Friday, 2 June 2017

THOMAS JACKSON: THE ODDBALL GENIUS

General Stonewall Jackson, 1863, a week
before he was wounded at Chancellorsville
(US Public Domain)
Next to Robert E Lee, Thomas Jonathan Jackson is the most well-known as well as the most-loved Confederate Civil War commander.  His tactics--along with Lee’s--are studied around the world in history classes and military colleges, all these years later.

Jackson’s first taste of the American Civil War occurred at its very first skirmish: Manassas, Virginia, July 21, 1861; known as the First Battle of Bull Run to the Unionists, and First Manassas to the Confederates. In the midst of the battle as the Union forces pressed, the Confederate lines began to crumble.  Brigadier General Jackson and his brigade filled the void and held firm in defending Henry House Hill, causing Brigadier General Barnard Elliott Bee to point and shout from across the field: “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall,” he said to his men. “Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!” Jackson’s action that day helped to seal a Confederate victory. After that, Jackson was forever nicknamed “Stonewall” and his brigade “The Stonewall Brigade.”

Following the iconic battle, Jackson was promoted to major general and given command of Virginia’s  Shenandoah Valley. There, in a 48-day campaign that began in spring 1862, he marched his army 650 miles and won 10 crucial battles against three Union armies using hit-and-run tactics despite overwhelming odds (his 17,000 to the Union’s 60,000 strong). Jackson’s troops moved so swiftly that the press dubbed them Jackson’s “foot cavalry.”

Dazed, confused, and embarrassed, the Union withdrew from the valley in early June, much to Union President Abraham Lincoln’s disgust. At the time, Jackson was considered the most famous general in the world. Today, his lightning Valley campaign ranks as one of the most brilliant in military history.

Who was “Stonewall” Jackson? Apparently, Jackson and I have the same birthday. He was born January 21, 1824 in Clarksburg, Virginia. At West Point, he was an awkward, nervous country boy with homespun clothing, and was often made fun of. But he studied hard and graduated 17 in a class of 59 in 1846. He served in the Mexican War with distinction, and taught at Virginia Military Institute, before commanding his Stonewall Brigade at Manassas. He never smoked, drank, or played cards, and had some odd habits such as an addiction to sucking on peaches and lemons, keeping one arm raised while in battle to keep the blood circulating, and sleeping under wet sheets.

Almost six feet and weighing 175 pounds, he had cold, blue eyes, a rugged face, with a brown beard and hair. A marvel to behold, he wore the brim of his cap down to his nose. He was usually shabbily dressed, with a button or two often missing on his uniform. Besides the Stonewall distinction, he went by other nicknames: “Old Jack,” “Tom Fool Jackson,” and “Old Blue Light.” His men adored him because he provided them with victories. A Christian of Presbyterian faith, Jackson always gave credit to God for his battlefield successes.

After the Shenandoah victories, Jackson joined Robert E Lee during the Peninsula Campaign that was fought on the turf between the two capitals of Washington, DC and Richmond, Virginia. However, Jackson moved sluggishly, leaving historians baffled to this very day. However, he quickly redeemed himself at the Second Manassas and at Sharpsburg, Maryland, following the first Confederate invasion of the North.

In October 1862, Jackson was promoted to Lieutenant General and given command of Lee’s II Corps in the much-feared Army of Northern Virginia.  That winter, he played a prominent role at the Battle of Fredericksburg by holding the Confederate right line. For how he handled the battle and the subsequent loss, Union General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Army of the Potomac was relieved of his position. Then came Jackson’s masterpiece at Chancellorsville, ten miles west of Fredericksburg, in May 1863.

The Union was on the move that spring, with General Joe “Fighting Joe” Hooker now in command of 130,000 soldiers with the Army of the Potomac, outnumbering the underfed and poorly equipped Lee’s forces by more than two to one. Nevertheless, the fearless Robert E Lee made a bold move by splitting his already depleted Army of Northern Virginia in the face of the enemy which forced Hooker to set up a defensive position inside the wooded area known as the Wilderness. Lee then went to work on a clever plan with the help a local guide who knew the area like the back of his hand.

On the morning of May 2 around 7 AM, the guide began to lead Jackson’s II Corps of 28,000 men on what would be an incredible 16-mile march through the dense trees and around the right flank of Hooker’s army. At times the mighty force was within a mere two miles of the Union right flank. For the next several hours, Hooker, who was headquartered in a clearing inside the Wilderness, received frantic reports of Rebel troops moving in the woods, but he foolishly believed that Lee’s army was in the midst of retreating. As a result, he did nothing.

By 6 o’clock Jackson had six of his 15 brigades in position at the edge of the woods, only a few hundred yards from the Union right flank. With two hours of daylight remaining, Jackson attacked with his men screaming the bloodthirsty “Rebel Yell,” driving the shocked Union XI Corps back more than a mile, until darkness fell. Considering a night attack, aided by a full moon, Jackson and his staff then led a scouting expedition through the woods to assess the Union position.

But upon returning, Jackson was shot accidentally by his own pickets thinking he and his staff was the enemy. Several officers were killed, while Jackson took a bullet in the right hand and two in his left arm. Within hours, his arm was amputated. Hanging on as best he could in and out of consciousness, he died eight days later, Sunday, May 10, from complications due to pneumonia. That morning when told he would not live to see another day, he uttered, “It is the Lord’s Day; my wish is fulfilled. I have always desired to die on Sunday.” His final words were: “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.”


The Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863, by Kurz and Allison  (US Public Domain)

Jackson’s passing was a terrible loss for the Confederacy. Robert E Lee said, sadly, “I have lost my right arm. I am bleeding at the heart.” Two months later, when Lee invaded the North for the second time, he faced another new Union Army of the Potomac commander--the third in less than six months--Major General George Meade, who had replaced Hooker in June. The two forces met in the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, where the North and South fought an epic three-day bloodbath in early July that decided the war. The first day was a clear-cut victory for the Confederacy, the second day a draw, and the third a smashing victory for the Union. After, Lee retreated, never to invade the North again. It was the turning point of the entire conflict, and was all downhill for the South after that.

The Confederacy may have won at Gettysburg had Jackson been there because what the South surely lacked on the field after Chancellorsville was secondary leadership, after Lee. Events often change in the midst of any battle, and adjustments have to be made, something that Jackson and Lee understood thoroughly. They were an excellent team: a dynamic duo. Lee was the quarterback: Jackson was the running back looking for the holes either up the middle or off-tackle. While on his own, Jackson could almost read Lee’s thoughts and tactical objectives and move accordingly before receiving any dispatches from Lee. Lee’s other commanders could not think for themselves the way Jackson could.

Furthermore, had the Confederacy won that second day at Gettysburg when the Union was fighting for their lives defending their left flank, the road to Washington would have been wide open. Lee’s army could have taken Washington and sued for peace. As a result, there never would have been the silly and disastrous third-day “Pickett’s Charge,” which was Lee’s catastrophe. Several officers in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia believed the same thing. As a result of the second-day draw at Gettysburg, one of the officers in particular said what many of them were thinking: “Jackson is not here.”


