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What Exhibition Stadium used to look like in Toronto

Posted by Chris Bateman / April 14, 2014

toronto exhibition stadiumWhen expansion wraps up in 2016, BMO Field in Toronto will hold close to 30,000 people, a touch under 70% of the capacity of Exhibition Stadium when it was razed in 1999. The ancient ball park and football stadium was a mostly dormant relic when it was flattened with little fanfare 15 years ago.

Loved and loathed, the original stand that would later form part of Exhibition Stadium was built in 1879 for spectators of horse racing and equestrian shows at the Ex. It burned down in 1906 and was quickly re-built. During the 1920s, the horses, as they had on the streets of Toronto, gave way to deafening motorcycle and auto races. An astonishingly dangerous game called automobile polo was popular around the time of the first world war.

toronto automobile poloA second fire in 1947 destroyed the grandstand again but in 1948, at a cost of $3 million, the 20,000 capacity north stand was erected in its place where it remained until demolition day. In the 1950s, the thousands packed the stands for the Miss Toronto beauty pageant and the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1959.

In an alternate universe, Exhibition Stadium could have been central to a Toronto Olympics had a bid for the games in 1954 been successful.

toronto exhibition stadiumThe Argos moved to the lake front field from Varsity Stadium in 1959, adding the south stand famous for its uncomfortable benches. As the Toronto Star noted in 1989, "the benches were put there on the insistence of then-Argo owner Bill Hodgson because they could fit more seats between the goal lines than if they had chairs."

toronto exhibition stadiumIn 1960, the Pittsburgh Steelers came to Toronto for a one-off exhibition match using CFL rules. They crushed the Argos on home turf 43-16. In fact, there are few good memories involving football.

The "Fog Bowl" of 1961 had spectators staring at a murky soup instead of a Grey Cup match. In 1970, the Montreal Alouettes defeated the Calgary Stampeders 23 to 10 but the atrocious condition of the grass, which fell away in chunks, soured the affair. During the game, Als quarterback Sonny Wade tore up a large chunk of dislodged grass in disgust. In 1965, strong winds forced one-day change in the rules.

toronto exhibition stadiumBut still the worst was still to come. The 1982 Grey Cup was played in a freezing monsoon. Soaking fans exposed to the elements huddled around sheltered concession stands and, when the toilets overflowed, urinated into garbage pails and sinks. To add insult to injury, the Argos lost in front of the largest Canadian TV audience ever at the time. Disgruntled fans marched on City Hall the next day demanding a covered ball park.

The stadium got the nickname Excruciation Stadium and the Mistake-by-the-Lake for a reason.

toronto exhibition stadiumFootball aside, Exhibition Stadium was most famous for spawning the Toronto Blue Jays. The horseshoe-shaped stadium, despite its detractors, was central to the city's successful bid for an MLB expansion franchise in 1976. The Jays played their first game on April 7, 1977 on a field famously covered in a thin layer of snow.

Before the game, the White Sox's Jack Brohamer used shin guards as skis and baseball bats as poles.

Food dropped by the fans and its location close to the water made the stadium a paradise for seagulls. In August 1984, the situation reached a surreal nadir when Yankee outfielder Dave Winfield was arrested for killing one of the birds. Between the 5th and 6th innings, Winfield threw a ball that stuck one of the loitering creatures in the head. Some spectators said he meant to do it, but the charges were later dropped and Winfield went on to win a World Series with the Jays in 1992.

There were good times: The team clinched the Eastern Division there in 1985 and hit a record 10 home runs in one game in 1987 but Exhibition Stadium was generally disliked by its anchor tenants. It lingered on as an occasional concert venue for over a decade after the Jays split for the Skydome in 1989.

Few mourned when it finally came crashing down.


toronto miss beautyRuby Mann, the winner of the 1950 Miss Toronto beauty pageant.

toronto exhibition stadiumDon Campbell outside Exhibition Stadium.

toronto exhibition stadiumA drum majorette poses for a photo in an empty Exhibition Stadium.

toronto exhibition stadiumSeating plan from the Blue Jays era.


That time when Toronto went stadium crazy
That time when the SkyDome landed in Toronto
A look back at the birth of the SkyDome

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: Wikimedia Commons, City of Toronto Archives



Simon Tarses / April 14, 2014 at 02:43 am
As cool as the Mistake by the Lake was to watch concerts (I saw The Who there in 1989 during their reunion tour), I'll take the current Sky Dome we have now.

I will say this though, it's a tragedy that the BMO Field wasn't built in the same space as Exhibition Stadium rather than in the middle of the Ex grounds as it is now.
iSkyscraper / April 14, 2014 at 08:06 am
Grew up going to the occasional Blue Jays game at the Ex, sitting field level near third base. People who slag the SkyDome don't realize how truly awful the Ex was - the article above captures nicely the domed-stadium-at-any-cost sentiment that led directly to its creation. Although, had the Ex held on just a few more years the SkyDome would have likely been Camden Yard-ized a bit and not been the last of the ugly concrete multipurpose stadia era.

