By IAN WILSON
Baseball royalty, meet small-town Alberta.
The elementary school auditorium in a community of a few thousand people, located 120 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, seems an unlikely place to rub elbows with some of the world’s best baseball players and the brightest minds in sports.
Welcome to Barrhead, Alberta in the late 1970s.
“Barrhead Cardinals of the Alberta Major Baseball League announced today the signing of Hank Aaron,” read a story headlined “Barrhead puts Hank in lineup” in the Jan. 10th, 1977 edition of the Edmonton Journal.
Wait, what? The one and only Hank Aaron? Henry Louis Aaron … Hammerin’ Hank? Just a few months after retiring from Major League Baseball (MLB) as the all-time home run leader, he’s coming to Barrhead?
It was no joke. Aaron had agreed to come to northern Alberta to speak at the first annual Barrhead Sportsman’s Dinner on Feb. 25th, and he was set to be joined by Cy Young Award winner Vernon “The Deacon” Law, Hockey Hall of Famer Red Storey, former middleweight boxing champion Gene Fullmer, Canadian Football League (CFL) star Larry Highbaugh, and Bruce MacGregor of the Edmonton Oilers. It was truly an all-star lineup of sports celebrities. Labatt Brewing Company president Don McDougall, a key figure in setting up the Blue Jays in Toronto, was added to the roster a week before the event.
Journal reporter Terry Jones caught up with Aaron at a press conference at Edmonton’s Hotel Macdonald the day before the big dinner, where the two chatted about his 755 career homers and potential challengers to his record.
“If somebody comes along and breaks mine, the writers and the fans who watched me play and had memories of me, won’t want it to happen either,” the 1957 National League (NL) Most Valuable Player (MVP) told Jones.
It was a prophetic statement from the MLB career leader in runs batted in (2,297), total bases (6,856), and extra-base hits (1,477). Little did he know at the time how much controversy would surround Barry Bonds and his pursuit of the longball record.
Aaron also talked about approaching Babe Ruth’s home run total and how he felt in his seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers after he surpassed the Sultan of Swat’s round tripper mark.
“It was hell,” said Aaron. “After 714 and 715, the only home runs I really remember, it wasn’t the same. My desire left me. I wanted to get it over with.”
Asked about regrets, the Gold Glove Award winning outfielder confessed to missing out on family milestones during his playing days.
“I didn’t have enough engagement with my kids,” he said. “I never could take them on a picnic or to the Fourth of July. That’s a part I’ll never be able to bring back.”
With that in mind, he was looking forward to avoiding spring training for the first time in over two decades.
“I’m going to stay home for the first time in 21 years … I want to see my flowers bloom,” Aaron told the Journal.
When the scene shifted to the paper plates, plastic forks and Styrofoam cups of the Barrhead Sportsman’s Dinner, it was the town that took centre stage.
“The story here wasn’t the dinner. It wasn’t even Aaron, Vernon Law, Storey, and Gene Fullmer,” wrote Jones.
“No, the story was Barrhead. Barrhead, for crying out loud. Almost 700 people jammed the little school gym and they all sang the national anthem like it was Canada vs. the Soviets. Barrhead! Even the head table guests from Edmonton had to look the place up on the map.”
Aaron admitted that he knew nothing of Barrhead or Alberta prior to being booked as a guest speaker, but he did express interest in returning to hunt and fish in the area.
“No, I’d never heard of it,” he said. “I sort of pictured it as being 30 miles outside of Minneapolis.”
Storey was more blunt in recounting how he ended up signing on for the occasion, confessing he thought one of his friends was playing a joke on him when he got the phone call.
“Barrhead? Where the hell is Barrhead?” said Storey. “When I realized they were serious, I had to come just to see if I’d believe it.”
So, how did the event organizers manage to draw some of the biggest names in sport to the middle of nowhere?
