Monday, April 21, 2014

Dream 10 "The Battle of Montgomery's Tavern" (William Lyon Mackenzie, 1837)

The night before the Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern, William Lyon Mackenzie dreamed that someone was shaking him awake. Something strange had happened. He could feel it even in those first few drowsy moments of consciousness before he opened his eyes. And when he did, it was true: his sheets, the floors, the table, the bed, everything was made of newspaper. Even the walls; they were so thin that he could see straight through them to the papery trees beyond. Even his own hands and legs and arms. Even Van Egmond, commander of their troops, who had him by the shoulders, shaking him roughly from his sleep.

"Get up," the Dutchman barked. “We need to leave. They’re here."

And that’s when Mackenzie saw them through those thin, newspaper walls: thousands of them in red coats, steadily approaching, rifles drawn. A few had torches; soon the whole world would be in flames.


Before his famously failed revolution, Mackenzie went to England hoping the British government would respond to his grievances. It didn't work. I'll be telling that story — and leaving copies of this dream at the places he visited — as part of the Toronto Dream Project's UK Tour. You can help make it happen by supporting my Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign, which you can check out here. Today, is the VERY LAST DAY you can contribute.

Explore more dreams about the history of Toronto here.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

An Apocalypse in the Beaches — William Kurelek's Nightmare Visions

Toronto Toronto by William Kurelek (that's Jesus on the steps of Old City Hall)

He was, in a lot ways, something of a Canadian stereotype. He was born in a shack on the Prairies during the winter of 1927. He grew up working on his parents' farm, ploughing fields and tending cows. When he was older, he worked as a lumberjack in the towering forests of Québec and on the shores of Lake Superior. As a construction worker, he put curbs on the streets of Edmonton and built grain elevators in Thunder Bay. As a waiter, he served the rich and famous at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. And as a painter... Well, as a painter, he became one of the most successful artists in Canadian history, using scenes from his past to capture the spirit of the nation on canvasses that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. His work hangs on the walls of some of the most important art galleries in the world — and in kitchens all across our country. His paintings are praised as being quintessentially Canadian. Books of his work have titles like A Prairie Boy's Summer, Lumberjack, The Last of the Arctic and O Toronto. He's been hailed as "Canada's Norman Rockwell."

But William Kurelek had a dark side, too. So dark, in fact, that by the end of his life, he was convinced the world was about end in a blaze of Biblical fury. It's one the reasons his biographer, Patricia Morley, calls Kurelek's life "one of the strangest stories ever told."

It all started when he was a child, growing up during the terrible years of the Great Depression and the Second World War. He was a sensitive and artistic boy, bullied at school and bullied at home. "There was a kind of rawness and jungle law indifferent to suffering in those Depression years," he remembers in his autobiography. He writes about "the chess game of harsh, real life" and his own "intense misery." As a young student who spoke only Ukrainian at first, he felt ostracized by his classmates. Meanwhile, he describes his father as an emotionally abusive tyrant. Young Kurelek lived in fear; terrified that his father's strap, spankings and verbal lashings were just the beginning of some even more terrible punishment.

It took a toll on the boy. "[I]t poisoned me internally," he said. He became painfully shy. Even years later, one of his closest friends said that Kurelek "literally couldn't look anybody in the face." Another described him as "so ill at ease he seemed like a programmed robot". He began to suffer from depression. He was haunted by nightmares and visions. "In them my family were in cahoots with my school enemies... and were plotting to mutilate me or kill me. They were operating a meat chopping machine in the preserves room downstairs into which the victims threw themselves in ectasy. [sic]"

By the end of high school, on top of everything else, his eyes had started to fail him. A blurry spot developed into periods of near blindness and excruciating pain; a particularly cruel trial for a teenager with a passion for art. He would draw with one eye closed — and then the other — as a way of rationing the pain. Soon, he was hooked on pills. And his mood swings got even bigger.

Kurelek in Toronto, 1949 (via)
But through it all, he kept pursing his dream: art. That's what first brought him to Toronto. He enrolled at the Ontario College of Art (which was on Nassau Street back then, in Kensington). At first, he had trouble settling in. "They say Toronto is a cold city to strangers and it was just like that," he remembered. "The quaintness of it turned into smelly grubiness as I pounded the sidewalks. All I could see now were the garbage cans, the drunks stepping out of taverns and vomiting, the livid night lights, the chipped bricks and cobbles with broken bottles on them, the beckoning lights of houses of ill-repute." But in time, he developed a fondness for the city. He found a circle of new friends at OCA. And exciting new influences, too.

