Music and sports are a marriage made in the trenches. It’s difficult separating the two. Back in the early eighties, a video appeared showing basketball phenom Dr. Julius Erving gliding down a basketball court juxtaposed next to ballet star Rudolph Nureyev skittering about the stage. Poetry in motion.
We read Rolling Stone as often as we read Sports Illustrated or the back pages of the sports section; scanning box scores. The night after a game was just as important as the game itself. Will Bobby Bonds' lifetime on-base .824 slugging percentage be bested? What the hell happened to his head? It’s the size of a prize-winning pumpkin. Who will stop Pete Rose’s hitting streak? Can anyone silence Floyd Mayweather?
Our backyard was a basketball court, not the Garden of Eden. A block south we played hardball well into the evening. I wouldn’t lace up a pair of boxing gloves to impress a dying pigeon, yet I’d stay up late and watch Muhammad Ali whip-ass on some over-hyped opponent.
Toronto had its characters, none more over the top than sportscaster, John Gallagher. Loud, rude, and unruly! We play nice here except when it comes to sports. Try launching a sports show and talk about anything other than hockey. Near impossible! You talk about the Leafs, summer, winter fall and spring. It’s much like my hometown. You debate the University of Louisville basketball season, currently in disarray and a mess, over recruiting violations and nothing else.
Gallagher jumped out of the box before it evolved into a flat screen. I tried snoozing. It was impossible. John sucked us in with that, “I’m on the scene, and there’s been a three-alarm fire in the rink” delivery. I loved it!
After a few misfires, John’s back with his first book – a tell-all. I smell trouble. Big League Babble On, published by Dundurn Press, is loaded with anecdotes and on the spot recollections. You must have lived it to talk about it!
To write a book, you must have something to say. There are plenty of shelves cramped with unopened books. To get people’s attention, you would have to have lived life much different than the average person – near the edge. Sports is big territory and one that crosses everyone’s path. Channel that fanaticism and there may be a career in broadcasting. For Gallagher, I’m guessing it was like winning the Princess Margaret lottery. Where did this start?
I was the loudmouth little runt running around the streets of Montreal playing ball hockey and doing the play by play while in motion. I was a goaltender. And who would have known years later I would be starting in goal for Team Canada and Ken Dryden whispering in my ear, “you’re starting the third period.” He lined up Pete Mahovlich, Frank Mahovlich, Yvan Cournoyer and Serge Savard for me.
Was it one of those celebrity games?
Yes. It was all pre-planned. When the puck hits you, you can’t lose. I’m stacking my pads against Stan Mikita, Darryl Sittler and here comes Paul Henderson, Ron Ellis and then Dennis Hull whizzes one by my left ear, which I still haven’t seen. Back in the 70s’, I was a Ken Dryden fan. I’m sawing off my sticks, so I can lean on them like Ken used to do.
As kids, we’d emulate our heroes. I wanted to be Mickey Mantle. Every time I went to the ballpark, I became Mantle.
Absolutely, for me it was Dryden. When I slapped on my pads all of those years, I took hockey supremacy in Canada very, very seriously and would even hum the Montreal Forum tune (da da da da da da) as I skate around the ice and think I’m Dryden. I keep it in mind that I got as far as Junior B and I wasn’t very good. Then here comes the guys from Slapshot – the Hanson brothers with the foil on their hands jumping over the boards. The Hanson brothers, during that celebrity game, jumped on me. My two defencemen were Sean Cullen, the comedian, and John Stavros, the actor – they piled on me, and my leg went crack'. I got up and realized this was not good – I tore my ACL, and that’s the last game I played.
At present, we have a highly regarded Leaf’s team. There are expectations and the community engaged. Then I think back to team owner Harold Ballard’s reign. The fridge stocked with pudding, Yolanda, the crazies …
Yolanda was an absolute gem. I would drink with her at the Hot Stove Club after Harold died.
Ballard was so cheap he bullied the Beatles into playing two shows when they only came to play one. They’re doing the first at 1 pm and now, 7 pm. He pumped the heat up in Maple Leaf Gardens and would only serve the large containers of Coca-Cola with ice. The kids were sweating their little bobby socks off.
Harold would sell week-old popcorn to the kids. Jim McKenney told me if they’d only paid a couple more bucks they could have had Bernie Parent in goal. Parent went to the WHA, and Harold knew this league would fold. The Miami Screaming Eagles fold, Harold gets Bernie back, and bitches that he walked out on him then boasted he was trading him to Philadelphia for Doug Favell and Bob Neely – a shaved monkey and a bucket of pucks. They could have had Bernie Parent during the years when they were pretty good in the early to mid-seventies. He wouldn’t pay the extra ten thousand bucks to make Bernie happy. He was a despot ruler.
