Why I’m quitting hockey for football
This brilliant young athlete had two careers a million Canadian kids would envy: starring on the gridiron for Winnipeg Blue Bombers and starring on the ice for Toronto Maple Leafs. Now he’s had to choose between them. In this outspoken article he tells
For the last six years, ever since I was seventeen, I've been trying to decide whether my future in professional sports lay in football with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers or in hockey with the Toronto Maple Leafs. From a distance this probably looks like a pretty nice problem, like trying to choose between roast duckling and pheasant under glass. Close up, it’s not that simple.
Juggling the two games for six years has meant the steady physical pounding of the two violent games, from mid-June when football training starts until mid-April when the hockey season ends. Counting exhibitions and playoffs, that's roughly eighty games of hockey and twenty-five games of football. Not many people would even want to watch that many. Playing both games also meant changing high schools in mid-year when I left football in Winnipeg for hockey in Toronto, and it often meant cramming with a tutor to catch up after road trips. When I got married three years ago it meant moving my wife back and forth, and then when I bought a home in Winnipeg we faced the annual problem of finding an apartment in Toronto. Later, it meant uprooting our family twice a year. We | have two little girls now and Marg, my wife, is expecting our third baby this fall.
I’ve given both games a thorough triai. I played for the Blue Bombers through four Western Conference seasons and in 1954 I was very proud to be voted the outstanding Canadian in football. When each football season ended I went to Toronto to play junior hockey for the Leaf farm team, the Marlboros. The Leafs wanted me in Toronto where they could supervise my development, and in my final year as a junior they paid me three thousand dollars. After the 1955 football season 1 quit the gridiron to play pro hockey with the Leafs. I signed a two-year contract that paid me better than twenty thousand dollars and forbade football.
I didn't like it. For me hockey didn’t have the satisfaction of football. Football makes me feel good inside. I guess the spirit of the two games comes into it. Money is involved in both games, of course, but football is less impersonal, less matter-of-fact. Why. out west football is practically a way of life every autumn. It’s a community project. Strangers stop you on the street to talk about the team, and their enthusiasm is contagious. You really feel you’re part of something when you're connected with the football club. Hockey is a cold business. Ninety percent of the population of Toronto couldn't care less whether the Leafs won or lost.
So last April l finally made up my mind. I signed a one-year contract with the Bombers and was pleased because it permitted me to be well paid for something I love to do. I'll never be a full-time hockey player again. If the Leafs are interested in me in the future I might listen after the football season. But from now on. football is my game. I only hope I'm lucky with injuries, and able to play ball for the next ten years.
A lot of factors played a part in my decision, not all of them on the positive side. For example, there were so many things about hockey that I found objectionable that you might say I chose football for the negative reason that 1 didn't like hockey. Not the game itself, but the way the Leafs played it. There wasn't a happy player on the Leaf club in my two years in the National Hockey League. Why, one time one of our top players, Tod Sloan, walked into the front office and asked to be traded. Another time Ron Stewart, who'd scored two goals in two games, was fined a hundred dollars for what they called “indifferent play” in the next game.
I don't say players ought to be pampered. Hockey is a tough bruising game and discipline is important. But you've got to have confidence in yourself if you’re going to help your club. The threat of fines and the fear of making a mistake
that pervaded the whole Leaf club made hockey a miserable experience. I was reading an article recently about Birdie Tebbetts, the baseball manager-of-the-year of the Cincinnati Redlegs. At one point he says, "If a manager doesn't have confidence in his ball players, even when they’re going badly, they’re not going to have confidence in themselves. And when a ball player’s confidence is gone, you haven’t got a ball player— I don't care how great
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he is.” Brother, how right lie is! Hockey players, just like Tebbetts’ ball players, want to be treated like men. Nothing destroys an athlete’s confidence quicker than being treated like a six-year-old when he makes a mistake—and that’s the way it was in my two years in the NHL.
I’ve always had confidence playing football. The first time I put on a Bomber uniform—it was just after I'd turned seventeen—there was no thought in my mind that I wouldn't make the grade. Possibly it helped that my dad, whom the sports pages used to refer to as Dynamite Eddie James, was a great player for Regina and Winnipeg in the late Twenties and in the Thirties. He played on the first western team ever to win the Grey Cup, the Blue Bombers of 1935. Maybe because of him, people gave me a lot of encouragement. But the point about football is that all the players can expect encouragement. The Bomber executive deals with players on a man-to-man basis.
