Yolanda Ballard, the late-in-life companion of irascible sports magnate Harold Ballard, was a potent addition to a life already enmeshed in controversy. Their relationship, set against a backdrop of fraud charges and jail time, included the scandal of a physical assault and animosity between Ms. Ballard and Mr. Ballard’s adult children. Their ongoing drama made for compelling copy in prominent newspapers including the Los Angeles Times.
Ms. Ballard, who was divorced, wanted to marry the widowed Mr. Ballard, who owned Maple Leaf Gardens and the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey franchise, but he refused. In 1988, after they had lived together for several years, she found a creative solution, circumventing the marriage issue by legally changing her surname from MacMillan to Ballard.
Despite Mr. Ballard’s disingenuous assertion that he was neither rich nor famous, Ms. Ballard enjoyed the perks of him being both. On the arm of her powerful companion, the petite blond woman, almost three decades his junior, found herself exchanging pleasantries with the Queen, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, and other VIPs from various walks of life. Opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti, who performed at Maple Leaf Gardens, was honoured at a private dinner hosted by the Ballards. Mr. Ballard was indifferent to celebrity but Ms. Ballard dined out on stories about the large tenor wanting to eat everyone’s dessert.
Mr. Ballard, a diabetic who underwent a quadruple heart bypass, died in 1990. Maclean’s magazine reported that his three children, Bill, Mary Elizabeth and Harold Jr., viewed their father’s partner as an opportunist. The Globe and Mail’s Dave Shoalts wrote at the time, “Because of the conflict between Yolanda Ballard and Harold’s family, there will be a private family funeral on Tuesday to which Yolanda is not invited. Sources say the family is concerned that Yolanda Ballard would use the occasion to stage one of her notorious public scenes.”
Ms. Ballard, her family and friends were allowed a one-hour visitation with the casket in the directors’ lounge at Maple Leaf Gardens before members of the public were allowed to pay their respects.
Ms. Ballard successfully contested Mr. Ballard’s will. Her yearly allotment of $50,000 was replaced with a lump sum, the amount of which was not made public. She was granted custody of Mr. Ballard’s dog TC Puck. She also received a share in the family cottage as well as two lifetime seats to Maple Leafs games. After her settlement, Ms. Ballard drifted from the limelight. She was 87 when she died in her sleep on June 3 at the home of her long-time caregiver in Toronto. She leaves her children, Ana and Bill MacMillan, and a granddaughter.
Yolanda Anna Babic was born on Jan. 3, 1933, in Fort William, Ont., to Slovakian immigrants. She worked as a telephone operator, then as a title searcher for a Toronto law firm. Her first husband, Bill MacMillan, was a lawyer. The couple had two children before her husband filed for divorce.
Son Bill MacMillan has a childhood memory of his mother driving him and his sister to a university football game. When a drunken student jumped into their gold Cadillac demanding a ride, she reached under the front seat, pulled out a pellet gun and, using colourful language, told the student to get out “or you’re going to have a hole I can put a football through.” Describing his mother as a “five-foot little nothing,” Mr. MacMillan said, “She knew what to do at the right time.”
In 1983, Yolanda MacMillan set her sights on 79-year-old Mr. Ballard. She became a familiar sight at the Gardens, hanging around hoping to speak to him. In The Globe, William Houston wrote, “Not knowing who she was, he refused to see her. But she persisted. She waited in his office, slipped notes under his door and knowing he had a sweet tooth, brought him pastries. She staked out his car in the arena basement.”
When she finally got to speak to Mr. Ballard, her opening salvo was reported as, “We’ve got something in common. We’ve both been to jail.” She had served four months of a two-year sentence after pleading guilty to committing fraud and perjury. She was alleged to have conspired with a lawyer to alter the will of an elderly man.
Mr. Ballard had been convicted of theft and fraud in 1972 for diverting money from the accounts of Maple Leaf Gardens, to his own, for personal use like cottage renovations. At the time, the Gardens was a publicly traded company with Mr. Ballard owning 80 per cent. He was sentenced to nine years in Millhaven Institution, but was out on parole after a year. Perhaps for the bravado of her introduction alone, Mr. Ballard finally took an interest. The divorcee was soon ensconced in his Maple Leaf Gardens apartment living a life of wealth and glamour.
“There was a time in Toronto when the name ‘Yolanda’ didn’t require a surname,” said Bob Stellick, a former business manager for the Maple Leafs. “She achieved a type of fame, or perhaps it was infamy.”
As the tycoon’s health declined, Ms. Ballard devoted herself to his needs, pushing him around in a wheelchair and doing her best to make sure he adhered to a diabetic-friendly diet. The late sportswriter Milt Dunnell, a long-time friend of Mr. Ballard, once said, “She is completely attentive and Hal likes being with her.”
Ms. Ballard rarely missed a Leafs home game and would sometimes surprise Mr. Ballard by showing up unannounced at his hotel when the team was on the road. If she encountered Mr. Ballard’s bluster, and the epithet “dingbat,” she laughed them off knowing a seat at the game would always be found for her.
In 1989, things came to a head between Ms. Ballard and Mr. Ballard’s son Bill. When Ms. Ballard attempted to escort him from his father’s apartment, Bill was alleged to have punched and kicked her. She charged him with assault. In the LA Times, the trial was described as “featuring hilarious court antics including Yolanda’s dentures nearly falling out, crying, histrionics and an almost palpable acrimony from all sides. Most of the principals made faces during the testimony of others,” writer Julie Cart observed.
During her testimony, Ms. Ballard described Mr. Ballard’s children as “maggots and vultures who cannot wait for this man to die.” Bill Ballard characterized his father’s companion to arresting officers as “human garbage.” He was found guilty of assault and received a $500 fine.
Two years before his death, Harold Ballard ran notices in Toronto papers renouncing any debts, charges, or expenses incurred by, or on behalf of, Yolanda Ballard. He told his lawyer he wanted her gone from his life.
The thrust and parry between two magnetic, forceful personalities might have been part of a game that ultimately bound the couple to each other. Ms. Ballard’s death notice, written by her family, noted that she always referred to Harold Ballard as the love of her life and that, “sadly,” she seemed unable to get past his death.