It was like the dark ages in hockey. When you have a team owner with great talent, and it becomes all about them, it weighs heavy on the team. Best example, when Marge Schott took over the Cincinnati Reds.
That’s a good analogy.
We’re talking a storied history with Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench.
Tony Perez. That’s what Marg wanted. She had a swastika in her top drawer saying Hitler had a good idea, but he just went too far. Then there’s “Schotzee,” the St. Bernard everyone hated, doing #2 all over the pristine Riverfront Stadium. She’d sit in the front row for all of the photos.
Being an owner these days is like being a good defenceman. You know they are there, but you don’t notice them.
Steinbrenner was like the Donald Trump of baseball. He’d never get out of sports fans faces. There were always conflicts and insults.
Did you see Ken Burns: Baseball.? The eleventh episode was on Steinbrenner.
Reggie Jackson then Jose Canseco. You were around these players.
Canseco wasn’t a bad guy with the Jays. Much more accessible. I was at TSN doing the Gallagher show, and he says, ”let’s just clear the air”. Come on over to my locker room while we are on camera and I’ll show you what I’m putting into my system”, because back then, Bill, it wasn’t illegal to use these steroids. It was just frowned on and then that reporter from St. Louis reported on Mark McGuire, and that was it.
I remember catching up with Lyle Alzado of the Oakland Raiders in Yorkville while playing the Bottom Line nightclub and he looked fit and healthy. A few years later he dies from brain cancer. He blamed it on steroids.
He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing a bandana and lost fifty or sixty pounds with the headline, “I Lied.”
I tried to commit suicide. We had a family of six kids and dad had come back from the war with PTSD and was not the most loving father. We got swatted around quite a bit, and I took the brunt of his backhands. I didn’t want any part of this family, so I ran away, and they’d all laugh and look through my little bag. I had a loaf of bread, a butter knife, some peanut butter and all of my favourite Mad magazines and Hot Rod magazines; I didn’t make it very far. They were laughing in the basement rec-room. I battled that depression for years. I took my mother’s biggest butcher knife and went under the bed and decided to end it all. I was eight or nine years old, then I thought of the thrashing, wailing, the blood that was about to ensue. I thought about the kids in school pointing at my brothers and sisters saying – “that’s the little girl whose brother committed suicide”. I just cried myself to sleep.
There was this 14-year-old beach bum up in Georgian Bay at the time who said to me, “Johnny, you know when they find you, you are not going to smell like perfume from Paris buddy. I’d rethink that.” It was like one of those scenes from Stand by Me.
What was your first big break in radio?
It was a softball game, and you were on my softball team for the Q-Jays. Remember opening day? “Captain Spandex” with baseball pants so tight you could tell what religion I was. I was playing softball in Halifax, and they were going on strike at CJCH, and I talked to Jake Edwards, an old buddy at Q-104. Jake told me they are looking for a sportscaster. Earl McCrae has just resigned and gone to Ottawa. We both auditioned, and they turned us down. I called Jake that night, and everything changed.
Gary Slaight, who hired you, hired me. It changed everything. You go from making this much, to this much. We were working with some of the great talents: Steve Anthony, Bob Mackowycz, and John Derringer.
Andy Frost, Shirley McQueen, Maureen Holloway, Jane Hawtin – folks who have sustained through the years.
Jesse, Gene and Jake Edwards.
John, how about the softball games? What was that tournament we played in Barrie?
We had a team made up of on-air announcers. When we played any other station, you’d get a couple of producers or maybe the all-night guy from the weekend, but we had Derringer, Joey Vendetta, Frost, Bill King, Jake Edwards – big names.
Wasn’t that the Molson’s weekend? The best fun ever and we are facing CFRB, and they were reigning champs, and we beat them.
AM/FM World Series! 4-2! We were amazing. Derringer hit a two-run triple, and I was making circus catches in left field. And it was free beer all day! It was Friday, Saturday and Sunday and sometimes you’d go hours and hours without playing. I was the manager, and I'd do the line-up then later in the day I’d have to look at the eyes of people who had one or two more drinks than they should and say, “I don’t think you are playing in the finals”.
The book is Called Big League Babble On (Dundurn Press). Why a book, and how is it laid out?
It’s all over the place. It’s like People magazine, and you can just sit there and grab a chapter.
I know you’ve been everywhere and at nearly every sports event in Toronto. How about, George Foreman fights five palookas at Maple Leaf Gardens, April 1975?
