Toronto Argonauts | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Toronto Argonauts

The Toronto Argonauts are a professional football team in the East Division of the Canadian Football League (CFL). Formed in 1873 as part of the Argonaut Rowing Club, the team has won 18 Grey Cup championships, the most of any team in the history of Canadian football. In total, the Argonauts have appeared in 24 Grey Cup games, losing only six. (The Grey Cup has also been won by two other Toronto teams — the University of Toronto Varsity Blues and Toronto Balmy Beach Beachers — for a combined 25 championships for the city.)
Quick Facts about the Toronto Argonauts
Date Founded: 1873
Venue: BMO Field
Team Colours: Oxford blue, Cambridge blue, white
Grey Cup Victories: 17

Early History of the Toronto Argonauts (1873–1939)

The Toronto Argonauts Football Club was established in 1873 as part of the Argonaut Rowing Club, which was founded the year before by Toronto resident Harry O’Brien. The Argonaut Rowing Club drew its name from the crew of Jason’s ship, The Argo, in Greek mythology and adopted the combined colours of the two most prominent English rowing schools: the dark blue of Oxford and the light blue of Cambridge. Since then, the Argonauts have been colloquially known as the Double Blue, the Argos, the Boatmen and the Scullers.

The football team was formed to provide another athletic outlet for club rowers who were drawn to rugby football, a derivation of the British game of rugby. By 1874, non-members of the rowing club could pay to join the football team.

Other Toronto teams played the emerging game of North American football in the late 19th century, including the University of Toronto, Toronto Lacrosse Club, Trinity College, Upper Canada College and Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club, but the Argonauts became the dominant football organization in the city.

For the first 10 years of its existence, the Toronto Argonauts Football Club played between one and four exhibition games a year, mostly against southern Ontario teams. H.T. Glazebrook, born in England, was the first team captain and head coach. The club played its first game on 11 October 1873 and lost to the University of Toronto team. One week later, in their second and final game of the year, the Argonauts defeated the Hamilton Tigers.

In 1883, the Argonauts, Ottawa Football Club, Queen’s University, University of Toronto and Hamilton Tigers formed the Ontario Rugby Football Union (ORFU), the oldest organized league in North America (the ORFU survived until 1961 as a senior league). Under head coach A.H. Campbell, the Argonauts won their first ORFU championship game over Ottawa by a score of 9–7. Toronto won the ORFU title again in 1884 but lost to the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) Football Club in a game between the Ontario and Québec league champions.

The Argonauts left the ORFU in 1907 to form the Inter-provincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU) with the Hamilton Tigers, Ottawa Rough Riders and Montreal AAA Football Club. The elite league soon became known as the “Big Four,” and the rules continued to evolve from the British form of rugby.

When Lord Earl Grey donated the Grey Cup for the national championship in 1909, a Toronto team was the first winner, but it wasn’t the Argonauts. The University of Toronto Varsity Blues won the first three Grey Cups, defeating the Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club in 1909 and the Hamilton Tigers in 1910.

In 1911, the Argonauts moved to Varsity Stadium, home of the University of Toronto team, who beat them in the Grey Cup match that year. The Argonauts won their first Grey Cup in 1914 and defeated the University of Toronto 14–2 at Varsity Stadium.

The Hamilton Tigers took the cup in 1915, before the championship was suspended due to the First World War. When the competition resumed in 1920, the University of Toronto team was victorious, but the Argos won the Grey Cup again in 1921 after signing Lionel “Big Train” Conacher, who set an IRFU scoring record. In 1927 and 1930, another Toronto team, the Balmy Beach Beachers, won the national championship.

There were no additional Grey Cup appearances for the Argonauts until 1933, when they defeated Sarnia 4–3 in the national final. They won the 1937 Grey Cup as well and won again in 1938 after three of their players — Annis Stukus, Art West and Buster “Red” Storey — finished in the top three spots in the IRFU scoring race.

Toronto Argonauts: The 1940s

After the Argonauts lost the eastern finals to Ottawa in 1940 and 1941, formal league play was suspended for three years due to the Second World War. However, many players competed on service teams, and the Grey Cup championship continued. In 1942, a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) team from Toronto beat another RCAF team from Winnipeg for the Grey Cup.

