SI Vault
E. M. Swift
December 11, 1978
Neither age (75) nor jail has slowed the flow of blather and bombast—or curbed the championship lust of Canadian sports mogul Harold Ballard
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December 11, 1978

A Tongue On The Loose

Neither age (75) nor jail has slowed the flow of blather and bombast—or curbed the championship lust of Canadian sports mogul Harold Ballard

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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?"

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