The Ballard Cup.
If you’re a fan of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats or the Toronto Argonauts, you may have already heard of the Ballard Cup. Unfortunately, even if you have heard of it, there’s a good chance you don’t know the whole story. Maybe you’ve caught whispers of its name at the stadium. Maybe you’ve read an article about it, but when you reached the end you were left with the unshakeable feeling that many questions were left unanswered. How old is it? Where does it come from? Why does it exist in the first place?
The Ballard Cup is a mysterious chalice. Some have attempted to explain its origins, but for the most part, its history remains unknown. A surprising amount of misinformation is circulating about the storied prize; even its inaugural year is often incorrectly cited. In fact, it isn’t even a cup at all.
Hopefully this article will put the rumours to rest. This is a comprehensive history of the Ballard Cup.
Harold Edwin Ballard was born in Toronto, Ontario in 1903. It would seem that young Harold’s future in hockey was scripted from the start. His father, Sidney Eustace Ballard, was the founder of Ballard Machinery and Supplies Co., which at one time was a leading Canadian manufacturer of ice skates.
Ballard was heavily involved in sport during his youth and would eventually forge a career in hockey, first as a coach, and later, as the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs and their home arena, Maple Leaf Gardens.
He was part owner of the Leafs as early as 1961 but assumed majority ownership in February of 1972. He clung to the position with spiteful fingers for 28 years until his death in 1990.
Although an athlete in his youth, Ballard no longer resembled a pillar of physical excellence by his professional days. He was a portly gentleman with ruddy complexion, and he was often out of breath. Ballard suffered numerous heart attacks and often bragged about the quality of his cardiac surgeon. Just glancing through newspaper articles during Ballard’s time with the Maple Leafs yields an extensive list of adjectives that were once used to describe him. Outrageous, belligerent, cantankerous, abrasive, opinionated: all words that relate to the curmudgeonly owner.
Perhaps the best description of Ballard’s style came from Allan Safarik, a poet that compiled a book of Ballard’s notable quotes.
“He says what he wants, and most of us can’t,” said Safarik.
Ballard always spoke his mind and it often landed him in controversy.
In 1972, Ballard was convicted of fraud and sentenced to three years in prison despite facing a maximum twenty year sentence. The sentence was reduced on the strength of his character witness testimonies. He would only serve one year of his sentence, and spent that time running the Maple Leafs from behind bars. Ballard maintained his innocence throughout the process.
“I don’t feel badly because I still don’t think I did anything wrong,” he said.
Ballard was embroiled in controversy from the start of his career to the very end, and his acquisition of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1978 was certainly no departure from the norm.
Ballard’s dealings with the Canadian Football League began in 1973, when his son Bill Ballard, then vice-president of Maple Leaf Gardens, applied to bring a second CFL franchise to Toronto. The application was denied for a host of reasons.
Later, Ballard would attempt to purchase the Toronto Argonauts, but would again be rejected.
Ballard was unperturbed, instead turning his efforts elsewhere in the GTA and focusing on Hamilton. In 1978, Ballard purchased the Tiger-Cats from Michael Degroote and brought his belligerent attitude to the CFL. He wasted no time in verbally attacking the Argonauts.
“They’re scared out of their pants and you can quote me on that,” said Ballard in 1979 – his first season of Ticats ownership. “All this stuff about the Argos being improved and better this year is a bunch of nonsense. This is the most over-rated team I’ve ever seen.”
He then turned his attention to Forrest Gregg, Head Coach of the Argonauts at the time.
“Gregg is the most over-rated coach in the Canadian Football League, maybe even pro sports,” Ballard continued. “The Argos are no great shakes and the coaches there know it. But they’ve fooled you into giving them the ink about how great and improved they are. We’re going to beat the Argos in both those games [referencing a 1979 back-to-back showdown between the Argos and Ticats], and they’re scared.”
