toronto exhibition stadium

What Exhibition Stadium used to look like in Toronto

When 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 polo

A 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 stadium

The 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 stadium

In 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 stadium

But 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 stadium

Football 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 beauty

Ruby Mann, the winner of the 1950 Miss Toronto beauty pageant.

toronto exhibition stadium

Don Campbell outside Exhibition Stadium.

toronto exhibition stadium

A drum majorette poses for a photo in an empty Exhibition Stadium.

toronto exhibition stadium

Seating 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

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