978-088982-276-4 / 384pp / $30.00
Gerry James, aka Kid Dynamite,
was not only the youngest player ever to play in the CFL at 17, but he was one of the toughest athletes of his time. While playing with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 1954, James was the very first recipient of the CFL’s Schenley Most Outstanding Canadian Award. He won the award a second time in 1957. James led the league in scoring in 1957 and held the record for most rushing touchdowns in one season for forty-three years. He was on four Grey Cup winning teams. Along with his father, he holds the honour of being a member of the CFL Hall of Fame, the Manitoba Hall of Fame and the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame. Not only did James achieve greatness in football, but after winning a Memorial Cup with the Toronto Marlboros in 1955, he went on to play hockey for the Toronto Maple Leafs for four seasons. James is the only person to play in a Grey Cup and a Stanley Cup final in the same season. In the 1970s, after coaching in Davos, Switzerland, he embarked on a twenty year career as one of the most successful coaches in Canadian junior hockey history.
Kid Dynamite captures a rare glimpse into the sporting and personal life of one of Canada’s most outstanding athletes.
“…his biography still resonates today…a must-read.”
–Jim Bender, Toronto Sun
“…a fascinating inside view of two sports in the low-salary, high-quality 1950s and ’60s. But what stands out are the stories and feelings James shares about his father, the CFL Hall of Fame two-way star Eddie “Dynamite” James, and the legendary Bomber coach Bud Grant.”
–Gordon Sinclair, jr, Winnipeg Free Press
“If you’re a sports fan…you owe it to yourself to give it a read.”
–Rob Carnie, CHAB radio, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan
“The James biography by Smith…is well-researched and engaging.”
–Cleve Dheensaw, Victoria Times-Colonist and Vancouver Sun
“The book is so revealing that James’ children learned new things about their father by poring through the pages.”
–Rob Vanstone, Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon Star-Phoenix
“Gerry James’ sporting accomplishments are legendary, but how he achieved success in the NHL and CFL — at the same time! — is a story well-told by Ron Smith in his book “Kid Dynamite: The Gerry James Story.” James joined the Winnipeg Blue Bombers as a 17-year-old, eventually winning four Grey Cups while also playing rough-and-tumble hockey for the Toronto Maple Leafs before becoming a legendary coach in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Smith chronicles the journey and isn’t afraid to show revealing insights into the personality of one of Canada’s greatest athletes, an estranged son who reconciled with his father, Eddie “Dynamite” James, before joining him in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.”
–Darrell Davis, former Regina Leader-Post sports writer and 2006 inductee into the media wing of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
“Ron Smith’s use of prose, I thought, was excellent. I was hooked from the Preface on. As for the content, I thought I knew a lot about Gerry. I stand corrected. Back in those senior hockey days, my late father, Howard, refereed many games. I’m sure no one put Gerry James in the penalty box in Yorkton more than he did. But, he also had great admiration for Gerry, particularly his drive and determination as an athlete – an aspect of his character brilliantly told by Smith in his book Kid Dynamite: The Gerry James Story.
Congratulations, Ron Smith, on a great read. Whether you know Gerry, like him or not, the book gives real insight into the man, both as a person and athlete. His drive and determination, truly made him one of, if not, the best athlete this country has ever produced.”
–Randy Atkinson, GX Radio, Yorkton, SK
“Congratulations, Ron, you are a gifted journalist. The career of this outstanding athlete, as you tell it, is so interesting and the insight and the behind-the-scene stories make it a very good book. As someone who grew up and worked through those years as a journalist and who associated with so many of the individuals you mention, the pages flew by with much enjoyment. Your journalistic talent in the final part of the book is truly exceptional. Your comments on the challenges faced by Gerry and Marg in their later years and their determination never to quit and the way you explained their efforts and perseverance is a wonderful example of great writing and thoughtfulness.”
–Linus Westberg, retired radio host
“He was the youngest player to ever play in the CFL at the young age of 17 and the only player to play in a Grey Cup and Stanley Cup in the same year. Gerry James is a Canadian sports legend who can add one more accomplishment to his stacked resume, he can now add story teller to the list. James was in Regina on Saturday in support of a biography written about his life by author Ron Smith, Kid Dynamite: The Story of Gerry James. The book captures a rare glimpse into not only
James’ sports life but his personal life. ‘It’s kind of invasive to have your life story told and something’s you don’t want known…. I am a shy private person, although I may not look like it and so it was a hard hurdle to get over.’ James said, after sharing memories from his professional sports career with an audience at the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame. James and Smith entertained the audience sharing stories from their golf games (Smith usually the winner of) to conversations they had while making the book.”
