Remembering John Robertson

John Robertson

* John Robertson, who covered the Blue Jays for both the Toronto Sun and Toronto Star (and called for grass at the SkyDome 27 years ago — and plans for grass are in the works), passed away on Jan. 25 at the age of 79.


Asked to say a few words after accepting the Honor Roll award for the late John Robertson at The Sports Media Canada luncheon Wednesday the Royal York, the fill-in said:

“I’m been trying to think of something witty that Robbie would say in this situation, but me on my best day would not be good as Robbie on his worst day. I think I’ll congratulate all the winners on their awards and wonderful speeches … and just wait to read Robbie’s review of the events some day.”

The late Len Bramson (Sports Radio Pioneer) and Ward Cornell (Hockey Night in Canada) were also added to the Honor Roll.

Steve McAllister, John Iaboni, Dick Bradbeer and their hard-working committee’s 19th annual Sports Media luncheon also honored in its Class of 2014:

Outstanding Broadcasting – Scott Russell, CBC TV

Outstanding Sportswriting – Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

Outstanding Photography – Jonathan Hayward, The Canadian Press

Career Achievement – Fred Walker, CBC Radio

Sports Executive of the Year – Anne Merklinger, CEO, Own The Podium

President’s Award – Rogers Communications (Sportsnet) Keith Pelley and Scott Moore.

Canada lost one of its all-time most colorful, sportswriters when John Robertson died on Jan. 25, 2014 in Gimli, Man. Born in Winnipeg on March 12, 1934, John started his career at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1956. He moved to the Regina Leader Post and became a lifelong RoughRiders fan, even coining the phrase Rider Pride. John headed to the Toronto Telegram in 1965 and rejoined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1968. A year later, the Montreal Star lured him East again and he was a National Newspaper Award in 1973. He went into radio in Montreal and TV in Winnipeg before overcoming a stroke to join the Toronto Sun in 1982.

He covered the Blue Jays for eight years, the last three for the Toronto Star, before retiring in 1990 for health reasons.

– Sports Media Canada program

This tribute to Robbie was originally published Feb. 25, 2014 and is re-published on the day he was honored before so many of his friends, former co-workers and colleagues as they told Robbie stories in the hallways, at tables and throughout the downtown landmark.

By Bob Elliott

“I was so excited when the car purred within a block of Grant Field in Dunedin, I cranked down the window, took a double-barrelled sniff of the intoxicating aroma of freshly mown grass, and gave in to the irresistible urge to peel off my shoes, run barefoot through the velvety beads of shimmering dew, and do a Moseby into second base.”

DUNEDIN _ John Robertson wrote that upon arriving in Dunedin one spring.

Robbie didn’t merely write for these sports pages.

No, he poured out his heart, through his fingers onto the keys of the Tandy 100, and later the fancy new Tandy 200 laptop machines which may now be in the Smithsonian.

Robbie was more popular than many of those on the maturing Blue Jays he covered when Toronto Sun publisher Doug Creighton hired him for the 1982 season.

We became friends in 1985 during the final six weeks of the regular season and the postseason, as the Kansas City Royals rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Blue Jays in Game 7. We made the drive on I-70 from K.C. to St. Louis together during the World Series.

Somewhere about Columbia, Mo., I gained the courage to ask about his sliding into second lede and how I wished I’d been there to see it.

“That what every fan would have felt like, upon arriving in Florida,” he said.

Growing up in Kingston, we’d make trips to Montreal to watch the Montreal Expos in their early years. We bought the Montreal Star first at the news stand (our internet connection wouldn’t work back then) because that’s where Robbie and Bob Dunn worked.

I always read Robbie first.

Robbie left the Sun for the Toronto Star in 1986 after George Gross and Creighton hired Wayne Parrish from One Yonge Street to be the Sun sports editor. Basically, it was a 1-for-1 deal.

Parrish then hired me to try to replace Robbie on the Jays beat.

Robbie’s writing was spectacular, sensational, flamboyant, competitive and passionate … every day of the week.

In newspapers you are taught there is no such thing as a “we,” it is the Blue Jays who won or lost.

Robbie was reactionary. He could take an extreme stance — “This team needs pitching, it’s going nowhere” — after a 13-10 loss.

Then, four or five days later on the same trip after a 2-1 defeat — “This team is headed for last … unless it adds hitting.”

Both made perfect sense.

He could bring out a sledge hammer and we liked it when visiting writers came into Exhibition Stadium to say: “Robbie, tell me what you really think, don’t hide your feelings.”

Coming to Toronto I learned two things. Don’t cross George Bell and don’t turn down an invitation for dinner from Robbie. Dining with Robbie was like being invited to dine with Frank Orr: Writing royalty.

Man, Robbie could tell stories.

Like the time he was working out west. The boss was mad with him and made him work on the holidays.

A story came across the wire about a woman who stabbed her husband in the privates. His name was Oliver.

Robbie’s original headline:

“She decked the halls with balls of Ollie”

The boss demanded Robbie change it. Robbie did, waiting until moments before deadline, sending out the new head:

“You should have seen Oliver twist.”

At the Toronto Telegram he wrote a story so that if you took the first letter of every paragraph and strung them together you had an insult to the readers.

No one would have known, except Robbie went to the Press Club and told folks.

He gladly would re-tell these stories and people would erupt in laughter no matter if it was the first or 10th time people heard it. He was a more-rounded newspaper man than the rest of us, having also worked at the Regina Leader Post and Winnipeg Free Press, winning a National Newspaper Award in Montreal in 1973. He had done radio and TV in Montreal and Winnipeg.

I used to think of Robbie every visit to the old Yankee Stadium. That was his final day on the job. He was there when I arrived at 10 a.m., and he was there when Harvey Greene of the Yankees turned the lights out 12 hours later. Outside of going for a soda, he did not budge. Pre-game or post-game.

