When Juniors ruled Hamilton (and Canadian) football
They don’t go to the games anymore, but from their Queenston Road balcony, Earl and Liz Blayney can easily see the lights of Tim Hortons Field.
“My wife is a Tiger-Cats addict,” says Earl “Tut” Blayney. “She watches all their games on TV.”
The Blayneys were season ticket holders for a dozen years in the 1950s and 1960s, but haven’t been to the new stadium and don’t think they will get there. But nearly 70 years ago, on the same parcel of land — but in a different stadium with a different name — Earl Blayney and his teammates initiated the greatest, if brief, era in Hamilton junior football history.
It was Nov. 20, 1948, and the Hamilton Junior Wildcats defeated the visiting Saskatoon Hilltops 23-10 at Civic Stadium, behind a strong running game that included Brian Timmis Jr., Ed Jablonski and diminutive quarterback Garnet Steeves, the kicking of Timmis and Joe McFarlane and three pass completions on only four attempts.
Blayney, wearing No. 19, was an interior lineman playing both ways. He was also a team captain, as the Wildcats won what was, according to The Spectator of the day, the first official Dominion junior championship since 1932. In the intervening years, a world war and jurisdictional disputes cancelled the national final, or rendered it unofficial.
“I never played football in high school, never even saw a game when I was at Hamilton Tech,” says Blayney, who turns 90 in October. “I tried out in ’44. I was out of high school and working (as a machinist in the war industry). But I was in pretty good shape, and I guess I was a good learner; they picked me and eventually said, ‘You’re the captain.’”
The game was in a state of rapid evolution and no junior players in the country were better at it than Hamiltonians.
The city had had its own division in the Junior Big Four in the late 1930s and early 1940s, which helped lay the groundwork for a great fiveyear run a decade later.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cubs, sponsored by the Hamilton Tigers, made the unofficial 1947 national title game, but lost to the Vancouver Blue Bombers.
The Hamilton Jr. Wildcats, run by the Tigers’ crosstown rival Hamilton Wildcats, won the Canadian junior football titles in 1948 and ’49.
And after the Wildcats and Tigers merged in 1950 to create the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, their Junior Ticats won the 1950 and ’51 national titles.
“Our game was more like rugger (rugby),” Blayney says. “We ran a lot more than we threw. The ball was bigger and it was rounder, more like a rugby ball; there wasn’t a sharp nose. There was an awful lot more kicking in the game. We’d often kick on second down.
“I was 5-11, 185 or 190 pounds and was considered reasonably big. I would not be given a look today to play middle guard or tackle.
“Some guys we played didn’t even wear a helmet. Helmets were optional at the time. But the Wildcats office said we had to wear them.”
The Wildcats treated their juniors well. The senior team got new red, white and blue uniforms every year, so the juniors inherited barely year-old rigging.
The 1948 championship was Blayney’s last junior game — he played a year of senior for Dundas, then concentrated on family and his growing TV repair and tower business — and he played it with essentially one eye. Earlier in the season a player for Toronto Parkdale grabbed some lime from the field markings and tossed it in his f ace. Eventually he went blind in that eye.
The Wildcats beat the Jr. Argos for the league title, then defeated the Westmount Warriors of the Quebec League and Point Edward of the ORFU to reach the Dominion final.
When the Hilltops arrived i n Hamilton, they were greeted by a band and a parade. After the game, both teams were honoured at a dinner at the Royal Connaught Hotel.
Reserved seats to the game at Civic Stadium cost $1, with students paying 75 cents and kids 25 cents.
“It wasn’t really a great spectator sport,” Blayney recalled. “I’d be surprised if there were 2,000 people there.”
There were 2,700, which Spectator sports editor Ivan Miller called a disappointment. But it had rained heavily and more than 1,300 local football fans had left for Ottawa to watch the senior Wildcats lose the eastern final.
“The game was played on mud,” Blayney says. “Some of the games at the stadium then were just slip and slide. There was no fancy stuff back then.”
Junior star Earl Blayney and wife Liz.