–Lindsay Dunn, CTV, Regina
“Gerry James, who is one of a kind, was once two in my mind. Smith does not gloss over the relationship between James and his father, Eddie (Dynamite) James. The elder James, who starred for the Blue Bombers and the Regina Roughriders, entered the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1963. When Gerry James was inducted 18 years later, his bust was placed alongside that of his late father. “I never got to know my father the way I should have,” lamented James, who is retired and living in Nanoose Bay, B.C. (on Vancouver Island) with his wife of 57 years, Marg. The book is so revealing that James’ children learned new things about their father by poring through the pages. Smith conducted his research by spending untold hours going through archival material, such as newspaper accounts of James’ career. But it was especially important to spend time with James, and to earn his trust, if the book was to become a comprehensive portrayal of Gerry James – both of him. For his part, James is very pleased with how the book turned out. When asked for his appraisal, he responded with a patented deadpan answer: “I know the ending.”
–Rob Vanstone, The Regina Leader-Post
“Gerry James did it all in storied sports career. New book’s a dynamite read.”
–Jim Bender, The Winnipeg Sun
“The first reaction to a book just released about CFL legend Gerry James is that it came out about 40 years too late. After all, he starred at running back, kick returner and placekicker during the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ glory years back in the 1950s and early ‘60s. Yet, his biography still resonates today and Kid Dynamite, The Gerry James Story (Oolichan Books, $35) by Ron Smith is a must-read for both diehard Bombers and CFL fans, and even some NHL observers.”
–Jim Bender, Toronto Sun, October 20, 2011
Athletes who can compete at the highest level in two sports are rare. Chicago Bulls wunderkind Michael “Air” Jordan couldn’t manage it. When he tried professional baseball, he was marooned in the minors.
The NFL dandy “Neon Deion” Sanders played both major league baseball and pro football. John Ferguson and Jack Bionda played both pro hockey and lacrosse.
Canadian cyclist and speed skater Clara Hughes is the only person to have won multiple medals in the summer and winter Olympic Games, for cycling and speed skating.
Before them all came Gerry James. Within one year, he played in both the Stanley Cup and the Grey Cup.
• As the youngest player to play in the CFL, at age 17, James earned $50 per week, when it was still called the Western Inter-provincial Football Union, in 1952.
• He scored the first touchdown against the newly-minted BC Lions in 1954 at Empire Stadium.
• He was the first player to win the CFL’s Schenley Award for Outstanding Canadian.
• He led the league in scoring in 1957 and won the Schenley for a second time that year.
• For 43 years he held the CFL record for most rushing touchdowns in a season (18). He set 18 CFL records and played on four Grey Cup winning teams.
In hockey, after winning the Memorial Cup with the Toronto Marlboros in 1955—by which time he was a teenage father—James played for four seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, epitomizing King Clancy’s aphorism, “If you can’t beat ’em in the alley, you can’t beat ’em on the ice.”
James later became one of the most successful coaches in minor league hockey, voted all-star coach seven times in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, and tutoring the likes of NHLer Brian Propp.
Gerry James has been inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame and the Saskatchewan and Manitoba Halls of Fame—along with his father, Eddie “Dynamite” James, who was a football star with the pre-war Blue Bombers—but who is he now?
You have to remember the glory days of the Canadian Football League and the hockey broadcasts of Foster Hewitt to even recall his name. Fortunately his golfing partner on Vancouver Island, former book publisher Ron Smith, knows and understands sports better than most sportswriters. Upon his retirement, Smith decided James was worthy of an in-depth biography.
Kid Dynamite: The Gerry James Story is not a quickie rehash of career highlights and stats—although it certainly does provide extensive records of James’ twin sporting careers. Smith, no slouch himself as an athlete, has spent years gathering information for an intimate portrait of how a very naïve, gifted and angry young man evolved into a complex, argumentative and inordinately proud enigma.
Although he’s clearly respectful, Smith does not try to make Gerry James likeable. The result is a compelling narrative that will prompt even the most ardent sports fan to realize sports can be over-valued in society, and that success in sports is invariably a double-edged sword.
gerry is a nickname. he was born Edwin Fitzgerald James in Regina, in 1934, but the James family, including one older brother, moved to Winnipeg—leaving Edwin in the care of his aunt in Broadview, Saskatchewan, for the first year of his life.
