This is the 10th in a series of 10 off-season “Blue Bomber Stories,” that are actual excerpts from the next football book written by the authors of Quiet Hero: The Ken Ploen Story. Scott Taylor and Roy Rosmus provide young fans with an opportunity to learn a little about the history of one of the greatest franchises in CFL history…
By Roy Rosmus (with some help from Scott Taylor)
He was signed by the Winnipegs for $125 and free room and board – a huge paycheque in the Depression-ravaged 1930s. Fritz Hanson turned out to be the first Western super star in Canadian football.
Melvin (Fritz) Hanson was both July 13, 1914, in the hamlet of Perham, Minnesota. He was nicknamed The Golden Ghost, the Perham Flash and Twinkle Toes. Heck, he had all sorts of nicknames. In fact, Winnipeg Free Press columnist Ralph Allen nicknamed the blonde haired Hanson, “The Perham Palehead.”
He has become bigger than life, but folks who recall Fritzie Hanson, remember a small man, only 5-foot-8, 145 pounds who ran around defenders, not through them.
In 1935, the Winnipegs were looking for something to get them over the hump. They had never been Western champions. They’d never even been to the Grey Cup, let alone won it, but playing coach Bob Fritz thought he was close. That’s when manager Joe Ryan found a tiny runningback/kick returner who had just graduated from North Dakota State College.
With Hanson running wild and returning kicks for touchdowns as if it was just a walk in the park, the Winnipegs trampled the Western opposition, prompting Winnipeg Tribune sportswriter Vince Leah to dub the team “The Blue Bombers,” a year later.
No Western team had ever won the Grey Cup before, so when the hotshot Winnipegs showed up in Toronto for Grey Cup Week, they came with a load of confidence and a penchant for a good party.
We’ve already told you that nobody loved a party more than Coach Threlfall, unless it was Fritzie and his pals. It’s been claimed for years that Grey Cup Week became a national institution when Calgary fans showed up with their horses in 1948. Late Globe and Mail writers Trent Frayne and Dick Beddoes will say, “B.S.” to that. The Grey Cup became a national celebration in 1935 when Beddoes called it, for the first time, “The Grand National Drunk.”
The Winnipegs arrived in Toronto, started the party and didn’t let up until the raised the Grey Cup and honored the West for the very first time.
Hanson was magnificent in that game.
It was cloudy in Toronto on Dec. 7, 1935, but somehow the sun shone on Hanson who returned punts for a total of 367 yards, including a 75-yarder for a touchdown that put a big blue bow on an impressive 18-12 Winnipeg win over a heavily favored Hamilton Tigers team.
Elmer Dulmage of The Canadian Press wrote: “Winnipegs were fighting to a 12-10 lead in the third quarter, being steadily pushed back by the towering punts of Frank Turville, when Hanson made his climaxing move, a lightning-like stab that brought the crowd up howling for the little man who moves faster than any football player in this Canadian sport.
“He took the low kick on the run at his 35-yard line, quickly side-stepped two diving tacklers and bolted straight down the middle, beyond the grasp of the most determined Hamilton pursuers and on, into the end zone.”
Turville punted 22 times that day and Hanson ran them back an average of 27 yards per return.
During his career, Hanson played in eight Grey Cup games. He won two more with Winnipeg — in 1939 and 1941 – and was, again, the hero in ‘41.
During the war, he played locally with the Winnipeg Light Infantry before finishing his career in Calgary. He capped his career with a victory in the 1948 Grey Cup game. Hanson was named the all-star halfback in the Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU) five times during his career, and in 1938 he won the Dave Dryburgh Memorial Trophy as the leading scorer in the West.
He was named an inaugural inductee into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1963 and was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in 1980. He passed away on Feb. 14, 1996 at the age of 81.