After Monday’s victory in the annual Labour Day Classic, the Toronto Argonauts (3-6) host the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (1-8) in the second half of the home-and-home series on Saturday at the Rogers Centre. It might not seem like the greatest match-up, with both teams fighting it out for last place in the league, and the abysmal Ti-Cats having beaten the Argos only once in their last seventeen regular season encounters. But the two teams, who first faced off in 1873, represent one of the oldest rivalries in pro sports, and one that mimics an existing inter-city feud.
Sports fans, of course, tend to identify with professional athletes as representatives of their home cities, regardless of how simplistic civic characterizations may be. The Ti-Cats, then, are seen as hard-workers to match their city’s blue-collar culture. The Argos are characterized as metropolitan, over-paid, flashy and cocky players. Matt Dunigan, who quarterbacked for both the Argos and the Ti-Cats in the 1990s, said, “I’ve always felt that Toronto-Hamilton was a battle of culture more than teams. Big city versus small hard-working city.”
There’s a whole host of possible reasons why Hamilton’s grudge against Toronto carries beyond football. Geographic proximity and traditional civic boosterism obvious intensify it. And Torontonians do have a tendency to look down our noses at them, unable to see beyond the steel factories, heavy manufacturing and pollution-choked skyline visible from the Burlington Skyway. But the roots run far deeper. Samuel Philips Day, an Englishman visitor, noted the rivalry in 1864. Although he praised Hamilton as an “ambitious little city” in the wilderness, he remarked with bewilderment that “the only predominant passion observable amongst the population resolves itself into a sort of harmless rivalry, or more properly, emulation of Toronto.” Another traveler in 1857 predicted that Hamilton was destined to be the leading city of Canada West. Although it developed into an indispensable industrial centre, Hamilton was overlooked as provincial capital and Toronto surpassed it as the commercial centre of the province.
Not only that, Hamilton has historically resented the intrusion of Torontonians, such as Allan MacNab, in the financial and political affairs of their city. Later, Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard bought the financially insolvent Tiger-Cats in 1978, and, despite on-field success, repeatedly threatened to move Hamilton’s only big-league team to Toronto. More recently, Toronto is to blame for any thwarted civic ambitions in Hamilton, whether it’s the brain drain to the mega-city or the failed attempts to land an NHL team. The dislike runs so deep that when a new radio station needed to curry favour with the locals, they started a “Toronto Sucks” billboard campaign. But, hey, Toronto is used to this, and builds civic pride out of how much the rest of Canada hates us.
The Toronto-Hamilton rivalry reflects the best and worst sports have to offer. Games are so heavily invested with historical resonance that fans and players get genuinely excited about the games, regardless of win-loss records. On the other hand, like most emotional rivalries of sports fandom, the animosity is always toeing the thin line between proud boosterism and chauvinistic nativism.
The rivalry takes its strongest form on the football field in Hamilton. Ivor Wynne Stadium—intimate, antiquated, claustrophobic as it is—is much more conducive to bitter incidents than the cavernous and sterile Rogers Centre. Fans have been known to boo the other team’s cheerleaders. They have thrown batteries at players. An Argo player once threw his helmet into the Ivor Wynne crowd in retaliation over a spitting incident. At least we seem beyond the time when Torontonians wandering back to their car risked real violence. Perhaps because their team has been so terrible for so long that they feel they need to entertain themselves, Hamilton fans are incredibly vocal and inventive with the insults they hurl at opposing players.
The worst diatribes and antagonistic jeering are saved for former Ti-Cats, like Adriano Belli and Mike O’Shea, now playing for the Argos. The utter treachery of trading the black-and-gold uniform for double-blue can never be forgiven in Hamilton. Hogtown fans, on the other hand, might not even remember that Ti-Cats Ray Mariuz and Roger Dunbrack once played in Toronto. Even players like Belli admit that the rivalry is taken far less seriously outside of Hamilton. While the Labour Day match is perhaps the most significant date on the Hamilton sports calendar, the rematch in Toronto has not usually inspired a huge turnout in Toronto in recent years. Rogers Centre fans limit their vitriol, not for opposing players, but for a select few Hamiltonians, especially shameless self-promoters who continuously insist on demonstrating their monumentally bad singing skills.
The bubbling hatred Hamilton feels seems a bit more like tepid dislike in Toronto. Maybe that Torontonians can’t arouse the same passion for the historical rivalry is what infuriates them the most.
Photos by Matt Symes of Symplicity Photography.