Reunited in Manitoba, Gerry’s asthmatic brother Don, four years older, beat and oppressed him for as long and often as he could. “He had no stamina at all,” James recalls. “I think when he saw that I could do all the things he couldn’t do, he was jealous. I think he feared that I would become Dad’s favourite.”
At age 14, Gerry was strong enough to finally pummel his brother, remorselessly, into complete submission. The brothers barely spoke for the rest of their lives. (Don settled on the east coast; Gerry would eventually gravitate to Vancouver Island with his wife, Marg.)
Sibling rivalry and the cruelty of an older brother were certainly catalysts for James’ fiercely competitive nature, but he was also determined to rival his ex-sports-hero father, who was less than heroic at home. “Gerry remembers many occasions when he leapt on his father’s back to try to stop him from striking his mom,” Smith writes.
His parents divorced in 1947, after his father, a chronic drinker, had returned from the war. To this day James’ favourite memory of boyhood was taking a bath. “A simple bath,” he told Smith. “Can you imagine? Warmth is a precious luxury, an almighty luxury, especially for someone who grew up on the prairies.”
Outspoken, but rarely one to indulge in introspection, James once noted, in 1981, “It was either sports or jail, one or the other.” By grade ten in Kelvin High School, he was a sports celebrity in Winnipeg, excelling as a sprinter.
A Canadian Press story predicted he might exceed his famous father. Soon enough, sports announcer “Cactus” Jack Wells dubbed him Kid Dynamite, in much the same way as Henri Richard became known as the “Pocket Rocket” in reference to his older brother Maurice “Rocket” Richard.
James lost his two front teeth while playing baseball at age 15, in St. Boniface, against grown men, when he was sucker-punched by a rival first baseman. “That was probably the shortest fight I was ever in. For two days I kept quiet and hid my mouth because I knew my mother would be upset and I knew she couldn’t afford the additional financial burden of replacing them. I never did find the teeth.”
James was once offered an NFL contract by the New York Giants, but in those days the CFL paid more. Eventually the Leafs demanded that James not play football in 1956 if he was contracted to play hockey. James has vivid memories of the Original Six. “For all-round skill, Gordie Howe was the best,” he says, “but for sheer entertainment value, the Rocket would get my vote.”
Smith devotes more than half the book to chronicling James’ athletics, then deals with his coaching years, which included a stint coaching Special Olympians.
james and his wife visited Vancouver Island during a trip to B.C. to attend Expo 86. They bought a lot near Nanoose Bay in 1989, arrived to live in B.C. in 1994 and took possession of their present home in 1997. Not long afterwards, he met Ron Smith on the putting green of the Fairwinds Golf Course. It might have been one of the luckiest breaks of James’ life.
Kid Dynamite: The Gerry James Story is a rarity—a sports biography that does its subject the favour of being warts ‘n’ all. It resurrects Gerry James as a fascinating personality, not simply an exceptional athlete.
An anecdote towards the end of the book serves as a case in point. James firmly believes the two sexes are wired differently. He doesn’t believe that men can write about what women think, so he skips over any parts of a novel that purport to reveal the female mind.
“Once I thoroughly enjoyed a particular work of detective fiction,” he recalls, “skipping the female parts as usual, only to come to the end of the book and discover the author was P.D. James. I was so pissed when I saw P.D. was female. I threw the book down on the floor. I felt like I’d been tricked.”
Despite his feisty nature, James remains genuinely modest about his accomplishments. When his biographer told him he held the record for most appearances in CFL post-season games (36), James wasn’t even aware of the record.
“I played in the days before the big money in sports,” he tells Smith, “and I looked at it as a way to support my family. Marg and I had three children by the time I signed to play two sports, and our family kept growing.” Smith notes that Gerry James’ ascendancy in two pro sports in Canada is not unprecedented. An obscure athlete named Elwyn (Moe) Morris played pro hockey and pro football. Lionel Conacher won a Grey Cup with the Toronto Argonauts in 1921 and successive Stanley Cups with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1934 and the Montreal Maroons in 1935—and was named Canada’s greatest athlete of the first half century (20th) for doing so.
Nowadays, once a week, Marg drags Gerry along to the soup kitchen at the Salvation Army to serve as a volunteer, and every Christmas, for several weeks, Gerry can be seen outside the Petro Canada station on the main island highway, attending to his Salvation Army donation kettle. People donate—cuz they don’t want to get punched in the nose.
-Alan Twigg, BC Bookworld, Spring 2012
Two-sport hero’s story full of success — and loss
As usual, I couldn’t help myself.
