Memories of Lansdowne… it wasn’t just the Rough Riders
By Joe Scanlon
The return of football to Lansdowne Park – under the new name of Redblacks – brings back many memories, not just of the Rough Riders and not even just of football.
Football at Lansdowne back in the day
Between 1943 and 1947, there were two football teams in Ottawa – the Rough Riders and the Trojans. The Trojans – originally called the Combines – played in the Ontario Rugby Football Union (ORFU) and won the league championship in 1947, only to lose to the Toronto Argonauts in the playoff game that preceded the Grey Cup. The following season, the Trojans merged with the Rough Riders.
While I remember the Trojans, I did not meet any of their players, but I did meet Tony Golab, the “Golden Boy,” who starred with the Rough Riders in the 1930s and again after the war. He played in four Grey Cups and was with the Rough Rider team that won the Grey Cup in 1940. I met Golab when he and a few other Rough Riders used to prepare for the season by kicking a football at what was then the St. Pat’s field (now Immaculata) on Echo Drive. A few other youngsters and I got to run after the balls and bring them back to the players. Golab lived on Main Street in Ottawa East. Like all Ottawa fans, I was intrigued when Ottawa decided to stay with a Canadian quarterback, Russ Jackson. The Riders – led by Jackson – won the Grey Cup five times with stars such as Whit Tucker, Ron Stewart and Tony Gabriel. It was Gabriel who caught the winning touchdown pass in 1976 as Ottawa defeated Saskatchewan 23-20.
Other names come to mind – names like Howie “Touchdown” Turner and Bob Simpson. Simpson was probably the most versatile athlete ever to play for the Rough Riders. While with the Riders, he caught 274 passes and 65 touchdowns. As if that wasn’t enough, he represented Canada in basketball at the 1952 summer Olympics in Helsinki. Frank Clair, Ottawa’s most successful coach, guided all of the victories. Clair coached the Rough Riders from 1956 to 1969. The team never finished first in his first 10 seasons as a coach, though the Riders did win the Grey Cup in 1960. But he finished his Ottawa career with a flourish. He coached Ottawa to the Grey Cup in 1966 but lost, and then led them to first place in 1968 and 1969, both years winning the Grey Cup. I can still remember the 1968 game – which I watched on colour television (new at the time) – when Vic Washington ran 80 yards from scrimmage for the game-winning touchdown. I recall the ball dropping out of his hands and, almost like magic, bouncing right back into them. That year Coach Clair won the Annis Stukus trophy as coach of the year in the Canadian Football League.
After Clair left, Ottawa never won another Grey Cup and the team gradually went downhill. Perhaps the bottom was in 1995 when Ottawa drafted Derrell Robertson, who had died the previous December. My own memories, of course, cover other football games at Lansdowne – including the first Carleton-Ottawa Panda game (when I was the public address announcer) and many other Panda games that followed. I also attended high school games, which were often played late enough in the afternoon that spectators would line their cars along the sidelines and turn on the lights. (That was when there were only the main stands.)
I recall being paid to dress up as a clown (I was a struggling Carleton student at the time) and attend a Rider game to promote a new product: Crest toothpaste.
I also have one very sad memory – though it wasn’t sad at the time. When I was a student at Lisgar, Alex Grey scored the winning touchdown as Lisgar defeated Glebe in the junior semi-finals. Grey never played again. He was one of three of my high school classmates who volunteered to serve in Korea. He did not return.
Baseball at Lansdowne
Lansdowne Park did not host just pro football, however. From 1946 to 1951, Lansdowne Park hosted Class C Border League baseball – only 25 cents for teenagers. The team was often inept, but so were the other teams, and the Ottawa Nationals won the title three of the six years. I seem to remember that Chuck Paul – who had learned his baseball in Ottawa East and later became a CFL official – played for the Nationals.
Another member of that team was Peter Karpuk, who was chosen as the Border League’s outstanding player in 1949. Rough Rider football fans with long memories will remember Karpuk for another reason. In the 1948 Grey Cup, with Ottawa leading Calgary, Karpuk fumbled the ball, and Calgary took it away for the winning touchdown. Karpuk eventually left the Riders, and the Nationals were replaced by an AAA farm team from the then-New York Giants. Prices went up. Attendance went down and the team folded after one season.
One Ottawa coach was Paul “Daffy” Dean who, along with his better known brother “Dizzy” Dean, pitched the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series victory. Daffy Dean was also part of some versions of a comedy sketch with Abbott and Costello – the famous “Who’s on first?” sketch.
I recall two debates that centered on Lansdowne Park in those days. The first was whether there could be a “shaved” infield, and whether Ottawa could have a pro baseball team without wrecking the football field. The second was a series of votes on whether Ottawa would allow Sunday sports.
Joe Scanlon, professor emeritus at Carleton University, former director of its Journalism School and current director of the Emergency Communications Research Group, has a large store of memories to share.