“Curt, cold and impersonal”
When I decided to return to football last spring, Ralph Parliament, the club's vice-president, took me to lunch and offered to buy a drink. He gave me the feeling he was glad to have me in his company, that I was a business acquaintance. No such thing ever happened in hockey. Management and the players were poles apart. The relationship was always curt and cold and impersonal. In football the relationship is on such a cordial basis that I know I could call the Bomber president, Jim Russell, by his first name. I call him Mr. Russell because I admire him and respect him. I’d take a personal problem to him in a minute, because he gives me the feeling he has an interest in me as a person.
Hockey seems to discourage this. From the moment you hit training camp in the fall you get the feeling that the management is doing you a favor by having you around. Players rarely get encouragement. Instead, they’re constantly reminded of their mistakes. It gets so that you’re worrying so much about doing something wrong that you’re tense and taut and can do very little right.
Yet I’m not going back to football to escape from hockey. The Leafs had a front-office housecleaning last spring, and things may be different this year. This is by no means a slap at Hap Day. the deposed general manager. I’m sure Day was only carrying out orders. The Leafs will now be run by a seven-man committee headed by Stafford Smythe, the son of Gardens president Conn Smythe who has been the boss since back in 1928. I read in the paper that Stafford was sorry I was quitting hockey. “They made hockey so unattractive for James that he’s gone back to football where he can enjoy himself,” Stafford was quoted. He's partly right. But, as I say, I have more reasons for returning to football than just to escape hockey.
1 don't think any game or any business is worthwhile if you don't enjoy your work, and playing football for the Bombers is one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done. Even when you re gening pasted it's not all misery. Three years ago we opened the season with three straight victories and then we went into Calgary and wc couldn't do a thing right. We dropped passes, missed tackles, fumbled and would have had trouble with the Bloomer Girls. With two minutes to go in the game, it was 41 to 0 in favor of the Stampeders. Our coach, AÍ Sherman, told Joe Zaleski. the substitute quarterback, to get in there for Indian Jack Jacobs. Jake was the regular quarterback. Zaleski hadn’t been in the game for a single play in fifty-eight minutes of football, so he bounced off the bench and started toward the huddle. Suddenly he stopped, jogged over to Sherman, the coach, and said very seriously, “AÍ, what do you want me to do—win it or tie it?"
Football is purely a team game and umess twelve men are pulling together you w'on't go anywhere. One night we were playing Edmonton, and playing the Eskimos, who have won the Grey Cup for the last three seasons, is never a way to mend a weak heart. This night Jacobs the quarterback had been smothered a couple of times before he could get a pass away because our fullback, Andy Sokol, wasn't protecting him on pass plays. Jake got to his feet the second time, his face a cloud, and called a swing pass on which he was to toss a little looper to Sokol. Edmonton’s defense diagnosed the play and three hulking defenders had Sokol surrounded, waiting for him to catch the ball. Jake sidestepped a couple of linemen, and grinned wickedly.
"Here you go, Sokol, you so-and-so,
While a Leaf star, James was twice fined $100 for not “hitting his man”
lie called to Andy. “Now maybe you’ll start blocking.”
And he flipped the ball toward Sokol, who got creamed the instant he made the catch. He struggled to his feet from the bottom of the pile and walked slowly back to our huddle where all the guys were grinning. After that, we started doing our jobs.
In the 1955 season the Bombers couldn’t get rolling. We lost five in a row and were facing elimination from the playoffs by mid-season. But after we’d lost a close one in Calgary our coach, Sherman, told a group of newspapermen standing in the steaming dressing room that we’d make the playoffs. Then he added, “Gerry James will be the best halfback in the country from this game on.” Sherman’s gone from the Bombers now and I must say that we didn’t always see eye to eye, bu' that remark of his gave me a terrific lift. We went into Vancouver’s Empire Stadium to play the 1 ions and nosed them out 19 to 17. We went like a streak from then on, and did make the playoffs, with that game the turning point.
