Conn Smythe, the 85-year-old hockey legend who ran the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs for 20 years, says of Harold Ballard, the present owner of the Maple Leafs, "Harold is a carnival." Yes, that is exactly what the 75-year-old Ballard is. Not a quiet carnival, nor a totally veracious one—he spent a year in jail when he was 69, convicted of 47 counts of fraud and theft involving Maple Leaf Gardens funds—but a good old-fashioned entertaining carnival all the same. The kind that P. T. Barnum might have rolled into town, pulled by giant, messy elephants, amid pomp and circumstance, trailed by dogs and kids and pretty girls bound and determined to run off with one of the tumblers. A carnival selling both cotton candy and Ma & Pa's Elixir, guaranteed to cure the gout. A traveling amusement show with Ferris wheels dedicated to fun, and sideshows dedicated to profit; where the church raffle nets enough for the pastor's new house, and merrymaking rubes are fleeced at the old shell game by con men. A real live carnival, which, despite the improprieties, leaves the town far better off for its having been there. Precious few of them are left.
Ballard, a member of hockey's Hall of Fame, is the only man to own two professional Canadian sports franchises, having purchased the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League last winter. He has been written about and quoted as often as any man in Canada, and there is no subject on which he lacks an opinion
Within the executive confines of Maple Leaf Gardens he has no ordinary office; it is an apartment. Beyond the study is the master bedroom, replete with canopied twin beds. Beyond that are the kitchen, the shower and a sauna that Ballard, eschewing all warnings of an energy crisis, keeps heated and ready for action 24 hours a day. A bearskin rug, a remnant of a bear that Maple Leaf Forward Tiger Williams killed with bow and arrow this summer in Saskatchewan, rests beneath the desk, and a framed photograph of Ballard's late wife Dorothy hangs directly behind his chair; she died of cancer nine years ago. The rest of the apartment's paneled walls are covered with various photographs from Ballard's 30-odd-year association with Maple Leaf Gardens. There's Ballard and Stafford Smythe, his late partner and Conn's son, in Beatles wigs, serving coffee to the fans waiting four days in line for the lads from Liverpool. There is Muhammad Ali pummeling George Chuvalo. There is Ballard refusing the million-dollar check that the Chicago Black Hawks once offered Toronto for Frank Mahovlich. Little artwork is to be found in the apartment, and the only visible books are Volumes I, II and III of The Trail of the Stanley Cup.
"What else did Smythe say about me?" Ballard asks mischievously.
December 11, 1978
"He said you were a credit to yourself, to hockey and to Canada for what you'd done."
"That he wouldn't have you working for him for 10¬¨¬®¬¨¢ a week. He doesn't like your way of doing business."
"Smythe said that? He said he wouldn't hire me?"
"Among other things."
"That miserable old bastard. I made that——every cent he's worth. It costs me $75,000 a year to let him keep his office in the Gardens. I get him a new car, a new secretary, and he says he wouldn't hire me? I wouldn't work for that——anyway. I've always respected him because he's smart, but he's a miserable old bastard just the same."
That is as high a compliment as Ballard can pay a man. What is missing when the words appear on paper is the gleeful twinkle in his eyes at the moment the words are uttered, the wrinkling of his smooth cheeks as he grins broadly, and the general merriment of Harold Ballard at play. There is nothing malicious about this man, and a great deal that is good, but his carefully nurtured public image as a cantankerous old goat is based on the notion that bad publicity is better than no publicity at all. He views the press as his "lifeline to the outside world," and when a reporter needs a quote, he will call Ballard, who admits that he says "the first damn thing that comes into my head." The result is often straight from the shoulder, right into the groin. A sampling:
On NHL President John Ziegler: "A nice little fellow. Insignificant. A paid employee."
On Canada's Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau: "A great guy, socially—that is, for someone who's turned Canada into a socialistic country."
On women in the locker room: "If they want to take their clothes off and talk to the players, fine. But I warn them they'll have a lot more trouble getting out than they did getting in."
