A sports writer’s writer and more
Milt Dunnell, who passed away at age 102 on Thursday, was held in high esteem by his readers and by those he covered for over five decades
Milt Dunnell would not have liked this story because it’s about him. The legendary Star sports columnist was as skilled at deflecting praise as he was at turning a deft phrase. And those who read him in this paper for five decades know how he excelled at the latter. As Muhammad Ali’s legendary boxing trainer Angelo Dundee said this week of his long-time friend Dunnell: “He would melt into a scene, he never banged into a scene. He blended.” Using a statement that could apply to Ali but in this case was meant for Dunnell, Dundee said: “He was so smooth.” As sports editor and columnist for the Star, Dunnell did it all. He was in the Polo Grounds when the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson hit the home run that won the ’51 pennant; at Yankee Stadium when Don Larsen pitched his perfect game for the Yankees in ’56; he covered the Thrilla in Manila when Ali defeated Joe Frazier in 1975; in Montreal for the birth of the Expos in ’69; at Exhibition Stadium for the snow-bowl debut of the Blue Jays in ’77.
He covered the 1952, ’56, ’60, ’64 and ’68 Summer Olympics and the Winter Games of 1956, ’60, ’64 and ’68. On many occasions, he chronicled the Kentucky Derby, the Queen’s Plate, heavyweight boxing championships and the Stanley and Grey Cups.
Dunnell died on Thursday night of pneumonia. He had celebrated his 102nd birthday on Christmas Eve.
He was the sports writer’s writer — and more. Dundee, who formed a strong friendship with Dunnell from the time he covered his young fighter’s shocking title victory over Sonny Liston in 1964 in Miami Beach, regards him as one of the all-time greats of sports writing.
“The people in the profession respected the hell out of Milt Dunnell,” Dundee said. “We missed him when he stopped because he was such a big plus. . . . Milt Dunnell was as huge as any writer or any person I ever associated myself with. I re-
spected him that much and I had so much respect for his intellect.” CFL great Angelo Mosca said Dunnell was a sports columnist who didn’t resort to cheap shots to get his point across and could never be accused of self-promotion.
“If you read his column, you could tell who it is,” Mosca said. “He didn’t have to identify himself. You know how some writers have an identity. He had an automatic identity where you knew right away this column was written by Milt Dunnell. He never said anything derogatory. I just really enjoyed being around him because he had a lot of stories.” Former Canadian heavyweight champion George Chuvalo recalled how Dunnell’s word held sway with the average sports fan throughout the years.
“When you think of the Toronto Star over those decades, the first name that pops into a guy’s head is Milt Dunnell,” Chuvalo said. “He was like an institution.”
Frank Orr, the Star’s hall of fame hockey writer who was hired by Dunnell, said that his former boss’s word was his bond and that his incredible decency shone through when the Star brass once tried to promote him to the managing editor’s position at the newspaper.
“It was sort of agreed to until he found out that his first duty was to fire the guy who already had the job,” recalled Orr. “He said he could never do that.”
One of his chief competitors over the years, George Gross of the Toronto Sun, has the highest praise for Dunnell.
“He had a dry humour, he was a very honourable man, one of the three finest men I’ve ever met in my life,” said Gross, corporate sports editor at the Sun. “Doug Creighton, the late publisher of the Sun, used to say to me, ‘George, just follow Milt Dunnell’s example.’ . . . He was very tough to compete against. You would do your best and that was it, but you always came out second best.”
As late Star sports editor Jim Proudfoot once put it, “Milt, in effect, was the sports editor of Canada. Other papers, TV, radio, all followed what he did, what he wrote. He set the tone for the whole country.”
Proudfoot, who died in 2001, recalled that Dunnell — or Uncle Miltie as he was fondly called in the newsroom — was a sports writer of integrity who favoured no one and was trusted by everyone, including his competitors.
A case in point was the late John Bassett Sr. when he owned the Toronto Telegram, the Toronto Argonauts and a piece of the Maple Leafs hockey team. He would call up Dunnell and give him a story that he wouldn’t give even to his own sports writers.
“Then, he’d berate his own sports writers for missing scoops,” Proudfoot recalled.
Dunnell is survived by his two sons, Milton Jr. of Toronto and Michael of Windsor. Also surviving are three grandchildren and one greatgrandchild. His wife Dorothy died in 1994. The funeral will be private, in keeping with his wishes.
He was born Dec. 24, 1905, in St. Marys, Ont., about 15 kilometres west of Stratford.