The most consistent period of success in Argonauts’ history began in 1945, when IRFU play resumed, and continued until 1952. Joe “King” Krol, who had played for the Hamilton Wildcats previously, joined the Argonauts in 1945 when he failed to make the NFL’s Detroit Lions. Krol could kick, run, block, tackle and throw, and he threw four touchdown passes to Royal Copeland in his first game as an Argo. The pair became known as the “Gold Dust Twins” and dominated the post-war IRFU. Toronto won the Grey Cup during Krol’s first year, by a score of 35–0 over Winnipeg, and beat the Blue Bombers again 28–6 to win the 1946 Grey Cup.

The following year, the Argonauts beat Winnipeg 10–9, the fifth time in 11 years that they had beaten the Blue Bombers for the national championship. Krol made a last-second punt to win the game, while Copeland became the first player ever to score a touchdown in three straight Grey Cup games.

It was also the first time a non-university team had won three consecutive Grey Cups and the last time that a team fielding only Canadian players would win the Grey Cup. Legendary Toronto coach Allan “Teddy” Morris insisted on fielding a domestic lineup (teams began importing players from the United States in the 1930s, once the forward pass became part of Canadian football).

Morris continued to coach the team during the 1948 and 1949 seasons. Although the Argos finished third in both years, Krol set a record in Toronto — and the league — in 1949, with 22 career touchdown passes.

Varsity Stadium, Toronto’s home field, hosted every Grey Cup game in the 1940s, except the 1944 match held at Hamilton’s Civic Stadium.

Toronto Argonauts: The 1950s

The 1950s started well for the Argonauts, with two Grey Cup victories in three years (1950 and 1952), but in 1953 the team began a decline that lasted for nearly 30 years.

The team had a new head coach for the 1950 season, with Allan “Teddy” Morris replaced by Frank Clair from the University of Cincinnati. That year, the Argonauts signed their first African American players: fullback Billy Bass, offensive end Marvin Whaley and halfback Ulysses “Crazy Legs” Curtis.

Under coach Clair, the second-place Argonauts dominated the post-season and beat the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 13–0 in the notorious Mud Bowl at Varsity Stadium. A powerful snowstorm had damaged the field, which was further compromised when groundskeepers bulldozed the playing surface the day before the game. The Argos’ victory could be credited in part to wearing longer cleats on their shoes and to new quarterback Al Dekdebrun taping thumbtacks to his fingers to improve his grip on the slippery ball. The game has become legendary, including a story about one player nearly drowning. At one point in the game, Winnipeg player Buddy Tinsley was lying motionless, face down in a puddle, when referee Hec Crighton turned him over. Both men later said that Tinsley was in no danger of drowning, but the legend has persisted.

In 1952, Curtis set an IRFU record with 16 touchdowns and an Argonaut franchise record with 985 rushing yards. The Argonauts reached the Grey Cup by beating ORFU champion Sarnia after edging out Hamilton in a tense IRFU final. The Argonauts defeated the Edmonton Eskimos 21–11 in the 1952 Grey Cup for their fifth national championship victory in eight years, all of them at Varsity Stadium.

Coach Clair, nicknamed “The Professor,” left the Argonauts over a salary dispute after the 1955 season and moved to the Ottawa Rough Riders. The Argos finished in last place in 1953 and again from 1956 to 1959 and only qualified for the playoffs in 1955.

Though the latter half of the 1950s marked a serious decline in competitive success for the Argonauts, it ushered in a number of off-field changes. In 1957, the Argonaut Rowing Club, which had owned the team for 83 years, sold the team to a private group that was led by media magnate John Bassett and included Charlie Burns and Eric Cradock. Lewis Hayman was brought in from Montreal as general manager, and Hamp Pool became head coach.

In 1958, the CFL was officially formed, comprising the IRFU and Western Inter-provincial Football Union. The same year, the Argonauts played their last season at Varsity Stadium before moving to Exhibition Stadium, on the shores of Lake Ontario, in 1959. To help celebrate the move, they played the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals — a team that their star kicker and receiver Dave Mann had played on — and were beaten 55–26.

As the 1950s came to a close, the Argonauts went from one of the most powerful teams in eastern Canada to one of the weakest on the field. Despite leading the CFL in attendance and income, they would endure over two decades with only one Grey Cup appearance and no Grey Cup wins.

Toronto Argonauts: The 1960s

Under new head coach Lou Agase and record-setting quarterback Tobin Rote, the Toronto Argonauts started the 1960s with a brief revival of on-field success. After four straight years of last-place finishes, Toronto tied for first in the CFL’s Eastern Conference (formerly the IRFU) — the Argonauts hadn’t finished first since 1937. Dave Mann led the league in receiving yards and Carlton “Cookie” Gilchrist won the scoring title, while Rote set the CFL record for most touchdown passes (38) in a single season while becoming the only quarterback ever to complete seven touchdown passes in a game on two occasions. Despite this, the Argos lost the 1960 Eastern Conference final to the Ottawa Rough Riders.

