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Sunday, August 29, 2010


Looking east from Little League ball field.
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Baby Pool, circa 1956
     In the mind's eye, the best way to lap around the old Toronto Memorial Pool would not be performed by swimming around its white-walled basin.
      Rather, it would be by padding barefoot along the gritty, puddled concrete deck, past the powder-blue sliding board, past the white wooden lifeguard chairs, past the buoyed rope separating the shallow and deep sides of the topaz water and then onto the high and low diving boards, the stroll enriched with the shrieks and laughter of children, the piercing whistle of a teenage lifeguard, the coconut aroma of Coppertone suntan lotion mixed with the pungent taste of chlorine while the Beach Boys "Good Vibrations" blares from a transistor radio.
       The stroll back in time is nearly complete when the aluminum ladder of a diving board is ascended, the fiberglass bows and catapults, and a "kerplunk" resounds and soon follows is the well angled geyser of a can-opener, drenching the few fully clad adults leaning upon the white railing of the spectator section, the lap finished, the water receding and receding--swept away with the waves of nostalgia.
      For a little more than three decades, the Toronto Memorial Pool provided local youths with their primary source of summer recreation and social activity and, years later, still fresh memories.
      John Romey, longtime recreation supervisor and civic leader in the Gem City, grew up during the 1950s, putting in plenty of recreational time at Memorial Park.
      "The old pool was exactly the same as the one at Marland Heights in Weirton," he said.  "Identical.   There were two levels.  The bottom level was for women and men to change clothes, the same level the present pool is located.
       "It was fun, exciting for a kid," continued Romey.  "We had pretty good crowds.  People came to view as spectators."
       Being a longtime recreation supervisor, Romey pointed out that many laws regarding the operation and maintenance of a municipal pool have changed, including one from a period that did not shine so brightly in the Gem City.
       "Way back in the beginning, it was segregated," Romey said about the town's swimming pool.  "I could never understand it.  That was a part of segregation those days.  It was not unique to Toronto.  It was part of the times."
      African-Americans were granted access to Memorial Park Pool only on Tuesday.  Segregation ended at the public facility around 1966, two years after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
       A lesser change occurring to the park, Romey recollected, was the positioning of the Little League ball field, which sits approximately 30 feet in elevation above the current Olympics-style pool.  In 1951, the first year of junior baseball in town, Romey played catcher for Kaul Clay.
       "Home plate was where the concession stand now is," he said.  "Below left center was where the pool stood.  It was always a dream for me to hit a home run into the pool.  Of course, I never came close."
       A decade and a few years later was the era another longtime Toronto resident, Mark Rebres, fondly remembers.
       Rebres said that a typical summer day started out walking with friends Paul Morris and Tommy Lang from their Clark Street homes to the pool, their suits rolled up in towels, and then participating in morning swim lessons.  They would return home and walk back to Memorial Park to swim again.
       "You picked up wire baskets with numbers from behind the counter," Rebres said upon paying the ten-cent admission fee.  "You had to walk on the wet, cold, musty concrete all the way around and step into a little tub of water right before you took the steps to the pool deck."
       Rebres said that the pool and its lifeguards had their own peculiar rules.  "You were supposed to be able to swim the width of the pool before you were allowed to go off the dives.  You would get yelled at by lifeguards for hanging on the ropes separating the shallow and deep ends."
       Clinging on to happy pool memories of the period is Karen Walker, who lived a Frisbee's throw away from the pool on Jefferson Street and walked from there to work at the concession stand.
       "I remember all the kids coming up to the concession stand," Walker said.  "It was penny candy.  You could get a lot for your nickel then."
       During that time, the Trenton Street-based Melhorn's Dairy provided many of the pool's refreshments, including banana Fudge Sicles and blueberry, cherry, root beer, orange, lemon, lime and even licorice Popsicles.  "Fudge Sicles were seven cents.  Popsicles were a nickel," Walker said.  "Kids would ask you at the beginning of the day if they could pick up papers around the playground so that they could get ten cents worth of candy.   It's hard to believe what you would do for ten cents back in those days."
     Besides working at the concession stand, the 1971 Toronto High School graduate spent plenty of time at the pool level.  "That was a hangout," she said about evening swim parties. "The big thing was whether you got  thrown in with your clothes on."                                                                                                     Traditionally the old pool opened on Memorial Day and closed on Labor Day, but on closing day the park staged its biggest events of the swimming season and sponsored races, diving competitions and stunts, the crowning of Little Miss Lions and dances at the tennis court.
       "You would have to go hours before so that you could get a seat," Walker said about the pools Labor Day festivities.  "Some people would be sitting on top of the monkey bars."
       The last year for operation of the old Memorial Park pool was 1980, being replaced the following year at the same site by the current Olympics-style model.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


      Many men would give their souls to play just one game in the National Football League, but it was the heart of Toronto Tiger legend John "Hook" Comer that gave him that single opportunity.
      During the first quarter of the 20th Century, football players participated for the love of a game with crude equipment and often with equally crude treatment.  Those playing for semi-professional teams, such as the Toronto Tigers, supplemented their primary jobs at the local clay works with a few extra bucks against such notable teams as the Akron Silents, Bradley Eagles, Dusquesne Apprentice and various Ohio Valley clubs.
      "Those were rough and tough days the way they dressed and talked," said Tom McKelvey, who watched many semi-pro games during their heyday in the Gem City.  "I remember before one game the Toronto coach had his players diving into a mud puddle by the old home plate to practice recovering fumbles."
      Out of the most physical and punishing era of football emerged one athlete, John S. "Hook" Comer, standing 6'3" and weighing 180 pounds.
      "My father told me Hook Comer could kick the ball almost the length of the football field," John Petras Jr. said.
      "They said he could throw the football 100 yards," McKelvey said.  "Of course, that's probably exaggeration."
      What isn't hyperbole was Comer's athleticism.  Some old timers said he was equally gifted at running, kicking and passing.
      In his "Era of Elegance," author Walter M. Kestner gives this account of Comer: "As I recall the football of that era was much larger in diameter that that used today and consequently was much harder to throw.  However, John Comer or Big Hook as he was called could grasp the ball and throw it with extreme accuracy.   On one play particularly called the Formation A, Dave Ferris would lateral the ball to Hook, who would then throw a pass down field to Goose Mundy or Jim Condrim with a touchdown usually resulting from the play."
      Accounts by both Kestner and McKelvey attest that the early Toronto Tiger teams consisted of local talent, but around 1920 Doc Kilgus, club owner, wanted to increase the talent pool in the Gem City.
      "Doc Kilgus brought in guys from out of town to build up the team," McKelvey said.
      Often these athletes were collegians playing under aliases for money to maintain their amateur status  One such athlete was Pete "Fats" Henry, an All American tackle from Washington & Jefferson who played on the same side of Kaul Field with ringers and the few remaining legitimate locals, such as Hook Comer.
       Henry would go on to play with the Canton Bulldogs in 1920 and, as player-coach in 1926, he brought up fullback John "Hook" Comer, now 36 years of age and well past his prime.  Wearing number 3, Comer played but one NFL game, carrying the ball once for one yard alongside 38-year-old Jim Thorpe.
      The Bulldogs that year finished with one win, nine losses and three ties--the worst record in the fledgling National Football League.
      In 1963, Henry was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, one year before Toronto and Green Bay legend Clarke Hinkle was enshrined, arguably giving the Gem City two members in Canton.
       Comer went on to become a well respected policeman in Toronto, serving with Hinkle's brother Les.  He died in 1950 and is buried in Toronto Union Cemetery, not far from other Gem City legends, such as Clarke Hinkle and Pick Nalley.