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culture

Historicist: First Spring Training for the Blue Jays

In 1977 the team got together for the very first time.

Toronto first base coach Don Leppert leading the Blue Jays in fielding practice. From the Toronto Sun, February 27, 1977.

With April 7, 1977 growing closer, Toronto readied itself for its first taste of major league baseball. While efforts in Toronto concentrated on preparing Exhibition Stadium for opening day, it was the team’s first preseason training camp in Florida that afforded baseball fans their first glimpse of what they could expect from the Toronto Blue Jays.

On August 26, 1976, the team announced that Dunedin, Florida, would be the site of their spring training facility. At the time, Dunedin had a population of 29,000. A feature in the Star’s travel section noted that the town’s biggest annual event was the Highland Games, which highlighted the community’s Scottish heritage.

According to longtime Blue Jays broadcaster Tom Cheek, the town of Dunedin had specifically pursued the affiliation with the Blue Jays, hoping that the team’s spring training would build upon the town’s already growing popularity as a winter destination for Ontario tourists. By all accounts the arrangement was also heartily welcomed by the local residents. A Globe and Mail report from early January 1977 notes that “the Blue Jays are the big news and every acquisition and trade is splashed across the pages of the Dunedin Herald and the Dunedin Times.” The Sun noted that a local fan club had formed over the winter, and that “it hasn’t taken much to sell the Blue Jays in Dunedin… Everywhere one goes there is interest in the team, whether it be a bank, a drugstore, or a local hamburger joint.”

Dunedin’s stadium, Grant Field, had been used by a variety of baseball teams over the years, including the Detroit Tigers, whose logo was still widely visible on site in the early winter of 1977, both on the side of the building, and on the hats of the groundskeepers. Just as Exhibition Stadium required alterations back home in Toronto, Grant Field went through a series of upgrades that winter, including new seats, new fences, and a new clubhouse. Nevertheless, many of the facilities remained cramped and primitive by the time camp opened. Twenty-five years later, infielder Garth Iorg recalled that the field was also in rough shape in 1977, featuring many ant hills: “I remember [first baseman] Doug Ault diving for a ball and coming up covered in ants. If you stood too long in one spot in the outfield, you were going to get bit.”

The coaches and front office staff began arriving in mid-February, followed shortly by the players.

Putting up the welcome sign at Grant Field. From the Toronto Star, February 25, 1977. Photo by Graham Bezant.

The on-field talent in the Blue Jays’ first year was expected to be lacklustre. The Blue Jays roster had been primarily populated by an “expansion draft,” in which the 12 established teams in the American League had been permitted to protect the majority of their preferred players, leaving the less talented members of their rosters vulnerable to selection by either the Blue Jays, or their partners in the 1977 expansion, the Seattle Mariners. The two expansion draft teams had not been permitted to participate in 1976 entry draft for new players, nor were they able to compete for the few star veterans who were free agents in the off-season.

Furthermore, time had not permitted the Blue Jays to establish minor league affiliates to develop their own talent before the 1977 season began. The only minor league team the Blue Jays had in 1977 was a short-season A-level club in Utica, populated by players fresh out of school, who were still several years away from being able to compete at the major league level.

For their big league roster, the Blue Jays were left with a mix of backups of limited talent, unproven rookies, and aging veterans in their declining years.

Management understood that it would be several years before the Blue Jays could be expected to compete. It was expected that most of the players in 1977 would be gone within a few years, just temporary placeholders until more talented players could be acquired in a trade or developed in the minor league system. On the field, manager Roy Hartsfield and his coaching staff planned to concentrate on developing fundamental skills. The front office, meanwhile, concentrated less on marketing the Blue Jays themselves, and more on selling the sport and, when possible, the visiting star players, all the while trying to acquire young prospects who could become stars in the years to come.

Before the players took to the field, there was the matter of decorum and marketing. Without being able to sell the team by its talent, general manager Peter Bavasi sought other means of establishing and growing the Toronto Blue Jays’ popularity.

Addressing the players in camp on March 2, Bavasi told them that their job was to sell themselves and the organization. “If you hit a home run or make a good play and the people applaud you,” he told the players, “tip your hat or wave at them. Maybe you’ll be embarrassed by it all, but the fans love that sort of thing… No matter how bad a game you may have played, never brush aside a kid who wants an autograph. Your careers are short. Savor the moment and take the time.” Catcher Ernie Whitt recalls Bavasi saying “Gentlemen, you are the sizzle of the steak to come.”

