Wednesday, March 18, 2009

More musings about news-cruisings

The previous post made reference to the role newspapers had in starting the Spanish American War. (There's also a description in The People's Almanac 2 of a war that was almost touched off by some utterly bored reporters in a bar in Denver, I think it was, back in the late 1800s, but I'm danged if I can find the reference now.)

There was also a reference to a stunt (the best word for it) pulled by Hymie Koshevoy of the Vancouver Sun back in 1952, running the same story from the Korean War three days running -- illustrating how bored people were with the war. Hymie and his boss were annoyed that war news was pushing local content off the front pages. No one from the general public complained about the "repeat performances", and only one of the Sun's staff caught it.

But the award for best stunt of all goes to Hughie Watson, for the Howe Sound Basketball League. The story has been confirmed by Annis Stukus, Jim Kearney and Mike Vaux, among others, and they can be trusted, because they are all professional newspapermen.

In 1951, Hughie was night editor for The Province. Erwin Swangard was the sports editor of The Sun. Hughie hated Erwin, which didn't exactly put him in a class by himself. (I never knew Erwin Swangard, myself, but while he was respected in his profession, people who actually worked for him had rather strong views about his personality.)

So Hughie set out on an elaborate plan. In the fall of 1951, he started telephoning in scores and statistics to the Sun from the Howe Sound Basketball League. Teams from Deep Cove to Squamish would do battle on a regular basis, and Hughie made sure the Sun got the scores and stats in time for the afternoon papers.

Gradually, a scoring hero began to emerge from this. I know he had a name, but I'm danged if I can remember it. His exploits were legendary, and by season's end, he was a "lock" for the MVP honours.

So now, Hugh went for the coup de grace. He sent an elaborate invitation to Erwin Swangard, to be the guest speaker at the annual awards banquet for the HSBL, to be held at a hall in Deep Cove. He was also to present the MVP award. On the appointed evening, Erwin got dressed up and set out for this hall in Deep Cove.

Remember that at the time, the route from Vancouver to Deep Cove involved crossing the original Second Narrows bridge, with the two lanes, railway track and lift span, then following the euphemistically named Dollarton Highway into the foothills of Mount Seymour. There was a large Indian reserve (presided over by a chief named Dan George), few homes aside from that, and even fewer street lights. So Erwin spent a lovely evening driving around this area trying in vain to find this hall and the banquet.

As I understand it, there was no such hall. That didn't really matter, because there was no HSBL, either.

I don't know if Hughie ever owned up to the hoax, but it was fairly widely accepted that he was responsible. In fact, Canada Day Sports Trivia credits Hughie, but says the prank was exposed when the Canadian Amateur Basketball Association tried to check out the legendary scoring superstar; there's no mention about Hughie's motivation.

According to Mike Vaux -- an old newspaperman (well, not that old, I suppose) I knew in Victoria -- Hughie Watson was also noted for a number of other pranks, including his sprints to the dock for the Bowen Island ferry, leaping aboard as it was pulling out. One day, he allegedly waited until the boat had already left the dock before starting his run ... dressed as a woman. He leapt, splashed down behind the boat, then swam underwater to the other side, pulling himself aboard (this was only a low-deck car-and-passenger ferry, y'understand) as everyone was searching for the woman off the other side of the boat. Good times!

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