It was a couple of Saturday mornings ago, and we were having breakfast at Stella’s on Sherbrook, when I turned to the four young men seated next to us and asked one wearing a Detroit Tigers hat if he was cheering for them in the playoffs.
When he said yes — and because baseball, hockey and football overlap at this time of year, and I still couldn’t help myself — I asked the whole table another question.
Which of the major pro sports — hockey, football, basketball and baseball — takes the most athleticism? We debated that for a few minutes, then I asked the guys one more related question.
“Have you ever heard of Gerry James?” They hadn’t.
So I told them part of the story of the Winnipeg boy who was only 17 when he started playing pro football, and who would play in a Grey Cup with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and a Stanley Cup final with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the same season.
There is more to his story, but I didn’t know it until this week.
It was Tuesday evening and Gerry James was sitting at a book-piled desk at McNally Robinson Grant Park, looking a decade younger than the 77 he turns today. Beside him was his West Coast golfing pal and biographer, Ron Smith, the man most responsible for the pile of books on the desk.
And in front of them was the lineup of people waiting for autographed copies of Kid Dynamite: The Gerry James Story.
If you can call one man and his two little boys a lineup.
In retrospect, now that I’ve read my own autographed copy, the short lineup of father and sons is oddly appropriate. The book is a fascinating inside view of two sports in the low-salary, high-quality 1950s and early ’60s. But what stands out are the stories and feelings James shares about his father, the CFL Hall of Fame two-way star Eddie “Dynamite” James, and the legendary Bomber coach Bud Grant.
Gerry disliked Grant because, in his view, he treated Canadians as second-class players. And as a kid, his real father figure was never really there for him.
Gerry grew up at as a latch-key kid in a clapboard house at 570 Beaverbrook St., setting grass fires on the working-class western edge of River Heights and trying to put out fires at home.
His father had been away during the Second World War, and as Smith wrote, the return of “Dynamite” was a mixed blessing for the future “Kid Dynamite.”
Gerry finally had a male figure to look up to, but that male figure had become an abusive alcoholic.
As Smith writes: “At a time when he thought they should all feel blessed — after all his father had returned home safely — Gerry saw his parents fight, verbally and physically, day and night.”
Gerry, the little defender, would react by jumping on his father’s back, trying to stop him from hitting his mother.
None of this is the way I imagined the boyhood of one of my boyhood heroes.
Yet, as a hard-hitting forward, Gerry would go on to reprise his role as a guy who protected his Maple Leaf teammates.
And he would score touchdowns as a Bomber running back in ways that his father never did. He would also be a big part of four Grey Cup championship teams, named the CFL’s most outstanding Canadian twice and, in 1957, finish second to Rocket Richard for Canada’s outstanding athlete.
Which only made what he said in 1981 all the more compelling.
The occasion was his induction into the CFL Hall of Fame, where Gerry told an interviewer this about his Winnipeg childhood:
“It was either sports or jail, one or the other… Sports took me where I wanted to go. Who knows where I would have ended up without it.”
Where he ended up, for most of the years after his release by the Bombers, was in Yorkton, Sask., where he would add to his legend as a junior hockey owner and coach.
I had long wondered why Gerry James never returned to live in Winnipeg, where he had been such a big name. Reading the book gives a sense of why.
Gerry still sounds angry, even bitter, about the way the Bombers released him in a salary dispute and how it took decades before the football club began to appreciate what he and the rest of his teammates gave the city.
There is still a sense of a lingering loss between Gerry and the Bombers that even the gesture of being named honorary captain for tonight’s game against Montreal won’t heal.
And there’s a similar sense of loss with his dad. The man Gerry admired most died on Boxing Day 1958, at the height of his son’s career, never having given Gerry the validation he so wanted.
It was the feeling Bud Grant, the Bombers and all his sporting achievements never seemed to give him, either.
But I found Gerry seems to have a sense of peace — playing golf with the boys and growing ornamental grass on Vancouver Island. And, above all, being the kind of father and husband of nearly 60 years that would make his Dynamite dad proud.
Happy birthday, Gerry.
— Gordon Sinclair Jr.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 22, 2011 B1
Gerry James: Dynamite in the NHL and CFL
Gerry James is a figure ripped right out of yellowing sports pages of yore — a hard-driving two-sport pro athlete with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Blue Bombers from an era when men were men.
The Nanoose Bay resident’s vivid sporting life was as remarkable as it was colourful, crossing paths with a cast of characters that included Gordie Howe, Conn Smythe, Punch Imlach, Howie Meeker, Kenny Ploen, Bud Grant, Bob Pulford and Ted Kennedy.