Stonewall Jackson’s presence at Gettysburg could’ve changed history, forcing the battle to be discussed differently today. But it didn’t happen.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

THE EVOLUTION OF RELIEF PITCHING

Fred Marberry 1933 Goudey Gum card
(US Public Domain)
Relief pitching is a huge part of baseball today. Without a strong bullpen, no team has a hope of winning. A starter is expected to go his five innings, and then give way to the middle reliever, the setup man, and finally the closer whose job it is to shut the door. It’s been that way for a few decades now. Most managers today start with the bullpen and build the staff forward from there, filling in with the starters.

But it was not like that when the American and National Leagues first locked horns at the turn of the twentieth century. Starters were supposed to finish every game they started. Teams couldn’t afford to pay one pitcher to start a contest and someone else to finish it. Once considered a necessary evil, relievers were on the roster, sure, but usually sore-armed cases who couldn’t go nine, hoping one day to make it back to the rotation.  If not, they were gone.

Outside of some serious relief efforts by New York Giants’ famed manager John McGraw at the turn of the century, pitching strategy began to change significantly when Fred “Firpo” Marberry, the first of the game’s true relievers--that is someone who made a living at it--entered the scene in the Roaring Twenties.  In a 14-year career beginning with the Washington Senators in 1923, this fastball-throwing six-foot, 190-pounder relieved 364 games, while starting 187. Five times he had double-digit save seasons and another five times appeared in at least 50 games. Lifetime, he won 147 games and lost 89 for a .623 win percentage, besides 101 saves and a 3.63 ERA (3.42 in relief) in an era where hitters actually dominated.

With the pennant-winning Senators in 1924 and 1925, Marberry often bailed out the great Walter Johnson, who was winding down his Hall of Fame career and could no longer pitch the distance the majority of the time. Marberry was a key factor in his team’s World Series runs where he recorded another three saves. Both seasons, the Senators led the American League in ERA. In 1926, he was the first reliever to post 20 saves (with 22), while pitching 64 games, five of those starts.

When Marberry was traded to the Detroit Tigers for the 1933 season, he showed his versatility by sliding right into the rotation where he started 32 games, finished 15, won 16, and logged a 3.27 ERA. By then, he had developed a very good changeup and curve to accompany his still-lively fastball.

Joe Page 1948 Bowman Gum card
(US Public Domain)
The New York Yankees were the first team to act on Marberry’s effectiveness: In the 1927 season, they signed 30-year-old rookie Wilcy Moore, a sidearm sinkerball pitcher who had been bouncing around the minors with various clubs. In his first year, while Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit their iconic 60 and 47 homers, respectively, Moore anchored the pitching staff of perhaps the greatest team in baseball by appearing in 50 games for 213 innings (12 starts, six complete games) and 19 wins with a league-leading 2.23 ERA. In the bullpen, where he especially excelled, he had a 13-3 won-loss and 1.95 ERA season. In his six-year MLB career with the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, he won 39 games in relief and saved another 49 others.

In 1939, Clint Brown of the Chicago White Sox had 11 relief wins, 18 saves, while appearing in 61 relief games, a new game record for relievers. Throughout the early- to mid-1930’s some of the best relievers were actually rotation pitchers who helped out between their starts. Lefty Grove saved 55 games in his career. Dizzy Dean saved 11 games in 1936, to go along with his 24 wins.

The next solid reliever was another Yankee, Johnny Murphy, who acquired the nickname “Fireman” because he shone at putting out the fires late in the game. A dominating presence on the mound at six-two, he took relief pitching to even greater heights. Starting in 1934 as a reliever-spot-starter with his outpitch a wicked curveball, he was quickly turned into a bullpen artist within a year. In 13 seasons, 12 with the Yankees, he pitched 415 games, 375 of those coming out of the bullpen. In relief lifetime, he won 73 games to 42 losses, saved 107 games and yielded an average of 3.25 earned runs. In the World Series, he saved another four, three of those during the four-straight 1936-1939 Yankee championship years.

A decade later came the flakey southpaw Joe Page, still another New York Yankee with decent credentials: 14-8, 2.48 ERA, and 17 saves in 1947, while unleashing a blazing, high-90s fastball. After an off-year in 1948, he came back stronger in 1949, setting a record 27 saves in 60 bullpen appearances to help Casey Stengel win World Series championships in his first of five seasons at the helm of the team.

By 1950, Page’s career fell apart and Stengel had to look for other bullpen artists because he was a firm believer in relievers throughout the 1950s. For one thing, he wanted the team’s hardest throwers as the big stoppers, unheard of at the time. Page was a prime example of the strategy, then Allie Reynolds, who also started about the same amount of games as he did in relief. Like Johnny Murphy, Reynolds saved four games lifetime in World Series play. Some seasons, Stengel liked to shift his talent around by calling on a staff of closers.

On way to leading his team to a pennant in 1950, bespectacled Jim Konstanty of the “Whiz Kids” Philadelphia Phillies was the first reliever to win an MVP award. In 74 games, all in relief, he won 16 games, lost 7, with 22 saves in 152 innings, accompanied by a 2.66 ERA. New York Giants’ Hoyt Wilhelm arrived on the scene in 1952 as a 28-year-old rookie who had taken a decade to perfect--as well as finally control--his knuckleball.

In 1952, Wilhelm led the league in several categories: 15 wins, 2.43 ERA, .833 winning percentage, 71 relief appearances, and 159.3 innings as a reliever. Former Negro Leaguer Joe Black was a one-year flash that same season as a 28-year-old Brooklyn Dodger closer compiling a 15-4 mark with 15 saves in 55 relief showings. The decade ended with relief pitching firmly entrenched as a recognized and potent profession with Pittsburgh Pirates’ Elroy Face’s 1959 numbers rising to the surface: 18-1, 10 saves, 2.70 ERA in 57 games, thanks to an over-powering forkball.

In 1961, Yankee Puerto Rican-born southpaw reliever Luis “Yo-Yo” Arroyo and his screwball set a new closer record with 29 saves, helping starters like Whitey Ford, who won the Cy Young Award that year as the best pitcher in baseball. At the New York Baseball Writers banquet in the winter, Ford brought the house down when he received the award, saying that he had prepared a nine-minute speech for the event, but instead would speak for only seven minutes, then let Arroyo finish up the last two.

Hoyt Wilhelm 1954 Bowman
Gum card (US Public Domain)
It’s interesting to note that up to this time-period closers averaged about two innings for each appearance, or at least came in sometime in the eighth inning after an out or two. That pattern continued well into the 1980s. Case in point, two hard-throwing Cy Young winners: Mike Marshall in 1974 with the LA Dodgers when he pitched a whopping 208 innings in 106 appearances, with a 15-12 record, 21 saves, and 2.42 ERA; and the Detroit Tigers’ Willie Hernandez in 1984: 140.3 innings, 80 appearances, 32 saves, 1.92 ERA and 9-3 won-loss. These were only two relievers from the pool of two-inning-average hurlers. Not so now: The closers arrive in the ninth and not sooner. That’s how much the game has changed in only three decades.

