The neighbourhood in which I grew up, like many neighbourhoods in Hamilton, bears little resemblance to the image fostered by the city’s reputation. Some of the houses are sufficiently grand that they wouldn’t look out of place in Westmount. Others are more modest — my parents’ for example — and there were others that were more humble still.
We played baseball in our neighbourhood — softball, every Saturday, from the first chilly, sometimes snowy outing in April until the last day of school at the end of June. We played hockey in the colder months, although ice hockey was viewed as a vaguely exotic pastime — one that involved the kind of father who was willing to get up before sunrise on Saturday mornings and drive to the windswept rink maintained by the Kiwanis Club. I concluded — and my father was quietly supportive of this position — that schedules and obligatory practice times ran counter to the spirit of Saturdays. And so my friends and I played road hockey, endlessly.
But the game we adored was football, and we played in the field just down the street from my parents’ house. From Labour Day until the snow could no longer be ignored, there we were: in jeans and sneakers, helmets and shoulder pads, and once, because I had read of such things but hadn’t quite got the details worked out, a jockstrap worn on the outside of my pants.
In regards to baseball and hockey, our allegiances to professional teams were fickle. But when it came to football, there was no such shilly-shallying. There was only one colour scheme for the jerseys we wore over our shoulder pads.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats commanded a centre of attention in my youth that no other team, playing no other sport, has ever come close to matching. From the first game of the season — the Labour Day opener against the hated Toronto Argonauts — to the last, which in those triumphant days often meant that the Tiger-Cats drank champagne from the Grey Cup, the entire city of Hamilton cheered for its mud-stained heroes.
Hamilton was a working-class town, its economy based on the split shifts and murky coke ovens of the now-troubled steel mills. And although I grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood, the school I attended also drew from districts where men belonged to the steelworkers’ union and could never get the grit out of their sooty eyes. Their sons were my friends, and I think that our passion for the same football team helped blur what might have been a more distinct division between us. As a result, I felt no dissonance between our neighbourhood and Hamilton’s blue-collar image, as extreme as that contrast sometimes was. And never was it more extreme than when I was invited to a football game by my friend Hope Gibson.
Hope’s father was the secretary-treasurer of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. He was a dignified gentleman — dapper in a cuffed grey flannel kind of way. Most of us weren’t clear on what it was a treasurer did, but the details of his occupation hardly mattered. He was part of the Tiger-Cats organization, and that was enough for us.
The Gibsons went to all the games. They sat in the second row, at the fifty-yard line, and Mr. Gibson actually had a telephone beside him that was linked to the bench — presumably in the event that some fiduciary emergency arose in the middle of the action. And in the years when the Tiger-Cats won the Grey Cup, the Gibson household contained a secret that we had to swear on a stack of Bibles that we would never, not in a million years, ever tell.
Mr. Gibson had a yellow Mercedes convertible with red leather seats, and we stopped just short of waving like royalty as we headed toward the east end with the CHML pre-game broadcast on the radio. Sailing majestically past the scalpers and the boys hawking parking, heading sedately through the thickening crowds, we drove up to the gates of Civic Stadium — and, miraculously, they opened. Mr. Gibson parked inside the stadium, and we walked across the field to get to our seats. Certain loyalties never die, and my connection to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats rises — in irritation, even in anger — whenever I read about the obsequious attempts to bring an NFL team to Toronto. We already have our own football league, I argue — one with a long and rich tradition. And those of us who grew up in Hamilton know this truth better than most. We can see that old stadium, we can smell those cheap cigars, and we can hear that hometown crowd as clearly as I can now see the interior of a house I was last inside more than forty years ago. It was just down the street.
A few of us used to go over to the Gibsons’ on Friday evenings to watch the late movies on the Buffalo channel. Often Hope’s parents would be going out, and we stationed ourselves in the den until they said goodbye. And then Hope would lead us into the dining room. And there — hidden behind the Gibsons’ china in the sideboard, much shorter than it is today — was the Grey Cup. Apparently, in the years when the Tiger-Cats were CFL champions nobody knew what else to do with it during the off-season.
We never told anyone the secret — just as we never told Mr. and Mrs. Gibson that we filled the Grey Cup with ginger ale. We stood in their kitchen and passed it around triumphantly, pretending we were the mud-stained local heroes of a great and glorious game.