author: Paul Dalby
Now a lost legend, Lou Marsh was once the all-action champion of Canada’s sports world
FIRST THE GROUND BEGAN TO SHAKE. Then the cold December night air was pierced by the shrill, eerie scream of a whistle. The hulking black steel boiler of Grand Trunk Railway engine Number 38 burst forth from the curtain of swirling snowflakes on the eastern approach to the village of Campbellford.
The year was 1886 and the hardscrabble mill town of 1,000 perched on both banks of the Trent River was still enjoying the novelty of “being on the railroad”. Even after six years of regular rail service, the arrival of any train was a cause for excitement among the village’s young boys.
As Number 38 rumbled toward the iron railway bridge spanning the Trent, a rag-tag group of boys gave spirited chase. The engineer pulled hard on the steam whistle as the train gathered speed. One-by-one the boys fell behind – spent with exertion – except for one sturdy lad with flame-red hair who caught, then sprinted past the locomotive throwing a cheeky wave.
Even at the age of nine, Edwin Louis Marsh could run like the wind. Risk taking was in his blood. Eventually he would grow up to become a veritable Captain Daredevil, embracing any challenge in sport, or in life.
You may know him today from the famous trophy bearing his name, awarded each year to Canada’s most outstanding athlete. Terry Fox held it once, Wayne Gretsky four times, and soccer star Christine Sinclair claimed it this year.
But what has faded from public view is the amazing story of the man himself who became a champion of sports excellence – both from the typewriter and on the sports field as a multi-talented athlete.
Born in Campbellford 134 years ago, Lou Marsh is a lost legend, all but ignored by the sports fraternity that he reigned over with such boundless energy, droll humour and unwavering courage. He’s even forgotten in his hometown.
QUARTERBACKED THE ARGOS
In the early 1900s, Lou Marsh was a true maverick, covering every sport from both sides of the street – as an observer, as a referee and as a competitor. A keen fan of rugby, he later turned his hand to football and became quarterback of the Toronto Argonauts (in his spare time). And when later in life he was too old to run competitively, he simply channelled his energy into championship sailing and motorboat racing.
“Man of Action” barely does justice to Lou Marsh. How else to describe a man who on a wager swam 14 miles both ways across the mouth of Niagara Falls in his business suit, and won the bet? It was the same guy who took part in the charge up Vimy Ridge as a First World War army major.
Marsh was a typewriter-toting, cigar-smoking sports pundit who once covered an international athletics event from the press box – then hurriedly stripped down to a singlet and shorts, ran down to the starting line on the track and beat Canada’s Olympic champion Bobby Kerr in 10.3 seconds to win the race.
It wasn’t enough for him to report the historic victory in the 1907 Boston Marathon by Canada’s greatest runner, Tom Longboat – Lou Marsh actually coached the Brantford Onondaga native in preparation for the race, then rode behind him on a bicycle yelling encouragement.
The sharp-tongued Marsh later wrote in his column of Longboat, who hated training: “He was headstrong and unreliable. He was as hard to train as a leopard and harder to watch than a chunk of loose lightning.”
But when Longboat blazed across the finish line far ahead of the field, setting a record time that stood for years to come, it was Marsh at his shoulder, pacing him into the history books.
A forceful character, Marsh never backed down from confrontation. As a veteran referee of NHL games, boxing matches, and wrestling tourneys, he was often escorted out of town by police for his own safety.
Writer Greg Clark described Lou’s early days: “Lou was chosen for the hottest spots in hockey – to the North Country, snowbound for days, travelling by slow train and cutter. Lou went into the kingdom of the big bad men, utterly regardless of threats and fears; and called them as he saw them. Mobs booed him, so he stuffed cotton wool in his ears.”
Marsh himself joked of his tough initiation: “Referees in those days stuck to the middle ice. If you went near the boards, the hometown fishermen and lumberjacks let you have it in the eye. They all chewed tobacco.”
LIFE IN A SMALL TOWN
Marsh once wrote, “A hick town is a place where they still play seven-man, half-hour period hockey, lift the puck from end-to-end, time the game by the town hall clock, and pay the referee off in eggs”.
He came by his inside knowledge honestly. His early childhood in Campbellford had given him a wealth of small town experience. When his Irish protestant parents arrived in Canada and set up home in that small settlement, Canada had only been a country for eight years.
Local newspaper descriptions of life in the riverside community often painted a grim and gritty picture. “The streets of the town were little better than barn yards with geese, fowl, pigs and cattle pasturing on the roads. Dead animals were often tossed into the river rather than being buried.”
The surging waters of the Trent River were both the salvation and curse of the town, providing abundant waterpower for the mills and factories alongside the river, but also breaching its banks to flood the streets. On one occasion townspeople ran back and forth to place heavy rocks on the town’s only bridge to add ballast so that its footings would not be swept away by the swollen river.
