Friday, January 9, 2015

Toronto's Own Babe

   One of the most accomplished athletes to ever put on a uniform representing a Toronto team not only did so for one team in the 1920s, but did so for three.  But Babe Dye is one of the city's least-known sporting figures among today's fans.

   Born in Hamilton in 1898, Cecil Henry Dye moved with his mother to Toronto after the death of his father when he was an infant.  He grew up playing on the playground of Jesse Ketchum Public School, which produced the famous Conacher brothers Charlie and Lionel (voted Canada's top athlete of the first half of the 20th century).  Actor Keanu Reeves also went to Ketchum, although he may not have spent as much time on the playing fields.

HHOF photo

   Hockey was a much different sport in the first two decades of the last century.  The sport had just eliminated the rover position, removing a player from the ice as the skating and puck handing skills of players was rapidly evolving.  The rules had recently been changed to allow a goaltender to drop to the ice to make a save. Forward passing was only allowed in the defensive and neutral zones, so players tended to carry and stick handle the puck as long and as far as they could.  The game resembled shinny much more than it did today's game, with its emphasis on passing and teamwork. Teams rarely carried substitutes, so players were expected to play the whole game - some would deliberately take a penalty, which had to be served in its entirety before the player returned to play, in order to get a breather.  Defencemen tended to loiter in their own end as the puck moved up the ice, going only as far as their own blue line.  This footage from 1929 gives you some feel for how the game was played at that time:



   Dye was a 5'8", 150 lb right winger.  He played junior hockey in Toronto for Aura Lee and De La Salle, and graduated to the Senior Toronto St Patricks in 1919.  Dye turned pro with the NHL version of the St Pats the following year.  On the ice, he was not known as a great skater, but had a wicked shot in those pre-slapshot and curved stick days.  On the ballfield, he was known as a speedy outfielder and good hitter who used that speed on the basepaths well.
   Dye was also a well-known amateur football player in his pre-NHL days.  At that time, a player could conceivably compete in more than one sport without seasons overlapping. Hockey season really didn't get started until Christmas, and was usually finished by March.  Baseball ran from April to September, as the Canadian football season was starting, finishing up by mid-November.
   Dye was able to compete successfully in all three sports.  He played halfback for the Toronto Argonauts, as well as suiting up for the St Pats, and he made his pro baseball debut in 1920 with the Brantford Red Sox of the low-level Michigan-Ontario league.
   Dye's hockey teammates kidded him about his baseball commitment, and he quickly became known as "Toronto's Babe," in homage to a guy who was gaining acclaim south of the border.  Dye was good enough to have caught the eye of Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics, who offered him $25 000 to sign with the A's.  While he was a good ball player, Dye knew his future likely lay with hockey, which was about to grow in leaps and bounds across the northeast.
   Dye scored 33 goals in 23 games in 1920-21, his second NHL season, and his reputation soared. He led the league in goal scoring three times in the next five seasons.  A few sources we read in researching this article claimed that his low assist totals were a reflection of his poor skating skills, and that's just plain hogwash.  The legendary Lester Patrick introduced the compilation of assists a decade earlier, but the concept had yet to fully catch on during Dye's era.  Excellent research compiled by Ellen Etchingham of The Score, which you can read here, notes that assists were awarded at a very low rate of between .4 and .6 per goal during the decade.  That, combined with the style of play likely accounts for Dye's low assist totals - Joe Malone and Cy Denneny, who were in a constant battle with Dye for the league scoring league from 1920-25 had a similarly low number of assists.
   1922 was Dye's peak.  Brantford sold his contract to Buffalo of the International League, putting him a step away from the majors.  Dye was 2nd on the team in hitting with a .322 average, and slugged .444. On the ice, Dye again led the NHL in goals with 30, and led the St Pats to the Stanley Cup, scoring 9 goals in the 5-game final. It would be the only time his name would be etched on Lord Stanley's mug.
   Dye announced that he was giving up hockey for good after the 1923 season to focus on baseball, but he had changed his mind once winter had rolled around.  In 1924-25, he scored an astounding 38 goals, a Toronto record which stood for 35 years.   We couldn't find a reason for his brief retirement from hockey, but we can't help but wonder if it was a contract ploy.  With the game expanding into the United States, and attendance growing rapidly, Dye may have been trying to extract a higher salary from the St Pats.  
   Dye's production began to tail off after 1925, and his sale to Chicago in 1926 may have ironically brought the Toronto Maple Leafs into existence.  Torontonian Conn Smythe, a noted businessman, horse owner, and hockey coach, had been hired by Col. John Hammond to run the new NHL franchise in New York.  Smythe knew about Dye's availability, but passed on him.  Smythe preferred a team player, and he felt that Dye was anything but.  Dye was more a product of his time, when carrying the puck was the most effective way of advancing it, particularly in the attacking zone. The only way for him to take advantage of his shot was to create his own scoring opportunities. Hammond was furious at missing out on a marquee player who likely could have filled New York's new Madison Square Garden, and fired Smythe before the team he assembled had even hit the ice. Smythe, for his part, probably preferred a younger (and cheaper) player that he could control over a celebrity like Dye. The irony, of course, is that Smythe returned to Toronto after the Rangers let him go, and was asked to coach the Leafs.  Not wanting to be a victim of management interference again, Smythe insisted on a portion of the ownership of the franchise, and put up some of  his own money to buy in.  He became part of a new ownership group that took over the moribund St Pats on Valentine's Day, 1927, and changed their name to the Maple Leafs. He would change the team colours from green/white to the more traditional Toronto blue and white the following season. Completing the circle, the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1927-28, with the core of the team being the group Smythe had put together. 

