The 1935 Grey Cup — ’Pegs travelled east to take on the mighty Hamilton Tigers

by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

A driving snowstorm made the football and playing field slippery and contributed to a game in which no passing yards were recorded and a fumble led to the only touchdown scored. But the one touchdown was enough to enable the Winnipeg Rugby Football Club to advance to the 1935 Grey Cup in Hamilton and provide the team with an opportunity to enter the Canadian football history book.

In the Western final prior to the historic Grey Cup, 1,000 people were seated in the Osborne Stadium stands on the snowy winter day to witness the Winnipegs, also called the ’Pegs, defeat the Calgary Bronks.  

“Winnipeg’s unbeaten rugby club plowed through the snow at Osborne Stadium Saturday afternoon with much success,” wrote sports reporter E.A. Armstrong in the November 11, 1935, Winnipeg Free Press. “They emerged with a 7-0 triumph over the surprising Calgary Bronks and with that victory went the Western Canada championship Hugo Ross trophy (named after the Winnipeg REALTOR® who perished in the 1912 Titanic tragedy), and the right of entry to the Dominion final in the East.”

It was the Winnipegs’ ninth straight victory of their unbeaten football season which saw the team dominate the Western Canada Rugby Football Union. The Winnipegs compiled a convincing 191 points against their opponents with only 32 scored against the team.

Armstrong reported the snow was so heavy on the field that the ’Pegs were unable to use their complete répertoire of plays. From the onset the board of strategy elected to keep the Bronks ‘in the hole.’ These tactics proved successful, for less than ten minutes of the first quarter had elapsed when the blue and gold warriors were credited with a touchdown. It came as a result of a fumble by the steady-going finely-conditioned Alex McKenzie, Calgary back fielder.”

After the fumble, Russ Rebholz, the star of the game, ran the ball into the Calgary end zone “as a result of beautiful blocking by his team-mates.”

Rebholz was responsible for six of the seven points scored. Punter, star halfback and team captain, Greg Kabat, added a single point in the third quarter.

Due to the adverse conditions, punting dominated the game with Winnipeg lofting the ball skyward 19 times for a total of 659 yards and Calgary 20 times for 771 total yards. Winnipeg blocked four punts during the game, while the Bronks failed to block any ’Pegs’ punts.

Armstrong said the Bronks (forerunners of the Stampeders) were an underrated team. “Due to the slippery conditions it will never be known just how good the Calgary Bronks were ...”

While playing defence, Calgary’s Carl Cronin was said to be a “menace to Winnipeg ball carriers all afternoon. In addition to carrying the kicking burden Charlie (Harrison) showed himself adept at blocking, passing, tackling and running as well.”

In this era of Canadian football, many of the players were on the field for the entire game, playing both offence and defence, although substitutions were also freely used.

Cronin, the playing coach for the Bronks, actually started out playing for the Winnipegs. He came to Winnipeg in 1932 from Chicago after playing college football at the Notre Dame University. He was the ’Pegs’  first-ever American import. 

Winnipeg recorded 10 first downs in the game, while Calgary struggled in the driving snowstorm, rushing for only two first downs. The ’Pegs rushed the ball for 179 yards — the longest gain from scrimmage was a mere 25 yards — with the Bronks registering 62 yards rushing. Passing under the conditions was impossible as Winnipeg put up the ball five times and Calgary had three pass attempts with neither team recording a completion.

While the Calgary squad “fought hard ... offensively the Bronks could go nowhere against the ’Pegs ... the champions’ line held time and time again ...

“It was not a game for the stars to shine Saturday,” reported the Free Press, “for field conditions were terrible. However, some of the stars did show despite all handicaps, and a pair of them were Fritz Hanson and ‘Bud’ Marquardt. Little Fritz, shaken loose on a few occasions, gave a surprisingly large crowd all the thrills required, and Marquardt, particularly defensively, stood out all afternoon like a sore thumb.”

