The 1935 Grey Cup — “stage set for most electrifying run in Canadian football history”

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

The emergence of the undefeated  Winnipegs as the 1935 Western champions gave new hope that the East could finally be overcome in the national championship game.

“Perhaps it’s the west’s year,” speculated Canadian Press sportswriter Ray Collett. “Time after time the football monarchs of the prairies have travelled east in their courageous efforts to bring the Earl Grey trophy from its time-worn resting place. Each year they have proved themselves just a bit harder to beat, just a little more powerful and able to hold the defenders. Time after time they have returned empty-handed, licking their football wounds, frustrated once again in a quest that has become mania in the west.”

Collett wrote that the East should be aware of the increasing power of the Western Canadian teams, “and there will be plenty of easterners willing to give (the) ’Pegs an even chance to do what no western team has done before.”

“A line bristling with power, a backfield with terrific plunging might and some brilliant runners — plus a well-groomed forward passing offence and defence, tells the story. Oja, Marquardt, Mogul, Kushner, Kabat, with Fritz and Eddie James riding the plunger engine, and Rebholz and little Fritzie Hanson to round the ends — they are boys to watch.”

The actual starting line-up for the ’Pegs was forward wingback Greg Kabat, halfback Russ Rebholz, halfback Fritz Hanson, halfback Eddie James, quarterback Bob Fritz, snap (centre) Lou Adelman, inside (lineman, the equivalent of a guard today) Eddie Kushner, inside Bert Oja, middle (lineman, the equivalent of a tackle today) Lou Mogul, middle Herb Peschel, outside (lineman, the equivalent of a tight end today) W.P. “Bud” Marquardt and outside Joe Perpich. When Hamilton had possession of the ball, the Winnipeg linemen played on the defensive line and the more speedy backfielders, such as Hanson, played as defensive backs.

Winnipeg subs for the game were Dick Lane, Tubber Kobrinsky, Coulter, Slush Harris, Bill Cerretti, Herb Mobberley, Cliff Roseborough, Nick Pagones, Dave Harding, Jeff Nicklin and Eric Law. 

Winnipeg fans who journeyed east to watch the Grey Cup included Winnipeg Mayor John Queen and Manitoba Premier John Bracken and several members of his cabinet. Both were confident 1935 was the Winnipegs’ year to succeed. 

All Winnipeggers attending the game had reserved seating in a special section and indicated they were going to show their support for the Winnipegs by dressing up in the teams’ blue and gold colours.

When Oja and Pete Somers returned to Detroit from the Hamilton-Sarnia game in Toronto, they met for six-hours with coach Fritz to perfect a defensive scheme to stop the vaunted Tigers’ attack.

Armstrong said before the ’Pegs defeated Assumption that the team could beat the Hamilton squad if the team regained its October and early November form. 

“Unbeaten and untied ... this year, the Winnipeg Rugby club is a much discussed aggregation in eastern Canada today,” wrote Winnipeg Free Press sportswriter E.A. Armstrong. “Having watched Hamilton Tigers out fumble the Sarnia Imperials in Toronto Saturday afternoon, on a perfect gridiron, this observer is left with only one bewildering question: ‘How much effectiveness, if any, have the ’Pegs lost as a result of the unforced lay-off since November 7.’”

After a week of practice, ’Pegs manager Joe Ryan declared, “The boys are about ready to blitz one another’s heads off and for two pins they’d masticate me, too. It’s a good sign. The players are in fine condition ... right now they are in what you might call ‘fighting trim.’”

Pronounced in game shape, the team left Detroit on Friday night, December 6, for Hamilton. The day before their date with destiny, the team stayed overnight at the Royal Connaught Hotel.

“The official beginning of the great football fever which today drives football club executives, newspapermen and fans crazy came late one afternoon in Hamilton, Ontario,” wrote Free Press sports writer Bob Moir on November 28, 1953, recounting the drama of the 1935 Grey Cup.

“It was December 7, 1935.

“That was the day a blond-haired fellow from North Dakota reeled off the 75-yard run that has had football fans from Montreal to Edmonton talking for the last 18 years.

“It was Fritzie Hanson’s touchdown in the third quarter of the 1935 Grey Cup final which led (the) Winnipegs to an 18-12 victory over the Hamilton Tigers.

“Nine thousand persons ... sat in on the turning point in Canadian football.

“Bud Marguardt took a pass from Russ Rebholz to score the first Winnipeg touchdown and Greg Kabat took a pass from Rebholz for the second. Rebholz also converted the second major, and Kabat scored Winnipeg’s 12th point by kicking a single.

“The stage was set for the most electrifying run in Canadian football history.”

