Don't forget Ex, as Sinatra sang 'There used to be a ballpark right here'
By Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
“Son, I’ll tell you how it works. First you’ve got to build us a stadium, then baseball will decide whether or not you get a team.”
These were the marching orders laid out by Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn after Paul Godfrey cornered the executive in a dimly lit hotel bar back in the early 1970’s.
Godfrey, a chairman of Metro Toronto Council, had effectivley picked up where Albert Spalding, Jack Kent Cooke and countless others before him had left off. He had but one goal, and that was to bring Major League Baseball to Toronto.
Standing on the sidelines during the 1973 Grey Cup, Godfrey held court with Ontario Premier William Davis as the pair waited for Governor General Roland Michener, who was slated to make the ceremonial kickoff later that afternoon.
As they waited, Godfrey took the opportunity to make a well-rehearsed sales pitch. For an estimated $15 million, Exhibition Stadium, which at the time was packed with legions of passionate sports fans, could be renovated to serve as a functioning baseball stadium, and Godfrey proposed that if the province could pay half, Metro Toronto would chip in the rest.
Rather than agreeing to delve out the $7.5 million needed to kick-start the project, the Premier politically countered with an interest free loan. One that would be paid off by the profits major league baseball would generate in the years that followed.
Four years, $17.8 million dollars in renovation costs and countless ups and downs later, Exhibition Stadium opened its doors to the big leagues.
On April 7th, 1977 44,649 fans showed up to the renovated stadium to watch the Blue Jays take flight. Although the concourse air remained thick with the aroma of fresh paint and snow had begun to fall steadily from the northern skies above, major league ballhad arrived in Hogtown.
Prior to Bill Singer’s first pitch (a called strike as noted by home plate umpire Nestor Chylak), Canadian songstress Anne Murray belted out a rousting rendition of both the Canadian and American national anthems. At the time her biggest hit was a 1970 release titled “Snowbird,” which served as an ironic footnote considering the weather conditions in Toronto that night.
This was not planned.
“I’m thinking these people are insane” remembered inaugural Blue Jay Doug Ault in a 2001 interview with the Toronto Sun’s Bill Lankhof. “There we are in the middle of a snowstorm with 40,000 in the stands expecting us to play baseball.”
Ault, who hit third in the Blue Jays lineup that day, stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first amidst a swell off rowdy fans eager to see a winner.
“It was the first time I had played in front of that many people and the first two guys we sent up struck out.” explained Ault. “Now everybody’s booing and I take a strike on the first pitch. The booing gets louder and louder and I’m thinking, we’re not going to get out of the first inning. I figured I’d swing at the next pitch and I’m so scared that I don’t even feel the cold anymore. Next thing I know the ball is flying out of the park.”
The hit would represent one of Ault’s two home runs on the day, a showing that would permanently etch his name into both Toronto’s record books and common baseball lore.
Over the next few summers, the Blue Jays would establish themselves as a major league powerhouse. In all, It would take six seasons to field a championship calibre team and once the club finally broke into the black, they had done so in grand fashion.
In 1979, Blue Jays shortstop Alfredo Griffin shared rookie of the year honors with Minnesota’s John Castino. Utilizing the astro-turfed expanses to leg out sharply hit groundballs that sped past opposing infielders, Griffin hit slashed .308/.359/.393 at home in Toronto that season.
Six years later, Doyle Alexander helped pitch the Jays to a 99-62 finish, earning the club its first (and only while at the Ex) appearance in the postseason in front of 44,406 were in attendance when outfielder George Bell squeezed the final out and dropped to his knees in elation.
Speaking of Bell, the Blue Jays slugging outfielder took American League pitching by storm in 1987 belting 47 round trippers, driving in 134 and producing a slash line of .308/.352/.605 across 667 plate appearances on the season. His dominant offensive output earned the then 27 year-old product of San Pedro de Macoris the leagues Most Valuable Player Award for that year.
On April 16th, 1989, Rule V draft Kelly Gruber became the first Blue Jays clipper to hit for the cycle slamming a home run off Royals hurler Floyd Bannister in the first, followed by a double, triple and single in the subsequent innings of Toronto’s 15-8 win over Kansas City. Gruber, who likely could have had extra bases with his final knock of the afternoon, claims that at the time he didn’t even know what a cycle was.
For all of the highlights that came at the corner of Lakeshore and Ontario, the Ex also had its share of blemishes. Sure, it was cold in April … May and September. The seagulls that flew in off the lake often made for precarious situations both in the stands and on the field (ask Dave Winfield), and dense fog often occasionally led to missed balls in the outfield.
Like Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, Exhibition was deemed the “Mistake by the Lake”, and rightfully so. But it was our mistake, and without it we may have never seen MLB action in Toronto.
On May 28th, 1989, Exhibition Stadium sent the Blue Jays off in the same fashion in which it welcomed them some 13 years before. As fate would have it, the Chicago White Sox were back in town to mark the occasion, and in front of a capacity crowd 46,120, Toronto emerged victorious following dramatic two-run shot off the bat of George Bell in the bottom of the tenth.
Over the next 10 years, the one time a hub for Toronto based entertainment sat vacant save for the occasional event or film shoot.
In 1999, fans were given one last opportunity to visit the Ex before the park met the wrecking ball. One by one, diehards showed up to not only see the spot where so many memories had been forged, but to also walk away with a piece of Toronto history. Stadium seats, benches, signage, lockers, you name it. If it had any semblance of historical value, it was for sale.
These days, there’s not much left of the old yard. The seats that used to be featured on the CNE side of the bridge that connects the grounds to Ontario Place have since vanished and not one piece of the former structure remains standing today.
Within the shadows of the newly renovated BMO field lays a tarnished stone plaque that indicates the former location of Exhibition Stadiums home plate… The exact spot where both Ault and Bell stood so many years ago. The spot where Dave Steib’s slider froze the likes of Reggie Jackson, Carl Yaszemski and George Brett to name a few.
Over time, it has become weathered and fallen into a state of disrepair that’s left the location nearly unidentifiable. Rather than a fitting tribute to summers past, it now resembles that of a fallen headstone marking the burial site of someone long since forgotten.
With the Blue Jays celebrating their 40th season this summer, nostalgia is at an all time high in Toronto. Perhaps now would be the time to restore this integral part of Toronto baseball history before it too is forgotten.
- Follow Andrew Hendriks on Twitter (@77hendriks)