Every Saturday morning, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
1979 Topps Rico Carty, 1978 Topps Jesse Jefferson and 1978 Topps Jim Clancy baseball cards
Stories about the early days of the Toronto Blue Jays tend to focus on their debut in 1977, highlighted by a snowy opening day. Despite a mixture of cast-offs, free agents, and untested rookies that landed the team in the basement, the Jays quickly generated a fan base and set an expansion record of 1.7 million attendees at Exhibition Stadium. The Toronto Star‘s Jim Proudfoot summed up their maiden voyage:
Nothing was allowed to spoil the blissful excitement of Toronto’s first season in the American League. Criticizing our beloved Blue Jays simply wasn’t permitted. Their laughable blunders and glaring deficiencies were forgiven as cute idiosyncracies, inevitable and easy to accept with an expansion team in its infancy. This was a genuine romance; those in love perceived no flaws in the object of their adoration. A first baseman would drop a routine toss from shortstop and the spectators would chuckle indulgently. They bought the Jays’ message totally, even after it began to sound like a cracked record: you can’t expect too much from us, so be patient.
But what about the Jays’ second act?
None of the local papers predicted great things for the Jays in 1978 as all of the papers envisioned another last place finish. Ken Becker of The Toronto Sun felt that “the bottom half of their batting order still looks anemic.” Allen Abel of The Globe and Mail was the most succinct: “Sigh.”
Over the course of spring training, the team added home run power with the acquisition of designated hitter Rico Carty from the Cleveland Indians and first baseman John Mayberry from the Kansas City Royals. Another addition was a $2.5 million scoreboard, the most expensive to date in baseball. Requiring a crew of six to operate it, the 23-foot by 38-foot board was able to produce 16 shades of colour and display photos generated from 35mm slides and 16mm film. The cost was covered through 15-second ads, with the initial clients including Pepsi, Benson and Hedges, Hiram Walker and team investor Labatt’s Brewery.
The scoreboard was the only place fans could legally gaze at alcohol during games, as the team waged a battle with the provincial government over selling beer in the stadium. Tracking the issue over the season revealed much hesitancy from Queen’s Park, especially from Minister of Consumer and Commercial Affairs Larry Grossman, who was personally opposed to the matter and worried about the bad behaviour of rowdy fans. Hearings were held in April after a concessionaire proposed setting up a segregated area to serve alcohol. Opponents ranged from temperance groups to cab drivers, the latter worried about running into drunk drivers roaming the streets of Parkdale. The Star noted the testimony of cabbie Bill Zock, who felt that “Parkdale in general already has a drinking problem…there is an overabundance of licensed drinking establishments and an overabundance of people with chronic drinking problems.” A cabinet shuffle in October saw Frank Drea take over Grossman’s portfolio, with a firm vow that beer would never be sold at games. Not until July 1982 did Premier Bill Davis step in and allow beer sales, though Grossman (by then Minister of Health) still frettied about other fans vomiting on his children.
On the other hand, potentially tipsy fans (or the large number that smuggled in their liquid requirement) could have relied on public transit to head home. When ridership numbers from opening day were released, TTC Commissioner Michael Warren was proud that the target of 50% of fans arriving at the ballpark via TTC or GO was reached. A plan was devised for certain high attendance games so that 83 extra vehicles would be placed in service for fans, while police rerouted traffic in the vicinity of Exhibition Place, forbidding left turns off major routes like Bathurst Street.
The season opener in Detroit was delayed by rain. This might have been an omen as the Jays lost to the Tigers, the first of 102 defeats. Starter Dave Lemanczyk, predicted to be the staff ace, lost his first seven decisions and wound up with a 4-14 record. The home opener was a happier affair, a 10-8 victory over Detroit on April 14. No snow was sighted in the stands.
Despite the team’s poor on-field performance, most of the booing from the stands was directed at political figures and anthem singers. When Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, accompanied by his sons, threw the first pitch on April 22, he was greeted with jeers, perhaps an early sign the next federal election campaign would not go his way. Exactly a month later, singer Ruth Ann Wallace was loudly booed when she sang a bilingual rendition of “O Canada” two days in a row. The incident provoked much handwringing among editorial writers and politicians. Visiting Toronto the day after, Quebec Premier Rene Levesque said “I honestly think it’s too bad, but you have people on both sides you know that more or less represent the two solitudes.” Asked if he considered the booing crowd bigots, Levesque said “yeah, that would be a good word for it.” Trudeau feared the incident played into the hands of separatists, indicating that “this is a sad commentary but there’s nothing more I can do about it than to help people slowly attune their ears to the reality of two languages in Canada and two main linguistic groups.”
The year’s most controversial trade occurred on August 15 when fan-favourite Carty, who led the team in most offensive categories, was traded to the Oakland A’s for designated hitter Willie Horton and pitcher Phil Huffman. Horton had a short, star-crossed stay in Toronto, hitting .205 over the remainder of the season. One reason for his low productivity was an incident on September 4 when Horton, his wife and two children were charged with causing a public disturbance after a fight broke out with three bystanders in the stadium parking who, according to an interview with Horton in The Globe and Mail, “gave them dirty looks.” During the melee Horton was knocked out by riding crop of a police officer on horseback. The trade was effectively nullified in the off-season when Carty rejoined the Blue Jays, while Horton signed as a free agent with the Seattle Mariners.
(Carty was also the first native of the Dominican Republic city of San Pedro de Macoris to play for the Blue Jays, paving the way for the likes of George Bell and Tony Fernandez.)
The Horton incident one of many things that went wrong for the team during the final month of the season. Globe and Mail reporter Neil Campbell saw his press credentials revoked after he picked up sensitive team documents accidentally left in the press box by club president Peter Bavasi. A draw for a free car on September 22 ended with two cars being handed out to fans after the initial winning ticket holder showed up just as the holder of a second drawn ticket made their way to the field (the first ticket holder was walking out of the stadium when the draw was announced). The team tried to palm off free tickets as compensation to the second winner, but the threat of a lawsuit suddenly made a second car appear.
The team ended the season with an eight-game losing streak. These matches, all against the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees, played a key role in shaping one of the most dramatic pennant races in baseball history and one of the most vivid examples of the “curse of the Bambino” that plagued the Red Sox for most of the 20th century (the Red Sox led the Yankees by 14-1/2 games in July, ended the season tied and lost in a special one-game playoff thanks to a home run by Yankee Bucky Dent.
There were signs of optimism for the future. The team had won five more games than in 1977 (59 versus 54). Players who would take part in the team’s first championship drive in 1985 debuted in the low minors—the amateur draft netted Lloyd Moseby and Dave Stieb. Fans would sit through four more losing seasons before general manager Pat Gillick’s assembly skills paid dividends and the team’s early blunders were remembered with a certain charm.
Sources: Simpsons ad from The Toronto Star, April 9, 1978. Shoppers Drug Mart ad from The Toronto Star, April 10, 1978. Ticker banner from The Globe and Mail, February 25, 1978. Additional material gathered from issues of The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and The Toronto Sun over the course of the 1978 baseball season.