It was while he was studying in Toronto that Kurelek discovered Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the Van Gogh biography, Lust for Life; he fashioned himself in their bohemian image. "I rebelled as I understood a proper artist was compelled to do — if he was worth his salt — against conventionality... I was proud of my poverty, of not having proper food, or enough of it, of wearing shabby clothes and not bathing or shaving... proud I chummed with communists and eccentrics, even that I suffered from periods of depression because I believed that out of all this I was destined to produce great art..."

"He was a little like a figure out of Dosteovski," one of his professors remembered, "cryptic and mysterious. He saw himself as an enigmatic figure, a dramatic figure." His sister called him "the first hippie."

Before long, his rebellious spirit had prompted him to drop out, following his education all the way down to Mexico — hitchhiking there and back, sleeping in ditches, under bridges and, on one night, in the bushes on Parliament Hill. He spent a few months living in a Gringo commune of outsiders, hoping to catch on with one of the great Mexican masters like Diego Rivera. But it didn't work. And the depression and the eye pain followed him south. Finally, he decided that psychotherapy was his best hope for recovery. And since in those days, it was even harder to get help for mental illness in Canada than it is today, Kurelek headed across the Atlantic.

The day after he got off the boat in England, he checked himself into the Maudsley Hospital in downtown London. Mental health facilities were still brutal places in the early 1950s, but Maudsley was on the cutting edge, embracing bold new techniques like art therapy. It was there that Kurelek realized his eye pain might be psychosomatic — a result of stress and depression — and it disappeared almost immediately.

He also made great progress as an artist. Painting became an important part of his treatment; he was even given his own studio to work in. At one point, he checked himself out for a trip to the Continent. In Brussels and Vienna, he was blown away by the detailed canvasses painted by Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. They became his most important influences, joining other unsettling artists like Francis Bacon and Francisco Goya.

It was in those years — at Maudsley and at another London hospital called Netherne — that Kurelek painted some of his most striking work. But these pieces were far from the charming scenes of Canadiana that would one day make him famous. Instead, they were disturbing, tormented nightmares. The Maze — the most famous of them all — shows a skull lying on the Prairie. It's been cut open. Inside, there are chambers filled with horrors from the depths of Kurelek's mind. His father kicking him out into the snow. His half-naked body stuffed into a test tube. Crows tearing a lizard apart. The artist cutting himself open to study his own anatomy. Bullies beating him up as a child. The painting so perfectly illustrated his inner-torment that it became a case study for art therapists. His doctors would eventually ask him to give lectures to classrooms full of psychology students.

The Maze
But even as he progressed as an artist, Kurelek remained deeply depressed. "No matter how intensely I painted out my store of accumulated fears, hates, disillusionments..." he wrote, "there they were, always dangling along behind me like tin cans behind a wedding car." Convinced his doctors weren't paying him enough attention, he turned to self-harm. First, he started cutting himself. Then, he attempted suicide. He took an overdose of pills and slashed his arms and face with a razor. He was lucky to survive.

After that, he agreed to electroshock therapy. Over the course of the next few months, he had a grueling series of treatments — some of them without the usual muscle relaxant. During the first one, he sprained his back; it would bother him for the rest of his life. And as the treatments progressed, he began to lose his memories. At first, it was recent events; then more distant recollections began to fade.

"I was given fourteen convulsion treatments in all," he wrote, "and it was like being executed fourteen times over. There is an instinctive dread in a person of being annihilated... I could well imagine then something of what it was like going into the gas chamber in Nazi Germany, or to the torture chamber during those misguided religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries."

So that's when William Kurelek started to pray.

Up to that point, he'd been an atheist. But now, he found himself with a renewed interest in religion. Before long, he was attending a nearby church, converting to Catholicism, taking mass at the London Oratory, and joining a social group for Catholics in the heart of the city. He found solace and strength in his new-found faith. "[N]o doubt about it," he wrote. "I was in a quiet way a happier, more glad-to-be-living sort of person now." By the time he felt he was strong enough to return to Canada in the summer of 1959, he had a new passion: God.