On Cuba: "I wish Kennedy had gone in there and blown that island to pieces."
On Millhaven Penitentiary, where he served his prison sentence: "I imagine some prisoners at Millhaven eat much better than the average Canadian."
On an NHL-WHA merger: "You don't go into business with people who tried to torpedo you. And that's what the WHA did to us."
Ballard also frequently berates his players and coaches through the media. Shortly before the recent CFL playoffs, for which Hamilton qualified despite a 5-10-1 record, Ballard stated that the only thing his Tiger-Cats needed to be a Grey Cup contender was a quarterback. He once called former Maple Leaf Coach Red Kelly "too nice a guy." And he nearly drove Swedish Wing Inge Hammarstrom back to Stockholm with the sarcastic comment that "Hammarstrom could skate into the corner with half a dozen eggs and come away without a crack in any of them."
In the past two years, Ballard's hockey team has been overly aggressive under Coach Roger Neilson—whom Ballard hired because he could deal with "the peculiarities of youth"—so Ballard has been supportive. Still, Toronto General Manager Jim Gregory says, "You never like things to be aired in public. But it's Harold's team, and you can't very well tell him he can't do it. We try to tell our younger players that whatever he says, he says out of his compulsion to win. It isn't very often that Harold comes out with something without an ulterior motive. He's trying to make them better players."
Ballard is no Charlie Finley, irrationally hounding his players to the point of distraction. He is, in fact, extraordinarily loyal to his players, to his coaches, and to every Tom, Dick and Harry—and Ballard knows which is which—that works in Maple Leaf Gardens. "The worst thing an owner can do is fall in love with his players," Ballard says. "I must admit I've done that to a few of mine."
A case in point is the pugnacious Tiger Williams. How can you not love a guy who will give you the skin off his bear's back? Several years ago, Ballard announced, "I'm looking for a guy you can toss raw meat to and he will go wild." Enter Williams. Since 1975 Tiger has averaged more than 300 penalty minutes a year, and has infused the Leafs with some much-needed courage. Ballard loves him. "They're all scared of him," he says. "You can't hurt the sonofabitch, and you never know what he's thinking."
Williams' admiration for Ballard is no less enthusiastic. "If you're good to him on the ice, he's fantastic to you off the ice," says Tiger. "I've got his Maple Leaf tattooed on my butt."
Every year Ballard spends some $30,000 on Christmas presents for his players, team officials and their families—one year microwave ovens, the next year plane trips for two anywhere on the continent. And he doesn't pinch pennies at contract time or during the season. Three years ago, after he had been particularly abusive toward the Leafs for several weeks, Ballard gave the team two days off in Las Vegas. He explained the move in classic Ballard fashion, dismissing modern athletes as pampered kids who expect such frills. "If I was making $100,000 a year, you could give me crap every day, by the spoonful or the bucketful, and I'd just laugh," he said.
Crusty, vituperative Harold Ballard was a naked newborn in 1903. His father founded Ballard Textile Machinery Co., a supplier of machines and parts and repairs to the knitting and needle trade. Among the company's divisions was the Ballard Skate Company, one of the continent's original tube-skate manufacturers; by 1933 the company was selling half a million pairs of skates a year. As a youth Ballard held Canadian speedskating championships in both the 440- and 880-yard events, and in the 1920s he set a Canadian record by driving a powerboat 63 mph on Ontario's Rice Lake. Ballard played junior hockey in the early '20s, but decided that his future in the game was at the executive—not playing—level. In 1932 he managed the Sea Fleas, sponsored by the National Yacht Club, to the Allan Cup, emblematic of the best senior amateur hockey team in Canada. Ballard later moved on to the West Toronto Nationals junior team, and between 1936 and 1940 he twice managed them to the Memorial Cup, which goes to the best junior team in Canada.
Following World War II, Ballard became manager of the Junior Toronto Marlboros; the coach of the Marlies was his future partner, Stafford Smythe. Then, when Stafford's father Conn bought the Marlies in 1948, Harold Ballard moved into Maple Leaf Gardens.
