on as a player and was given additional coaching duties to test his potential. Adair moved on to Denver after the season and many observers figured that Anderson, who had won a Silver Glove Award for his fielding, would fill the vacancy. That the prematurely greying twenty-nine-year-old kept his family in Toronto over the winter only fuelled speculation.


Sparky Anderson as a Maple Leaf. Image courtesy of Mop Up Duty.

The suspense ended on January 7, 1964. Anderson’s hiring was announced amid uncertainty surrounding the team’s ownership after Jack Kent Cooke put the franchise up for sale (the buyers wound up being a local group). When asked if he would continue to guard second base, Anderson replied “I’d rather manage than try to play and manage, and perhaps do both badly.” On the faith management had shown him over the past year, Anderson said “Pollock shows a lot of guts in hiring me even now. After all, I’m a rookie manager moving in at a Triple A level instead of apprenticing in the lower minors.” However, he felt confident in his own abilities, boasting “I think I’m going to be a good manager, even outstanding. We won’t know until September. If we don’t win the pennant then this team will have a new manager next year.”

One of Anderson’s first tasks was to raise sagging morale and increase dwindling attendance. “I want to have a running club,” he said. “We’ll go for the hit and run and stolen base rather than sticking with stodgy, stereotyped play. It’s my opinion that we can get fans back in the park if we entertain them with a daring team that’s ready to run the opposition out of the park.”

His efforts paid off early, as overall attendance nearly doubled for the team’s first dozen home games compared to 1963. Community outreach efforts such as regular Saturday morning coaching clinics at Maple Leaf Stadium—whenever the team was at home—helped boost those numbers. Anderson offered his assistance to local baseball leagues through occasional clinics or, in the case of the Kingsway Baseball Association, serving as an honorary official. As one league secretary in Scarborough told the Globe and Mail that June, “Sparky’s never too busy to help the kids. He’s in a tough pennant race, but he took time recently to talk to our atoms and peewees. You have to go with a pro who has time for kids.”

The 1964 season ultimately proved a disappointment for the team. A series of mid-season slumps seemed to rule them out of contention for a playoff spot and earned Anderson criticism from the team brass. A late surge offered hope, but the team’s playoff dreams were dashed on the final day of the season with a loss to the Rochester Red Wings. Despite the team’s winning record (82 wins, 70 losses), a fifth-place finish resulted in rumours about Anderson’s imminent demise. The manager remained upbeat and thanked Pollock for the opportunity. He admitted that “Toronto has almost become a home for me and my family. We’ve had five wonderful years up here. And we have made many fine friends where we live in Scarboro.”

Sparky’s prediction at the start of the season came true on November 27, when he was fired. Pollock resigned the same day. Before his departure, Pollock predicted that, despite the season just passed, Anderson would be a major league manager within five years. He wasn’t far off the mark: in 1970, Anderson marked his first season in the big time by leading the Cincinnati Reds to the National League pennant.

Additional material from Baseball’s Back in Town by Louis Cauz (Toronto: Controlled Media, 1977) and the January 7, 1964, February 18, 1964, and September 15, 1964 editions of the Globe and Mail.



“Sitting on fence: Sparky Anderson, manager of Detroit Tigers, isn’t willing to bet on Astros-Mets.” Photo by Doug Griffin, 1979. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library.

Sparky Anderson was the first major league baseball manager I was aware of. I began following the sport soon after the Detroit Tigers hired him in 1979. His face graced the scorebooks my Dad brought home from the annual teacher outing to Tiger Stadium, and I’d see him on the pre-game show or local TV ads. His presence in the Tigers dugout was a constant during my formative years, and it seemed like he’d be there forever–elementary school, high school, university. His departure from Detroit in 1995 coincided with my declining interest in the game.

When he died in 2010, I figured my familiarity with the latter half of his career would help me appreciate his first managerial job in Toronto. It also helped it was a slow day at my office job, so I spent the afternoon quickly grabbing archival stories. My speed at this sort of thing came in handy over the years, turning around such pieces within a day or less. I’ve occasionally made pre-emptive moves when famous people with Toronto ties have been in grave health (there are several musicians I have decent files on), but being that prepared feels ghoulish.