More recently, we’ve seen some great closers: Rollie Fingers, Dan Quisenberry, Jeff Reardon, Dennis Eckersley, Bobby Thigpen, Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman, Francisco Rodriguez (a season-record 62 saves in 2008), and the iconic Mariano Rivera (lifetime-record 652 saves).


Did the relievers of the past enjoy their roles? Sparky Lyle, New York Yankees closer in the 1970s, may have said it best: “Why pitch nine innings when you can get just as famous pitching two.”

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

THE IMPACT OF FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT’S LEND-LEASE

US President Franklin Roosevelt signing the
Lend-Lease Act in 1941 (US Public Domain)
The 1930s were a scary time. Both Japan and Germany removed themselves from the League of Nations within a year of each other. It was only the beginning. A global confrontation loomed with Germany’s Adolf Hitler razing hell with armament buildup, and overrunning Czechoslovakia and Austria without so much as firing a shot. The West did nothing. In the Far East, Japan engaged in similar aggressive maneuvers against China. Meanwhile, in the United States, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in power since 1933, was very much aware what was happening overseas on these two vital fronts.

During the decade, US Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts in order to stay out of any more foreign conflicts, except, of course, if a direct attack was made on the US homeland. Many Americans felt that their involvement in World War I--remember the war to end all wars--was bad enough. No more. The first act was enforced August 31, 1935, and lasted for six months, an embargo on trading items of war with any party engage in a military-style conflict. It also declared that any American citizens travelling abroad on warring ships did so at their own risk.

The next act, in February 1936, added a clause that forbade loans and credits given to warring nations. This didn’t cover the shipment of trucks, oil, or any civil wars, such as the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939. Several large US companies such as Ford, GM, and the Rockefeller family’s Standard Oil took advantage of the ruling. By the conflict’s end, General Francisco Franco won the Spanish rebellion, but owed American companies a combined $100 million-plus: a cool $1.7 billion today.

In January 1937, a joint resolution was passed in Congress that prohibited trade with Spain. In May of the same year came another Neutrality Act. This one included all previous provisions, including coverage of civil wars, with no expiration date. In addition, US citizens were forbidden from travelling on ships of countries at war.

All of a sudden, everything changed when Hitler attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, launching World War II. With France and Britain officially at war with Germany, Congress passed the “Cash-and-Carry” policy which allowed America to supply--but no war material--those fighting Hitler as long as they would use their own ships and paid immediately in cash. They also had to assume all risk in route. This ended the arms embargo put in place during the first Neutrality Act of 1935 and led directly to a brilliantly conceived bill in early 1941 that allowed US President Roosevelt to zigzag around all the previous Congress-conceived neutrality acts.

By this time, Britain and the other Allied countries were running out of money to purchase war material and other supplies from the United States. As a result, President Roosevelt devised a plan where the countries fighting Japan and Germany would be “lent” what they needed in their continued fight for freedom. Roosevelt, himself, stated the general idea best through an analogy before the press when he said his plan was likened to a person lending his neighbor a garden hose to put out a fire in his home.

“What do I do in such a crisis?” he asked the news people. “I don’t say, ‘Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15. You have to pay me $15 for it.’ I don’t want $15. I want my garden hose back after the fire is over.”

World War II Bell Aircraft assembly plant near Niagra Falls, New York (US Public Domain)

Formally titled “An act to promote the Defense of the Unites States,” Lend-Lease was ratified March 11, 1941, after the House of Representatives voted 260-165 and the Senate 60-13 in favor of it. In the House, the Democrats voted 238-25 to the Republicans 24-135; while the Senate saw a 49-13 Democrat favor to the Republicans 10-17. In April, Lend-Lease included aid to China, then two months later to Russia, once Germany attacked them on June 22, 1941. With all previous neutrality act restrictions lifted, those countries friendly to America received warships, fighter and bomber aircraft, tanks, along with arms of all sorts, oil, and food, to name only a few products.

There’s an interesting story in the summer of 1941, when a young man on an assembly line in a US war factory received his first weekly check for $100, the equivalent of $1700 today. After experiencing the terrible Great Depression for a number of years, he had never seen that much money before. He held the check in his fist, then uttered, “Thank God for Hitler!” before walking off.

When Lend-Lease ended after the war in 1945, only some ships were returned stateside. The majority of goods were thought to be free because America had been in the war for nearly four years following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.  By then nobody, including Congress, cared too much about any neutrality laws.

In all, Lend-Lease cost the United States just under $51 billion. That’s over $800 billion in 2017 money. Of the top four recipients, Great Britain received $31.2 billion worth, Soviet Union $11.2 billion, China $1.5 billion, and France $3.2 billion. Thirty-four countries received the rest, approximately $4 billion. To visualize an example of the massive global project, the Americans sent the Russians 430,000 trucks, 37,000 bomber and fighter aircraft, 7,000 tanks, 35,170 motorcycles, 1,911 steam locomotives, 66 diesel locomotives, 4.4 billion tons of foodstuffs and 340,000 field telephones.

There were some exceptions to the so-called “free stuff” handed out by the Americans. Several countries, especially England and Russia incorporated a payback method known as “Reverse Lend-Lease” by sending the US such raw materials and products sometimes not that readily available in America at certain periods of time such as uranium, chrome, tin, platinum, rubber, asbestos, cocoa, fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, and cheese. This amount totaled $10 million. Britain did eventually pay back most of their millions in other ways, but it cost them dearly. For one thing, they had to sell a good stock of their assets in the United States at below-market value. As part of the deal, they also rented out a number of their overseas air bases to the Americans.


The United States was the “Arsenal of Democracy” during the Second World War, back when “America was great!” Lend-Lease made that happen.

Monday, 17 April 2017

JOHNNY BOWER: A LEGEND IN TWO LEAGUES

Without the outstanding goaltending of Johnny “The China Wall” Bower, the Toronto Maple Leafs would not have won four Stanley Cups in the 1960s: 1962-1964 inclusive, and again in 1967, the Canadian Centennial year. This was back in the barefaced days for most goalies, including Bower. Of course, the Leafs have yet to win another championship since. And to think, Bower didn’t want to play in Toronto at first. He thought he was too old at the time to make the jump. Besides, he had an earlier shot at the NHL that didn’t work out that well. He preferred to play out his hockey career in the nice, cozy confines of the minors where the local fans held him in the highest regard.

Born John Kizkan in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan on November 8, 1924, Bower lied about his age to join the Canadian Army in 1940 in the midst of World War II. After being sent overseas for further training in England with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, he was discharged due to illness--rheumatoid arthritis--in 1944, then returned to Canada still young enough to play junior hockey for the Prince Albert Black Hawks of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.

St Lawrence Starch Co photo of Johnny
Bower (Canadian Public Domain)

The following year, he turned pro with the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League as a free agent. He also changed his last name to Bower to make it easy for the fans and sportswriters to pronounce and spell. He then spent eight straight seasons in Cleveland where he became a celebrity on a powerhouse team, leading the league in goalie wins three times and shutouts twice. In the last season there, 1952-53, he helped lead the Barons to the Calder Cup championship by shutting out the opposition four times in the team’s 11-game playoff run. In two other seasons, he backstopped the Barons to two more league titles. In those eight seasons, the Barons finished first five times, and Bower was named to three All-Star teams.

