Many journalists have vowed to eat their words. For most, it’s simply a grandiose gesture. But not for John Robertson, sportswriter, columnist and provocateur.
Before the culture-defining 1972 hockey Summit Series – widely expected to be a rout by the Canadian squad – Mr. Robertson, writing in the now-defunct Montreal Star, and never shy in expressing contrarian views, predicted that the Soviets would win two of the four games in Canada, and all four in Moscow.
Most in the media scoffed, said he was trying to sell newspapers, or that he should be writing for Pravda, the state-controlled Russian paper.
A week after Paul Henderson’s historic series-winning goal, which made Mr. Robertson as happy as the rest of the country, the writer kept his promise. In a Montreal restaurant, he ate what might be called a crow salad, containing his shredded column. In a 2006 interview with the Winnipeg Sun, he admitted he had made his prediction, in part, to ruffle feathers.
“I had to eat this bloody column slathered in ink and Russian dressing, and it felt like a bowling ball down there,” he said.
“As I ate it, I said to myself, ‘John, some day you’ll learn to keep your mouth shut.’ ”
He never did.
Robbie, as he was almost universally known, a man unlikely to take his work lightly, or keep his often-controversial views to himself, died at the Betel Home in Gimli, Man., Jan. 25 at 79.
Half-measures were not for him. When he was a drinker, he drank seriously. When he rediscovered the Roman Catholicism of his youth, he attended mass almost daily. When he opposed Quebec’s language laws in 1974, he did so openly and fiercely, exposing himself to death threats. When he decided to support the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders over his hometown Winnipeg Blue Bombers, he did so with fervour. And when he thought Manitoba needed a marathon to benefit the mentally handicapped, he was all in.
When he wrote about sports, he did so with fluency, passion and wit. And took no prisoners.
Paul Godfrey, president and CEO of Postmedia, cites the infamous Dave Winfield-seagull incident. On an August day in 1983, Mr. Winfield, then a star for the despised New York Yankees, threw a ball during warm-ups that killed a seagull. He was later arrested and charged with cruelty to an animal, a charge that was later dropped.
Mr. Godfrey, then Metro Toronto chairman, went to New York to apologize to the Yankee outfielder. “Robbie thought I had done so at public expense,” he said, “and raked me over the coals for it.” So when Mr. Godfrey became his boss months later (and by then Mr. Robertson knew that he had paid his own way), the sportswriter offered his resignation. “I, naturally, refused,” Mr. Godfrey said. “No matter what Robbie wrote, you could never hold it against him.”
John Robertson was born in Winnipeg on March 12, 1934, to Peter and Margaret Robertson.
A promising pitcher, he had a tryout with the Washington Senators while he was in high school. During that time, he met his wife-to-be, Elizabeth (Betty) Brough.
According to their daughter, Patricia, a Saskatchewan journalist, her mother used to watch her father’s team, the St. Boniface Native Sons, but the first time the two met, she was out walking with a friend of his. “Dad popped out of a manhole cover. (I think he was working for the City of Winnipeg ... .) He asked her out on the spot.” They married in 1955.
Almost immediately, Robbie began his long career in journalism, first with the Winnipeg Free Press and the Regina Leader-Post. From 1958 to 1963, he was back in Winnipeg, this time with the late Tribune.
In Winnipeg, his puckish, sometimes R-rated, sense of humour began to assert itself. Colleague and friend Scott Taylor gives this example:
“Robbie and a colleague were enjoying a snifter or two late one evening before Christmas when news arrived that a cheating husband named Brian Oliver had been shot in the personals by his wife. That called for a special headline: She decked the Halls with Balls of Ollie.”
According to an account by veteran journalist Heather Robertson (no relation), Mr. Robertson and a colleague barely managed to stop the truck loaded up with the first edition. “They caught the paper, rewrote it and reran it,” she wrote. His work took him back to Regina, then to the Toronto Telegram and, in 1968, to Montreal (where he split a tempestuous decade between the Montreal Star and two radio stations).
Montreal sports-journalism legend Red Fisher recalled: “When I was appointed sports editor of The Montreal Star in 1969, the first letter I received was from John, applying for a job. His letter started ‘As the prostitute said to her John: Congratulations on your new position.’ I hired him immediately.
“John arrived in Montreal (three days late) and that same day delivered three stories. The next day, I noticed groups of Star employees giggling over the stories he had written. He was that good. Trouble is, you never knew what to expect from him.”
Mr. Robertson was soon assigned to cover the Montreal Expos, burnishing his reputation for wit and uncompromising opinion. He eventually collaborated on a book – one of three he wrote – with the Expos’ first star player, Rusty Staub, known as Le Grand Orange for his red hair.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Staub said, “I had a lot of respect for him. He was always very fair, but said exactly what he thought.”
But not everyone felt that way about Mr. Robertson’s outspokenness. He was a vocal and very public opponent of Premier Robert Bourassa’s Bill 22, the Official Language Act, and that opposition earned him death threats. So serious were they, Ms. Robertson said, that “at 13 or 14, I needed a bodyguard to go to school.”
In 1977, Mr. Robertson returned to Winnipeg as a broadcaster for CBC. While hosting the local TV news, he became the driving force behind the Manitoba Marathon, inaugurated in 1979 to benefit the mentally handicapped, and run annually on Father’s Day. “I think he was prouder of that than anything else he ever did,” Betty Robertson told The Globe.
While in Winnipeg, he also found time to run as a Progressive Conservative in the 1981 provincial election, and to help revive the flagging fortunes of his beloved Roughriders. He barnstormed around the province with coach Ron Lancaster to boost ticket sales (it worked) and in his regular column for Maclean’s magazine, coined the still-flourishing term “Rider Pride” to acknowledge what he believed to be the CFL’s most loyal fans.
Mr. Robertson’s final stop was Toronto, as lead baseball writer for the Toronto Sun, and then the Toronto Star.
For Paul Beeston, president of the Blue Jays, “When I think of Robbie, I think honesty, integrity, a terrific sense of humour. He could turn a phrase and make anybody reading his coverage feel as if they had been at the game. Though he could also be frustrating, we all respected him enormously.”
During those years, spending all that time on the road, Mr. Robertson was often away from his family. Still, his daughter said, he was devoted.
“He was my biggest supporter and my journalistic mentor …,” she said. “Not that we didn’t have difficulties. He could be demanding, and he was rediscovering his Catholicism at the same time I was discovering women’s studies at university.”
In the mid-1980s, Mr. Robertson’s health began to deteriorate. He suffered a series of small but debilitating strokes that prevented his working regularly again. He and his wife returned to Manitoba, to the resort community of Winnipeg Beach, on Lake Winnipeg.
John Robertson leaves Betty, his wife of 58 years; daughter, Patricia; son, Timothy; and sister, Mary Jo Hague. His legacy survives as well in the form of all the journalists he influenced.
Sportscaster Scott Oake, who worked with Robbie in Winnipeg, summed him up this way:
“John had the courage of his convictions. If I could leave the Earth having made a fraction of the difference he made, I would consider my life a success.”
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