According to an article penned by Jones, Harvey Treleavan – a Barrhead County school superintendent who worked with the Cardinals to organize the dinner – learned that an acquaintance from the county office knew Law, the right-handed pitcher who helped the Pittsburgh Pirates win the World Series in 1960. They put in a phone call to the 1965 NL Comeback Player of the Year Award winner and when Law said he was available on Feb. 25th, that’s what they went with as the date for the dinner.
Unaware that they were supposed to go through agents to set up such engagements, the organizers called the sports celebrities directly.
“When we called Red Storey and he said yes, we knew we were in trouble. We’d talked to two people and set our level without knowing it,” recalled Treleaven.
The cost of the event – including travel expenses, speaker fees and the food – was $7,500, with Aaron’s price tag reportedly coming in at $1,000.
“People are amazed that big names will come to a little town,” Storey told the Journal. “It’s the scene. You are really appreciated here. In Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton or Vancouver the people insist you entertain them. They make it tense. Here, you’re totally relaxed and you know they’re glad to have you around.”
LAYING DOWN THE LAW
While Aaron was an obvious draw for the $20-per-ticket affair, Law could have easily served as the headliner.
He was one of the heroes of the memorable 1960 World Series between the Pirates and the New York Yankees. After injuring his ankle during pennant-clinching celebrations, Law pitched through the pain and won two games in the championship series. He started Game 7, which Pittsburgh claimed 10-9 thanks to a ninth-inning blast by Bill Mazeroski.
“When I was taken out in the sixth inning we had a 4-2 lead. But I had pitched the whole series with a bad ankle, and (manager Danny) Murtaugh didn’t feel I had my stuff any more. I thought I still did,” Law told Journal reporter Ray Turchansky.
“It was the highlight of my career. Pittsburgh had never won a pennant in 33 years. Then that happened and your life wasn’t your own. They stopped all traffic. It cost the city $50,000 to clean up after the celebrations.”
Law played 16 seasons, all with the Bucs, and assembled a 162-147 record with a 3.77 earned run average (ERA). In addition to earning a World Series ring in 1960, the Idaho native also won the Cy Young that year by posting a 20-9 record and a 3.08 ERA.
All in all, the sporting legends combined to create an unforgettable evening for those in attendance, including one guest who worked a double-shift before driving 12 hours from Prince George, B.C. just to bear witness to the festivities.
It would’ve been understandable if the organizers celebrated their earnings and the achievement as a singular event, but this was not a one-and-done kind of thing. The folks in Barrhead were just getting started.
THE NEW LINEUP
By the end of 1977, the Barrhead Cardinals were already putting plans in place for their second annual dinner and they were prepared for the encore.
The booked speakers included Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, reigning American League (AL) MVP Rod Carew, Hockey Night in Canada analyst Walter “Babe” Pratt, and Olympian Diane Jones-Konihowski. Storey was planning to return, as well, and Toronto Blue Jays slugger Bob Bailor was also added to the guest list.
This time around, however, Treleaven was thrown some curveballs.
First, Carew canceled. No problem – arrangements were made to bring in Pete Rose instead.
Unfortunately, that didn’t work out.
“He said he’d have to charter a plane because he had obligations in Cincinnati Saturday so we’d have to pay him a few hundred dollars extra,” Treleaven told the Journal.
“We figured he knew somebody with a private plane … he phoned us and told us he didn’t realize we were north of Montana and that it was going to be thousands, not hundreds of dollars.”
The added cost was too much, so organizers pivoted to Rose’s manager, Sparky Anderson, who agreed to the gig.
Then Lasorda backed out, prompting Dodger ace Don Sutton to warrant consideration as a replacement.
“We’re not happy about it because some people may have bought tickets to see one specific individual,” said Treleaven. “But we’ve done everything we could to come up with a similar head table.”
The last-minute substitutions didn’t seem to bother the 670 people who eagerly filed into the school gym on Feb. 17th, 1978.
Jones returned to cover the event for the Journal and called Anderson “one of the finest men you’ll ever meet,” adding “he captivated a crowd at the picnic-style, paper-plate, pass-the-potatoes, small-town dinner that dares to be big.”
In discussing Rose, Anderson spoke glowingly.