Ballard became president of the highly successful Marlboros in 1957 and a director of Maple Leaf Gardens the following year. It was at this time that he and Stafford Smythe befriended John Bassett, publisher of the now-defunct Toronto Telegram and a member of the Maple Leafs' board of directors since 1952. The three of them set about gaining controlling interest in the team.
After a bitter struggle, the triumvirate succeeded in 1961 when Ballard swung a loan of $2 million from a local bank. The Ballard-Bassett-Smythe team bought out the elder Smythe for $2.5 million, thus gaining control of the Maple Leafs—a team that has not had an unsold seat at any of its games since 1946—as well as Maple Leaf Gardens, which was built in the height of the Depression, 1931, for $1.5 million and has been called the most famous building in Canada. Today those properties, owned 90% by Harold Ballard, are worth around $40 million.
Under the Ballard-Bassett-Smythe troika, the Maple Leafs promptly won three straight Stanley Cups. Ballard, in the meantime, set about squeezing liquid gold from the Gardens' very old stone. The first thing he did was tear down the immense portrait of Her Majesty the Queen that the patriotic Smythe had always featured at one end of the Gardens—in order to add more seats. "If people wanted to see a portrait of the queen, they could have gone to an art gallery," Ballard says. "Smythe didn't like me kicking her tail out of here, but what the hell, she doesn't pay me anything. I pay her. Besides, what position can she play?"
He tripled the Leafs' television revenues from $450,000 to $1.5 million, expanded the seating capacity of the building from 12,500 to 16,307 and increased advertising rates inside the Gardens. Sponsors shelled out without a murmur. Ballard also began booking the Gardens for as many dates as he could schedule—religious shows, ballet, rock concerts, wrestling, ice shows—and within two years profits had tripled, from the $350,000 the building made when Conn Smythe ran the show to over $1 million. Within four years, Ballard and Stafford Smythe paid off the $2 million they had borrowed to buy into the Gardens.
While the fortunes of the Maple Leafs took a downward turn after they won their last Stanley Cup in 1967, running the Gardens remained a highly profitable and visible venture for Ballard. Bassett and Stafford Smythe gave Ballard a free hand in managing the building and booking the shows, and Harold quickly earned himself the reputation of a modern-day P.T. Barnum.
When Muhammad Ali, having refused induction into the army, couldn't find a place to fight in the U.S. in 1966, Ballard booked Ali and Ernie Terrell into Maple Leaf Gardens. When Terrell withdrew because of an injury, Ballard personally selected Canadian champion George Chuvalo to replace him. The afternoon of the fight, Ballard went into Ali's dressing room and, he says, asked him to string Chuvalo along for a few rounds. Ballard recalls, "He told me not to worry. He said it was one fight I was going to enjoy. Then he asked me if there was a room he could use privately. He wanted to pray to Allah, but I didn't know what he meant. I thought he wanted to use the John, so that's where I took him. The champ didn't like that very much."
Neither did Conn Smythe. A veteran of two wars, Smythe protested the Ali fight by resigning his position as chairman of the board of Maple Leaf Gardens. Stafford Smythe threatened to break with Ballard over the incident, too. But Ballard held firm, and the fight was a sellout. Says King Clancy, Ballard's vice-president and constant companion, "You can't back Ballard into a corner. He'll fight his way out. Won't back up an inch."
Ballard himself walked the plank on Aug. 15, 1972. In 1961 he had deposited $123,000 of the Toronto Marlboros' funds into his private bank account, and he also had charged $82,000 of construction work done on his summer home to the Maple Leaf Gardens. The Gardens also paid for motorcycles for both of Ballard's sons and limousine service for his daughter's wedding. By 1972 Ballard owned 85% of Maple Leaf Gardens, Ltd. Ballard and Stafford Smythe had bought out Bassett for $5.4 million (on an original investment of $900,000). And then, when Stafford Smythe, facing criminal charges similar to Ballard's, died of a bleeding ulcer in 1971, Ballard bought his shares for $7.5 million after outdueling the Smythe family for control of the Gardens corporation.