From Kurelek's Passion Of Christ (via)
And he was extremely passionate about it. Obsessed, even. Twice, he made a pilgrimage to the miraculous shrine at Lourdes — and to the Holy Land, too. In his autobiography, he spends page after page laying out his "proof" for the existence of God. And he shares the story how his faith enabled him to resist masturbating, a battle he'd been losing for years. ("I made charts, I gave myself rewards, I went for brisk walks, I recited vows. I even tried tying a kerchief over my eyes when having a bath...") He said his new idol was a Communist double-agent who found God and then let himself get arrested by Soviet authorities in order to convert them too. And Kurelek looked back on an incident during his trip to Mexico with a new awe. He was convinced that while he was sleeping under a bridge in the desert, he had been visited and saved by a vision of Christ himself.

Now, as he returned to Toronto, Kurelek was certain that his tremendous talent was a God-given gift and that his own suffering was a Christ-like trial. In his autobiography, he openly wonders if he might be a saint.

Just a few months later, he was discovered. It happened that autumn, while he was living in the Annex. An actor friend of his happened to be appearing in a play with the wife of a man by the name of Avram Isaacs. Isaacs was one of the most influential gallery owners in the country; he threw his weight behind the early careers of groundbreaking Canadian artists like Michael Snow (the guy who did the geese inside the Eaton's Centre and the sports fans on the side of the SkyDome). Word got back to Isaacs that there was an artist in Toronto who "painted like Bosch." He found it hard to believe — and, besides, he was best-known for supporting abstract work — but he came to the Annex to see for himself. As the actor friend described it, "A skeptical Av Isaacs entered the house, took one sweeping glance around, and said, 'My God.'"
Kurelek's first show was held the very next spring. Isaacs displayed about 20 of Kurelek's pieces at his Greenwich Art Gallery on Bay Street. It was the beginning of a long and wildly successful partnership; Kurelek would go on to have countless shows at the new Isaacs Gallery on Yonge Street (just north of Bloor). People absolutely adored his paintings of Canadian scenes. There were Ukrainian weddings on the Prairies. Kids having snowballs fights. Lumberjacks alone in the woods. Soon, Kurelek was one of the most famous artists in the country. He was asked to publish books, to make endless prints of his work, to give lectures. His paintings were acquired by the National Gallery, the AGO, MOMA, the Smithsonian and even the Parliament Buildings, where years earlier he'd slept outside in the bushes on his way back from Mexico. He was embraced by pop culture, too: Van Halen used The Maze as the cover of one of their albums.

Hot Day in Kensington Market
But Kurelek never did fit in. One writer friend described the scene at that first show on Bay Street: "Bill looked terribly out of place at his own opening. He wouldn't hold a wine glass. The paintings stuck out like sore thumbs. Bill stuck out too. He had a reddish complexion and looked like a lumberjack; he looked as if he were in the wrong country, the wrong century, the wrong situation. It didn't look as if he had produced the work!"

And it was about more than just his social skills. Kurelek had a new mission that didn't fit in with the Toronto art scene of the 1960s. He didn't just want to become rich and famous, he wanted to save the world. And to save it for God.

Along with his Canadian scenes and his disturbing inner-nightmares, Kurelek had started painting what he called "religious propaganda." His most ambitious work was a series of 160 paintings illustrating the Passion of Christ. He started working on it that New Year's Eve; it took him three years to finish. (It was finally shown at the St. Vladimir Institute on Spadina near Harbord. Today, it's the centrepiece of the collection at the Niagara Falls Art Gallery.) And his Passion was only the beginning. Kurelek painted countless religious scenes, including an entire book called A Northern Nativity. It shows the birth of Christ as if it had happened in Canada: in an igloo, by a haystack on the Prairies, in a snow-swept cabin, at a soup kitchen, in a fishing boat.

When the CN Tower was being built, Kurelek even asked if he could pay to have a metal plaque installed on the spire: "O Supreme Builder of the Universe, help us not to make the mistake of the first tower which you confounded."

The offer was declined. As you might expect, not everyone liked this version of Kurelek. And it didn't help that much of his work was angry and moralizing. Determined to show people the error of their modern, secular ways, many of his religious paintings combined his Canadian scenes with the kind of horrifying visions he'd painted back in England. On one canvas, he shows a farmer-Satan harvesting souls on the Yonge Street Strip. On another, he paints buckets full of aborted fetuses along a snowy Highland Creek. He gained a reputation for being "a missionary in paint." One editor called him "a fire-breathing preacher in the old style". His biographer, Morley, agreed: "Kurelek could thunder like an Old Testament preacher or a modern Savonarola."

