Editor’s note: The third match-up in NNSL’s Greatest of All Time competition features a battle of the Junior Merchants as the 1974 edition takes on the 1979 edition. Here’s the recap of the 1974 team which won the inaugural Canadian Junior Men’s Softball Championship that year, becoming the first team from North of 60 to win a national title of any kind in any sport.
The year is 1974.
Bob Findlay is mayor of Yellowknife, the third hosting of the Arctic Winter Games is in the books and there’s a group of young athletes who are the toast of the town.
That group is the Yellowknife Junior Merchants softball team, fresh off their victory at the inaugural Canadian Junior Men’s Softball Championship in Ottawa. In beating Quebec by a score of 6-5 in the gold medal game in August of that year, the Merchants would make history by becoming the first team from North of 60 to win a national title of any kind in any sport.
Rod Stirling was the youngest member of the team in 1974 at the age of 15. NNSL Media spoke with Stirling on the occasion of the 40 th anniversary of the team’s win (National softball glory recalled, Yellowknifer, Aug. 13, 2014) and the memory of the winning play was etched in his mind.
“I still remember the bottom of the seventh inning and Ray Gagnon coming around third base and sliding into home and we won it,” he said. “It’s burned into my memory like it was yesterday.”
It was the first time a junior team from the NWT had been formed to travel to a tournament and Stirling can remember the tryouts.
“I think around 20 or so guys came out,” he said. “Everyone who tried out pretty much made the team, except for a couple of cuts and 18 of us went.”
To put things in perspective of just what the NWT was up against, Ontario, at the time, had around 30,000 players to pick from.
The story has been told many times before – borrowed second-hand uniforms, third-rate equipment and not
a hope in hell of winning the tournament. Where have we heard that story before?
That’s how Stirling recalled things before the start of the tournament and how the team had a Bad News Bears-type of mentality.
“We just thought we didn’t belong,” he said. “Our uniforms that we were supposed to wear didn’t arrive here in time and when they did eventually come in, they were made for little kids. When we got there, we were scared, knees knocking, and thinking ‘My God, what did we get ourselves into?’”
The snickers and jabs of derision that sometimes follows a team coming from the NWT was in full force, especially as the Merchants got set to play New Brunswick in its first game. The two teams rode the bus together to the field for that opening contest and Stirling said the players from the east coast were giving it to the Northerners big time.
“They were looking at us and making fun of our uniforms and telling us how they were going to mercy us and do this and do that,” he said. “We didn’t say anything back because we didn’t think we were that good to say anything.”
But it was those kids from the North, with the second-hand uniforms and third-rate equipment and not a hope in hell, who got the jump and began to pound out the runs on their way to a 10-2 mercy win in five innings.
The bus ride back to the hotel, said Stirling, was a much different one.
“We shook hands with them after the game and we just said ‘Nice try, guys’,” he said. “Not ‘good game’ like players usually say. Just nice try because we didn’t forget what they had been saying to us.”
The Merchants lost in their opening playoff game to Quebec, meaning they would have to take the long route to win the title. After wins over Ontario and Saskatchewan, they met up with Quebec again and would have to beat them twice under the double-knockout format.
The Aug. 15, 1974 edition of Yellowknifer described the final inning of the gold medal game this way:
“Needing three runs to tie, (Ron) Lehman started it as he got to first base on an error. Mark Gryba followed with a single and (Wayne) Jeske walked loading the bases with none out.
The crowds were delirious and coach Bernie Boyd and manager Wilf Chiasson are reported to have been so nervous they changed colour. Ray Gagnon, the fourth man up, drilled a double into left centre scoring Lehman and Gryba and (Bob) McLarnon grounded out to the pitcher.
Runners on second and third, one out and needing one run to tie and two to win, Greg Vaydik pulled the pin on a grenade-like blast that went over short, scoring Jeske and Gagnon and the Yellowknife Juniors were the 1974 Canadian Junior Men’s Softball champions.”
The team was given the red-carpet treatment upon their return at Yellowknife Airport, complete with an honour guard and a 70-car motorcade, which made the rounds around town before arriving at the Elks Hall for a reception. As well, the city had rings made for the team and every member also got leather jackets recognizing the achievement.
The team’s efforts were recognized with induction into the NWT Sport Hall of Fame in November 2013 and Stirling said it was a special moment for everyone involved.
“It was so great that they felt us worthy of being there and it was so nice to have most of the team there to celebrate it,” he said. “We all got the chance to reminisce and catch up. All of remember it and it’s a feeling that will never go away.”