By David Singh in Toronto
By David Singh in Toronto
The Toronto Blue Jays played their first official MLB game on a snowy April afternoon 40 years ago. Paul Beeston remembers every minute of it.

Paul Beeston sits comfortably in his third-floor office at Rogers Centre, feet stretched out on the coffee table in front of him. It’s 10 a.m. and he’s sipping on his third coffee of the day. In one hand is the mug, in the other a cigar — a Montecristo that stays unlit. From time to time Beeston will raise his right hand and put the Cuban classic up to his mouth for a taste, briefly drawing attention to the 1992 World Series ring on his finger.

The president emeritus of the Toronto Blue Jays is enjoying his second retirement. He’s on a few corporate boards and involves himself with charity, and maintains his old office as a base to work from. He comes in basically every day.

“When I’m in town, I gotta get up and do something,” says the 71-year-old Beeston, who served as team president for two separate terms, including during the franchise’s 1990s glory years. “It gives you a place to go.”

As the organization’s first employee, Beeston has seen it all — from five straight last-place finishes in the late 1970s and early ’80s to consecutive World Series wins to the reinvigoration of the franchise in 2015.

Today he’ll celebrate the anniversary of an event that preceded all of that. April 7 marks exactly 40 years since the Blue Jays played their first game: A snowy 1977 contest against the Chicago White Sox at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto.

Beeston was 32 at the time, working as the team’s vice president of administration. The following is his recollection of the day, which resulted in a 9–5 victory for the home team.

"They remember Doug Ault"
Selected 32nd overall in the 1976 MLB expansion draft, Ault hit two home runs in the Blue Jays' debut game

When I woke up in the morning, there was the excitement that it was here. I started on May 15 of 1976. There was a group of us who’d invested somewhere in the neighbourhood of 10 months getting ready for the one day. Now, it’s showtime. And then you know it’s cold and the question is “What about that snow?” We’re going to have a problem.

There’s no doubt that when the snow was coming down, I was thinking, “How much is going to come down? Is it going to stop and are we going to play the game?” If there was another inch of snow, it probably wouldn’t happen. People in the United States were expecting snow because baseball had come to Canada. We gave snow and gave ’em a game and gave ’em a picture.

The commissioner was here, the president of the American League was here. They were determined to get this game in. But there comes a time when you say it’s not reasonable, it’s not safe. But the umpires worked very, very closely with everybody to make sure that game happened. In less than ideal conditions, we played the game. You didn’t know how much it was going to snow. It was more than a dusting, but it wasn’t so much that we couldn’t clean off and play the game.

"We gave 'em a picture"
Beeston said the snow on opening day was fitting — Americans expected snow, and they got it

We had our own Zamboni. I don’t know if we used one from the [Toronto] Maple Leafs that day or not. Could well have been.… We had squeegees out there because the water didn’t drain, it had to be pushed off. This was a bad stadium. This stadium clearly was the worst. Except, it was ours. That’s where we were playing so we had a lot of good memories of the thing.

It felt like a baseball stadium to us but it wasn’t like walking into Tiger Stadium or Yankee Stadium or old Forbes Field, which were all built for baseball. As was Wrigley, as was Fenway. It was a football stadium that was adapted for baseball.

We knew we had the worst stadium in sports. There were benches, there were the covered stands in the outfield — 20,000 seats there but you were so far away from the play. There was turf. But it was baseball. It was opening day. We didn’t know what to expect.

Fans were late to the game because we didn’t have enough gates. The game was delayed first of all, which allowed for fans to get in. But if the game started on time, we probably wouldn’t have had anybody in. That’s a fact. Sure, there were traffic problems, parking problems, and then there was the congestion at the gates. When you’re putting in a small city — I’m from Welland, Ont., which has [roughly 50,000 people] — it’s like taking everybody from Welland and saying, “In a matter of an hour, you’re all going to go through these gates and get counted.”

We had a group of inexperienced ushers and usherettes who knew the stadium by the middle of the summer, but were learning it now. They’d been through their orientation, but there wasn’t that whole body of knowledge that exists for a more mature organization. When you go to Rogers Centre now, these people could tell you everything about the stadium.

Fans were excited to be there. They didn’t care. It was an experience, it was fun. There was this feeling of happiness and “Let’s see what we’ve got here.” You can only do it once. You can only be at that first game once and that was it. And they were going to be there. The weather didn’t seem to impede anybody from enjoying themselves.