As far as Kurelek was concerned, he had to. The fate of the world was at stake. Even now, as a middle aged man with a successful career and a new family (he met his wife at the Catholic Information Centre at Bathurst and Bloor; they got married at Our Lady of Perpetual Help on St. Clair East), he still hadn't escaped his demons. He slid back into depression, and made another attempt on his life. His wife stumbled in on him just as he was slashing his wrists. He survived — and it was the last time he tried to kill himself — but it wasn't the end of his dark thoughts. They stayed with him for the rest of his life. And they got even darker. He became convinced the world was about to end.

Queen's Park's fallout shelter 1960 (via)
This, after all, was the 1960s. The Cold War was in full swing; even the most reasonable, secular thinkers thought the world might end. Schoolchildren were being taught to hide under their desks. The government was building bunkers. They even displayed a model fallout shelter on the lawn in front of Queen's Park, encouraging private citizens to build their own. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly proved them right.

Kurelek saw all of this through a devoutly religious lens. He was sure God was going to rain fire down upon the world as a form of punishment. A nuclear war, he told the press, was "pretty well inevitable." But that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It would help cleanse the world of sin. "A large part of the human race will die," he admitted. "With the modern, largely urban way of life destroyed or drastically crippled..." But eventually, it would lead to a better world. "I foresee a new golden age of Faith after intense suffering has purged us of our materialistic pride."

The key, of course, would be to survive long enough to build that new, utopian, Christian world. So in the late 1960s, Kurelek began to build his own bomb shelter. He was living in the east end of Toronto by then, on Balsalm Avenue in the Beaches. It's the scene of one of his most famous paintings: in Balsalm Avenue After Heavy Snowfall, the neighbourhood has come alive to dig out after a big storm. Children play in the snow, neighbours wave to each other, some push a car up the street. It's exactly the kind of quaint Canadiana that Kurelek had become famous for. But all the while, the darkness lurked. Soon, he assumed, the street would be the scene of a much greater calamity.

At first, he planned on putting the bunker in his own basement studio. But the plans soon expanded; he wanted to build an elaborate shelter separated from the rest of the house. It would be fully equipped, with a TV, air conditioning and room for 30 people — a relatively comfortable place to wait for the apocalypse to pass.

By then, though, the bomb shelter fad had already started to fade. Kurelek was the first person in Toronto to apply for a permit in five years. When he tried to get permission to build, the City gave him trouble. His neighbours opposed the plan. His family wasn't too thrilled about it either. But whatever people said, Kurelek pressed on. When his priest tried to talk him out of it, he looked for a second opinion until he found one that confirmed his own. He was determined to be ready when the bomb dropped.

He defended his views in a letter to friends. "We must concentrate on being personally prepared at all times," he argued. "This is one reason (though not the only one) why I practice periodic fasts, why I try to do without sleep or with little, under various conditions. This is why I have taken up gardening, because once we do reach an uncontaminated area we will have to grow our own food. This is also why I believe our family vacations should now be camping rather than cottaging... We should deliberately learn to do without things we take for granted, e.g. stoves, insect repellants, a roof over one's head, regular sleep, vitamins and medicines, packaged foods."

This Is The Nemesis
In the end, though, it seems like the costs were just too much. It would take thousands of dollars to build his shelter. And even for an artist as successful as William Kurelek, that kind of money wasn't always easy to come by. He bartered and traded for some of the work. Eventually, he'd build part of his bunker on some land up north. But in Toronto, the only physical evidence of the plans for his fallout shelter would be the big, fireproof door to his basement studio.

His apocalyptic vision is, however, still on full display in his paintings. In This Is The Nemesis, he shows the city of Hamilton blown apart by a nuclear explosion, with another blast in the distance where Toronto used to stand. In many of his works, mushroom clouds bloom on the horizons of prairie fields. And in Harvest of Our Mere Humanism Years, a bomb dangles precariously from a thread, hanging like the sword of Damocles above Toronto's new City Hall.

It may, sadly, have been the long hours Kurelek spent painting those visions that killed him in the end. His basement studio was already a bunker of sorts. There were no windows. There was no ventilation. He worked with toxic spray paint that clogged the air — and his lungs. His doctor warned him to stop, but Kurelek was always stubborn about things like that. The paint, they say, may very well have caused the cancer that ate away at his liver.