As I’ve mentioned, football is a team game. In this game at Vancouver I was lucky; 1 happened to be the ball carrier a lot of times when our linemen were able to open the holes. My signal was called sixteen times and, with fine blocking, 1 picked up 178 yards, which happened to be just six yards short of the league record. I want to emphasize that if there hadn’t been a co-ordination of team effort, i could just as easily have lost yardage. But, with things going in my favor, I gained consistently, thanks to the boys holding off the tacklers.
It went that way through the rest of our schedule. By the time we came up to our last game of the Western Conference schedule I’d been getting the blocking that had enabled me to set a league record for rushing, 1,074 yards. Consequently, I was leading Normie Kwong, Edmonton’s great fullback, by sixteen yards for the yards-gaincd-rushing championship. In those last games before the playoffs we played host to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Winnipeg while Edmonton was taking on Calgary.
I think it’s typical of the kind of game footbal 1 is that both the Eskimos and the Bombers were determined to have their player win that ground-gaining honor. Every time I caught my breath our quarterback. Buddy Leake, was giving me a chance to pick up yardage. The guys in the huddle were yipping encouragement and the linemen were battling to open holes for me. There’s a tremendous exhilaration in the bodily contact in that kind of situation, a heady driving sensation of men working together that I’ve never felt in hockey. I piled up 130 yards for a total of 1.204 for the season, the most in Canadian football history. There was just one flaw: out in Alberta the Eskimos were just as determined that Kwong would win. Ordinarily Normie carries the ball maybe fifteen times a game. In this last game against Calgary, with first place already cinched, Eskimo quarterback Jackie Parker called Kwong’s signal thirty times, and Normie responded by carrying the ball a fantastic 192 yards! So he ended the season with an unprecedented total of 1.250 yards to beat me by forty-six.
If 1 had it so good and enjoyed football so much, you’re probably wondering why I ever thought of leaving for hockey. Simple. I didn't know for sure about this other game. It was a challenge. If I
accepted it, I knew that later on in life I could say to myself—well, at least 1 tried. And, of course, I didn't lose financially, as I’ve indicated. I knew that if I didn’t take the opportunity, later on when I was twenty-nine or thirty and at the end of my football career I'd wonder for the rest of my life if I could have been an NHL hockey player.
Right off the bat the heat was on. When football ended in 1955 I went to Toronto in December, signed with the Leafs and began getting in condition for hockey. It takes about a month. My wind, leg muscles and timing all have to be changed when I change sports. The wind is most important because in football you go hard for brief spells but in hockey you’re going full blast for a more prolonged period. By mid-January I hadn’t been used much by the Leafs and 1 weighed 196 pounds. The general manager, Hap Day, saw it on the weight charts and said curtly, “Get down to 188 in a week or it’ll cost you a hundred.”
I had less trouble taking off eight pounds than my teammate, Jimmy Morrison, a defenseman, had in taking off four because, not playing much, I had let my weight slide up. But Morrison figures he plays his best at around 183 or 184. In one stretch, though, he'd been playing a lot and going well and he was down to 180. When his weight got back to what he considered a normal 184, he was hopped on by Day for being overweight.
"You be 180 by Saturday,” Day told him. “If you’re over it’ll cost you a hundred.”
Morrison went to the Y MCA after practices and ran. By Saturday at noon he still weighed 182. He put on a sweat suit and ran some more in the afternoon. He ran for two hours and, as you know, the Leafs play at home every Saturday night. He finally hit 180 and then went to the Gardens. He didn’t feel much like playing hockey that night.
I was fined the usual hundred in Boston one night last season. The team had looked terrible in the first period and the coach, Howie Meeker, told us in the dressing room that he wasn’t as much concerned about us losing as he was that we weren’t showing any guts. I agree with him. You can’t win them all, it’s true, but there’s no reason you shouldn't give it your best shot. Anyway, Meeker said the next guy who didn't hit his man
when he had the chance would be fined a hundred dollars. I went out penaltykilling in the second period. Boston's Fleming Mackell was trying to come out from the corner. 1 went in to check him and he stepped back. He didn’t get past me. but I didn’t belt him a bodycheck either. The hundred dollars came ofl my next cheque.