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To help ensure that the team presented a clean, family-friendly image, Bavasi’s directions came with regulations. Players were forbidden from swearing in front of fans, and when not in uniform were required to dress to a certain standard, usually with a tie and sport jacket. Long hairstyles, particularly popular in the late 1970s, were also banned. Although Toronto was not the only baseball team with such a policy, many of the players arrived at camp with hair considered too long by the team’s management; amongst the first photos of spring training to hit the papers were those of players in the barber’s chair.

(Left: Mike Darr, submitting to the Blue Jays’ haircut policy. From the Toronto Sun, February 25, 1977. Photo by Norm Betts.)

The first players reported to camp on February 24. Assuming their hair was up to team standards, the next order of business was to receive and review the Blue Jays’ special defensive instruction manual; every player was expected to read the manual, so as to know what was expected of them in every in-game defensive situation.

For the majority of spring training, there were 38 players competing for 25 opening day roster spots, and field manager Roy Hartsfield told his players there were no guarantees and that every spot was open, with each player in camp having a shot to start the season in Toronto. Nevertheless, there were clearly some favourites.

Shortstop Bob Bailor, the team’s first pick in the expansion draft, was one of the few Jays to have already made a public appearance in Toronto, visiting the city for the 1976 Grey Cup festivities. Bailor was one of the few players projected by the Jays’ scouts to have potential as an everyday player, possessing good speed and an above-average ability to hit. He developed pain in his throwing arm, however, and it was not clear which position the team would have him play.

Amongst the veterans, the most well-known player was likely Bill Singer, a two-time all-star and 20-game winner, coming off a down season in 1976 and hoping to reestablish himself. Team executive Pat Gillick, to whom Bavasi had delegated many of the decisions concerning player personnel, wanted to pursue an offer by the New York Yankees to acquire Singer in exchange for a pitching prospect named Ron Guidry. Bavasi vetoed the deal, believing Singer to be one of the few known names on the club and thus desirable from a marketing perspective. Singer’s major league career would be finished after the 1977 season, whereas Guidry would go on to win 170 games for the Yankees and appear in four all-star games.

Another veteran was Ron Fairly who, like Singer, was nearing the end of his career and not thrilled about spending his final seasons with one of the league’s worst teams. Fairly reportedly had an agreement with the Blue Jays, in which he agreed to spend 1977 with the non-competitive expansion club, provided that the team would try to trade him at the end of the season so that he might be able to finish his career on the west coast.

The Blue Jays take a break to hunt for a player’s lost tooth. It is not known if it was ever found. From the Toronto Sun, March 7, 1977. Photo by Norm Betts.

Although their roster was thinly stocked, the Blue Jays found themselves with depth at catcher. Through trades, the team was able to prise two top catching prospects from the Cleveland Indians: Alan Ashby and Rick Cerone. The team also had veteran Phil Roof, and a fourth catcher, of whom little was expected, named Ernie Whitt. All winter long, rumours swirled that the Jays would use one of these players, most likely Ashby, to anchor a trade. None of these deals materialized, however, and all four catchers found themselves competing for the opportunity to start on opening day.

Following two weeks of stretches, drills, and some intra-squad games, the Blue Jays were rained out of their first pre-season game on March 10. The next day, however, they managed to win their first game, beating the New York Mets in front of a sellout crowd of nearly 2,000 at Grant Field. The hero of the game was utility player Sam Ewing, who drove in the winning runs with a two-out double in the eighth inning. It would prove to be the beginning of a big spring for the relatively unknown Ewing, who unexpectedly led the team in batting, while many of the other Jays hitters struggled.

As the end of spring training approached, the Blue Jays began cutting players from their roster, to get to the 25 players who would be allowed to dress for opening day. The first to go was Nate Colbert, who was released on March 25. A former slugger with the Padres in the early ’70s, Colbert had lost his ability to hit effectively a few years earlier, and had been invited to the Blue Jays camp on a trial basis. Some players, like Colbert, Leon Hooten, and Doug Howard, were fully released from the organization. Others were sent down to the minors, where they could continue to play and improve. In 1977, Toronto did not yet have a minor league affiliate at the AAA level. As a result, players were assigned to the minor league affiliates of the Cleveland Indians and the Houston Astros.

Blue Jays coaches Harry Warner, Bob Miller, Jackie Moore, Bobby Doerr, and manager Roy Hartsfield. From the Globe and Mail, February 24, 1977. Photo by Dennis Robinson.