We managed to get the lights on and Robbie filed.

Robbie didn’t show at the next stop.

Next time I saw him at the SkyDome working on a Food Drive, he explained that he had had a stroke, and while he was fine physically, he could not spell t-h-e.

And I always think of Robbie my first day in Dunedin, whether he did or didn’t slide into second like Lloyd Moseby.

Especially this spring.

Robbie passed away Jan. 25 in Gimli, Man., at age 79.

Deepest sympathies are extended to Betty, his wife of 58 years, and their two children, Patricia and Timothy.


Natural grass in the SkyDome?

It was a pipe dream in 1987 with the new building about to open.

John Robertson took it on as a personal cause. He wrote why grass was much better than artificial turf — seven writing days in a row for the Toronto Star.


And now, 27 years later, the Rogers Centre is only a couple of years away from having real grass.

Robbie had it right.

(Our own Jim O’Leary broke the “consecutive column on the same subject” streak on the George Bell DH controversy in 1988.)


Hello Bob,

How are you today? Thank you so much for that very accurate tribute to my eccentric and marvelous father, John Robertson. It brought tears to my eyes. And, yes, that Dunedin lede was a classic. I’m so happy to see such a telling tribute to dad in your paper. He loved his time at the Toronto Sun and it’s only fitting that you would give him such a kind send-off. Doug is gone. George is gone. And now Robbie. I call this generation the Underwood Era. They just don’t make them like that anymore.




Independent Journalist

Box 370

Wakaw, Saskatchewan

Hi Bob:

Always enjoy your sports columns and this one is no exception. The headline story is priceless.

Now for my main concern.

“Invite” is not a noun so one receives an “invitation” but would “invite” someone to attend as “invite” is  a verb from “to invite”

Now that Team’s Canada have come and gone with lots of hardware from Sochi, it is now time for Go Jays Go!

Looking forward to your comments about the Jays as the season progresses.

Murray White

Good day Bob:

I really enjoyed the piece you did on John Robertson.

As I read your story ,.. I recalled a summer in 1963 when I was only 13 years old. Growing up in Ajax, the eldest of nine boys, one sister and one more on the way, I had the opportunity to go to a summer cottage on Lake Erie with his nephew Alex and Uncle John’s brother’s family for two weeks. We went to Detroit for a ball game at Tiger Stadium against the Kansas City Royals with Uncle John who was visiting from Montreal. I remember being overwhelmed by the crowd as I had only been to Maple Leaf Stadium a few times.

I remember Rocky Colavito making a shoe string catch against the home team and the crowd went mad.

What I really recall was how Uncle John duped this young Ajax teen. I knew little about pro ball and just prior to the seventh inning stretch, Uncle John decided to stand up and tell me to get up … he yelled out to the fans nearby asking them to stand up. I was amazed by the reaction. Everyone got up and I thought Uncle John must really be famous. It was not until the end of the game that Uncle John came clean. I had been had. They all had a laugh … no problem for me.

He was a gentleman and treated us to a wonderful day at the park.

In the following years, I met him only a few more times. However, he never forgot my reaction and of course I have not. I was always afraid he would mention my story in an article and I would be forever embarrassed. Now that Uncle John has passed, I can tell my story.

As a writer Bob, you may have forgotten the impact and influence on a loyal reader, big or small. I was lucky to know him a little.


John Hughes, CFP, CLU, Ch.F.C

Oshawa, Ont.

Hi Bob,

I just read your article on Mr. Robertson’s passing. Thanks for sharing his stories, I laughed more than once while reading!  I’m sure I would have loved to read his work.

Also – my condolences regarding the loss of your friend Jim Fregosi. Sounds like he was a really great guy.

Take care.

Shane Powell

Great article Bob

I had forgotten about John, I suffer from FIFO first in first out

I think my brain reached capacity about two years ago.

I loved those early Jay days I had corporate seats given to me frequently so if I was busy I would call my dad (a top fast ball player in his youth) and he would invite one of his old team mates.

One game I think near the end of the season he and his giant buddy Bob were viewing a obvious I don’t care if a walk will win the game I am swinging for the fences effort by Otto the Swatto Velez.

Well Bob starts bellowing at a level that a public address system couldn’t  match that Otto should take his self serving act down the line so guys who gave a F..k about the game can play.

Well the president of my company was sitting next to them and the following day I was advised to be much more selective in choice of ticket recipients.

My mum got see a lot more games

Keep writing

Bob Hobbs


Another cold, dreary winter day was brightened enormously when I read your farewell to John Robertson and found my name in a wonderful tribute. Coming from a man and writer I admire and respect highly made it heart warming. Thank you!

Robbie and went back to the early 1960s when I was in my early Star days and the Tely brought him in to cover football, I believe, when Bob Frewin left to be GM of the Toronto Rifles. I was covering junior hockey then as a regular beat and Robbie did, too, after the Grey Cup. He was one of the most interesting men I have ever known.

The great Jim Coleman nicknamed Robbie `Coconut Willie.’

I hadn’t seen much of him for a few years (his Montreal time, then baseball here mostly) when the Star hired him.

Robbie was among the best and most original humorists I ever met, especially in front of people. And a very, very good writer.

Red Fisher once told me what he thought was Robbie’s funniest. John was doing a daily radio show in Montreal at the time. A big story in the Montreal Saturday papers was Premier Robert Bourassa bemoaning the declining birth rate in the province of Quebec.

Robbie opened his Monday a.m. radio show thusly: Premier Bourassa has called a provincial erection for next Wednesday.

Anway, another good one gone from what I remember as a fine era in Canadian sports journalism.

Thanks again and best regards.

Frank Orr

(2003 Career Achievement winner)

Scott Harrigan
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