As a boy, he was into any sport that was going, although in those days lacrosse was the major sport in St. Marys. And he suffered the wounds of the game . . . a split ear, knockedout teeth, a broken nose and scores of cuts and bruises. He wasn’t big, but he was wily.
Dunnell worked for the post office after graduating from St. Marys Collegiate Institute and was a sales representative for a fruit company. “Just scraping to make a buck,” he said years later.
In his spare time, he worked for his hometown paper, the St. Marys Journal-Argus. One night in the mid-1920s, the local correspondent for the Stratford Beacon Herald wanted to take his girlfriend to a dance and asked Dunnell to fill in for him at a schoolboard meeting.
The story was about a feud between the St. Marys school board and a group of local residents and Dunnell wrote a piece that was good enough to make the front page of the Stratford paper.
He became the St. Marys correspondent for the Beacon Herald and in 1929 took a full-time job with the newspaper and moved to Stratford. Many years later, when Dunnell was appointed sports editor of the Star in 1949, Robert Nielsen, who became the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, wrote a piece in the paper describing Dunnell’s days in Stratford:
“Dave Pinkney, hotel operator and long-time sports enthusiast, credits Milt’s writings with reviving popular interest in harness racing, at a time when that sport was ready to be pronounced dead. Pinkney and Carl White and Frank Ruston asserted that the hockey teams played better hockey, and the ball teams better ball, because Milt was around. “Milt demonstrated his worth in the clutch, and gave a hint of his executive ability, in the spring of 1942, when Stratford had a Junior ‘B’ hockey team that appeared to be going places. They were in the midst of the playoffs when Pinkney, the manager, took sick . . . too sick to continue. “Milt took over as secretary and manager,” Nielsen quoted Pinkney as saying. “The club was running in the red, but he handled the finances so efficiently that we wound up the season with a few shekels in the bank . . . an unusual thing in sports. More than that, he took the team to Sudbury and handled them in the all-Ontario final. They won it, too.” In 1942, Dunnell joined the news desk of the Star after 13 years with the Beacon-Herald. At the Star, Dunnell was telegraph editor and assistant city editor before he was named sports editor. In classic Dunnell style, he resisted praise and tried to play down his success. In October 1949, Nielsen wrote: “A deft hand at playing the spotlight on others, Milt grows extremely discomforted when the beam swings his way. The man was downright distressed when informed that a piece was to be written about him and an interview would be necessary. “Might be all right after I’ve written an acceptable column for 10 years, he protested, a hunted look in his eye. When this proposal for a 10-year postponement was firmly rejected, he sighed and gave out with some vital statistics of himself and family. And that was about all. Queries along the success-formula line elicited a muttered something about getting the breaks.” Dunnell was the Star’s sports editor for 21 years. His column ran seven times a week, including a column in the Star Weekly. And, except for vacations, he always wrote a Monday column which in those days, before the Sunday paper began publishing, was important because of the busy weekend in sports. It meant he never had a weekend off. Gerry Hall, another former sports editor at the Star, recalled Dunnell’s enormous capacity for work. “When he was sports editor, the first edition went at 11 in the morning. He used to come in early and act as sports editor until 11 o’clock and went out and did his interview or whatever he did for his column. And then in the evening, at home, he would write it and then send it down by cab. “It was the old-fashioned way of doing it,” Hall said. “I can’t believe that someone could have written a daily column and run a sports section and do it without losing his cool. So to work with Milt was a
privilege.” An old friend, the late Beland H. Honderich, former publisher and chairman of the Star, once said the difference between Dunnell and many other columnists was content. “Milt never ceased to be a reporter. His column every day contained news. I say that because columnists usually write right off the top of their heads. He worked at it.” It was Dunnell who brought Honderich to the Star in 1943. “The Toronto Star had sent him down to Kitchener (where Honderich worked for the Record) and he told me the Toronto Star was looking for a reporter,” Honderich recalled. “He told me I should apply and I did.” The rest was history. Honderich went on to be an extraordinary success at the Star except in betting against Dunnell. “I would try to beat him with bets, but I never succeeded.” Honderich wasn’t alone. His son John, who followed in his father’s footsteps as publisher of the newspaper, described Dunnell as “an inspiration to everyone, but I also lost a lot of money on bets.” But it was Dunnell’s professionalism that stood out for John Honderich. “You’re talking about the pre-eminent sports writer of his day,” he said. “The way he practised the craft, the way he ran the department, he was one of a kind. Extraordinary knowledge, extraordinary depth, great sportsman, he