Winnipeg led the game in the first quarter 5-3 and the half-time score was 12-4 in favour of the Westerners.

At the time of the “electrifying run,” the Winnipegs were ahead 12-10, but Hamilton was threatening to turn the game around. 

Hamilton had earlier recovered a fumble by Fritz — hampered by his injured hand — in the third quarter which led to a Tigers touchdown, but the convert was missed and Winnipeg led 12-9. Hamilton added a single from a punt to make the score 12-10.

Canadian Press sports writer Elmer Dulmnage witnessed and described the epic play: “It was the blond Hanson, former North Dakota State college star, who dominated a thrilling struggle with sensational sprints through the broken field. It was his breath-taking 75-yard run for a touchdown in the third quarter that finally broke every eastern hope of turning back the Manitoba assault, the 12th attempt of the west to make a national gridiron conquest.

“A towering impregnable wingline backed by burly Bert Oja, and a well-equipped backfield that carried every attacking weapon except the punt, provided the 145-pound Hanson with great support. But Fritzies’ twinkling toes (“Twinkle Toes” was a nickname he carried from that point onward) were the deciding factor.

“The most deadly tackling squadron in the east ... was helpless to do anything about Hanson. They flung themselves in his path — or what looked to be his path.

He wrote that the Winnipegs were struggling to maintain their lead, “when the North Dakotan made his climaxing moves, a lightning-like stab that brought the crowd up howling for the little man who moves faster than any in the Canadian sport.”

Prior to the run, the Winnipegs had been pushed back to their 30-yard line by the punting of Hamilton's Frank Turville and Huck Welch.

“Then Welch punted a low ball that bounced along into Hanson’s arms. Two tacklers were on the little man, who sidestepped them. He swung over to centre and started to run. Down the middle of the field he raced so fast that not a single hand was laid on him. The dramatic sprint, followed by Russ Rebholz’s covert, made the score 18-10.

“From the first, it was Hanson who made up for the lack of punting power (by Winnipeg). Rebholz and Greg Kabat gave an erratic display in the air against the steady booting of Turville and Welch. But with Hanson making nearly every catch, 50-yard punts usually resulted in gains of only about 30 yards.”

Vince Leah, author of A History of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, wrote that Hanson was surrounded by a ring of Hamilton tacklers, “skidding to a stop on the icy gridiron to prevent a no-yards penalty. Before the defence knew what had happened Hanson burst through the middle and raced for a touchdown.”

In the fourth quarter, Hanson helped seal the win while playing defence, knocking down a Ferrero pass. On the play, the Tigers were assessed a 10-yard penalty for failing to complete two successive passes (a CRU rule). Forced to punt, Welch kicked the ball to Hanson, who caught the ball on the Winnipeg 25-yard line and ran it back to Hamilton’s 52.

Kabat later conceded a two-point safety with three minutes remaining in the game, making the score 18-12, which was the final result as the Tigers were unable to mount another scoring drive. They came close, but in the shadow of Winnipeg’s goalposts, Adelman blocked a kick that “changed the Hamilton offense just when it was travelling at high speed and seconds later the whistle blew,” giving the Winnipegs the Grey Cup, the first ever by a Western-based team.

What made Hanson’s 75-yard run more astonishing was the fact that the rules of day forbade blocking on returns, although as in today’s game, there existed a five-yard restricted zone for defenders to allow punt receivers to take possession of the ball. In fact, downfield blocking on plays from scrimmage was illegal due to the interference zone which prohibited blocking a yard beyond the line of scrimmage. The CRU later expanded the interference (blocking) zone to three yards from scrimmage, while the Western teams played under a 10-yard interference rule.

American sports writer Henry McLemore, who saw the Winnipegs beat the Tigers, actually favoured the Canadian rules. “With blocking barred, the backs who are not carrying the ball on a play stream along the ball-carrier after the manner of a convey, waiting for a lateral,” he wrote in a United Press article carried by many U.S.-based newspapers. “And they get plenty of them ... 

“With no bruising block to clear his path, your Canadian ball-carrier must either have the speed of a ring-tailed gazelle and the wile of a trapped fox or become reconciled to spending his Saturday afternoons on the seat of his pants back of the line of scrimmage,” added McLemore.

“Up here they still believe the foot has something to do with football, and the kicking is much superior to our American punting. Not only do the boys get distance, but they can hit a handkerchief at 50 yards.”

During the Grey Cup final, the ’Pegs gained nine first downs to Hamilton’s three. The Winnipegs amassed 125 yards rushing opposed to only 38 for the Tigers. The ’Pegs also gained 87 yards passing compared to just 38 for Hamilton. Rebholz passed for two “beautiful” touchdowns, and knocked down several passes while playing defence.