The end of his life wasn't all bad: he was in pain, but he had his family and friends to comfort him. He'd recently returned from a trip to Ukraine, to the ancestral farmlands of his father, a voyage he had longed to make for years. But in those final days, he was still haunted by nightmares and visions. With just a few days left to live, he confided in his priest.

What he saw, he said, was Toronto in flames.


In a few weeks, I'll be heading to London, England to visit a few sites related to the story of William Kurelek — and to leave copies of a new dream for him there as part of the Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour. I'll also be sharing many other stories about the historical connections between Toronto and London — while leaving more than a dozen different dreams in nearly a dozen different cities, towns and villages in England and Wales. You can learn more about the tour here and, if you like the idea, you can also lend me your crowd-funding support.

You can borrow Patricia Morley's biography, Kurelek, from the Toronto Public Library here. William Kurelek's autobiography, Someone With Me, is for sale here. And in the library here. Those two books were the source for the vast majority of the information in this post. Kurelek's book O Toronto is here and here. And Northern Nativity is here and here. There are lots of his other books available, too.

There's a brand new documentary about William Kurelek, called William Kurelek's Maze, which you can learn more about here.

Kurelek explains The Maze online here. has a gallery of his work here, a timeline of his life here, and information about his studio/bomb shelter here. Christian writer Michael O'Brien wrote an article — "The Passion of William Kurelek" — for IMAGE, which is available to read online here. A Jesuit by the name of John O'Brien writes about him here. There's a Globe & Mail article about a relatively recent Kurelek retrospective here. Brett Grainger tackles it for The Walrus here.

Patrick Metzger talks about a myth from Toronto's bomb shelter days on Torontoist here.

This post is related to dream
37 An Apocalypse in the Beaches
William Kurelek, 1968

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

UK Tour Preview: The Ancient Church Where The Simcoes Got Hitched

This is the Church of St. Mary & St. Giles. It's in the middle of the English countryside. To get there, you have to take the train west from London for about three hours — all the way across the country, out into the rolling hills of Devon. Then you start walking, west some more, along dirt lanes that curve through the green of farmers' fields. An hour later, you'll be in the small village of Buckerell. That's where you'll find this little church, which has been standing on this spot so long that no one is entirely sure when it was built. Probably in the early 1300s. That's back in the days of the Crusades, not long after Robin Hood, so long ago that medieval jousting was still a new fad. At that same time, faaaaaar to the west across the Atlantic, the area around Toronto was home to vast forests and cornfields and to the villages of the First Nations. It would be a few more centuries before the first European made the long trip across the ocean and up the St. Lawrence to the north shore of Lake Ontario. And another two centuries after that before Toronto was founded.

The man who founded it — John Graves Simcoe — used to live in the hills around this church. That was back in the 1700s. In fact, if you visit the church today, you'll find a memorial to Simcoe's godfather inside. His name was Admiral Graves; he was the fellow in charge of the British navy in North America during the earliest stages of the American Revolution. His godson would end up being a hero of that war — as the commander of the Queen's Rangers, John Graves Simcoe brought new, guerrilla-style techniques to the British army, like insisting that his men be allowed to wear forest green coats instead of the usual bright red.

After the Revolution, Simcoe stayed with his godfather for a while — Hembury Fort House was just a couple of kilometers up the road from this church. That's where Simcoe first met the niece of Admiral Graves. Her name was Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim. Her father had been a soldier, too. He fought with General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham and died just a few months before Elizabeth was born: during a war with France sparked by the French Revolution. Her mother died, too, in childbirth, so Elizabeth split her time with relatives while she was growing up. Sometimes, she stayed at her parents' old house near the Welsh border; sometime she stayed with her uncle at Hembury Fort House. So that's where she was when she first met Simcoe, and where they fell in love, taking long walks through the countryside. They were married here, at this very church, in 1782. They bought a nearby estate. And a few years later, when Simcoe was named the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, they boarded a ship to Canada on their way to found Toronto.

The Church of St. Mary & St. Giles is one of the places I'll be visiting on the Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour. I'll leave copies of my dreams for the Simcoes there, along with other nearby Simcoe- and Toronto-related historical sites. I'll also be writing a few posts about the connections between our city and those few green kilometers in the middle of the English countryside. But I need your help to make it happen. You can support my Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign here. And you can read more posts previewing some of the spots I'll visit on the tour here.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Indiegogo Campaign Update! Only Two Weeks Left!