Bower quickly established a reputation for being his own man. No one could ever touch his equipment and he preferred to pick out his own sticks, not let the team do it. He also worked as hard in practice as he did during the games, something his teammates respected him for.

In July 1952, Bower was traded to the New York Rangers in a four-player deal plus cash. He then went to training camp and outplayed Gump Worsley, the 1952-53 NHL Rookie-of-the-Year, sending the latter to the Vancouver Canucks of the Western Hockey League. Worsley also asked for a $500 raise, a no-no in a time when the owners ran the show. Bower stood between the pipes for all 70 games in 1953-54 (when each of the six teams dressed only one goalie per game), recorded 5 shutouts and a 2.60 goals-against average, the best average for a Ranger goalie in 12 years. The team finished only six points out of a playoff spot, the closest they had been in four years, and Bower was voted the most popular Ranger by the fans.

However, because the Rangers had missed the playoffs for the fourth straight time, they brought back the much-younger Worsley for 1954-55, thus sending Bower to Vancouver (which would be his only season in the Western Hockey League) after five games as a Ranger.  It’s interesting to note that with Worsley in net in 1952-53, the Rangers were 17-37-16: His goals-against average stood at 3.06. With Bower and his 2.60 average, the Rangers were a much-improved 29-31-10 in 1953-54. With Worsley returning for 1954-55, the team fell back to a dismal 17-35-18, and Worsley averaged 3.03 goals per game. Sometimes it makes you wonder who makes the decisions for some teams.
1959-60 Parkhurst gum card of
Leaf coach-GM Punch Imlach
(Canadian Public Domain)

As a Vancouver Canuck, Bower’s 2.71 goals-against average and seven shutouts led the Western Hockey League. For the next three straight seasons, from 1955-56 to 1957-58, he was a First Team All-Star and the overall MVP winner in the American Hockey League, two seasons with Providence and one with Cleveland, winning a third championship with the latter, while recording stingy goals-against averages of 2.37 and 2.17 in the last two seasons. By then, Bower had turned 33 years of age and, as stated earlier, content to live out his last few years as a minor leaguer. But someone unbeknownst to the goaltender thought otherwise. His name: George “Punch” Imlach.

Imlach had coached the AHL Springfield Indians in 1957-58 and remembered how well Bower had played against the Indians all season, especially in the first round of the playoffs in which Imlach’s team won in seven games. When Imlach was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs as their coach-GM in 1958, he claimed Bower in the Inter-League Draft that June.  But it took Imlach’s pressure on Bower for him to head to Toronto. The Leafs were never sorry. Either was Bower because he embarked on the second round of his professional career.

Bower was more than ready for the NHL this time. A flopper earlier in the minors, he had converted to a stand-up style by the mid-1950s. He now played the angles, something that Imlach looked for in goalies. Noted for his puck-handling and stick work, Bower learned such skills from goalie Chuck Rayner during early-1950s New York Ranger training camps. And everything showed in spades later on when Bower was a Leaf.

I remember well a particular game that I saw on Hockey Night in Canada when I was a kid where the opposition pulled their goalie late in the game for an extra attacker. During a scramble in front of the net, Bower got hold of a loose puck and quickly fired it off the center-ice boards. I watched in awe as the puck missed the other net by a foot or two. He was that close to getting the first goal by an NHL  netminder.

Bower was also the master of the pokecheck, a maneuver definitely not for the faint of heart, especially in the days of no goalie masks. To perform the pokecheck, Bower would surprise a puck carrier bearing down on him by diving to the ice headfirst with his goalie stick extended. If successful, the player had the puck knocked off his stick before he could get a shot away.

It seemed the older Bower got, the better he performed. In the 1960s, he won a Vezina Trophy--for the least amount of goals against--with a goals-against average of 2.50 in 1960-61, then shared another with teammate Terry Sawchuk in 1964-65, when Imlach had incorporated the two-goalie system. Imlach continued with the Bower-Sawchuk tandem until the last Leaf Cup-winning season in 1966-67. By then, Sawchuk was 37; Bower was 42.

A money goaltender in the playoffs, Bower had the reflexes, ability and agility to shut down sharpshooters like Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, and Jean Beliveau when the Leafs needed him most. Bower retired in 1969 at the age of 45, after finally donning a mask for games, although he had been using one in practice for several years. By then, the scars on his face took on the appearance of eight miles of road.

Combining his years in the minors and the NHL (regular season and playoffs included), Bower had held the record for decades for most wins by a netminder in professional hockey until broken by Martin Brodeur.  But Bower still holds the record for most games played overall with 1,446, spread over a remarkable 25 years in the game. He also shut out the opposition an amazing 98 times.

1959-60 Parkhurst gum card of Johnny Bower (Canadian Public Domain)

Something I remember vividly about Bower was how he was criticized by hockey fans--including some Leaf fans--when I was growing up on the prairies. They always said he was too old. But season after season, Punch Imlach kept playing him, and the Leafs kept winning. If not for Imlach taking a chance on a 33-year-old minor leaguer, Bower could have easily been known today only for his many years in the American Hockey League as a star goaltender who couldn’t quite cut it in the NHL after one, half-decent shot at it. Instead, Bower saw his ship coming in, and jump aboard.


Bower’s NHL stats alone were worthy of the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976: 2.52 goals-against average, 37 shutouts, and 250-195-90 won-loss-tie record, in 552 regular-season games. Deep into his time coaching the Leafs, Punch Imlach called Bower: “The most remarkable hockey player I’ve ever seen.”

Monday, 3 April 2017

THE MOTOR CITY REVIVAL

Woodward Avenue, Detroit, 1942, looking south towards downtown (US Public Domain)

When we hear the name
Detroit, we think of cars. We think of ingenuity, inventions, automation, mass production, industry, and manufacturing; as well as a city on the move with connecting multi-lane freeways. We also think of prosperity. And how could we forget the 1960s music trend known as Motown.  

Unfortunately, times change. Detroit, Michigan has been in a steady decline for decades. Parts of it have reached ghost town status: unlit streets, boarded-up buildings, and weeded lots. Case in point, the old Packard auto plant built on East Grand Boulevard, the largest abandoned factory in the world. Closed to production since 1958, it’s a half-mile length of crumbling bricks and concrete, neglected and defaced by looters and vandals from nearby slums. More about Packard later.


Although the metro area has 4.3 million people, Detroit has slipped down to twenty-first in population among major US cities: a mere 677,000, a far cry from its glory days. Despite its shortcomings, Detroit is a city close to my heart. I feel for it. My in-laws reside minutes away in Windsor, across the Detroit River on the Canadian side. I’ve been to Detroit dozens of times for hockey and baseball games, sports memorabilia meets, shopping, and a couple car shows at Cobo Hall. I’ve also seen the downtown and outlying neighborhoods up close since my first visit there May 1976. Yes, it can be scary. But the city is making an effort to rise up through urban development brought on by the private sector and politicians who still believe the city can be revived to its former charm.