The team led by playing coach Bob Fritz — coaches couldn’t call in plays from the sidelines, so a playing coach was used by every football club  — was laden with talent from south of the border. Quarterback and coach Fritz was from Fargo, North Dakota; quarterback Russ Rebholz “the Wisconsin Wraith,” who originally arrived in Winnipeg as the playing coach for the St. John’s football club in 1932; Lou “Rosy” Adelman was from California; and Fritz Hanson was a native of Perham, Minnesota, who played college ball at North Dakota State University. Other Americans on the 1935 team were Greg Kabat, a former University of Wisconsin star; Dr. Bert Oja, an all-American from Minnesota who was a stellar lineman after whom a Blue Bomber award was later named; as well as Joe Perpich from Minnesota. 

Hanson, who was known as “The Blond Ghost” during his playing days with the North Dakota State University Bisons, was lured north by Winnipeg football club manager Joe B. Ryan. Many American pro and semi-pro football teams, such as the Brooklyn Giants (later New York Giants of the NFL), had expressed an interest in Hanson, but Ryan’s offer of $125 a game plus room and board proved too tempting for the diminutive, but speedy, halfback. 

W.P. “Bud” Marquardt, a native Winnipegger, played with Hanson at North Dakota State University before also joining the Winnipegs in 1935. Known as one of the all-time greats of the team, Marquardt  left the Bombers in 1941 and went to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The Winnipeg Rugby Football Club had been formed on June 10, 1930,  by a group of local businessmen. The club based at Wesley Park (since swallowed up by expansion of the University of Winnipeg) played its first game on September 27, 1930 — a 14-2 loss to St. John’s (at the urging of Ryan, the ’Pegs merged with St. John’s in 1932 to form a stronger club with the goal to compete for the Grey Cup)  — at Carruthers Park, Carruthers Avenue and Main Street. The soccer-oriented stadium was demolished in the 1940s. 

The ’Pegs, who a year later were renamed the Blue Bombers thanks to famed Winnipeg Tribune sports writer Vince Leah, played their first football season at Osborne Stadium in 1935. Osborne Stadium was later demolished to make way for the Great West Life building. In 1935, Ryan also convinced a number of local bankers to invest $7,500 to be used to recruit nine U.S. college football stars, including Hanson.

After becoming Canada’s first full-time football club manager, Ryan was entirely focused on bringing the Grey Cup to Winnipeg, and took all the necessary steps to make his dream a reality.

When the team stepped onto their train at Winnipeg to head east, a “huge banner” carried by Fred Furgeson, bore the message, “Winnipeg Wants That Championship.” A “monster throng” cheered the players at the Union train station and offered their best wishes for success in the East.

Besides the players named by Fritz travelling east to compete in the Grey Cup, the squad included manager Ryan and assistant manager Frank Emma. Others travelling east with the team included treasurer Syd Halter, trainer Billy Hughes, club president Hannibal and vice-presidents Hance Bryce and Les Isard.

To keep the team away from the prying eyes of opposition spies, the Winnipegs were scheduled to practice at Detroit for a week prior to the Grey Cup game on December 7. 

When the Winnipegs arrived in Detroit, the Eastern champion had not been decided. Hamilton and Sarnia were scheduled to compete for the championship on Saturday, November 30, at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium. The odds-makers listed the Sarnia Imperials, the previous year’s Grey Cup champions, as 6-5 favourites to win the Eastern final. The game was close during the first half — Sarnia led 3-2 at half time — but Hamilton took over control in the third quarter, emerging as a 22-3 victor.

Oja, an assistant to Fritz, and Pete Somers stayed in Toronto to scout the Eastern final for the Winnipegs, while  their ’Pegs teammates and club managment soon upon arrival in the Ontario capital made the connection with a train headed for Detroit.