The youngest player ever to play in the CFL at 17, and the winner of four Grey Cups, James will be celebrated today on his 77th birthday as the honorary captain when the Bombers host the Montreal Alouettes in Winnipeg.
James, who also played four seasons in the NHL with the Maple Leafs, is now the subject of a book Kid Dynamite: The Gerry James Story, written by Nanaimo author Ron Smith.
James’ sporting activities these days on the Island are limited to golfing at Fairwinds. But what a gauntlet his rugged career encompassed as he won the CFL Schenley Most Outstanding Canadian player award in 1954 and 1957.
Once asked by hockey coach Turk Broda to send a message to tough guy Howie Young, James came back to the bench only to have Broda exclaim: “Next time, Gerry, wait until the puck is dropped.”
Playing in both the NHL and CFL would, of course, be impossible today. But James is from a more simple time when pro athletes earned no more than their plumber neighbour or drywaller brother-in-law. Yet how remarkable it is that he played in Grey Cup games and the Stanley Cup Final.
“Back then, I didn’t think there was anything abnormal about it,” said James, who was intrigued by and studied kinetics and training methods long before that became popular among the athletic set.
“What I found most difficult was going from the short, powerful, explosive ligament movements involved in football to the more fluid movements needed for hockey. But I used to work on reconstructing muscle patterns between the hockey and football seasons.”
The James biography by Smith, a former Vancouver Island University creative writing and English teacher, is well-researched and engaging. Although James is best remembered on the Prairies, even here in his adopted province of B.C. he has a good story to tell — James scored the first touchdown ever by an opposing player at Empire Stadium in 1954.
James’ recollections are revealing.
Former Bombers (and, later, Vikings NFL) coach Grant is remembered by James as a coach who favoured American players over Canadians but who was so thoroughly brilliant he would phone the weather office at halftime to inquire about the conditions to expect in the second half. James took many of the lessons learned from coaches he played under, in both football and hockey, and became a successful coach in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. His reputation had preceded him, even though the juniors had a rather sketchy idea of hockey timelines.
One of his players asked him if he played with Eddie Shore.
“I told him I wasn’t quite that old,” chuckled James.
The years may have now passed, but not the competitive fires. When James was recently asked to help out a Nanaimo old-timers hockey team, he came armed with stopwatch and diagrams detailing breakout patterns — far more than this group needed at their level.
But once a sporting warrior, always a sporting warrior.
–Cleeve Dheenshaw, Postmedia News December 23, 2011
From the The Vancouver Sun
Gerry Remembered: Letters from readers
–Stan Tinker, Ottawa, Ontario
(Stan Tinker wrote to me when he heard that I was writing a biography of Gerry. He told me that he had written to Gerry in the late 50s asking for his autograph. He had never received a reply. In those days athletes received many such requests but the cost to reply was prohibitive. Yes, that is how little these “stars” were making. In any case, Stan had remained a devoted fan and asked if he could get a signed copy of the book. Since then he has sent Gerry a copy of an image Gerry thought was lost and the above letter. Stan’s letter is typical of many responses to the book and Gerry’s career but is more detailed than most. His response is eloquent and passionate and has made one older athlete a very happy man.)
When I was growing up, Gerry James was one of my sports heroes. As an 8 year old whose family didn’t have a TV until I was 12, I had to listen to football games on radio. I drew and coloured the gridiron on a cardboard approximately 18 by 12 inches (to the scale only an 8 year old could draw) complete with yard lines and end zones. For four years (until we got a TV) my parents would find me lying on the floor, listening to the game and tracking the play by play with a button that I would move up and down my gridiron along with each play as it transpired. The announcer’s exciting words coincided with Gerry’s long and hard fought runs and my button followed along with my imagination. What nostalgic memories this book brought back of a football and hockey hero we all wanted to emulate. But this well-written book by Ron Smith brought out more than the life and mind of an athlete and superhero of the era. Its balanced treatment of Gerry James’ life exposed the personality and challenges of a real life family man complete with not only all the well-deserved successes but also life’s struggles and unexpected setbacks. How Mr. James handled these before the days of the entitled and high priced pro athlete provides life lessons to us all no matter what our generation. There is something here for the nostalgic and also for those who just want to have their values of honesty, integrity and dedication to a goal, whether in sports or life reinforced. To Mr. James, congratulations on your career and thank you for finally sharing a part of you we wanted to know. To Mr. Smith, congratulations on a book which captures and presents the essence of a man I admire still. I highly recommend Kid Dynamite for all who want to be inspired.
–Taras Diduck, Edmonton