Just a little over a hundred years ago, Detroit was known as the “Paris of the West.” Detroiters were proud of their mansions, and grand tree-lined streets, avenues and boulevards along upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Detroit was the transportation hub of the Mid-West and a major Great Lakes port, a haven for industries such as shipping, shipbuilding, and manufacturing, including the lucrative carriage trade before autos made the scene.

That changed in a flash by 1903, with Henry Ford along with fellow automotive tycoons William C Durant, Packard, Walter Chrysler, and the Dodge Brothers, who all quickly turned Detroit into the Motor City. Packard, for example, began manufacturing automobiles from inside their 3.5 million square-foot plant. On a 40-acre site, this state-of-the-art, first-ever reinforced concrete building in Detroit housed the most modern car manufacturing site in the world, handling 80 different trades.

By 1920, Detroit was booming, the fourth largest city in America with a population of 995,000. Only New York, Chicago and Philadelphia were bigger. With a slew of jobs available in the car industry and feeder companies, rural blacks and southern whites migrated north for work, changing the culture of the area. Always expanding, Ford built the massive River Rouge plant in nearby Dearborn. Finished in 1928, the complex employed over 100,000 people at any given time. The Rouge was the largest factory in the world, 1.5 miles by one mile with 16 million square feet of factory floor space. It had 93 buildings on the property, its own docks, electricity plant and steel mill, and 100 miles of interior rail track.

About this same time, Detroit became a “port of call” for the sinister Ku Klux Klan, whose hatred for Catholics, Jews, and blacks was legendary. Racial tensions began to build. Also, during Prohibition, the year from 1920-1933, the nearby waterways of the Detroit River and Lake St Clair were used for smuggling elicit Canadian liquor from Canada, in particular our highly prized rye whiskey.

Between 1941-1943, over 400,000 people migrated to Detroit for jobs, including 50,000 Southern blacks. More racial strife emerged, climaxing with the 1943 Detroit Race Riot in June brought on by competition for jobs, a shortage of housing, and alleged police brutality towards the blacks.  Following three days of violence, 34 people were killed and 600 were injured, of which most were black. In addition, nearly $2 million worth of property was destroyed.

The Renaissance Center, Detroit, with the 73-story Marriott Hotel in the middle (US Public Domain)













World War II brought a major shift in manufacturing to Detroit factories. Cars were put on hold for the sake of Allied military production. Prime examples were Packard and Ford. Packard cashed-in on the V-1650 Packard-Merlin aircraft engine, built to British Rolls-Royce specs after successful use in Spitfire and Hurricane fighter aircraft during the Battle of Britain. Over 55,000 Packard-Merlin engines were manufactured for the North American P-51 Mustangs and Curtiss P-40 fighters, as well as the Canadian-built Avro Lancaster bombers and de Havilland Mosquitos over the border in Ontario. Packard also built 20,000 V-12 marine engines for American PT boats, and British patrol and rescue boats. In 1943, at the height of Packard’s dominance, the company had 36,000 employees, almost all at the East Grand Boulevard plant.

The Willow Run Ford plant near Ypsilanti, Michigan, about 20 miles west of Detroit, was constructed to build the four-engine B-24 Liberator heavy bomber. Inside what was reported to be the largest factory under one roof in the world where there was 3.5 million square feet of factory space, five different B-24 models were assembled along a line that stretched one mile inside the plant. By war’s end, almost 6,800 Liberators were assembled there.

In post-war Detroit, with auto production back on track, the city’s population peaked at 1.8 million in 1950. But by the mid-1950s, Detroiters began moving to new housing developments in the suburbs, and various businesses and manufacturing plants followed. This population shift cut deeply into Detroit’s tax base.

Then, to make matters worse, the Detroit Riot of 1967 occurred. Far scarier and longer than the riot two decades prior, this uprising saw 43 dead, almost 1,200 injured, over 7,000 arrests and 2,000 buildings destroyed. Once the smoke cleared, thousands of people left Detroit for good, many taking businesses with them. The affected areas lay in ruins for years afterwards.

Things didn’t get any better for Detroit and its car industry during the gasoline crisis of 1973 when the Arab countries placed an oil embargo on the US for their support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, and another crisis in 1979 when oil production was cut severely as a result of the Iran-Iraq War. The outcome of these conflicts led many Metro Detroiters purchasing smaller foreign makes than the big Detroit-built gas suckers. Thousands of local auto employees, many of those still living in Detroit Proper, were laid off and could only look on sadly as plants closed, causing more havoc for city tax collecting.

One of the thousands of abandoned buildings in Detroit (US Public Domain) 

While the once-proud city of Detroit was falling to ruin, Mayor Coleman Young--the city’s first black mayor elected in 1973--went full-speed with revitalization plans for downtown. His first major project was the interconnected skyscraper complex called the Renaissance Center along the Detroit River. Opened in 1977, it became the world headquarters for General Motors and had the tallest hotel--73 stories containing 1300 rooms--in the Western Hemisphere, along with retail shops, banks, financial offices, and restaurants. This and other large-scale projects spearheaded by Mayor Young were expected to entice businesses and the people back downtown. But, the opposite happened: more area hotels, office buildings and shops closed.

Over the next few decades, the city worked hard to bring Downtown Detroit and the surrounding neighborhoods back to life by investing billions in several historic buildings that were once vacant, such as the Book Cadillac Hotel, the Fort Shelby Hotel, the David Whitney Building, and the glitzy Fox Theatre, the latter compliments of Mike Ilitch, who owned Little Caesers Pizza, the Detroit Red Wings, and the Detroit Tigers. Still, despite all these great efforts, overall problems remained.

Thousands of business and residential properties failed to pay their taxes in 2011 alone, amounting to $246 million in taxes and fees not collected. Mid-summer 2013, the city of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy--making it the largest American city filing for bankruptcy--when they were $18.5 billion in debt and unable to pay its creditors. By the end of the year, $7 billion of that debt was erased with creditors receiving between 14-75 cents on the dollar, which lightened the load for the city’s books.

Detroit hasn’t given up. Over the course of two years from 2014-2016, every downtown street light was replaced with LED lights--65,000 in total. Also, roads improved, gardens were planted along boulevards. The 18-story Michigan Central Station--the world’s tallest rail station when dedicated in 1914--unused since 1988 when Amtrak pulled out, has been renovated recently with new windows, updated electrical wires and lights, a new roof and elevators, as well as a general cleanup. The investors are now waiting for a buyer or at least renters.

Also, on December 12, 2013, Fernando Palazuelo, a 58-year-old real estate investor from Lima, Peru purchased the old Packard plant for $405,000 cash. Palazuelo’s large-scale plans to renovate the site over the next 10 years to lure various businesses to occupy the buildings have already started. If only there were more such people as Fernando Palazuelo stepping forward. There’s still another 75,000-plus abandoned buildings in the once-great Motor City to renovate and occupy.


Although it still has a long way to go, Detroit is doing its best to crawl back to life. 