combined it all. Milt is truly one of a kind. . . . My father and Milt were born of the same drive, the same determination, the same ink in the veins.” Dunnell never smoked, never drank, but he loved to gamble. And he was the master of the sucker bet. One of the great stories involves him betting a co-worker that it wouldn’t rain on the field in the 24 hours prior to a Super Bowl game. The co-worker took the bet, not realizing the game was going to be played in a domed stadium. His Friday night poker games were legendary well into his 90s. He cooled on them, however, when Casino Rama in Orillia opened. He and his son, Milt Jr., would drive there two or three times a week. Allen Abel, a writer and TV journalist who produced a documentary on Dunnell in 1993, recalled such a trip to Casino Rama in the spring of 1999. At the casino, just before they were set to roll the dice at the crap table, Abel recalled that Dunnell complained he hadn’t gone to Florida that winter because he couldn’t afford the health insurance. He then pulled out a wad of $100 bills and began the afternoon’s betting. Among his favourite sports was boxing. The 1975 fight between Ali and Frazier in Manila — the Thrilla in Manila — was his all-time favourite sporting event. At the time, he began his column this way: “Not since the big guns of nearby Corregidor, now rotting in the tropical sun, has there been such cannonading in this corner of the Pacific.” It was the greatest fight he covered and Ali was the greatest athlete of the century in Dunnell’s view. “In my opinion,” he once said, “Ali was one of the greatest salesmen and public relations personalities in the world.’’ “After a training session, Ali would sit on the corner of the ring and talk for an hour. Most of it was b.s., but he would talk about world politics, fighting, about blacks in society . . . all those things . . . and he described himself as the world’s best-known citizen.” But he didn’t know everything. If Dunnell was nearby and Ali didn’t have a stock answer for a technical or historical question, he would say, “I don’t know about that. Why don’t you ask Milt here?”
In 1997, Dunnell received an A.J. Liebling Award from the Boxing Writers’ Association of America, which was named after the great New Yorker magazine writer. He won many awards. He was a former president of the Ontario and Western Ontario sports writers and broadcasters associations, a founding member of the Ontario Sports Celebrities Dinner (now the Conn Smythe Dinner). He was selected to the media section of the Hockey Hall of Fame, inducted into the Football Reporters of Canada Hall of Fame, the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, received an Ontario government citation for excellence in sports writing and a Sovereign Award for outstanding writing in the field of horse racing.
But one award he didn’t win was a National Newspaper Award, the country’s top honour for newspaper reporters and columnists. Dunnell didn’t believe in them and he refused to enter his work into the competition, saying, “All winning proves is that you were better in the eyes of a few people on the day you wrote that particular column than the other guys were with what they submitted.”
Dunnell was a modest man, but he wasn’t shy. In the 1960s he took on an out-of-character role when he joined CTV’s Sports Hot Seat as a panelist. It fell to Dunnell to be the resident bad guy who asked the tough questions, putting guests on the spot.
He relished the role, but those who knew him personally, or had read his balanced, fair columns, found it difficult to match this abrasive, argumentative Dunnell.
He retired as sports editor in 1970. At a retirement dinner, Beland Honderich paid tribute: “Our very best wishes for a long retirement, which consists of one column a day.”
Dunnell continued to write five columns a week. And he did that for the next 22 years, not slowing down once.
On one occasion, Stephen Brunt, a sports columnist for the Globe and Mail, recalled seeing Dunnell in action at a heavyweight fight between Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks in 1986.
“The bout ended quickly, but still it was past midnight and in the confusion at ringside there was shoving and jostling as the spectators pushed toward the ring and as the reporters tried to push their way out to the post-fight press conference.
“And somewhere, in the middle of it all, was Dunnell (only about 80 then), climbing over a table, fighting his way through the mob, to get the quote, to get the story, to get it back to his readers, to make the event real the next morning over somebody’s breakfast in Scarborough.
“Athletes aren’t the only heroes in sport,” concluded Brunt.
In 1992, at age 86, Dunnell decided to pack it in, but John Honderich persuaded him to write three columns a week, at least for a year. Dunnell agreed. His conditions were that there would be no goingaway present, no luncheon or dinner and no announcement on the bulletin board or in the Star.
And so, in 1994, he was gone, without a wave or a word of goodbye.
On Dec. 12, 1951, in a column on the retirement of Joe DiMaggio, the great New York Yankees slugger, Dunnell wrote: “Maybe somewhere in the flood of phrases that tell of his shining career on the diamond, some person will squeeze these seven little words: He went while they still wanted him.”
And so it was said about Milt Dunnell.