“I was disappointed in a way,” said Oja following the game, “because the Tigers didn’t show any attacking strength from scrimmage. That was natural, of course, because once (quarterback) Johnny Ferraro got going in the third period, they didn’t have to take chances.

“We think our line is as strong as any and certainly it won’t give way before the Tigers,” added Oja. “We have a better forward pass defence than Sarnia had Saturday and I think the Tiger tacklers will have trouble bringing down Fritz Hanson and Russ Rebholz.”

Somers, a star fullback for the University of Minnesota Gophers for four years, claimed the Regina Roughriders, who Winnipeg beat prior to the game against Calgary, were a better team than either Hamilton or Sarnia. Somers would be in a Winnipegs uniform in 1936.

Once Hamilton won the Eastern title, the controversy over the Grey Cup  game’s location commenced. Winnipeg wanted the east-west final to be held on neutral ground in Toronto, while Hamilton claimed that as the Canadian Rugby Union Eastern champions, they had the right to home field advantage. The day scheduled for the game also drew the ire of the Winnipeg club officials, who complained that it was too late in the year. Western executives maintained that the late date for the Grey Cup final even went against the constitution of the CRU, which stated the Eastern final was to be held no later than the second week in November and the East-West final had to be played by the third week of November.

“The West is moving ahead rapidly with its football,” said enraged Winnipegs manager Ryan. “We’re swinging more to the American code (rules) each year and the customers are with us. Our season is much shorter than in the east, and we are just about fed up with the efforts to keep pace with the authority flaunted over us by the Canadian Rugby Union.”

In the ensuing years, Western officials said playing under one set of rules throughout the season and then the Grey Cup under another set of rules gave Eastern teams an unfair advantage. In 1937, the Western Canadian Rugby Football Union threatened to withdraw from the CRU if the rules, including innovations from Western Canada, weren’t made uniform across the nation.

“Failure of the CRU to give favourable consideration,” said WCRFU president A.M. Naismith of Calgary in 1937, “or the presentation of a satisfactory substitution for our recommendations, is going to force me, admittedly with reluctance, to recommend that the west disassociate itself with the CRU.”

Just days before the 1935 Grey Cup game, the CRU hosted a special meeting to decide the site for the final. Barry Bain, the immediate-past-president of the Winnipegs, was sent to Toronto from the team’s training camp in Detroit to argue for the game being played at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. Bain could have saved himself the cost of a train ticket, as it was known that the CRU favoured Hamilton’s position and ruled accordingly.

Free Press sportswriter W.G. Allen said that giving Hamilton the home field advantage meant “the Winnipegs have to work harder than ever to achieve victory, as bearding the Tigers in their den is no tea-cup affair. But it can scarcely be said the selection of the grounds came as any surprise, as the CRU has never shown any favourable disposition toward western teams.”

He claimed the decision to award Hamilton the Grey Cup final was the result of an earlier agreement between the CRU and the Tigers, who had objected to playing the Eastern final against Sarnia in Toronto. Allen said the Tigers officials went along with the Eastern final game site under the condition that the Grey Cup would be played in Hamilton.

Due to the CRU adverse rulings, Ryan vowed that if the ’Pegs failed to beat Hamilton, no Manitoba team would ever again head east to challenge for the Grey Cup.

Winnipeg did score one victory over the CRU. Winnipegs manager Ryan had phoned Toronto from Detroit to insist that the CRU allow the Western league referee have a major role in officiating on game day. The CRU agreed to allow Eddie Grant of Winnipeg to referee the first half of the Grey Cup game and umpire the second half. Hec Creighton, head of the Eastern league’s “whistle-blowing corps,” was the referee for the second half and umpired the first half.

“Joe (Ryan) was further victorious by having an inter-collegiate union man appointed as head linesman in place of ‘Big 4,’ (the nickname given to the Eastern league), Kress, who worked last Saturday and looked to the ’Peg observers in attendance as incompetent,” reported Armstrong.

