In Retro T.O., we revisit key moments in recent Toronto history that still reverberate today. This week: We travel back to 35 years ago this month for the Blue Jays ’snowy—and alcohol-free—debut.
Fur coats, parkas, and snowmobile suits—not the garb traditionally associated with an afternoon at the ol’ ball game. Yet for baseball fans at the Blue Jays’ franchise debut on April 7, 1977, heavy winter gear was necessary to endure snow and bone-chilling wind. Though many of the 44,649 attendees left Exhibition Stadium after the first inning to escape the inclement weather and to start bragging that they were there, those who stayed (“assuming they survive the pneumonia that is bound to set in,” noted the Globe and Mail’s Allen Abel) were warmed by the team’s performance on the field.
The team received over 200,000 requests for opening-day tickets. Some devoted fans of the old minor-league Maple Leafs franchise that left town after the 1967 season felt they deserved a place at the front of the line. According to George Holm, director of ticket operations, their letters were filled with declarations that the letter writers had attended all of the Leafs’ home openers and should be able to do the same with the Jays.
Amid the huddled masses, fans bore Blue Jays souvenirs and memorabilia. The team gave Toronto-based Irwin Toys an exclusive license to market caps, glasses, gloves, and other items. Some of Irwin’s suggestions, like hip flasks and women’s panties, were vetoed by team vice-president Paul Beeston. “I mean, we’ve got a family thing here and the flask seemed a little inappropriate,” Beeston told the Star.
Yet some fans would have loved a Blue Jays flask for the first game. Besides allowing one to warm up with a nip of scotch, sneaking in a flask would have been the only way to enjoy any alcohol thanks to a beer ban at Exhibition Stadium enforced by the Ontario government. Despite fan pleading, provincial officials refused to lift the ban due to fear of the havoc drunk spectators might cause and the horror of exposing underage fans to beer. During the game, fans chanted “we want beer” while a plane flying overhead bore a message to Premier William Davis: “Good Luck Jays! Now Give Us Beer, Bill.” The taps weren’t turned on for another five years.
As beer-denied fans huddled while sitting atop the aluminum seats that, as sportswriter Stephen Brunt later noted, “perfectly transferred cold right up the spines of spectators,” the grounds crew used a Zamboni-like device to clear the field of snow. The game was only slightly delayed and, shortly after 1:30 p.m., fans rose as the 48th Highlanders played “The Star Spangled Banner” and a red-parka-clad Anne Murray sang “O Canada.” The pop star’s performance gave third baseman Dave McKay, the only Canadian Blue Jay, goosebumps. “I hadn’t expected to react like that,” McKay told the Star. “It was an emotional moment for me.”
The hero of the Jays’ 9-5 victory over the Chicago White Sox was first baseman Doug Ault. After Toronto’s first two batters struck out in the first inning, Ault hit a home run. As the Star’s Jim Proudfoot observed, “forty thousand pairs of hands were either slapped together loudly or waved in the air…and several thousand feminine hearts palpitated as the handsome Texan acknowledged all the applause while jogging in with the Jays’ very first score.” Ault hit another homer in his second at bat and drove in four runs total during the game. He acknowledged the support of the freezing fans, noting that they “really got me pumped up.”
The standing ovations Ault received would be among the few that season, as the optimism of opening day gave way to realism—an expansion team that would win 54 of 161 games.
Additional material from Diamond Dreams by Stephen Brunt (Toronto: Penguin, 1996), the April 8, 1977 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the April 5, 1977 and April 9, 1977 editions of the Toronto Star.