“You can only be at that first game once. And they were going to be there. The weather didn't impede anybody from enjoying themselves.”

“We want beer.” They chanted it all the way through till we [began serving] beer in ’78 or ’79. The bottom line is it didn’t bother them anyway because everyone brought in flasks or mickeys, as we used to call them, or bottles. A lot of hard liquor was consumed. We would take out a ton of bins of bottles at the end of each game. Literally bins. People would just come and bring in their rum or their rye or their scotch, or whatever they wanted to take in. They would use that to keep warm.

The “We want beer” started right then, then it escalated through the season, because we were the only team in baseball that didn’t sell beer. That was probably a good indicator of the happiness in the stadium. It’s [0 degrees] out, it’s snowing, and they’re sitting out there saying, “We want beer.” It was all part of the attitude: “We’ll show them. We’ll play in the snow. We’ll drink beer.” It’s like the McKenzie brothers.

Man in the middle of it all
A 32-year-old Beeston surveys a mass of potential team paraphernalia before the first game

[The front-office members] were sitting in the press box. It was open, it was cold, it was concrete. We had [subpar] chairs. We watched the game from up there, but then we wandered around during the game. The place was full. The place was exciting. [We wanted to be] part of the action. Take it all in.

It took some time for these ugly faces to wear on people so they’d know who you are. At the time, people really didn’t know us other than they identified us by the blue jacket we all wore. Every [front office employee] wore a blue blazer with a Blue Jays logo on it. But when you’re walking around in that cold, you had a coat on!

The hot dogs [being served in the concourses] were steamed. They were done in volume and wrapped and sold there. The menus you see at ballparks and arenas these days are not nearly the same menus as back then. They were quite rudimentary. There was hot dogs and might have been pizza. I can’t remember. Popcorn, peanuts, those types of things. But there wasn’t the variety that you get today. We didn’t have the ability to grill. Everything was done in a commissary and steamed. Get ready, put it out, sell it.

There were all kinds of mistakes. We had lineups. There weren’t enough washrooms for the number of people. It was all kinds of issues, but there was this collegiality among the fans. That, you know, it was an event. It was a happening.

Everything wasn’t going perfect to begin with, but winning made a huge difference. Doug Ault’s home runs brought some excitement to the game.

[His second homer of the game] wasn’t one of those ones when you start crying like when Joe Carter hit the home run [in the 1993 World Series]. It wasn’t quite like that or like the final out in Atlanta to win [the ’92 Series]. But there was this excitement, like, “Man we might be pretty good — you’d think we can win another 161 of these things.” A moment of joy for everyone who was involved.

When the game was done, people were happy. The right team won. You couldn’t complain about anything. There were runs, there were home runs. And they were our home runs. To this day people know who Doug Ault was. They don’t remember Billy Singer [the Blue Jays’ starting pitcher that day]. Singer won 20 games in both leagues! They remember Doug Ault. That was what made the whole thing.

I don’t know how we’d look back on that day if we hadn’t won. Because the winning made it all special. Forget the delay with the weather. Forget the coldness. When you walked away, you could say, “We beat the Chicago White Sox. A big city in the States came here and we won.”

“We beat the Chicago White Sox. A big city in the States came here and we won.”

I would say it was a feeling of happiness, one of euphoria. There was no mean spirit throughout the entire stadium. It was, “We’re in this together. Baseball’s back in Toronto.” Remember, baseball was a pretty successful venture in Toronto at one point in time. The Maple Leafs [of the International League] led the minor leagues in attendance when they had the old Maple Leaf Stadium [at Lake Shore Boulevard, formerly Fleet Street].

Bottom line was baseball wasn’t new to Toronto. Baseball wasn’t something that we didn’t know about. We all had our favourite teams, whether it was Cleveland or Detroit. People knew the game; it wasn’t just something that was being taught for the first time and you had to learn the rules. People played the game and had been to spring training before. They’d seen the game. There was this feeling: “It’s Toronto. It’s ours. We’re in the major leagues. Montreal has the Expos. Now we have the Blue Jays. Let’s play the games.”

Opening days are special — they start the season. But this started our life. This was different than opening day of 1978, ’79, ’93, ’94. Different than the one in 2000. This was the first game. There were 44,000 people there, and I guarantee you that in my life 144,000 people have told me they were there.

Photo Credits

Dick Loek/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Graham Bezant/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Boris Spremo/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Frank Lennon/Toronto Star via Getty Images