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

NORTH TO ALASKA

Nome, Alaska, 1900 (US Public Domain)
When vast amounts of gold were discovered in Yukon Territory in 1896 and once word got out about it to the rest of the world a year later, the shocking result was the largest human stampede in recent memory. Over 100,000 people set out to strike it rich in the freezing cold Canadian north a stone’s throw from the Arctic Circle. Of the 100,000 who had originally set out on this back-breaking journey, 30,000 got there, and only 4,000 had actually struck any significant amounts of gold. Dawson became the epicenter of what history now knows as the Klondike Gold Rush. A tent town comprised of a mere 500 sturdy miners in 1896, Dawson evolved into a modern city of 30,000 within two short years.  

From 1896 to the end of the 19th Century, almost $30 million in gold ($700 million today) had been removed from the area. However, by 1899 the rush had ground to a halt. Prices across the board were dropping steadily that summer. Prospectors from nearby creeks were now seeking work in Dawson after their claims had turned up empty.  But there was no work to be found: too many people, not enough jobs. Everyone waited for something…anything…

Then, out of the blue, rumors raced up the Yukon River from the west--news of a gold strike on the Bering Sea, a destination much easier to arrive at than the grueling trek over the Rocky Mountains to the Klondike. Within a few days, the rumors were confirmed. Yes, gold had been discovered on the beaches at Nome, Alaska, a town so far north that it was well above the tree line. In one week, 8,000 people fled Dawson to seek their fortune elsewhere. One gold rush ended and another started. Thousands more people left for Alaska from mainland Canada and United States in the coming weeks and months. Nome was the place to be, and the Klondike was old news.

Ending 1899, Nome encompassed 10,000 people (populated heavily by the incoming Klondike sourdough prospectors) who lived in tents opposite their claims adjacent to the turbulent, freezing cold  Bering Sea. And it was true that the gold nuggets were found right there in the beach sands--for 30 miles up and down the flat coastline. Thousands more gold seekers came in 1900 aboard steamships that had departed San Francisco and Seattle.

Nome, Alaska, 1903 (US Public Domain)

Incorporated as a city on April 9, 1901, Nome became the largest city in Alaska. It was typical of most get-rich-quick boomtowns. It was a cesspool of sewage pouring daily into the Bering Sea and nearby creeks, resulting in bad drinking water. Houses and other wood structures, including those of businesses, quickly started replacing the tents. Soon, Nome had a perpetual clamor from saws and hammers, combined with grunts and moans from the wind-beaten workers. Methods of mining changed, too: Sluices, rockers, hoses and pumps took over from the simple panning by hand procedures. Due to the penetrating cold, damp weather and the permafrost only a few feet below the surface, most miners worked only from June to late-September then headed south to more pleasant temperatures.

Going ashore from ships at Nome during the early gold rush days was a problem because there was no harbor. Smaller boats had to take the passengers to the beach, for a price, of course--when the Bering Sea was finally free of coastal ice for the season. When it wasn’t, which was most of the time throughout the year, passengers made their way to shore by dogsleds. By 1901, a loading crane was constructed, four years later a proper wharf, finally replaced in 1907 by a tramway. Reaching a population of 20,000 in 1905, Nome had newspapers, various stores and shops, electric lights, churches and schools, along with plenty of brothels, gambling houses, and saloons to satisfy many patrons with “booze, broads, and cards.” By 1909 the rush was over and the population slid to a mere 2,600 brave individuals, with large companies running the show.

Nome’s most famous citizen--during the warmer months each year for four years at the turn of the century--was Western gunslinger Wyatt Earp, who had made his reputation during the Gunfight at the OK Corral twenty years earlier in Tombstone, Arizona. Earp had the good sense not to attempt his hand at mining. No, sir. Instead, he fleeced the miners by operating The Dexter Saloon which he co-owned and advertised as “The Only Second Class Saloon in Alaska.” According to the exterior signs on his place of business, he featured “Eastern Beer Only.” He also had “girls” upstairs for those men lacking some love life that far north.


The routes to Nome, Alaska from Seattle, Washington (US Public Domain)

Tex Richard--the future boxing promoter, besides the first owner of hockey’s New York Rangers in the Roaring Twenties--was Earp’s only real competition in town. One of those who came down the Yukon River from Dawson, Rickard ran the Northern Saloon. Despite rivals, Rickard and Earp became friends for life. It’s estimated that when Earp left Nome for good, he had with him $80,000 (about $2 million today). Prior to Earp packing it all up and heading south, gold was discovered in the Alaskan interior near Fairbanks in 1902, bringing about another stampede. Too bad William Seward was not around to witness it all.

Up to the time of the Nome and Fairbanks gold stampedes, Alaska had been American property for only a few decades. In 1864, William H. Seward, US Secretary of State to President Abraham Lincoln, had heard rumors that Russia--in deep financial trouble--wanted to sell their Russian America, a massive piece of land about one-fifth the size of the continental United States. Seward--then Secretary of State to Andrew Johnson, following Lincoln’s assassination--approached the Senate in early 1867 with a purchase proposal that ended up passing by only one vote on April 9.

For $7.2 million in gold, approximately two cents per acre, Alaska became part of the United States. Then the mockery kicked in, something that Seward had to live with the rest of his life until his death in 1872. Alaska soon became “Seward’s Folly,” “Uncle Sam’s Icebox,” “The Land of the Midnight Sun,” and “Seward’s Icebox.” Alaskan settlement was slow, at first. By 1890, the largest towns were Sitka and Juneau, 1,000 people each. The entire state had only 30,000 people, with 22,000 of those natives, 4,000 white, and the rest of mixed heritage.


But Americans weren’t laughing when gold was discovered in Alaska at the end of the century, along with oil and natural gas years later. Due to the influx of settlers, Alaska became a territory in 1912, then a state in 1959, initiated by a wild gold rush on a stretch of beach beside the Bering Sea in 1899. 

Thursday, 2 March 2017

THE REDHEAD NEVER LOOKED BACK

When “Red” Kelly finished his Junior A hockey career with the Memorial Cup winning St. Michael’s Majors--an amateur team sponsored by the Toronto Maple Leafs--in the spring of 1947, he wasn’t supposed to be talented enough to make the NHL: according to Leafs scout Squib Walker, who was convinced Kelly wouldn’t make it past 20 games in the NHL. Detroit Red Wings super scout Carson Cooper thought otherwise and signed the defenseman.

'52-53 Parkhurst gum card of
Red Kelly (Cdn Public Domain)
As it turned out, the strong, six-foot, 195-pound Kelly didn’t play a single game in the minors. At 20, he jumped right to the Red Wings in the fall of 1947 and stayed in the NHL until he retired in 1967. Six times a First Team All-Star on defense, including five in a row, and twice on the Second All-Star Team, he was the first recipient of the then-new James Norris Trophy in 1953-54 as the NHL’s best defenseman. In his 20 seasons played, his teams missed the playoffs only once and he was on eight Stanley Cup winners. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969; and in 1998 was ranked 22 on The Hockey News list of 100 greatest hockey players.