Well, it's been a little more than four weeks since the launch of the Toronto Dreams Project's Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign. Which means there's a little less than two weeks left to go. The whole thing is in support of a UK Tour. I'll be leaving copies of more than a dozen different dreams at Toronto-related historical sites in England — and hopefully in Wales and Scotland as well. For instance: at the spot where Sir John A. Macdonald caught on fire during the negotiations over Confederation; the chapel in the middle of the English countryside which is officially part of the province of Ontario; and the swanky London hotel where Mary Pickford caused a riot during her honeymoon with Douglas Fairbanks. I'll also use the trip as a way of telling stories about how our history is connected to history of the United Kingdom. You'll be able to follow along on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and I'll be writing blogposts, too. In fact, I've already started with some of the posts as a way of previewing the tour and plugging the campaign. You can check them out here.

But to make it all happen, I still need your help. It looks like I'll be falling short of my ambitious total, but that just means every little bit helps all that much more: another dream I can leave, another village I can visit, another story I can tell.

You can contribute to the campaign here — or share it on Facebook or Twitter. As a thank you, for every donation of $20 or more, you'll get one or more of the dreams I leave on the other side of the pond. Thank you SO much to everyone who has already lent their support!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Dream 12 "John Rolph's Beard" (John Rolph, 1867)

John Rolph dreamed that there were people living in his beard. They were tiny pioneers, so small that he didn’t even notice them at first. By the time he did, there was a whole little village of them. He could just make out the church steeple, no bigger than a needle, sticking up from between his grey hairs. When it was quiet, he could hear the soft hum of the market square. And on some evenings, wisps of chimney smoke drifted up toward his nose, whispering aromas of boiled potatoes and venison stew.

He grew fond of his little villagers; proud of them even. So it was bittersweet when one night a tiny mayor climbed down out of the beard, struck out across an expanse of pillow and arrived, safe but exhausted, at John Rolph’s right ear.

“Sir,” the little mayor said as he caught his breath, his voice the faintest murmur, “We demand to be free.”

It took only a moment. John Rolph’s scissors sliced clean through his beard. Then he carried it carefully outside, down to the lake, and set it gently upon the grass. As the bells of St. James Cathedral rang out twelve times, miniature fireworks flashed scarlet, blue and gold, puffs of magic dust sparkling in the midnight air.


This is one of more than a dozen dreams that I'll be taking on The Toronto Dream Project's UK Tour. I'll leave copies of it in Rolph's hometown of Thornbury and share the story of how he was chosen to become the first President of Canada by William Lyon Mackenzie. You can help make it happen by supporting my Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign, which you can check out here.

Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

UK Tour Preview: Sir John A.'s Posh London Gentlemen's Club

This is The Athenaeum Club. It's right in the very heart of London. The park outside Buckingham Palace is just a block away. So is Trafalgar Square. 10 Downing Street is about 500 meters from the front door. It was founded all the way back in the 1820s as one of the most prestigious gentlemen's clubs in the world. Over the years, its members have included some of the most famous and influential writers, artists, politicians and thinkers on the planet: Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Duke of Wellington, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Thomas Hardy, Michael Farraday, Sir Walter Scott... the list goes on and on. It's ridiculous. In 2002, they even got around to not being completely patriarchal dicks about everything, finally allowing women to join the club.

During the winter of 1862-63, John A. Macdonald became an honourary member. He had recently stepped down as the premier of the Province of Canada, spending his winter out of power on a trip to England. The first whiffs of Confederation were already in the air, but they would get stronger after his return to Canada. Over the course of the next few months, he won back power, then lost it again, then won it again, then lost it again. The legislature was at a standstill. Something had to change. Meanwhile, the American Civil War was threatening to turn the United States into an aggressive military power and Britain was becoming less and less interested in protecting their North American empire. So Macdonald helped to lead the struggle for a new, bigger nation of Canada. Within a few years, he'd become our first Prime Minister. And on his trips to London, he'd visit the Athenaeum.

