For 38 years, baseball has signaled the real start of spring in Toronto: peanuts, popcorn, T-shirts (ok, sweaters) and hot dogs. But when the Blue Jays opened up at home in 1977, there was one thing conspicuously absent: beer.
It’s been reduced to a factoid in the trivia of years past: “It snowed and the White Sox wore shorts and there was no beer.” But the fact is, the lack of beer at Exhibition Stadium as the Blue Jays were born was a highly divisive topic, and the story behind the ban on suds illustrates what a very different place Canada was in 1977.
For years, the city’s nickname was “Toronto the Good”, and the officials of Toronto held firm to a rigid code of morality, enabled by Bill Davis’s provincial government. The fact that the Blue Jays were partly owned by a brewery, it seems, was inconsequential.
Sidney Handelman’s name has been relegated to the pages of Wikipedia and the lore of Ontario politics. But for a brief period in the mid 1970’s, Handelman was the lightning rod for criticism over the province’s refusal to allow the sale of beer at Exhibition Stadium. As the Minister of Consumer and Commercial Relations for the Ontario government, Handelman ran point on the beer issue – and by all accounts, was pretty dismissive about the whole thing.
“I think most of my colleagues feel not strongly, one way or the other.,” Handelman told CBC Radio in 1977.
“We’re saying if you don’t feel strongly about it, why change things? We’re conservatives, after all. We don’t change without there being a good reason for change.”
That attitude might seem a little stodgy now, but it was actually par for the course in 1977. There weren’t any beer sales at sporting events in Ontario back then. Paul Godfrey, then the Metro chairman (who would later be the president of the Blue Jays), refused to ask the province to allow beer sales at Blue Jays games. And he had his fair share of supporters.
That’s not to say the Blue Jays didn’t want beer at home games. They did, even if they didn’t fight the issue that heavily. The Blue Jays president in 1977, Peter Bavasi, told CBC the real problem occurred when fans weren’t allowed to buy beer within the stadium confines.
“The sale of beer at major league facilities causes less problems in fan control, fan disturbances, fights, disturbances of all kinds,” he said.
“When beer is not sold at the stadium, then you have monumental security problems.”
The Toronto Sun, ever the voice of the people, hired a plane to fly over Exhibition Stadium with a banner that read “Good Luck Jays, Now Give us Beer Bill – The Sun.”
The paper also ran a poll which got over 8,000 votes in favour of beer at the ballpark (and only 300 votes against). And public outcry was loud enough that it forced the cancellation of a VIP event that was to host governmental bigwigs – and serve booze – at the game.
So was the Blue Jays’ home opener in 1977 dry? Not by a long shot. The first cheers of “we want beer!” rang out before the opening pitch crossed the plate. Media reports of the day indicate the aisles were ringing with the sounds of clinking flask and empty bottles smuggled in by a public desperate for a quaff with its big league baseball.
The hardy hometowners even drew the adoration of White Sox manager Bob Lemon. Who marveled that the fans showed up at all in snowy, windy weather.
Lest you think the restriction was some short-sighted anomaly, know that the ban on beer at Blue Jays baseball games stood until August – of 1982. Toronto the Good, indeed.