Another time I was fined twenty-five for being late getting to the train. We were taking the eleven-o’clock train to Chicago and were told to report on the train at ten-forty. I'd forgotten to tell my wife Marg to make me some sandwiches so I stopped on the way to the train after our Saturday-night game at the Gardens to buy a sandwich and a bottle of milk to take along. That made me ten minutes late. I got a little note in my dressing-room mail slot a few days later from Day, informing me that for an infraction of Mr. Meekers instructions I was being fined twenty-five dollars which would be donated to any charity I cared to name. That’s what happens to the fine money. We had eight or nine guys in our “hundrcd-dollar club” who were donating to charity whether they liked it or not.
1 think the manner in which the fines are doled out makes you madder than the loss of the money. I’d been out with an injured shoulder for a couple ol weeks and when I got back into the game 1 made a mess of a bodycheck and I knew it. When I returned to the bench Meeker came up behind me.
“Is your shoulder okay?” he asked.
I knew what was coming but I wasn't going to alibi.
"Yeah, it’s okay,” I said.
“That’s all I wanted to know,” he said, and walked away. The hundred came off the next cheque, as it I was a little boy being deprived of his allowance.
A generation ago, making a choice between hockey and football would have been no problem; I'd have played both games while making a living at something else. Games were a happy pastime then, low on pay and high on fun. I oday sports is a big costly business. The Blue Bombers spent twice as much money on adhesive tape last season—three thousand dollars—as they paid their top-salaried import on the 1935 Grey Cup team. That was Fritz Hanson, who got fifteen hundred dollars. My dad, Eddie James.
played on that team and he loved football so much he’d have played for nothing. Bill Boivin, who is manager of the Bombers now. told me recently that dad was past his peak when Boivin came to the club as a rookie. In fact Boivin and another halfback named Andy Bieber were sent out to replace dad and the veteran Cliff Roseborough. now a referee. Dad and Cliff were still steaming about it one night when they happened to catch Boivin and Bieber in the ladies’ washroom of the sleeper en route to Regina.
“So you guys think you’re gonna replace us, do you?" dad said as he and Roseborough closed in on the two younger players. They were going to beat hell out of them. Boivin recalls, when the late Ches McCance, a real tough young lineman, happened to walk into the room.
“We gonna have a party?” he asked, sizing up the situation and spitting on his hands.
Outnumbered, the two older players realized this was no time for a war. but Boivin says he'll never forget how my dad hated to accept time's toll.
He was at his peak in the late Twenties when he played for both Winnipeg and Regina. Tony Allan, in his book. Grey Cup or Bust, says dad was one of the greatest footballers ever developed in the west. "He could blast an opposing line to bits,” Allan writes. “He was fast and a terror in the open. The Dynamiter could plunge through the line, too, but he was more effective sweeping the ends —only he ran over them instead of around them (a characteristic which young Gerry appears to have inherited). James never paid much heed to his blockers. With so much raw power, he had little need for finesse.”
I never saw dad play; in fact, I don't remember him in my youth much at all. He was playing in Regina when I was born there Oct. 22, 1934, and when I was five years old he went overseas with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. So the first time I remember him was when he came home six years later. He marched into the CPR station from the train and mom and I and my older brother Don were there to meet him. That was the first time I had my picture in the paper. They took one of the family reunion.
Well, it’s been in the paper many times since, what with hockey and football being this country’s most publicized sports, but no cameraman has ever taken a picture to illustrate the frustrating problem of idleness that plagues most hockey players. When I turned pro and left school. I came upon the fact that there's nothing constructive to do with your time, and I guess this is my biggest beef against hockey. You practice every morning from ten to eleven. You haven’t got another thing to do until ten the next morning. You go crazy with all that time on your hands. You concentrate on nothing but hockey and by the time you're thirty and washed up. what do you know? What are you prepared for?
I he team doesn't want you to do anything but stay in shape and play hockey. Well, it’s not for me.
The Bomber executive is interested in finding good employment for the players —if they want it. I do. I’m a salesman now for the Norwood Box Company and my sales manager, Earl Simpson, says I'm going all right at it. He says I have a "natural aptitude” if you please. I'm glad to hear it. If I'm going to be anything 1 don't want it to be Gerry James, the hockey player. I don't want it to be Gerry James, the football player, either. But 1 would like it to be Gerry James, a football player and a businessman, jr