By the end of the century, Toronto would get our very own Athenaeum Club. It was built on Church Street just south of Shuter by the firm of Denison & King (Denison was the same architect behind the bank-that's-now-a-Starbucks on the north-east corner of Queen & Bathurst and the little church on the islands, St. Andrew's-by-the-Lake). But Toronto's Athenaeum Club didn't last long. In the very early 1900s, it was turned into pretty much the exact opposite of an exclusive club for rich guys: it became the Labor Temple. For the next six decades, it was at the centre of organized labour in Toronto. Today, the facade is still there — it stands in front of (surprise!) a condo tower.

Another private gentlemen's club in Toronto would play a much bigger role for Sir John A.: the Albany Club on King Street East. In fact, it was founded with the express purpose of winning Torontonian support for Macdonald. I wrote about it in my post "Where Conservatives Have Been Getting Drunk For 130 Years." It's still there today. It's the only pirvate club officially tied to a political party left in all of Canada.

Soon, I'm hoping to visit The Athenaeum Club myself, in order to leave a dream there for Sir John A. Macdonald as part of The Toronto Dreams Project. You can help make it a reality by contributing to my Indiegogo campaign in support of a UK Tour.

You'll find more posts exploring the connections between the history of Toronto and the history of the United Kingdom here.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Toronto's Greatest Second Baseman Ever (Isn't Who You Think It Is)

When you ask Google who the greatest second baseman of all-time was, a few names pop up. Rogers Hornsby is a popular pick, a star for the St. Louis Cardinals back in the 1920s and '30s. Some people say it was the Dodgers' Jackie Robinson or the Reds' Joe Morgan or the great Eddie Collins who played for the A's and White Sox. Roberto Alomar's name comes up, too — the Blue Jays Hall of Famer is easily one of the best ever. But he's not the greatest second baseman to ever wear a Toronto uniform. That honour goes to the man who played second base for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1917.

His name was Napoleon Lajoie and he was very, VERY good. No one in the history of the American League has ever had a higher batting average than he did in 1901 — he hit .426 for Philadelphia that season. He led the league in home runs and RBIs, too; one of the few players to ever win the batting "Triple Crown". That year, he stuck out only nine times, which is just plain silly. And it wasn't a fluke. By the end of his career, he'd become one of the first players in baseball history to collect 3,000 hits.

Modern stats love him, too. By Wins Above Replacement (which tries to judge a player's total value), Lajoie is ranked as the third most valuable second baseman in the history of the game — the 19th greatest player of all-time. Better than Joe DiMaggio or Pete Rose or Mark McGwire. He was one of the first players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

"Lajoie was one of the most rugged players I ever faced," Cy Young once said. "He'd take your leg off with a line drive, turn the third baseman around like a swinging door and powder the hand of the left fielder." Sports writers said he was so effortlessly graceful that he made even chewing tobacco look good. He was so dedicated to the craft of hitting that he never went to the movies or read a newspaper on a train for fear of hurting his eyes. As a player-manager in Cleveland, Lajoie was so popular they literally named the team after him: they became the Cleveland Napoleons. Naps for short.

Even as a grizzled veteran at the age of 38, Lajoie was still great: he was worth 5 Wins Above Replacement that year (better than anyone on the 2013 Blue Jays). But after that, his skills began to seriously decline. For a while, he kept playing anyway, chasing the dream of his first championship — one had slipped away when he was cut by an opposing player's spikes, got blood poisoning and nearly lost his foot; another in a heartbreaking loss on the final day of the season. But at the age of 42, after 21 years in the Major Leagues, age had finally caught up with him. Lajoie called it quits having never won a pennant.

Hanlan's Point Stadium, 1918ish
That's when he came to Toronto. He might not have been good enough to play second base in the Majors anymore, but he had a lot of knowledge to pass down to younger players. And so, he signed on as the manager for one of the most storied franchises in the history of the Minor Leagues: The Toronto Maple Leafs.

By then, our city already had a long history of success on the baseball field. Toronto's first championship came all the way back in the 1880s, at beautiful Sunlight Park overlooking the eastern slope of the Don Valley (just south of Queen). The Maple Leafs were founded soon after that, in the 1890s; before long, they'd moved to a new spot on the Islands. When an early, wooden version of the stadium burned down, they got a gorgeous new ballpark. Hanlan's Point Stadium was hailed as the biggest in the Minor Leagues when it first opened in 1910: it boasted more than 17,000 seats. Over the next few years, it witnessed two more championships and the very first professional home run by a young pitcher named Babe Ruth. His blast soared over the fence into the lake. 

