It was around five in the afternoon last
September 3 and The Toronto Sun's flamboyant columnist, John
Robertson, had come to the ballpark early. But the Blue Jays
weren't on his mind as he moved through the press box at
Exhibition Stadium. He was thinking instead about a job that had
come open at the Sun: George Gross was leaving as sports editor
and Robertson wanted to replace him.
got to his usual seat just to the third-base side of the press
box, the phone rang. It was Gross, known as the Baron for his
aristocratic ways. "Guess who your new boss is?"
Gross said. "Are you sitting down?" Robertson felt a little
faint. "It's Wayne Parrish."
Robertson was confused
and angry. After 30 years in the business, the last five of them
with the Sun, didn't he deserve at least to have been consulted?
For courtesy sake, if nothing else? He told Gross he wasn't up to
writing a column that night. Then he packed up and left.
"When you're treated like that," he'd say later, "when
you're told, 'Here's your new boss, like it or lump it,' there's
a message in there. It eliminated any loyalties I might have felt
to the Sun."
George Gross was moving on to be
corporate sports editor of the three Sun papers. He says now he
had no choice but to call Robertson about Parrish's appointment.
"I was afraid he'd find out elsewhere. Unfortunately, the
quickest way was by phone. It could have leaked out." He hadn't
talked to Robertson about the job because he'd never really
considered him for it. "I just never thought of John Robertson as
a sports editor. He once told me that's the last job he'd want."
Besides, Wayne Parrish, The Toronto Star's award-winning
columnist, had been his man from the beginning. "I chose Wayne
because he's very bright and an excellent writer,"
Gross says. "Having watched the type of story he broke in the
Star, I figured he had what it takes to come up with the kind of
stories that beat the opposition. I wasn't sure about his
administrative talents, but that's the type of thing one can
If one wants to. When the Sun approached
Parrish in mid-August, he wasn't at all certain. "The writers
often sit around late at night on the road over a few beers,
discussing departments and the way they're run," he says. "You
all have your own ideas and you bitch and complain. Suddenly
someone comes along and says, 'Here, you do it.' I was amazed and
intimidated." But after three meetings with Gross and the Sun's
brass, President Doug Creighton and Publisher Paul Godfrey, he
was a good deal less so. He accepted the offer on September 3,
just hours before Gross caught up with Robertson in the press
Gerry Hall, the Star's sports editor, got
the word the same day and the same way Robertson had-by phone. He
was on vacation when Parrish reached him at Woodbine racetrack.
"It was right out of the blue," Hall says. "He didn't play one
paper off against the other. He just told me he'd accepted the
job." Hall asked Parrish to wait a few minutes before breaking
the news to Ray Timson, the managing editor. He wanted to call
Timson himself. Parrish waited 15 minutes, then crossed the
newsroom to Timson's office. When he left, he went over to the
sports department to let his colleagues know he was leaving. Then
he called Paul Godfrey. It was left to George Gross to inform the
Sun's sports staff. The one person Gross couldn't find was John
Gross wasn't the only one with Robertson
on his mind. Gerry Hall had been thinking about him since he
found out he was losing Parrish. "Robbie was the only guy that
really scooped us on the baseball beat," Hall says. "It's fine to
write well but you've got to look for people who'll produce
scoops. Someone to come up with things you can't find elsewhere."
He put the idea to Timson the next day. Although neither Hall nor
Timson was aware of the previous afternoon's press-box phone
call, they thought Robertson might be open to a show of interest.
And Milt Dunnell, the Star's octogenarian sports columnist, was
just the man to make the approach. But when Dunnell phoned,
Robertson's wife, Betty, told him her husband was meeting with
After Gross's graceless call,
Robertson took his anger straight home. He rang up Godfrey and
passed it on. At the publisher's suggestion they met the next
morning. "But in the back of my mind it was 90.10 that I couldn't
live with the situation," Robertson says. "As we were sitting
there, the phone rang. It was my wife who said that Milt Dunnell
had called. She said, 'Call the Star before you do
Robertson was glad the feeler had come
from Dunnell: "When you hear something from Milt, you know it's
the straight goods." So he was well set up to hear from the
Star-it was Gerry Hall this time-that afternoon. He had lunch
with Hall and Timson the next day. "It was such a wonderful
feeling to sit across from them, with them telling me they want
me to write for the Star," he says. For his part, Hall recalls
the only advice he gave Robertson: "There's just one thing I want
you to change in your writing-nothing."
Robertson isn't about to change. Those three decades of covering
news and sports for newspapers, radio and television have won him
four ACTRAs and a National Newspaper Award. He writes with
emotion, making his readers see, hear and feel what's going on.
To some these are moments of great intimacy; to others, flights
of fancy. But Robertson lives the way he writes. "He's had a
rollicking history," Gerry Hall says. "He's been a drinker; now
he's a church-goer. He exists in those sorts of extremes."
Robertson is the epitome of the oldstyle newspaperman. His
practical jokes are legendary. One of his best-known came in 1966
when he was departing the old Toronto Telegram: he used the first
letter of the first word in each paragraph of his column to spell
out "FUCK YOU EVERYBODY."
George Gross was in the
Tely sports department at the time, so he's long been aware of
Robertson's antics. But their differences surfaced when Robertson
went to work for Gross at the Sun. "We were like two cooks in the
same kitchen, arguing about how the meal should be done,"
Robertson says. "It's no secret I didn't agree with a lot of the
things George did as sports editor. The fact that I stood up to
him on a few occasions didn't enhance my chances of getting the
job. With George, it's 'My way is the only way.'"
That's what still rankles. Not only was Robertson passed over, he
wasn't even consulted. "I wanted some input into who the new man
would be, to see how I would work with him. I would bear the
direct consequences of who they chose."
alone in the way he feels. "The Sun's treatment of Robbie is an
example of how people are treated in this business," says Globe
and Mail writer Larry Millson. "From a people point of view,
newspapers leave a lot to be desired. Often, they're not up front
with you. In the communications business, we're lousy
Gerry Hall likes his end of
the Parrishfor-Robertson trade. "John's someone who's established
himself over a few decades. He's Mr. Baseball as far as Toronto
readers are concerned. I don't have any doubt we're winners in
this deal." Predictably, he down plays the loss of Parrish.
"Wayne's a nice writer, he's got some style. I don't know about
his commitment to sports writing, but if he sticks with it he
could become one of the best in the country."
already is. At 31, Parrish has won back-to-back National
Newspaper Awards (1984-1985). As a columnist, he's ice to
Robertson's fire, a detached and thoughtful writer with a sure
descriptive touch. Extremes are not his game. As far as he's
concerned, there was only one trade involving him and John
Robertson-and that one never made the papers.
Sunday after he accepted the Sun's offer, Parrish went to the
Star to clean out his desk. He chose a time, about 9 a.m., when
the newsroom was usually empty. As he was finishing up, he heard
voices coming his way. "I recognized two of them," he says,
"Gerry Hall and John Robertson." He turned in his chair to face
where they would come out, about three metres away. "Hi guys, how
ya doing?" Parrish said as Hall and Robertson came into view.
Robertson walked over to say hello. The portable word processor
Parrish had brought to leave with Hall sat on the desk. He
noticed Robertson eyeing it and handed it to him. "Now this means
you'll have to give me yours," he said. That evening, Robertson
had his son drop the machine off at Parrish's house.