None of this dampened the freckle-faced, red-haired young Marsh’s enthusiasm for life or his penchant for playing hooky. He would tell friends later in life he had “a certain inability to pay attention to English as it was taught and written in school and a strange desire to race freight trains”.
His dislike of the village school may have been rooted in all 85 pupils being crammed into one classroom under the harried gaze of a single teacher.
In 1888, Marsh and his family – father Harry, a plasterer; mother Joanna; and sister Emma – pulled up roots and moved to Toronto.
RRIDING ON THE COATTAILS OF A REVOLUTION
Five years later, a 14-year-old Marsh applied for his first real job as a copy boy at the city’s newest newspaper called the Daily Star, then boasting a meagre 3,000 circulation. Standing in the newsroom with 40 other hopefuls, Marsh towered above his rivals.
A man in shirtsleeves wearing an eyeshade pointed his finger at Lou, calling out: “Hey Red! Come here. You’re hired. The rest of you beat it!”
Young Marsh’s official entry into the newspaper business was in part a case of being in the right place at the right time. Newspapers in Canada were in the throes of a tremendous revolution.
“New presses were lightning fast and they were spitting off newspapers at astounding speeds,” explained Michael Pieri, a former senior editor of The Toronto Star and now a newspaper historian.
Newspapers had discovered the Deadline. News was no longer a leisurely overnight business; it was now served up on the hour as each new edition rolled off the presses. And in an era that preceded telephones, the swiftness of the copy boy running a reporter’s story down to the newspaper office was crucial. It was Lou Marsh’s cue for new fame.
Be it the verdict of a sensational trial at Osgoode Hall or the final result of a sports event, young Marsh risked life and limb daily as he leapt between oncoming trams, ignored the shouts of traffic point policemen and pushed through crowds of pedestrians in his headlong sprints to the newsroom.
Lou Marsh’s career as the flying copy boy would be short-lived because speed wasn’t the only buzzword in the newspaper world at the dawn of the 20th century. Suddenly it was all about content: four-page one-cent newspapers were now 32-page monsters with five or more editions a day.
“And what were people interested in those days?” said Pieri. “Yes, they were interested in labour issues, jobs, unions and a better life, but they were also interested in sports, sports, and more sports.”
Lou moved off the street and into the newsroom as a new writer under sports editor Bill Hewitt (father of Hockey Night icon Foster Hewitt). Hewitt gave Marsh free rein to bring new ideas to the Sports section that became the newspaper’s daily must-read.
Marsh’s own column intrigued readers with its masthead, “With Pick and Shovel…caustic comment, casual comment, new angles on general sport”.
Marsh never wrote about his private life except his beloved English bulldog Bubs. When the dog died in a traffic accident, Marsh devoted his column to a poignant obituary. It began: “I know you will pardon me if this column isn’t very cheery this morning. Bubs is dead. He wasn’t any bigger than a minute but he was all dog – all grit – and tougher than gutta percha.”
According to Professor Don Morrow, sports historian at the University of Western Ontario, “He wrote as he talked. A literary critic would say that he floundered with dots and dashes and exclamation marks but his paragraphs were brief – frequently one sentence – and punchy.”
Outwardly gruff, Marsh reserved his famous vitriolic tongue for the shady fixers of sport whom he publicly denounced. For everyone else, there was always an impish humour behind his penetrating blue-eyed gaze.
In the ’20s and ’30s, America had Damon Runyan but Canada had Lou Marsh and he was equally revered and reviled from coast-to-coast. To Marsh, the boxing world was “cauliflower culture”, professional wrestlers were “mastodonic acrobats”, and a golf ball was a “corrugated pill”. His columns always started with a typical salute, “Safunnything”, “Diddin’ I tellyuh?” and “Whoinel”.
For the first three decades of the 20th century, Lou Marsh was not only Canada’s pre-eminent sportswriter but also, according to many experts, its most important media voice. 'With Pick and Shovel' was required reading in every household and was heralded as the “most unorthodox and the most colourful column in print”.
“Marsh was one of a different kind,” said Professor Morrow “Lou Marsh could be more caustic or critical but he cut to the chase and in that way, he was unique.”
Marsh never could resist the well-turned jibe. In an early column he observed that the sports director of the CNE was “as busy as a yellow dog with eczema”.
BIG, BREAKING NEWS
But Marsh was no lightweight in the writing game. In 1902, he found himself in the middle of a violent miners’ strike in Sault Ste. Marie. Angry hard rock miners and lumberjacks armed with sticks of dynamite faced off against massed Queen’s Own Cavalry units brought in to restore order. The strikers had not been paid for several months and food was scarce. They demanded immediate payment and when it didn’t arrive, the strikers blew up several mine company buildings.