Now, Hanlan's Point would be home to Lajoie. And it wasn't his first connection to Canada: his parents were both Québecois; his older siblings had been born there, growing up on a farm outside Montreal. Lajoie signed on as the Leafs manager, responsible for signing and trading players, as well as decisions on the field. He also said he'd play "a little" second base. But that's not the way things turned out.

The old second baseman had slowed down considerably, but he still had something left in the tank. Against the younger, less experienced, less talented minor leaguers, Lajoie thrived. He hit clean up for the Leafs that year, and did a hell of job of it. He led the league with a .380 average, racked up a league-leading 221 hits and 39 doubles. At one point, he put together a 21-game hitting streak. And he did it all in the face of adversity: his fear of water made the ferry to the Islands an ordeal; the freezing temperatures of an usually cold Canadian spring meant games were being cancelled as late as Victoria Day that year; and with the First World War raging overseas, some players were being drafted halfway through the season. Others rebelled against Lajoie's leadership; one pitcher just up and left the team. Lajoie got suspended twice for arguing with umpires. But he was still so popular that everywhere the Maple Leafs went, opposing teams held "Lajoie Days" and showered him with gifts. He was playing so well in Toronto that Major League teams started showing an interest again. That summer, both the Washington Senators and the Chicago Cubs offered him a chance to come back to the Majors, but he turned them both down. He wanted to finish what he'd started in Toronto.

The 1917 Toronto Maple Leafs (enlarge)
After a slow start to the season, the Maple Leafs were right in the thick of the pennant race by the end of August — battling it out with Baltimore, Providence and Newark over the last two weeks of the season. Lajoie led the way as the manager and as the team's star player. He went 6 for 8 in one double-header against Buffalo, belted two home runs in an extra innings win against Montreal, and then went 6 for 8 again in another double-header on the last weekend of the season. "Lajoie was himself worth four ordinary players," the Globe gushed. With two games left to play on the very final day, the Toronto Maple Leafs were in the driver's seat: if they won both games, they'd finish in first place.

In the opening game, it was their ace — Harry Thompson — who carried the team. He shut out the Rochester Hustlers over the course of nine innings, only giving up three hits on the way to his 25th victory of the season. The Maple Leafs won 1-0.

The second game started off as a tense, scoreless battle over the first five innings. Then Lajoie — who was playing first base that day — doubled two men home. It proved to be all they needed. Toronto went on to win 5-1. It was all over. And at first base, Lajoie was the last to touch the ball.

"A broad grin overspread Lajoie's features as he took the throw from Murray to record the 27th out," the Globe reported. And that grin came with good reason. After more than 20 years in baseball, he'd finally done it. Napoleon Lajoie had won a pennant.


Top photo: Napoleon Lajoie in 1908 (via Wikipedia). Photo of the 1917 Maple Leafs via David L. Freitz.

David L. Freitz tells the story of the 1917 Toronto Maple Leafs in his book, Napoleon Lajoie: King of Ballplayers, which you read excerpts from on Google Books here. Henry Grayson raved about him in 1943 here. And he gets a few paragraphs in the book I first learned about this story from, Baseball's back in town: From the Don to the Blue Jays A history of baseaball in Toronto by Louis Cauz. You can check out Napoleon Lajoie's stats on Baseball Reference here. Or the stats for the 1917 Toronto Maple Leafs here. Check out Hanlan's Point Stadium on Wikipedia here. Spacing's got a post about it here, along with a photo old the old wooden ballpark. Napoleon Lajoie's page is here.

I used the FanGraph's version of WAR for this piece — there's another version created by Baseball Reference, which still ranks Lajoie as the third-best second baseman ever, but drops him a couple of slots lower on the all-time player list. Bill James, the father of modern baseball statistics, talks about some of the problems in assessing Lajoie's value by WAR here. Mostly, there are problems accurately determining the value of his defensive contribution, though that's a relatively small portion of his overall contribution — and one which may have already been accounted for since James wrote about it.

You can read my post about Babe Ruth's famous Toronto home run here. And my post about Toronto's first championship baseball team, in 1887, here. I wrote about the bizarre tradition of Donkey Baseball here. And there's a photo of folks playing baseball in Riverdale Park in 1914 here. Watch Joe Carter win the World Series here. Or learn about the next stadium the Maple Leafs called home here.