“He’s the finest competitor I’ve ever been around. I don’t think in my lifetime I’ve met an athlete with Pete Rose’s desire. The man has no ability. But he’s always had a dream of getting 3,000 hits and he’s going to do it. He might not back off until he has 4,000. He wants to make the Hall of Fame so bad that he will,” said Anderson, who was half right in his predictions about the prolific hitter.
Rose finished his career as MLB’s all-time leader in hits, with 4,256 of them, but when he was caught gambling on baseball, it cost him his place in Cooperstown, New York.
Anderson managed Rose and the Reds to back-to-back World Series titles in 1975 and 1976, but it was the Yankees who were the defending champs (following a Reggie Jackson-fueled, six-game triumph over the Dodgers in 1977) when he was summoned as northern Alberta’s guest of honour.
The Cincinnati skipper was optimistic that the Reds could return to their former glory. He viewed his team as the best in baseball and his most talented group since he became the club’s manager in 1970.
“This is our best club … I haven’t looked forward to going to training camp like this since my first year. And I think the whole team feels the same way,” Anderson said to Jones.
“If I don’t win this year, I wouldn’t blame them if they fired me.”
That remark would haunt Anderson, who was indeed let go after the 1978 campaign when his Reds finished second to the Dodgers in the NL West and failed to qualify for the postseason. He did, however, land on his feet in Detroit, where he managed for another 17 seasons and won a World Series ring in 1984.
Despite some of the challenges presented by speaker cancellations, other jurisdictions were paying close attention to what the people of Barrhead were able to achieve with their sports dinners.
Don Drummond, a columnist with the Red Deer Advocate, was less than impressed by a Kinsmen Dinner in the central Alberta city that included Calgary Stampeder coach/general manager Jack Gotta and Danny Gare, the captain of the Buffalo Sabres. Almost 600 people paid $35 each to attend that event.
“Lined up against the head table of previous Kinsmen Dinners here – or the guest list for similar fun nights in other smaller communities, Barrhead for example – it didn’t appear to have much to offer,” wrote Drummond in the May 30th, 1978 edition of the newspaper.
The lacklustre group prompted master of ceremonies Wes Montgomery to remark: “This head table is about as exciting as watching the Waltons sort cranberries.”
The headliner cancellations in Red Deer – Broadway Joe Namath for the second straight year, and Toronto Maple Leaf captain Darryl Sittler – were much more noteworthy than the “collection which lacked the one big name, the one big ticket-seller,” said Drummond.
“How, for instance, does a community like Barrhead tell the world Hank Aaron will grace it’s head table – and then produce him? Or the likes of Sparky Anderson?”
Undaunted by the jealousies in other municipalities, Barrhead boosters kept working the phones and drawing big names to their hometown.
In 1979, when another commitment prevented Dodger hurler Bob Welch from coming to Barrhead, Sutton once again surfaced as a replacement. In 1980, Normie Kwong – a popular player in the CFL – was named the master of ceremonies to preside over a group that was set to include Philadelphia Flyer goalie Bernie Parent, baseball personality Bill “Spaceman” Lee, and Dodger second baseman Davey Lopes.
Not surprisingly, Lee took an unorthodox path to Barrhead. He ended up in a bar in the hamlet of Busby, where he stopped to grab a six-pack of beer.
“I decided to ‘tack’ my way to Barrhead,” he told the Journal. “You’ve got some nice back roads up here. Busby’s a nice place. That’s where I slid on the ice by the lake. Got airborne driving over a few of those railroad tracks you people have up here, too. I always wanted to come to Alberta because my dad, after he went nuts, decided to grow Alberta peaches. They’re the ones with the red pits.”
Once he got to Barrhead, Lee broke down the advantages of being a southpaw pitcher.
“It’s common knowledge that the left side of the brain controls the right side of your body and the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body. Therefore, left-handed pitchers are better because they are always in their right mind,” he said.
It was appropriate that Lee ended up there. By that point, the people of Barrhead had grown accustomed to providing an out-of-this-world experience to their visitors.