A fixed battle broke out between miners and soldiers until the cavalry finally took control. Through it all, Marsh held his ground and interviewed men on both sides. He later told fellow reporter G.C. Porter that “it was the most dangerous and exciting assignment I ever covered.”
Until, that is, a decade later when he drove at full speed through a mounted police cordon in New York City.
In town to arrange a race for his protégé Tom Longboat, Marsh was called by his Toronto newsdesk with chilling news: the unsinkable Titanic had struck an iceberg off Newfoundland. It was rumoured there were 40 Toronto people on board and Marsh’s job was to be first to interview survivors when they arrived in New York.
Marsh hired a cab and when they encountered a police cordon blocking access to the harbour, he flipped the driver $20 to drive straight through the police at high speed. With the mounted cops in hot pursuit, Marsh reached the dockside just as survivors disembarked. Marsh jumped on a bale and shouted, “I have messages for Toronto people.” They all walked straight up to him and gave their very first exclusive interviews. It was a scoop for Marsh.
SPORTS DEFINED A YOUNG CANADA
The Lou Marsh legend was mostly forged in the sporting arena at a time when new and emerging sports like lacrosse, curling and ice hockey were helping to define the national identity and regional loyalties – long before the battlefields of France confirmed the Maple Leaf as our new emblem.
In his book Blood, Sweat and Cheers: sport and the making of modern Canada, Colin Howell writes: “Sport is an integral part of Canadian society and they often help to create and define individual, group and national identity.”
“Academia generally seems ignorant of the power of sport,” Howell adds. “That job was left almost exclusively to the popular media. Men like Marsh became the sports historians, unknowingly.”
What made Lou Marsh different from his rivals and imitators? He was the first sports journalist to write extensively about the politics of sport, and he strongly supported the pure amateurism of sport. Even more controversially, he promoted the entry of women into different sports.
For 45 years, the last five as sports editor, he arrived each day at his office a little after 8 a.m. and rarely returned home before midnight. Quite simply, Marsh lived for the written word.
For Dick Irvine, former Maple Leaf’s star player and coach, later a Hockey Night broadcaster, Marsh was a true icon of sports. “I met Lou Marsh first in 1914 when I played for Winnipeg. I should say he was the most widely quoted sports writer Canada has ever produced.”
When Lou Marsh died unexpectedly of a stroke on March 4th, 1936, at the age of 57, he was bigger than the athletes he wrote about. His death stunned the nation. The Toronto Star dedicated 11 pages to his tribute – more than it served up for the passing of King George V.
In The Toronto Star’s front page obituary, writer Greg Clark wrote: “Tall tales are being told on this day of Lou Marsh, and the strongest of them all, they’re true.”
That same night, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens stood for one minute’s silence at Maple Leaf Gardens in tribute to the greatest referee the NHL had ever known. In Britain, Olympic officials hailed him as “the greatest sports writer Canada ever produced.”
In recent years, the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, which includes so many of the sports heroes that Marsh wrote about, dedicated an online exhibition to the memory of the great sports writer. Distant relatives donated his many sports medals. Curator Janice Smith said: “I’m just amazed at what he was able to accomplish in his life.”
Over the years, many writers have been inducted into the Hall of Fame – including some he mentored and inspired – but Lou Marsh inexplicably is not one of them.
“I would love to see him inducted and honoured,” said Smith. “But he would have to be nominated.”
Any inductee could correct this grievous oversight. Wayne Gretsky, Patrick Chan, Sidney Crosby, Steve Nash, Mike Weir, Christine Sinclair…are you listening? Captain Daredevil is waiting for his close-up.
THAT WILD AND CRAZY GUY
Lou Marsh’s exploits sometimes read like headlines ripped straight from the “Front Page Story”. Here are just three.
1) KNOCKOUT. Marsh was hired to referee a boxing bout in Welland but when one of the fighters failed to show up, the other contestant complained bitterly. Marsh fired back: “I don’t think you could have licked him anyway but I can lick you.” Spectators were then treated to the bizarre sight of the referee actually fighting in the fourth bout. Lou won by a knockout.
2) FIREFIGHTER: Attending a track meet in Seaforth, Ontario, in 1908, Marsh heard the town fire alarm sounding after a blaze broke out at the railway station. There was no time to muster volunteer firefighters so Marsh and a friend grabbed the water hose cart and dragged it by hand down the main street to put out the flames. Marsh’s comment? “That was fun.”
3) LIFESAVER: In 1933, and not for the first time, Marsh rescued a boy from the wintry waters of Lake Ontario. At the foot of Leslie Street he spotted a scout troop in distress. One of their members was stranded on an ice flow drifting out into the lake. Marsh swam out and brought the kid safely back ashore. He later declined a life-saving medal.