Leonard “Red” Kelly was born July 9, 1927 in Simcoe, Ontario. A typical Canadian boy, he learned to skate and stickhandle at an early age on frozen ponds near the family farm. At St. Mike’s College in Toronto, Kelly had the good fortune to be coached by ex-Leaf Joe Primeau, who had centered the Kid Line with teammates Charlie Conacher and Busher Jackson a decade before. All three are Hall of Famers.

Primeau taught Kelly--a left winger for the first two seasons--and his teammates to get the puck out of their zone quickly. Kelly did so well at clearing that he was put on defense in his last year.  Primeau also emphasized that you win games on the ice, not in the penalty box--words that Kelly never forgot in his pro years. Four times he was awarded the NHL’s Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship combined with talent.

In his first year with Detroit, Kelly was the fifth defenseman on an exceptional Red Wing team. By Christmas, he got his big chance when Doug McCaig broke his leg. As a regular, Kelly played alongside Leo Reise, a stay-at-home defenseman, which allowed Kelly to cut loose with his puck-carrying skills into the offensive zone. Kelly would also sub at center or left wing when injuries hit the team. On the power play, it was up to him to trigger the offense. While killing penalties, he often played up front as a checker.

During the 1949-50 season, right winger Gordie Howe sustained a serious head injury that forced him from the playoffs. As a result, GM Jack Adams juggled the lineup. He brought Marcel Pronovost up from the minors, where he was put on defense, thus slipping the versatile Kelly into a left wing spot. Despite Howe gone, the Wings still won the Stanley Cup that spring. By Kelly’s third year with Detroit, coach Tommy Ivan told the Toronto Star that Kelly was “The greatest all-around player in the league today.”

Kelly’s talents were not ignored by the opposition either. By the mid-1950’s, Leaf owner Conn Smythe said that “Kelly is the most valuable player in the NHL today.” New York Ranger coach Bill Cook added, “I’ve never seen anyone equal to him when it comes to bringing the puck out of his own end.” When Boston Bruins coach Lynn Patrick was asked which player he’d want on his team, Rocket Richard or Gordie Howe, Patrick said that he’d take Kelly instead. “Red is not only great on defense, he can score, too.” Montreal Canadiens GM Frank Selke paid Kelly the ultimate compliment: “Red is the best hockey player I have ever seen.”

The Red Wings finished first in the standings seven straight times from 1949-1955 and won four Stanley Cups with Kelly playing a major role in the team’s success as one of the first offensive defensemen in the post-war game: His goal totals were 15, 17, 16, 19, 16, and 15 respectively, and he had at least 30 assists every season except one.

By 1958-59, the Red Wing dynasty was ending due to several disastrous trades made in the front office by Jack Adams. The defense in disarray, the 32-year-old Kelly broke his ankle near the end of the season and was asked by Adams and coach Sid Abel to keep playing, despite the injury. Kelly obeyed, but he could barely turn on his skates. The Wings finished dead last, the first time out of the playoffs in 21 years. The injury was kept silent until Kelly, himself, leaked it in passing the following season to Trent Frayne, who had been working on a hockey piece about Kelly for the Star Weekly.

Kelly, by that time, was healthy and his play had improved dramatically. Marshall Dann, a Detroit Free Press reporter, picked up the Star Weekly story at the end of January 1960 and expanded on it under the headline, “Was Red Kelly forced to play on a broken foot?”

The news got back to Jack Adams, who called Kelly into his office on February 4 after a home game for a meeting with him and owner Bruce Norris. There, Adams informed Kelly that he was traded to New York along with forward Billy McNeill for Bill Gadsby and Eddie Shack, and told to be at the Leland Hotel at 8 AM to take a bus to New York. Kelly stood his ground, and said he’d think about it.

“What do you mean, you’ll think about it? Be there!” Adams roared in the player’s face.

Kelly repeated, “No, I’ll think about it.”

Kelly then went to his Detroit home to talk the situation over with his wife, Andra. By morning, he decided he was going to retire. McNeill, whose wife had died only weeks before, also refused to report. The furious Adams threatened to suspend Kelly, until the Maple Leafs made an offer to take Kelly off Detroit’s hands. Adams wanted a young defenseman named Marc Reaume in return. The deal was made before a stunned hockey world on February 10 and turned out to be one of the most lopsided transactions ever in NHL history.

'63-64 Parkhurst gum card of Red Kelly
(Canadian Public Domain)
Leafs coach Punch Imlach immediately made Kelly a full-time center. The following year, 1960-61, Kelly anchored a line with sharpshooter Frank Mahovlich, turning the youngster into a scoring machine. Kelly finished with 20 goals and 50 assists, helping the Big M collect 48 goals. Many people felt that if Kelly had not been injured for the last six games, Mahovlich would no doubt have reached the coveted 50.

By the time he retired in 1967, Kelly played on four more Stanley Cups winners as a Leaf. By adding in the four he had seen with Detroit, he holds the record for most Stanley Cup wins for a player not a Montreal Canadien. Meanwhile, Reaume played only 77 more games in the NHL, with the majority of his professional seasons in the minors until his retirement after 1970-71.

Kelly also found time to serve three years from 1963-1965 as a Liberal MP for Toronto’s West York riding in the federal parliament at the same time as the great flag debate. Lifetime, Kelly scored 281 goals and 542 assists in 1,316 games. In 164 playoff games, he scored 33 times and assisted on 59 others.  Kelly was known to never swear and was one of the least penalized players in his day--only 327 minutes in the regular season and 51 minutes in the playoffs.

Kelly went on to coach 10 seasons with three teams in the early years of expansion: The Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Toronto Maple Leafs before leaving the game for good and going into business. One of his greatest accomplishments coaching was his development of a young, frustrated left winger named Lanny McDonald--Toronto’s first pick in the 1973 draft and fourth overall--who had trouble scoring and was often booed by the impatient hometown Leaf fans. Under Kelly’s tutelage, McDonald found his scoring touch and was placed on a line with center Darryl Sittler and right winger Errol Thompson. These three fit like a glove, terrorizing opposition goalies throughout the late-1970’s.

I’ve been in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena for some hockey games over the years, and when I look up and see retired uniforms belonging to such greats as Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Terry Sawchuk, and Steve Yzerman, I just shake my head. Where’s Kelly’s jersey? Some people seem to think that it may have been because he refused to report to New York in 1960. Really? What about Ted Lindsay? He bucked the Red Wing ownership as well as the NHL establishment when he organized his Players’ Association in 1957. His Number 7 is raised high over the ice.

Why not Kelly’s Number Four?

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

JOSEPH WILLCOCKS: CANADA’S WAR OF 1812 TRAITOR

Major-General Isaac Brock, 1809
(Canadian Public Domain)
In fact, you might say that Willcocks was Canada’s Benedict Arnold. Arnold was the American general who had sold his soul to the British during America’s fight for independence during the Revolutionary War almost thirty years prior to 1812. Irishman Joseph Willcocks was a whole different story, a man of changeable loyalties who left both sides—Canadian and American—wondering how committed he really was to either cause because he seemed to have a love-hate relationship with both countries 

Willcocks was born 
in Palmerstown, Ireland in 1773 and at 27 sailed the Atlantic to live in York, Upper Canada (now Toronto, Ontario). He became a clerk at cushy various government jobs that he had been handed, thanks to kin membersbusinessman William Willcocks and Receiver General Peter Russell, both distant cousins. Some of Joseph’s positions were a receiver and payer of fees in the Surveyor General’s Office, registrar of the probate court, and sheriff of the Home District, an expanse that encompassed Simcoe and York countiesIncidentally, as sheriff, he was removed from office for obnoxious behavior in 1807. 