The Ex by far the most hacky, cowtown, POS stadium of its era, and rightly remembered as such:
King / April 14, 2014 at 10:31 am
No beer sold for the first 5 years of Blue Jays baseball. ('77-'82) WTF.
Alex / April 14, 2014 at 11:25 am
I remember going to number of Jays games at the Ex and it was a ton of fun as a kid.

Maybe I was easy to please back then, but in hindsight the Ex sucked. The bleachers on the first base line would become blazing hot under the heat and would burn your legs without a blanket. There was no coverage from the element, except for the cheap seats in the outfield! You either got sunburned, rained up or snowed upon. It was windy so you could get cold on a nice day.

The Skydome isn't that great either, but miles better than the Ex.
W. K. Lis / April 14, 2014 at 11:29 am
I remember The Three Stooges appearing at an afternoon Grandstand show, as a kid.
Bill replying to a comment from Simon Tarses / April 14, 2014 at 12:11 pm
BMO Field is exactly where the Exhibition Stadium was, but with a bit smaller footprint. What are you talking about?
John Labatt / April 14, 2014 at 12:46 pm
I saw the Rolling Stones here in 1988 good times yes.
Miranda replying to a comment from Bill / April 14, 2014 at 12:56 pm
In 1999, the stadium was demolished, with the site being used for parking until 2006. BMO Field was built on the site in 2007, roughly where the northern end of the covered grandstand once stood. The parking lot immediately south of BMO Field has plaques imbedded in the pavement where home plate and the other three bases were once located.
bob / April 14, 2014 at 01:04 pm
Your picture of the drum majorette is not set at Exhibition Stadium. It is, in fact, at old Varsity Stadium. You can see Varsity Arena in the background.
jen replying to a comment from Alex / April 14, 2014 at 03:34 pm
It WAS fun as a kid. I remember going with my dad on t-shirt day, getting a Jays shirt and spilling mustard on it while my legs burned on the benches. My mom took me to a Huey Lewis and the News show. Good times.
stopitman / April 14, 2014 at 07:07 pm
Thankfully the morons who think an open baseball stadium in Toronto is a good idea haven't trolled through this thread yet...

It's great that the Mistake by the Lake is gone - BMO turned out to be a much better replacement for soccer (and hopefully soon Canadian football).
j-rock / April 22, 2014 at 08:04 pm
Terrible stadium. Freezing cold in the winter, and scorching in the summers. Windy, ugly and pretty much a disaster in every possible way. But I have nothing but happy memories of the place.
Elizabeth from Etobicoke / August 22, 2014 at 11:22 pm
I've got fond memories of the old Exhibition Stadium, with its grandstand on the north side. We'd go to see the Toronto Blue Jays play baseball, and (if it was an evening game) watch the sun go down. This is where - and when - I saw the "wave" for the first time. During a baseball game, there would be people selling hot dogs, popcorn, and beer.
I'd be hearing "Hot dogs, hot dogs - don't forget your hot dogs!"
Mike / May 14, 2015 at 09:13 am
I remember seeing the stadium as a child every year we went to the CNE. But I don't actually remember going inside it.
Doug McClement / May 14, 2015 at 10:15 am
Saw the Festival Express concert there in June 1970: Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Band, Traffic, Ten Years After, Buddy Guy, Mountain, Ian & Sylvia, Mashmakhan, Eric Anderson, Tom Rush, Seatrain, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Robert Charlebois.
buh / May 14, 2015 at 10:50 am
That hideous retaining wall holding up the north end of the stadium has to have been one of the ugliest structures ever to exist in Toronto (and there's a lot of competition). Glad that is gone - although I have many great memories of baseball and soccer games, and some of the best concerts of my life there. The Cure/Love & Rockets/Pixies all on one bill. Depeche Mode/Jesus & Mary Chain/Nitzer Ebb all on one bill. Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden, Sinead O'Connor, Neil Young, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Billy Idol, INXS.... and some I won't mention ;)
Paul / September 26, 2015 at 12:07 am
The covered section was great when they used to have a real concert lineup during the Ex. Saw so many great acts there in the 70's. Also was the site of the Canadian World Music Festival in 1979 headlined by Aerosmith. That was an all day blast!
Loving baseball / October 11, 2015 at 09:46 pm
Floyd and Genesis at the Grandstand. Freaking amazing
Gord Jackson / October 12, 2015 at 07:14 pm
Very fond memories of ye olde cow pasture. Saw a few Jays games from the old north end grandstand but it was mostly Argo football for me, going as far back as 1960. And being born and bred in Hamilton I was always happy to see the Argos get beaten, which in turn reminds me of Bob Hope's crack that 'this is where the Argos lose all their games' one year when he was playing the grandstand during the CNE. Today I am now back in Hamilton and the Argos have become my second-choice team after the Cats. Something about variety being the spice of life, what?
Rick / March 13, 2016 at 08:44 pm
The Who, Heart, J Giles Band and Nash the Slash!
Richard Bornstein / March 29, 2016 at 01:49 am
Does anybody remember the home made hot caramel corn sold during the Argo games before the Jays came?
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