The only statistic dominated by Hamilton was kicking — punting was then an integral part of the game — with Turville kicking 22 times, but this was negated by Hanson’s returns.

Led by Hanson, the Winnipegs compiled 367 return yards, while Hamilton could only muster 95. Besides his historic 75-yard run, Hanson also made two lengthy returns of 52 and 43 yards.

Following the game, Frank “Shag” Shaughnessy, a product of Notre Dame college football who was the first professional coach hired by a Canadian university (McGill), insisted that in all his 34 yards of football, “he has never seen anything to even equal” the punt return by Hanson.

Newspapers reported telegrams came from across Canada congratulating the Winnipegs. “After the triumph the Hamilton messenger boys could hardly keep pace with the deluge of telegrams from exuberant fans all over the country,” said the Free Press. “From Vancouver in the west to Montreal in the east came congratulations.”

For Winnipeggers at home, many of whom listened to the game on the radio, it was a time to forget the woes of the Great Depression and for a few hours at least celebrate the “good news” presented to them by their local Grey Cup heroes.

“The game was over not a second when the first tidal wave of exulting enthusiasm engulfed the city,” reported the Free Press. “On it rolled, touching, it seemed, everyone from the panhandler to professor, from society dowager to scrubwoman ... They yelled. And after all, when a rugby team, in winning the Canadian championship, does something that no western aggregate has ever done before, it’s something to yell about.”

People flooded out onto Portage Avenue shortly after the radio broadcast ended. At 10 o’clock, the streets were still filled with people celebrating the ’Pegs’ history-making victory.

Hamilton was said to have been stunned by the loss, although the players “voted unanimously that Hanson was the best player seen in this country since the era of Lionel Conacher,” a multi-sport star who had played for the Toronto Argonauts in the 1920s.

“Hanson, the most elusive individual seen on a Canadian gridiron in years,” wrote Toronto Globe sports writer Mike Rodden, “was the greatest of them all, and I am of the opinion that he represented the difference between victory and defeat.”

Winnipeg’s Armstrong wrote in stylistic prose that “the prairie monarchs with utter disregard for eastern prestige won for themselves and a greatly elated western public the highest honors in Canadian rugby football.”

He said the Winnipegs’ 11th consecutive victory in an unbeaten season resulted from “superior poise, smartness and resourcefulness.”

“Our big, willing line poured through to torment their backs, harass their kickers and hurry their passers,” Armstrong added. “The defence was soundly conceived and brilliantly executed. In addition young Fritzy Hanson literally knocked the eastern skeptics for a row of astigmatism.”

Armstrong claimed Hanson could “write his own ticket,” following the victory. “He bewildered them (Hamilton) by sheer speed and flawless broken field running ... His contribution to the afternoon’s entertainment was almost impudent for his antics took pace on a field where the west has taken many a beating.”

Decades later, football scribes still write in glowing terms about the 1935 Grey Cup, its place in history and the dazzling 75-yard run by Hanson, which many continue to regard as the greatest return in Grey Cup history.

Hanson’s punt return record has since been broken. In the 1996 Grey Cup, Toronto’s Jimmy “the Jet” Cunningham ran a punt back 80 yards, but Edmonton’s Henry “Gizmo” Williams soon followed with a 91-yard return, which remains a Grey Cup record. What should be noted is that both returns were made with downfield blocking allowed, while Hanson’s run, according to all reports of the 1935 Grey Cup, was a single-handed effort without the benefit of blockers due to the rules of the era — he simply blew by all potential Hamilton tacklers. Ironically, the new Grey Cup record was set in Hamilton where Hanson made his own gallop into the record book 61 years earlier.

Trent Frayne in a November 24, 1990, Globe and Mail article, wrote that Hanson was the first national football hero and the Winnipegs’ gave the Grey Cup its national presence. He discounted the claim that when the Calgary Stampeders’ and their fans’ arrived in Toronto in 1948 — sporting 10-gallon cowboy hats and a Wild West attitude — it marked the beginning of the Grey Cup as a national event.

“In truth, the year that turned everything around was 1935, when Hanson and his playmates invaded Hamilton, he brought off a one-man show. So it was the pivotal year because it marked the first time the West had won.

“Overnight, a quasi-national event of modest repute swept 2,000 miles west all the way to the foothills and eventually became, in the enduring words of former Globe and Mail sports columnist Dick Beddoes, the Grand National Drunk we know today.”

Bruce Kidd, the famous Canadian runner, academic and author, named the 1935 Grey Cup as one of the greatest Canadian events of the 20th century in a National Post article. “The Grey Cup really became a national championship when the West joined up and became competitive,” wrote Kidd. “That win was a symbolic coming of age for Western Canada.”