“The argument used by Hamilton spokesmen was that Grant was unaccustomed to Canadian rules on account of the variance in the west with the CRU code and the number of games played against American colleges. When Ryan suggested, ‘Okay, we will bring Milne of Regina east,’ they welched.”

What possible threat was posed by using Weyburn, Saskatchewan, native Howie Milne as a referee is a matter of speculation. Indeed, Milne has been inducted into the Saskatchewan Football Hall of Fame and was subsequently the head official in many Western finals. Presumably at the time, Milne was “unaccustomed to Canadian rules.”

Western football rules favoured a more wide-open style of play. Unfortunately for Western teams, the powers behind football in the East held sway over competition for the Grey Cup and opposed at every turn the progress made in the game that invariably came out of Western Canada.

Prior to the Grey Cup game, Winnipeg played an exhibition game on December 3 in Windsor, Ontario, against local Assumption College (now Windsor University). By all accounts, Assumption wasn’t much of a football side, winning just two games, losing three and tying one in the Michigan-Ontario collegiate conference which used American football rules. For the exhibition match, it was decided to play one half using Canadian rules and one half using American rules.

The ’Pegs essentially used the exhibition match as a tune-up for the Grey Cup, since the team hadn’t played a game in over three weeks due to having to wait for the Eastern championship to be decided.

Sports writers called the game against Assumption nothing more than a “frigid scrimmage” for the Winnipegs.

“As expected,”reported Allen, “Coach Bob Fritz did not show any more than was necessary in the practice game against Assumption College Monday. Critics who went down to Windsor expecting to see the Winnipegs display their full répertoire were naturally disappointed, but the ’Pegs got what they were after, a good stiff workout.”

Hamilton Tigers coach Fred Veale, who was on hand to see the game, was “impressed by the size and speed of the Manitobans,” reported Armstrong. The Winnipegs' average weight was 187 pounds compared to the Tigers’ average of 170 pounds.

“The Tiger backfield will undoubtedly have an edge on the western champions,” commented Veale after the game in Windsor, “but we will have plenty of trouble winning.”

After the game, Veale told reporters he realized that the Winnipeg club was “not playing serious football” against Assumption.

Yet, coach Fritz wasn’t impressed by the Winnipegs’ relatively easy 17-0 victory over the college side.

“It was the first real scrimmage we have had since we won the western championship a month ago from Calgary, Fritz told the Canadian Press. “And we find we need work. Boy, how we need work. We’re going to be a different team when we run into Hamilton Saturday. I’ll tell you that much.”

One concern for the Winnipeg club was a wrist injury sustained by Fritz during the exhibition game. Fritz was the Winnipeg short passing threat, able to throw with either hand. But unless the swelling in his hand went down, Fritz  would miss the Hamilton contest. Arni Coulter, a product of the Winnipeg Tammany Tigers organization who had been with the ‘Pegs since 1931, would sub for Fritz in the Grey Cup game if the American couldn’t play, while Rebholz and Kabat would continue to share long-pass duties in the ’Pegs’ offensive scheme. 

Dr. Keane, the team physician for the Detroit Tigers, looked over Fritz’s injury, pronounced it only a severe sprain and declared him fit to play in the game as long as he gave his hand a rest.

After the Eastern final, sports pundits began to speculate on how Winnipeg would fare against the Tigers. For their part, the Hamilton squad was confident they would easily defeat the Winnipegs, as were most eastern commentators. After all, they reasoned, Western teams had been trying in vain to win the Grey Cup since 1921. Every Western challenger had been defeated in the Grey Cup final, including the Regina Roughriders’ 1934 Grey Cup loss to the Eastern champion Sarnia Imperials. But the 1934 game showed Western teams were getting more competitive as Regina only lost by a 20-12 score. On the other hand, when the Winnipeg Tammany Tigers played in the 1925 Grey Cup, the final score was 24-1 in favour of the Ottawa Senators.

(Next week: part 2)