When Ballard came up for sentencing, the courtroom was so crowded that spectators jammed into the jury box to listen. A promoter to his very core, Ballard remarked to a court official, "We should have sold tickets." During the trial, Ballard's defense had pleaded for leniency because of his age and past service to the community. One character witness after another marched to the stand to tell of Ballard's unsung work for Toronto charities. But, as one witness recalls, "The prosecution said, 'Yes, we agree, Mr. Ballard has always given lots of money. But it wasn't always his own.' " Ballard was sentenced to three years at Millhaven.
He harbored few feelings of guilt. "Any infinitesimal guilt I felt disappeared when I signed the check paying the money back to the Gardens," he said. Ballard rebounded from the prison sentence in his usual manner—by swinging wildly from the mouth. During a furlough he was granted so he could attend the signing of Darryl Sittler's long-term contract with the Maple Leafs, Ballard plastered his own name all over the front pages of Canada by announcing that the food at Millhaven was "out of this world. In some ways it's more like a motel than a penal institution." He said a typical meal consisted of "tenderloin steak, garden peas, baked potato, apple pie and ice cream." One news story ended: "Ballard looked the very picture of a businessman heading back to the cottage for a swim."
Ballard ran Maple Leaf Gardens from his cell, and was extremely popular with the inmates. He arranged for many of their families to receive Christmastime staples, and when one of his newfound friends from Millhaven was being sprung, Ballard obtained his measurements and had a wardrobe waiting for him. Wary of ruining his tough-guy image, Ballard made no mention of these acts of kindness, and today laughs them off as moments of weakness.
"I'm not a tough guy," says Ballard. "I'm a businessman." He then delivers an anecdote portraying what a businessman is. Several Christmases back, Harold Jr. and Bill Ballard gave their father two piranhas in an aquarium. "One piranha ate the other one," Ballard says approvingly. "It's the same as human beings in business."
Age has not slowed Ballard a bit. He is indefatigable in running his club and his building. He is at his desk by 7 a.m., after no more than six hours' sleep, dreaming up trades for the center he feels his club needs to win the Stanley Cup; scheming about how to increase the use of Maple Leaf Gardens, which is already booked some 290 times a year; and trying to figure new ways to wring out profits. A few years ago he came up with the notion that the manufacturers' names which appear on the side of hockey sticks—Koho, Northland, C.C.M.—constituted free advertising. He sent a directive to the club trainer to sand them off. Only last week the Toronto Star wrote Ballard and suggested that he could reap some extra revenue by selling advertising on the hockey pucks. Harold mulled it over, then wrote back that it was a "splendid idea" but unfeasible. Ads on a three-inch object were just too small to read, he said.
Ballard follows his teams everywhere, always with Clancy in tow, traveling up to 100,000 miles a year. If the horses are in town, Clancy and Ballard will be there, too. He and Clancy hope to open a stable of a few horses in the next year, which they will call the King Bee stable. "It will give me a chance to write off a few trips to Florida every year, anyway," Ballard says. "I've got to get even with the government somehow."
People joke that Clancy, an NHL player and referee for 25 seasons, is really the vice-president in charge of conversation, but he clearly helps to keep Ballard young. When Babe Ruth hit his 60 home runs in 1927, Clancy was leading the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup. He is the only man ever to play all six positions in pro hockey. After retiring as a player in 1937, Clancy became the most colorful referee the game has ever known. In one game, Toronto's Babe Pratt protested a call by Clancy by throwing his glove in the air. Clancy said with an Irish lilt, "If that comes down, you've got a misconduct." Another time a doctor friend of Clancy's was razzing him mercilessly about his calls. Clancy skated over. "I sure make a lot of mistakes, don't I, Doc?"
"You sure do," the doctor chortled.
"But there's one thing about my mistakes...."