I wasn’t. That was after Foreman lost the championship to Ali in Kinshasa in September of 1974.
This was a Don King presents thing. He fought Terry Daniels.
Who fought Joe Frazier for the title.
Some guy named Boone Kirkman, then Charlie Polite, who barely survived in the ring. The fifth fighter didn’t show, so they replaced him with a Toronto Argonaut. Ali is ringside next to Howard Cosell who is calling it one of the great debacles ever, a disgrace.
Remember Alzado fought Ali too in Denver and put up a good fight. I remember stories about Joe Lewis having the “bum of the month club” because no one could beat him. Foreman that night had the “bum of the month” round. Were you there?
How was the attendance?
Great. Everybody had their hate-on for George Foreman. He was the guy who “uppercut” Joe Frazier, lifting him off the canvas. The first version of GF before getting religion.
He fought Frazier in Jamaica and knocked him two feet off the floor.
With that in mind and knowing you are a big fight fan: It’s the 1996 International Boxing Federation convention being held down on Chestnut Street, and I’m there with our piano jazz trio; Archie Alleyne drums, Artie Roth bass, and we are centre stage warming up the crowd. Felon Robert Lee is in charge, and he’s setting up plaques and awards next to us as Don King strolls down the aisles as folks stop by to kiss the ring. Break time we meet in lobby. Facing the men’s room, we witness all of those old ring handlers, mob types and hangers-on come limping out into the lobby. You look at me and say, “they’ve been piped, Billy”. I fall over in laughter, and how true. It was like watching old soldiers shuffle home after the Civil War.
Can there be a jazz band without a guy named Artie? You know they would bust your legs if you didn’t give them a title shot. Have you ever heard of George Chuvalo’s right-hand guy called “the weasel”? He wrote a book and had stories that would turn your testicles into raisins. He was the driver for Jimmy Hoffa the day Jimmy Hoffa died.
When is the book launch?
November 20th at the Cadillac Lounge, 6:30 to 8:30. We’ve got some big names coming. Steve Anthony is going to be there. It’s now in stores, and yes, I’m quite excited. It’s open to the public. It’s been said when you hold that in your hands, it’s like holding a baby. Here’s the catch, there’s 33,000,000 people in this country, and less than 3% buy books. I’m not in it for the money, but it sure feels good in my hands.
I remember the hair plugs on TV. You went in for the treatment. Didn’t that hurt like hell?
We used to call them grafts and, good no, I was on so many drugs.
Did they take a gun and just shoot them in your head?
They did it so well. Dr. Walter and Martin Unger were the kings of hair restoration and transplants. When Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire during that Pepsi commercial, they flew them down from Toronto. That’s how good they are. I was hopped up on Percocets and demersal, and the lovely drip, drip, drip of morphine. I was going in for the three-connection touch-up. Connect the Phil Collins' island with the mainland.
You have a chapter in the book about your dance with cocaine.
Warts and all. I mean Fleetwood Mac, Bowie, Elton John. One chapter begins; the doors fly open at the Four Seasons Hotel, and there’s (name withheld), who has a deviated septum, and the assistant is blowing cocaine in certain orifices with a straw. So, the door's open. (Named person) bends over and passes me a straw. I wonder, when is this night going to end?
One day I’m fast asleep and there’s Paris Hilton sleeping beside me, while Joan Jett of the Blackhearts waits her turn. I haven’t done blow in twenty-five years. It was cool; you were the king of the world, you’d walk in and do a couple of lines. I did enough cocaine to wipe out a small village.
Did that wipe out your bank account?
Absolutely! It was fun while it lasted, but then it was such a stupid drug. Over-rated and certain body parts don’t work. You stand there talking about yourself all night long. You can’t get to sleep.
The early eighties at the Elmo and cocaine is now the drug of choice as weed exits stage right. I’m not a fan and try to discourage anyone who would listen. I’m down in the dressing room where there are two Alka Seltzers laying on the table. I crush them up and cut into lines and place a card next to it. We come down between sets, and the shit is gone. I look at Danny McBride and tell him what happened, and we killed ourselves laughing. There was always someone we didn’t know dropping by with a bag or begging.
Can you imagine the fizz in their nose? You know what’s making a comeback? Cocaine! It’s up twenty-five – thirty-percent in the NHL. I’ve got stories I could tell, which I’m not going to.
Do you get along with Don Cherry?
Love “Grapes”. I used to be the voice for his Rockem’ Sockem videos for eight or nine years. Then he let me go. “Can’t afford you, John.” What do you mean you can’t afford me? How many have you sold? He just did them himself.