It began, in a sense, with the visit by a man of some controversy, ended shortly after a threat by a man of power, and it was all over the matter of $250.
The great Toronto Argonauts player strike of 1969 may seem quaint now, compared with the numbers thrown around by the NHL and the NHLPA in their current labour dispute
, but those involved 43 years ago were deadly serious.
They were not getting what they felt was deserved, and they weren't going to put up with it any more.
"Actual dollars and cents, I don't remember the exact details, but I do remember that those bloody stadia across the CFL were filled with paying fans and until that time in 1969, players got not a red cent," says Mike Eben, who was coming into his second year with the Argos at that time and earning $8,500 for 14 games.
"We were definitely making an effort to break the ice on that one because it was patently unfair ... CNE Stadium was packed for the two exhibition games."
And that was the crux of the matter.
Back then, the nine-team Canadian Football League had four exhibition games (compared to just two today), none of them paid.
In Toronto's case, their two home outings would draw big crowds to the 33,000-plus capacity CNE Stadium, on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition. And another outing, the annual Blue and White scrimmage, also packed them in.
"We weren't seeing anything at all for that," says Peter Martin, already a veteran linebacker by that point who, like many players, also had a job outside of football, in his case teaching in the Peel county school system.
In addition, if you were a player who lived locally, there would be nothing for attending the two-week training camp at St. Andrew's College, in Aurora, just north of Toronto. Rookies would have a bonus upon signing they could draw upon, and out-of-town veterans would get a small stipend.
Live in town? Nada.
According to former CFLer Frank Cosentino's 1994 book A Passing League, the Argo players were looking for a short list of concessions from John Bassett, the team's owner.
They first asked for $50 a week for training camp expenses and a payment of $100 for each exhibition game, totalling $500.
Conveniently for the CFL, there was a rule that said players couldn't be paid for pre-season games (though some clubs gave a little on the side), so the players came up with another idea - a straight $100 a week for everyone at camp.
Or, $60 at camp and then everyone who made the 32-man final roster would get a retroactive $40 per week. Previously, the Argos had only paid $50 a week to anyone who came from out of town.
They offered, Cosentino writes, $60 a week retroactively to anyone who made the team.
But still nothing for exhibition games.
The difference was $8,000, and in the weeks leading up to camp, the strike was on.The Eagle lands
Some months before all this, a small group of Argos were introduced to Alan Eagleson, then a rising lawyer in the new game of player representation and a key in the beginnings of the NHL players' association. They arranged for a meeting with a larger group at player Dick Aldridge's house.
"We all gathered at Dick's place and, right on the button [Eagleson] shows up," says Martin. "His advice was simple, he said to us your spokespeople have to be the untouchables.
"That was his philosophy with the National Hockey League. His advice also was if they give us an offer, tell them [expletive] it's not good enough and walk out of the room."
There certainly were great leaders on that Argonaut team, one that was pulling together nicely after years in the CFL wilderness, led by an eclectic group of veterans and youngsters put together by coach and GM Leo Cahill.
Running back Bill Symons was coming off the Schenley Award as the league's top player. Another was star lineman Mike Wadsworth, who would go on to be a Canadian ambassador to Ireland and, later, athletic director at his alma mater, the University of Notre Dame.
There were definitely untouchables.
"After the Schenley, Bill was a protected player. They weren't going to threaten to cut him after the Schenley and the league-leading yardage [1,107 yards]," said Eben.
So out went the Argos, who should have, at that time, been going through "optional" workouts at the CNE prior to camp.
Rather than sit at home, however, Martin arranged with the Peel board to let the players use the field and dressing rooms at Port Credit SS, where most everyone showed up every night to work out and run plays.
Meanwhile, down the road, the Tiger-Cats almost had their own strike, but they settled with management at the last minute for less than they wanted. Same in B.C. and Calgary.
Picket line drawn
In Toronto, the "picket line" was up, out in Mississauga, where the press converged to cover what was one of the first uprisings in pro sports at a time when anti-war protests and questioning authority were regular features of the nightly news. .
"We made it clear to all of the guys that it was a command performance," Martin says of the practices. "We show up and we work out to show we were serious. We had great turnouts for what were organized practices."
Cahill came out, after a few days, to make an appeal.
"It was [receiver and Toronto boutique owner
] Mel Profit who said to Leo, 'This has nothing to do with you so you might as well leave,'" Martin remembers. This was going to be purely between the players and the owner.
Enter the owner.
John Bassett was a media mogul who had founded Toronto's CFTO television and, at that time, was president of the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs. He called the players to the CNE, and delivered a terse message.
"My recollection is of sitting on our backsides at centre-field ... John having gathered us all around him," says Eben. "And he threatened to see us out of the CFL for the rest of our playing lives if we didn't stop the strike and get back to camp."
Martin agrees, adding the players "called his bluff" and refused. Tactics ensued.
"We hung on, and hung on, and we heard some rumours some of the players had been receiving phone calls from people [with the league or team] telling them to get back in there and do something about this. It could be classified as intimidation."
There was, he says, some real fear among a few of the players because of the control, in those pre-players' association, pre-free agency days, of the power that clubs had over athletes.
A few defectors and "there could be a stampede."
So a settlement was reached that would see the players receive $60 for each of the two weeks in training camp, but still nothing for exhibition games.
"We got something, and we were happy we won," says Martin. "Like any negotiation, you go in knowing you have to come down. The general feeling was we were pleased we had stood up and when we got that cheque it was sort of a good feeling."
Here's the irony: The following year a more organized group of players entered into negotiations with the CFL and came up with a deal for everyone that provided $21 a week across the country in training camp.
The Argos, who had set the bar, were forced to take a cut of $39 a week. But there was also a pension plan put in place that would be retroactive for veterans.
They were proud of themselves, though, and knew something important had happened.
"It was strange. We were in uncharted territory," said Eben. "It was nerve-wracking because of the veiled and not-so-veiled threats."
But it worked.
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