September 29, 2021

Fraser: Conacher and the Invincibles


The name still excites a flicker of recognition in this one hundredth year since the man who bore it, with his teammates, treated the Argonaut Football Club and its fans to a season like none other, before or since.

That was in the fall of 1921, the year that the Double Blue won every football game they played, ultimately claiming the Grey Cup with their ninth and crowning victory of the campaign.

The Invincibles.

Abbott. Batstone. Bradfield. Britnell. Burkart. Cochran. Douglas. Earle. Fear. Hay. Huestis. Mackenzie. McCormick. Polson. Pugh. Romeril. Sinclair. Smith. Stirrett. The Sullivan brothers. Thom. Wallace. Young.

And Lionel “Big Train” Conacher.

The Argos, defending champions of eastern Canada’s “Big Four” interprovincial football league, kicked off the historic perfect season with a satisfying 27—4 win over Hamilton at Varsity Stadium. Making his Double Blue debut in front of a home crowd some 8,000 strong, the twenty-one-year-old Conacher scored three touchdowns.

At Molson Stadium in Montreal the next week, the Argos piled up a masterful lead of thirty-four points by halftime, and cruised to a 40—5 win over the Winged Wheelers.

For the return match at Varsity in Week 3, Sinc McEvenue, now in his fourth season as coach of the Boatmen, opted to start mostly second-stringers. Even so, his players rolled to an overpowering 42—0 victory. Conacher again delighted the faithful, erupting for a trio of touchdowns, and the Invincibles were on their way to immortality.

Scoring multiple touchdowns per game it’s no wonder that Conacher, the most heralded Canadian multi-sport male athlete ever, occupies centre stage when fans today peer back at the 1921 season at a hundred years’ distance.

Playing centre half, the dominant skill position of his era, the youngster from the wrong side of the tracks inspired awe with the power and courage with which he carried the football. The fans at Varsity started calling him “Big Train” because he reminded them of Smirlie “Big Train” Lawson, the “human locomotive” of the Double Blue dynasty that won three Big Four titles between 1911-14. It’s become a famous nickname in Canadian sports, conjuring up an impression of Conacher’s size and power. Back in 1921, though, giving him Lawson’s nickname was a sign of respect and acceptance more than anything else.

Conacher was more versatile a player than his nickname suggests. Nobody could play centre half in 1921 without being a fine kicker and a dependable fielder of punts. He was as dangerous chugging around the end as he was plunging through gaps in the forward line. Despite his burly build he had exceptional speed. He hit top gear in no time, and tacklers who got in his way seldom managed to derail the Big Train without help, so devastating was his signature straight-arm.

Still, no football team is one-man band, not even one with Lionel Conacher powering its attack. In marking this centenary year of the only perfect season in Argo history, it would be a shame not to recognize the contributions made by some of the lesser-known Invincibles who lined up alongside the Big Train in 1921.

Take Harry Batstone, the star halfback of the 1919 and 1920 Argos, whose teammates elected him team captain in 1921. Batstone knew Conacher. Only three years had passed since he’d quarterbacked the Toronto Excelsiors to defeat at the hands of Conacher and the Toronto Central YMCA in the Ontario junior football final. In the 1920 inter-league playoffs Batstone had relied on his familiarity with his old rival to guide the Double Blue to a narrow semi-final victory over Conacher and his Toronto RAA teammates. In 1921 the task that manager Ernie Laidlaw and coach McEvenue set the captain of the Boatmen was to put the same insights to work in order to share the same backfield with the Big Train.

Despite their Conacher infatuation, as the perfect season progressed the press discovered a newfound respect for the subtler brilliance of Batstone. The Argo captain was “not so much in prominence” as the “human locomotive” beside him, but there was something about Batstone’s genius at “using ‘Big Train’ to the best advantage” in calling and executing coach McEvenue’s dynamic plays that seemed to take Conacher to another level. As one reporter put it, becoming Harry Batstone’s teammate had “elevated Conny into a star of the first magnitude”.

When veteran quarterback Shrimp Cochran informed McEvenue in 1921 that he would be unable to play or practice regularly until the playoffs, the coach made the radical decision to entrust the pivot position to Batstone, his best halfback for the past two seasons. To casual observers it looked like the Argo captain had been forced to yield the offensive limelight to the Big Train and accept the role of set-up man. Little could observers have guessed that the unassuming Batstone was about to translate the experience of playing off a flashier co-star like Conacher into four straight Grey Cup victories.

Week 4 of the 1921 season took the Argos to Hamilton, twelve months after the Double Blue had suffered their only regular-season loss of the 1920 season in Tigertown. The Boatmen fell behind 12—1 after fifteen minutes. With the clock running down in the fourth quarter and the Tigers in possession, still leading 18—13, it seemed that history would repeat itself.

And then something happened — something that had nothing to do with Lionel Conacher or Harry Batstone.

Into the Hamilton backfield smashed flying wing Jo-Jo Stirrett, who picked off a Tiger lateral and rumbled thirty yards before being brought down twenty-five yards from pay dirt. An Argo player only because his exam results had made him ineligible to return to the University of Toronto Varsity team, Stirrett brought a crucial spark to the Double Blue through that mix of sandpaper, swagger and a nose for the big play that has always delighted Toronto sports fans.