"I don't bury mine."
Ballard has said that the reason he purchased the Tiger-Cats was to give Clancy and him something to do in the summer. "I'm not the kind of guy who likes to put his feet up at the cottage all summer and watch the sky stay up," Ballard says. Ballard's purchase was bitterly fought by John Munro, a Hamilton resident and then Canada's Federal Minister of Labor. In the midst of his anti-Ballard campaign, Munro said he would feel more comfortable if the Montreal Canadiens were buying the Tiger-Cats. That was enough for Ballard. At his most eloquent, Ballard stated, "That's another in the never-ending series of moronic statements from one of Canada's supposed leaders. Next thing you know, this Munro character will be crawling on his yellow belly asking me for free tickets." (According to rumors, Ballard now may sell the Hamilton franchise and buy the Toronto Argonauts.)
That outburst was pure Ballard blather. Retired NHL President Clarence Campbell, asked to say a few words at a surprise testimonial dinner for Ballard sponsored by five of Toronto's charities last spring, said to the 1,000 guests, "Harold Ballard can be the most devastating, abusive and profane adversary you would care to meet. The degree of the vehemence of his calumny varies directly with his contempt for his adversary."
Ballard's calumny has been at its most vehement toward Campbell's successor, John Ziegler. Irked when Ziegler ordered him to remove the Tiger-Cat logo from the ice at the Gardens—the same logo that Tiger Williams affectionately kissed each time he scored a goal—Ballard began dismissing the new president as an office boy. He made constant references to Ziegler's diminutive size. When Ziegler ordered Ballard to put his players' names on the back of their jerseys, Ballard refused, complaining it would hurt program sales. Ziegler fined him $2,000. Ballard capitulated as only Ballard can—by adding the lettering in the same color as the underlying jersey: Maple Leaf blue. "I just did it to antagonize the little dictator," he says.
To his credit, Ziegler was also at Ballard's testimonial dinner in April—wearing a Maple Leaf jersey with ZIEGLER sewn across the back in Maple Leaf blue. After CFL President Jake Gaudaur congratulated Ballard on putting his money where his mouth was, Ziegler cracked, "Fortunately, Harold has enough money to match the opening of his mouth."
Ballard has not smoked or drunk since the death of Stafford Smythe seven years ago, instead indulging a gargantuan appetite for chocolates, peanut butter and ice cream—extraordinary behavior for a man with diabetes. "I caught it from Clancy," he says with glee. Ballard has been known to devour a two-pound box of chocolates in half an hour. A shade under six feet, Ballard is probably 60 pounds overweight, but by no means is he a tub of lard. He keeps his extra pounds firmly in his belly, like a fat distance swimmer. He can, in fact, swim five or six miles with ease. He is agile and clear-eyed, with as full a head of hair, tinted reddish, as any man of 75 years has a right to expect. And he walks at a pace that someone one-third his age must struggle to match. All in all, Ballard lives like a man who has made his pact with the devil and knows no fear.
He has no plans to step down from the Gardens' presidency, or even to slow down. There are Stanley Cups and Grey Cups to win, an NBA basketball team to buy. Perhaps even a new Maple Leaf Gardens complex to build. Ballard insists he will be taken out with his boots on, that he will probably die of throat trouble—"Somebody will hang me."
No they won't. You don't hang a carnival. Carnivals pass away with a dignified flourish, as Phineas Taylor Barnum—Prince of the Humbugs—did. Irving Wallace, Barnum's biographer, wrote, "In his 81st year, Barnum fell gravely ill. At his request, a New York newspaper published his obituary in advance so that he might enjoy it. Two weeks later, on the morning of April 7, 1891, after inquiring about the box-office receipts of the circus, Barnum died in his Connecticut mansion."
For a promoter and showman, what better guarantee for a peaceful rest than knowing all is well with the box office at the very last? But pity the paper that prints a Ballard obit in advance for his enjoyment. He'd recover and go on for years, just to annoy everyone.