Politically minded, 
he was an 18th century WhigThe elitist group known as Whigs believed in free trade and parliament over absolute monarchy. They also received financial support from wealthy merchants and strong industrial interests. Willcocks was elected as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada in 1807, 1808 and 1812, representing York, as well as 1st Lincoln and Haldimand regions. On one occasion he was jailed for contempt of the House. In 1807, when he moved to Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), he founded the opposition newspaper Upper Canada Guardian; or Freeman’s Journal. Yes, both names were used with a semi-colon in between.  

Through his rebellious paper
, he viciously attacked the British government on a regular basis in his four-page, 11-by-17-inch publication combating subjects such as oppressive land laws and fees, and misuse of power on many occasionsIn short, he promoted liberty, justice, and a future republic in Upper Canada much like the Republic of Ireland of which he had left. Willcocks also claimed to be the only person in Canada who dared to speak the truth. Many people thought he was being swayed by disgruntled American and Irishmen living in Upper Canada. Willcocks published his small but influential spread from July 24, 1807 to June 1812 before selling it to for $1,600. During those turbulent five years, he was jailed twice for libel.


An example of Joseph Willcocks' looting in the Niagara area (Canadian Public Domain)

By 1812, while
 war loomed with the United Statesmilitary commander of Upper Canada Major General Isaac Brock sought the help of Willcocks in securing the Six Nations natives--inside Willcocks’ constituencies--as Brit allies. That accomplished, and much appreciated by Brock, Willcocks then fought alongside Brock and his men consisting of British and Canadian soldiers, Canadian militia and native warriors at Queenston Heights that October when the Americans had invaded Upper Canada’s south. Brock was killed in action and the British incorporated martial law, which Willcocks--true to his nature--had always opposed, going back to when it had been first suggested in the Legislative Assembly at the beginning of hostilities 

On May 27, 1813, the Americans with 5
,000 troops attacked Niagara near Newark, capturing adjacent Fort George and chasing the Canadian-British troops as far back as Burlington Heights at the base of present-day Hamilton. Two months later, Willcocks decided to sail across the Niagara River on his own and offered his services to the Americans at Fort Niagara. He may not have been that pro-American, however. He merely thought they would win the conflict. Not only had Willcocks “turn-coated,” he had committed a treasonous act because he was still being a member of the Upper Canada Legislative Assembly 

Within a
 few weeks, Willcocks had recruited and took command of about 120 men soon to be called the Company of Canadian Volunteers--mostly American immigrants and some pro-American Canadians living in NiagaraTwo of his officers were prominent elected officials: Abraham Markle and Benajah Mallory.  Reminiscent  of American Civil War Confederate guerilla leaders “Bloody Bill” Anderson and William Quantrill fifty years later, the newly-appointed Major Willcocks led his crew in foraging, scouting, and a reign of terror by burning pro-Brit farms--property belonging to people he had known, including many political enemies, friends and neighborsWillcocks took several hostages, throwing them into prison south of the border. Then that December, Willcocks, now a lieutenant colonel, went too far. 

Following crucial defeats at the battles of Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams in June, the badly beaten Americans gradually retreated to Fort George which they eventually abandoned on December
 10Nearby was the town of Newark, where Willcocks had lived and printed his controversial newspaper for six years. Following orders from the American officer in charge at the fort and upon Willcocks’ urging, Brigadier General George McClure, the Americans forcibly removed  the Newark townspeople, mostly women, children, and elderly from their homes into a bitter-cold snow storm with only the clothes on their backs, about 400 civilians in all. Then Willcocks and his raiders, along with the other retreating Americans burned approximately 150 houses to the ground, leaving only three houses, forcing the locals to find what shelter they could in the nearby woods, amid two- and three-foot snowdrifts.  

In one situation, Willcocks ordered two of his men to remove a sickly woman, bed and all, and deposit her in the snow. Earlier that year, Willcocks had sent her husband, William Dickson, stateside as a prisoner. Now Willcocks wanted 
to destroy the Dickson property, too. While the two Canadian Volunteers wrapped the woman and took her out the door, Willcocks personally torched the two-story house along with all the contents. Once the fiery, dirty deed was done to their liking throughout the townthe band of Americans proceeded to advance across the Niagara River, with the Company of Canadian Volunteers bringing up the rear within sight of the British troops led by Lieutenant General Sir Gordon Drummond 


Lt-General Gordon Drummond
(Canadian Public Domain)
Hot on the heels of the Americans, the British were enraged at the sight of the smoldering ruins of Newark as they approached from the south. They took on the retreating Canadian Volunteers, killing two and capturing several soldiers, while Willcocks and the others got away.  In retaliation, Drummond and his men sailed across the river within a few days, captured Fort Niagara with a surprise attack, and in the next few weeks torched several towns and villages, including Lewiston, Black Rock and Buffalo on the American side, and occupied the shores of the river until war’s end. No building along the Niagara River between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie was safe.  

How many Newark civilians died during December 1813 was undocumented. Undoubtedly, many froze to death. The shocking events of that day made headlines in many newspapers in England. Shortly after his order to burn the town, McClure was relieved of his command and dismissed from the US Army, while Joseph Willcocks 
now had a price on his head.

British vengeance didn’t stop with 
the burning of Newark. Once Napoleon’s army was defeated in April 1814, the British now turned their attention to the all-out war effort in America by sending thousands of troops across the Atlantic. When they invaded Washington in August, the Brits left the White House (known then as the President’s House), the Capitol Building, and many other government structures in flames and smoke, in direct response to the unwarranted destruction at Newark. Luckily for the Americans, hours after the attack on Washington, a wicked thunderstorm--quite possibly a hurricane--raced through the city and put the flames out.  


In 1814, 
19 captured people were charged with high treason and others not in Canadian custody were also marked following the Ancaster Bloody Assize Trials of 1814, in Ancaster, Upper Canada. As a result, eight of Willcocks’ comrades were hanged and seven others banished. Willcocks met his own violent end that September succumbing to a gunshot would during the Siege of Fort Erie--the last skirmish between the British and American forces on the Niagara front 

Due to potential retaliation or even death 
once the Treaty of Ghent was signed in early 1815 to end the War of 1812, the surviving members of the Company of Canadian Volunteers settled in the United States where it was much safer for them. Two of these had been mentioned earlier: Benejah Mallory, who had subsequently taken over the Canadian Volunteers upon Willcocks’ death, and Abraham Markle.  

Today, 
Joseph Willcocks is buried in an unmarked grave in Buffalo, with neither side ever considering honoring the notorious rebel of questionable loyalties. And who says Canadian history is boring?