Comments like the above only served to stoke the heated Ontario rivalry. It is worth noting that when Ballard said the above quotes, the Tiger-Cats were 2-9 and firmly in last place in the East Division. It is also worth noting that the Ticats would go on to beat the Argos in back-to-back games and in doing so, leap-frog them in the standings and qualify for the playoffs.
The Tiger-Cats made the playoffs every year of Ballard’s ownership and went to the Grey Cup four times, once in 1980, and also in a three-year stretch from 1984 to 1986. The final appearance, 1986, was the only year the Ticats secured the Grey Cup under Ballard’s ownership. It was a particularly eventful year for the Tiger-Cats in other ways as well.
Just prior to the 1986 season, the Ballard Cup was created, according to a report from the Globe and Mail’s David Shoalts.
“Harold Ballard now has what he’s always wanted – a trophy he can call his own,” observed Shoalts.
Ballard purchased the trophy for a hefty $9,000. It was to be awarded each year to the winner of the three-game regular season series between the Ticats and Argos. In the event that a four-game regular season series was played and ended in a draw, the tie-breaker would be point differential.
The trophy was originally called the Harold E. Ballard Trophy. It resembled the Vince Lambardi Trophy, if the Vince Lambardi Trophy were painted gold and glued to a block of wood. In no way did it resemble a cup. In 1986, the Montreal Gazette published an article in which reporter Dick Bacon referred to the trophy as the Ballard Cup. This may be where the misnomer originated.
Call it what you like, Ballard was certain that his trophy would remain in Hamilton.
“The Argos will never get this trophy and, if they do, I’ll come along some night and steal it,” said Ballard after then CFL commissioner Doug Mitchell announced the trophy.
Ballard then continued to attack the Argos, this time leaping on the team’s management.
“The Argos went and hired [Leo] Cahill again,” he said. “Well, what a bust he is. Cahill will never beat the Ticats.”
The Argos’ brass had its own choice words in response.
“Hamilton’s the place where they sit on the side of the mountain at night, watch the lights of the big city, and wonder what everyone’s doing there. In Hamilton, they all wear hard hats and they don’t even need them,” said a flustered Cahill.
Unfortunately for Ballard and the Ticats, the inaugural Ballard Cup was awarded to the Argonauts. The boatmen captured the first two games against Hamilton in 1986, securing the season series and finishing atop the East division.
Ultimately, the Ticats had the last laugh, as they beat the Argos in the playoffs and went on to capture the Grey Cup over the Edmonton Eskimos at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver.
And Ballard would find increasingly creative ways to torment Toronto sports fans along the way.
Ballard, still the proud owner of Maple Leaf Gardens, hosted a Ticats pep rally on the day of the 1986 Grey Cup. Prior to a Toronto Maple Leafs’ game, he led a live tiger down a red carpet to centre ice, accompanied by an organ rendition of the song ‘Hold That Tiger.” He nixed the usual rink-side advertisements in lieu of the leaping tiger logo. The whole spectacle was a call-back to 1978, when Ballard had two leaping tigers painted into centre ice. Needless to say, Toronto sports fans were not enthused by the décor.
“Harold really hated the Argos and wanted to enhance the rivalry. He was always saying that as long as we beat Toronto he was happy with the year,” said Mike McCarthy, former Ticats scout.
Just about everything Ballard did in his eleven seasons as owner of the Tiger-Cats served to intensify the team’s heated rivalry with the Argonauts. The Ballard Cup is a lasting remnant of his legacy.
Today, the team that wins the regular season series takes temporary ownership of the cup during the off season. The Ticats won the 2016 Ballard Cup, and it is currently stored in the equipment room at Tim Hortons Field. What past Argos teams have done with it is anybody’s guess.
The Tiger-Cats and Argonauts have split the first two games of the 2017 regular season series. Whichever team wins the third contest will go home with the Ballard Cup. The Ticats hope to secure the hallowed trophy in front of their home fans.
Regardless of what happens in the game, the Ballard Cup may spend this off-season in Hamilton anyway. If the Argos manage a victory, the Ticats might just channel the late Harold E. Ballard, and “come along some night and steal it.”