Still tinkering with the roster, the team also made a trade at the end of spring training, acquiring shortstop Hector Torres from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for outfielder John Lowenstein. According to the Sun, Lowenstein “looked lethargic and disinterested in his four weeks with the Jays.” Tom Cheek notes that Lowenstein gave an interview to the press after the team’s first ever workout and, within earshot of Peter Bavasi, told the reporters that this was “the most disorganized spring training camp in the annals of baseball.” As such, it may be that Lowenstein was shipped out for not fitting the desired image of a 1977 Toronto Blue Jay that the front office had in mind. Torres, as it worked out, would get the opening day start at shortstop, filling in for Bob Bailor who was unable to play after cutting his finger on an oyster can.

Despite hitting poorly throughout spring training, Rick Cerone won the job of opening day catcher. Ashby and Roof both remained on the roster, although Roof only got into three games all season and was primarily used in the bullpen to help pitchers warm up. Roof’s main moment of glory as a Blue Jay came in July, when he and teammate Sam Ewing won a pre-game cow-milking contest in Cleveland, with each player winning fifty dollars. The odd man out, at least for the time being, was Ernie Whitt. In 1989, Whitt wrote that he did not get along with Roy Hartsfield, and believed that he was not given a fair opportunity to play during Hartsfield’s three years as the team’s manager. Following Hartsfield’s departure, however, Whitt would emerge as the team’s top catcher and remain with the organization longer than any of the other players at the 1977 camp, eventually becoming a fan favourite.

The strongest reaction to being cut came from pitcher Lloyd Allen, who refused his minor league assignment. No longer bound by Bavasi’s instructions to be careful when speaking with the press, Allen was outspoken, blasting both the Blue Jays management and prevalent attitudes in all of baseball. “You can’t be an individual in baseball,” he told the Sun. “They don’t want you to appear as normal human beings, from [a] small town, with the same ambitions and lusts as everybody else. Bavasi wants you to be a little boy, a conformist. That’s what the haircut rules and all are about.”

Stretching at Grant Field. From the Globe and Mail, February 26, 1977. Photo by Dennis Robinson.

Allen believed he was cut for not fitting with the “family image” that the team aimed to project, telling Christie Blatchford, then a sports reporter for the Globe and Mail, “I met my second wife while I was cheating on my first wife. Now I love her dearly, but that’s how I met her. In baseball, they pretend that sort of thing doesn’t happen, not to a ball player.” Allen also told Blatchford that players had been expressly warned by Roy Hartsfield against talking to her specifically. “He said that if we told you something, and it looked bad in print, we were gone.” Rather than play in the minors, Allen opted to quit baseball altogether, and it was reported that he was leaving for Chicago to work in his father-in-law’s bakery.

A few days later, the Sun’s George Gross conducted an interview with Bavasi, mostly discussing the preparations for the season and Bavasi’s predictions for the team. Gross asked about the jeans incident, to which Bavasi replied that he “wore a pair of very expensive denim slacks,” and reiterated that players were expected to wear jackets and ties. He added that the dress code and haircut rule was “to establish a settlement of discipline in [the] Blue Jays overall operation. After all, history confirms that the most disciplined armies were victorious.”

Nearly all of the players who accepted their minor league assignments were eventually called up and given their chance to play in Toronto. As many had expected, the team was indeed poor, finishing with the worst record in baseball in 1977, losing 107 games. When the team finally did have its first winning season in 1983, only three of those at camp in 1977 were still with the organization.


Additional material from: Stephen Brunt, Diamond Dreams: 20 Years of Blue Jays Baseball (Viking, 1996: Toronto); Tom Cheek with Howard Berger, Road to Glory (Warwick, 1993: Toronto); The Globe and Mail, November 6, November 23, December 9, December 31, 1976; January 18, January 22, February 12, February 23, February 28, March 8, March 9, March 11, March 12, March 26, March 28, March 29, March 30, March 31, April 1, April 2, April 4, April 5, 1977; The Toronto Star, August 26, November 2, November 6, November 19, 1976; January 28, February 12, February 22, February 25, February 26, March 2, March 12, March 21, March 29, March 31, April 2, April 4, 1977; The Toronto Sun, February 22, February 23, February 25, March 1, March 3, March 9, March 21, March 27, March 29, March 31, April 3, 1977; Toronto Blue Jays Official 25th Anniversary Commemorative Book (Dan Diamond and Associates, 2001: Toronto); Ernie Whitt and Greg Cable, Catch: A Major League Life (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1989: Toronto).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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