   Dye's goals total dipped to 18 in 1925-26, and his last productive baseball season was also in 1925, when he hit .293 and slugged .406 for Buffalo.
    Dye regained his scoring touch in the Windy City, playing on a line with fellow Hamiltonian Dick Irvin.  Dye broke his leg in training camp prior to the 27-28 season, however, and he was never the same again.  He missed the entire baseball season that year, and his career on the diamond was all but over, too.
   Dye was sold to the New York Americans, but scored only 1 goal in 42 games in the 1928-29 season. Buffalo had sold his contract to International League rival Baltimore, who sold him to his hometown baseball Maple Leafs part way through the 1926 season.  He finished his diamond career with a .215 season.
   The hockey Leafs signed Dye as a free agent before the 1930-31 season, but released him after he went scoreless in 6 games.  He scored but one goal in his final 58 NHL games.  Starting in 1926, the NHL had embarked on a number of rule changes that gradually opened up the game by allowing passing in all three zones.  Hockey was moving to a passing and skating game - two skills that Dye had never possessed in abundance. The injury didn't help, but the game had literally passed him by. He retired with 202 lifetime NHL goals, and a .311 career minor league batting average.
   Dye coached in the Ontario Hockey Association's senior ranks and for the minor league Chicago Shamrocks after his playing career ended, and after his coaching days stayed in the Chicago area, where he worked for an oil and gas distributor.  He died in 1961, several months after suffering a heart attack.  Dye was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1970, and was ranked 83rd on a list of the 100 greatest players of all time published in 1998 by The Hockey News.  
   Ask most Toronto hockey or baseball fans today who Babe Dye was, and you're likely to get a blank stare, but he was a local icon for half a decade, and was probably the city's most popular athlete during that time.  Pound for pound, he may have been one of the best all-around athletes Hogtown ever produced.  He is also the only man to suit up for both the hockey and baseball versions of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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   We're wandering a bit off topic here, but we can't hit the publish button here without sharing a couple of Conn Smythe stories.
   Of building a hockey team, Smythe once said, "If you can't beat 'em in the alley, you can't beat 'em on the ice."  A divisive figure who was equally loathed and loved by the people of Toronto, he had the audacity to find the cash and make labour deals to build Maple Leaf Gardens in the early years of the Depression, and turned the Maple Leaf brand into a national institution before relinquishing control of the team to his son and his friends in the early 1960s.  The club, of course, has experienced nothing close to the success it had under Smythe in the ensuing half century.
   After being fired by the Rangers, he was invited to attend their opening game in the fall of 1926 by owner Tex Rickard.  Smythe initially refused to attend, claiming that the team still owed him $2500 by the terms of his contract.  Smythe's wife was able to get him to change his mind, and the pair attended the game, where the Rangers upset the defending Cup champs Montreal Maroons.  Rickard was elated with the result, and made sure that Smythe left New York with the money the club owed him.  On the way home to Toronto, the Smythes made a stop in Montreal, where Conn bet the settlement from the Rangers on a football game between Toronto and McGill University.  With the $5K winnings from that bet, Smythe then put the whole amount on the Rangers to beat the St Pats upon his return to Toronto.  Smythe won that bet, too, turning $2500 into $10 grand in three days.
   
