The following appeared initially in the Biblioasis publication From the Vault – a photo-history of London, Volume II 1950-75.
Canada and London were moving into high gear. The post-war era brought job security, prosperity, and an opportunity to indulge in sports and recreational pursuits. In London, sports teams and their best athletes were well known, described and documented by Free Press reporters and photographers. Schools provided the coaching, while playgrounds, scattered throughout the city, drew thousands to their swimming pools, ball diamonds, volleyball and basketball courts, and track and field competitions. The London Arena in the downtown area provided a venue for professional wrestling, amateur boxing, roller hockey, and basketball as well as musical acts.
For many London kids in the early ’50s, a lifelong interest in sports began in the playgrounds operated by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) under the London Outdoor Recreation Program. First came the swimming lessons with an anxious mom or dad hovering on the sidelines as junior dog-paddled his/her way to becoming an able swimmer. By age ten, it was off to the ball diamond, the volleyball court, or preparation for the annual all-city track and field competitions at Labatt Park. The London playground system, developed after the end of the war, was the envy of municipalities throughout the province. The athletes it produced went on to play football, basketball, hockey, and any number of other sports in high school, at university, and professionally.
The man behind the success of the playground system was Bill Farquharson, who led the PUC’s Parks and Recreation department from 1935 to 1973. He was “Mr. Everything” in London sporting circles. He owned the London Majors baseball team. He refereed and coached youngsters and adults throughout the period and even manned the public address system at the weekly swim meets at PUC pools.
Of course, you can’t discuss sports in London without baseball. The London Majors continued their winning streak out of their home base at Labatt Park, capturing the league championship in 1951, ’56, ’69, and ’75. Homegrown star Frank Colman, after a career in the major leagues, returned to London in 1954, and bought the London Majors, leading them until 1959. He also co-founded the Eager Beaver Baseball Association, which allowed thousands of kids in London to play in a competitive league. Women’s baseball, softball, and fastball teams had been on the rise since the Second World War. One of the most memorable was the London Supremes, who played in the Michigan-Ontario Women’s Fastball League throughout the 1950s.
The ’50s also produced “the golden age” of high school football in London as crowds gathered at Labatt Park for Friday night double-headers. Bob Gage, the Free Press sportswriter, provided outstanding coverage of the games and the hype leading up to them. He also put his stamp of hometown enthusiasm on the Western Mustangs—football, basketball, and track. In those years, the annual Purple Bowl football game pitted the London conference and Windsor high school champions against each other, a season-ending classic.
The interest in football generated by the high schools and the Mustangs led to entry of the London Lords into the Senior ORFU, a semi-pro league, in 1956. Local entrepreneurs and football fans Ralph Duffus, Gordon Gilbride, and Ken Lemon put the team together and revamped Labatt Park into an intimate football stadium. For four seasons, fans packed the park before the league folded in 1960. The Lords, however, continued play in the amateur ranks until the early ’70s.
Hockey was a slow growth sport in London with indoor play in the late ’40s and throughout the ’50s confined to the tiny Western Arena on the Western Fairgrounds’ property. Artificial ice outdoor facilities grew in number through the decade but it took the opening of Highway 401 in 1956, and later still, the construction of the Treasure Island Gardens at Wellington Road in 1963, for hockey to take over the city’s sports spotlight. The London Nationals competed in the Western Junior “B” league, moving into Major Jr. “A” in 1965 taking on the Knights moniker in 1968. The names of London players in that early period of club history read like a who’s who in the game—Darryl Sittler, Garry Unger, Dan Maloney, and London native Walt McKechnie.
Basketball took a back seat to other high school sports and local recreational leagues until 1957 when the Beck Secondary School Spartans won the all-Ontario high school championship. No London team before or since has managed that feat.
Not to be overlooked, golf had its competitive side as the country’s top amateurs paid annual visits to the city for the invitational championships at the Hunt Club, Thames Valley, Highland, and Sunningdale. Recreational golfers from age eight to 90-plus enjoyed the sport for very reasonable fees at the city owned courses, Thames and Fanshawe, the latter opening in 1958. Concentration on men’s golf seemed to be the order of the day, but that didn’t stop Sue Hilton from becoming London’s foremost player of the ’60s.
Sue Hilton was only one of the women who put their stamp on the city’s reputation for developing outstanding athletes. Another who shared the spotlight and performed at the highest level in a variety of sports was Fran Wigston. She excelled in track and field, volleyball, and basketball as a player, coach, and referee. Moreover, women’s softball and basketball teams added to London’s reputation as a training ground for female athletes.
Many of those teams, as well as boys’ and men’s teams, shared the experience of inter-city competition thanks to the sponsorships provided by Chester Pegg, Ted Dilts, and Jim Agathos. They gave financial and promotional backing to a host of sports—baseball, softball, hockey, basketball, Little League football, lawn bowling and even the Irish Rover’s walk on St. Patrick’s Day.
Curling, long the purview of only a few diehards at the London Curling Club, raised its profile during the period with development of the Ivanhoe curling centre and the addition of the sport to the Highland Country Club. Interest peaked in 1974 when the Briar was held at Treasure Island Gardens.
Another introduction to the London sports scene in the early ’60s involved four legged athletes—standardbred horses. The raceway at Western Fair featured racing cards for two meets per year starting in 1961 much to the delight of horse lovers and bettors alike. Harry Eisen, the veteran Free Press sportswriter, gave readers an informative and inside view of the racing scene from his press box perch high above the Fair’s grandstand.
The years from 1950 to 1975 represent what is likely the most significant era in London’s sporting history. The city grew extensively during that time and the interest and participation in the widest possible variety of sports virtually exploded. London took its place among the very best in Ontario and Canada as a place to play and a place to compete at the highest level in top notch facilities.
From the Vault is available at local book stores and Biblioasis, Windsor, Ontario.