The heroics did not stop at Stirrett. On the first down Batstone lofted an onside kick to the Tigers’ goal-line, and with perfect timing the Argos’ left halfback Moss McCormick pounced on the loose ball at the five. From there Batstone gave the ball to lineman Alex Romeril, who crashed into the end zone for the tying touchdown. “He must have thought the universe had fallen on him when he hit the sacred Tiger goal-line,” one report quipped, “but he still came out holding the ball.” Touchdowns counting five points at the time, it now fell to the captain himself, the Argos’ surest place-kicker, to kick the convert that snatched a 19—18 victory from the Tigers’ jaws and saved the perfect season.

Conacher didn’t touch the football in this spectacular sequence because he proved more valuable to his captain as a decoy. The trick that Batstone mastered in 1921 was knowing when to give the ball to the Big Train, and when to take advantage of the space that defences’ respect for Conacher created for ball-carriers like McCormick, Romeril and himself.

Alex Romeril and Laurie Wallace, the Argos’ regular middle wings that season, played on the line with snapback Jimmy Douglas and inside wings Glenn Sullivan and Harold Pugh. Sullivan, who had played on the Double Blue line since before the War, brought veteran leadership to this unit. He and Romeril also had management experience in hockey, and Romeril was destined to make history in 1927 as Conn Smythe’s first coach of the Leafs.

The real leader of the Argo line that season, however, was backup Alex Sinclair. Playing in his eleventh season at forty years of age, “Big Alec” was universally admired. His work ethic in training had “set the example to all the Argonauts” for a decade in both rowing and football, and he had served with great distinction in the Canadian armed forces in the South African war in 1900-01 and the Great War in 1914-15. Since first stepping on a football field in 1906 this great character of the game had played in three Grey Cup losses, but had been overseas in the trenches for the Argos’ Grey Cup win in 1914. When Sinclair finally got his hands on the Cup with the Invincibles and was able to retire a champion, it warmed a great many neutral hearts.

After escaping from Hamilton with their perfect record intact, the Argos brought their Big Four season to a close with back-to-back wins over Ottawa, a massive crowd of 8,000 spectators attending the game in the capital to see the Big Train in action.

With one title in the bag as Big Four champions, the Boatmen returned to the inter-league playoffs for another shot at the Grey Cup. Standing in the way were two Toronto teams: the Ontario league champions from the Parkdale Canoe Club in the west end, and the defending Grey Cup champions from U of T, who had beaten the Argos in the final twelve months previously.

Drawing the powerful Intercollegiate champs in the semi-final round, the Double Blue met the Varsity Blues in front of a colossal crowd of some 15,000 spectators at Varsity Stadium. The stormy weather hurt neither the crowd nor the contest, “a titanic struggle” long remembered among Toronto football fans.

It was not Conacher, but rather a defensive touchdown by the Argos’ outside wing Cap Fear, that broke the game open. The Boatmen steadily built up a fifteen-point lead over three quarters, and their defence managed to hold on to win 20—12 despite a fourth-quarter Varsity pushback.

A vital cog in a defence that allowed just 26 points in six league games (as compared to 167 offensive points scored), so respected was the young Alfred Fear as captain of the Argonaut juniors that the nickname “Cap” stuck with him for the rest of his hall-of-fame career. Outside wings had primary defensive responsibility for breaking up end-runs and kick returns. With Fear and a spirited flying wing like Jo-Jo Stirrett bearing down on whoever received Conacher’s booming punts, the Double Blue usually enjoyed decent field position throughout the perfect season.

Like the squeaker in Hamilton, the dramatic semi-final was tough on Lionel Conacher. For three quarters the Varsity defence kept him smothered, and coach McEvenue, amid the jeers of the partisan crowd, finally pulled the exhausted Big Train out of the game in favour of his backup Frank Sullivan. Victory gave Conacher the last laugh, but on the orders of management he spent the week of the Eastern Final on vacation in Collingwood.

The rest of the 1921 playoffs were pretty anticlimactic. Nursing injuries and staleness after an epic semi-final, the Double Blue were ripe for a letdown in the Eastern Final. However they managed to beat Parkdale 16—8 thanks to a signature performance by Jo-Jo Stirrett, who made two trips to the penalty bench for rough play, then broke open a tight game with a spectacular touchdown catch, hauling in Batstone’s 25-yard onside kick in the end zone from a fake field-goal formation.

This victory meant an historic first Grey Cup confrontation between the champions of eastern and western Canada, which the Argos won 23—0, trouncing Edmonton in front of some 10,000 onlookers at Varsity Stadium. The score flattered the Boatmen a little, most people feeling that Cap Fear’s defensive domination of the westerners identified him as the game’s top performer.

A defensive stand-out being the player of the game in the only Grey Cup game to feature Lionel Conacher brings this review to a suitable close. The Invincibles numbered twenty-six players, each one of whom played his part in the historic perfect season that the Argos polished off exactly one hundred years ago. It hasn’t been possible to do them all justice here, but hopefully it’s been possible to do the squad justice as a unit.

Lionel Conacher was undoubtedly the finest player in Canadian football prior to the legalization of the forward pass. He dominated the game at the top level for three or four years despite being the focus of every defence he played against, on every down he played. Yet the Grey Cup he won with the Invincibles in 1921 was the only one the Big Train would ever win. In this centenary year of that victory, it is important to remind ourselves that it was very much a collective achievement on the part of a great Argonaut team. As Conacher himself once said to Lou Marsh, “I guess I had the ball a lot … but don’t you hand out any more credit to me than you do to the rest.”