   How much was Smythe's stake as part of the group that took over the St Pats?  You guessed it - $10 000.

   One last Smythe story.  We can't help ourselves.

   Michael Francis "King" Clancy was as big in Ottawa during the 20s as Dye was in Toronto.  The son of a famous football player by the same nickname, the younger Clancy was a star for the Ottawa Senators, and led them to Cups in 1923 and 1927.  The Senators fell upon hard times as the Depression hit, and were very cash strapped by the fall of 1930.
   Toronto was not much better off as a franchise.  Maple Leaf Gardens was still a wild dream in Smythe's mind, and while the club's on-ice fortunes had improved, their home rink, Mutual Street Gardens, was a marvel during its day, but could hold only 7500 fans for hockey.  Smythe faced limited resources in his attempts to build a champion.
  He was at the race track one day (where he could be found most days), making his picks for that day's card.  Without a PA system to make announcements, a track official wandered through the stands informing the crowd that a horse named The Monkey, owned by a prominent woman named Mrs Livingstone, would be unable to take part in the next race.  "Scratch.....Mrs Livingstone's......Monkey" the official boomed as he moved through the race patrons, who soon picked up the chant.  Before long, the whole grandstand was yelling, "Scratch Mrs Livingstone's Monkey!" with raucous abandon.  Humiliated, the matronly Mrs Livingstone gave up horse racing on the spot, and sold her entire stable.  From the fire sale, Smythe picked up a filly named Rare Jewel for the bargain price of $250.
   Rare Jewel had an undistinguished record, but she slowly improved for Smythe, who had never won a race in his brief career as an owner, and he entered her in the Coronation Stakes, an event for two year olds at Toronto's Woodbine racetrack.  
   Smythe made a token bet before the race, but as the race approached and the odds lengthened, Smythe upped his bet.  To hedge his bets, however, he decided to put $30 on the race favourite. While he was in standing in line waiting to place his wager, a doctor Smythe had recently fired for misdiagnosing a player's broken leg happened by.  The doctor chided Smythe for betting against his own horse.  Smythe's hair trigger temper kicked in, and he put his money on Rare Jewel.
   Smythe headed off to watch the race, expecting to lose his bets for the day.  What he didn't know is that unknown to each other, Rare Jewel's trainer and a betting crony of Smythe's had each poured her half a flask of brandy prior to the race.  Fortified, Rare Jewel clipped the favourite at the finish line, earning Smythe almost $10 000, plus the purse of over $4000.  Smythe used his winnings to finance obtaining the services of Clancy, who was coming off the best season of his career.  Unlike Dye, who was nearing the end of his career when Toronto let him go, Clancy was at his prime.
   Clancy joined the Leafs for the 30-31 season, and helped to fill Smythe's new ice palace when it opened a year later, capping off the 31-32 campaign with the Leafs' first Stanley Cup. 


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