In 1961, the Argonauts finished third in the Eastern Conference, defeating Ottawa in the semi-final but losing the final to Hamilton. At the end of the second game of a two-game total-point final, with the score tied at 27–27, Mann punted in an attempt to score a single winning point. But the Tiger-Cats kicked it out of the end zone and scored four unanswered touchdowns in overtime to advance to the Grey Cup.

After two years of relative success, the Argos fell back into last place for the next five years and didn’t make the playoffs again until 1967. In 1965, running back Dick Shatto retired as the CFL’s record holder for most career touchdowns (91).

During the 1960s, Toronto became known as a franchise that would panic after a few early losses and start importing high-priced players from the United States, in what became widely referred to as the “Argo airlift.” In 1967, the Argonauts, who had been through five coaches in the previous eight years, brought in Leo Cahill from the Toronto Rifles of the Continental Football League. Cahill quickly got to work, making a number of key trades and ending the Argo airlift. The Argonauts ended the decade with three straight playoff appearances, losing all three years to a stronger Ottawa team. At the same time, the average attendance at Exhibition Stadium rose from 20,884 per game in 1966 to 32,373 in 1969.

Toronto Argonauts: The 1970s

The team’s momentum continued in the early 1970s under head coach Leo Cahill (1967–72 and 1977–78), but the Argonauts were back in last place by the end of the decade. The Argos were sold three times in the 1970s and averaged the highest home-field attendance of any decade in their history.

In 1971, John Bassett of Baton Broadcasting Ltd. bought the team outright from his partners. Later that season, led by quarterback Joe Theismann, running back Leon McQuay and linebacker Jim Stillwagon — all rookies — Toronto finished first in the Eastern Conference and qualified for the Grey Cup game for the first time in 19 years.

The Argonauts lost the 1971 Grey Cup 14–11 to the Calgary Stampeders, but it could have ended differently. Toronto had a chance to tie or win the game in the final two minutes, when running back Leon McQuay fumbled at the 11-yard line and lost the ball to Calgary. It was one of the most publicized mistakes in the history of the Argonauts, and McQuay never got over it. Punt returner Harry Abofs kicked a Calgary punt out of bounds, which gave the ball to the Stampeders and cost the Argonauts their last chance to win.

Toronto plummeted to last-place in 1972 with a 3–11 record and head coach Cahill was fired after five years — the longest coaching tenure for the Argos since Hayman. The Argonauts missed the playoffs for five of the remaining seven years in the 1970s.

In 1974, Skyline Investments Inc. president William Hodgson purchased the team, but he sold it to Carling O’Keefe Limited in 1979. Average attendance surpassed 40,000 per game from 1976 to 1979, despite last-place finishes in three of four years. They are the only seasons in team history that the Argos have averaged 40,000 or more fans per game.

Toronto Argonauts: The 1980s

In 1980, the Toronto Argonauts missed the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. The following year, after finishing with the worst record (2–14) in team history, the team hired Bob O’Billovich as their ninth coach in 10 years. Ralph Sazio, who had spent 31 years as a player, coach, general manager and team president of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, became president of the Argonauts. Under O’Billovich, who coached the team for eight years (one short of Hayman’s franchise record), the Argos rebounded to finish first in the East Division in 1982 but lost the Grey Cup to the Edmonton Eskimos.

In 1983, the Argos won their first Grey Cup in 31 years, 18–17, over the BC Lions, who hadn’t won a Grey Cup in 19 years. Joe Barnes replaced starter Condredge Holloway as quarterback to lead the Argos to the championship. Played at BC Place Stadium, it was the first indoor game in Grey Cup history.

The team missed the playoffs only once (1985) for the rest of the decade and reached the Grey Cup again in 1987 but lost 38–36 to Edmonton. The Argos finished first in 1988 with a 14–4 record, but were upset by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the East Division final. After the season, the Argos were purchased from Carling O’Keefe Limited by Harry Ornest.

In 1989, after nearly 30 years at Exhibition Stadium, the Argonauts moved into SkyDome, which has a retractable roof and also housed the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team.

Rogers Centre

Toronto Argonauts: The 1990s

The Toronto Argonauts swung between highs and lows in the 1990s. They won three Grey Cups — the most they’ve won in any decade since the 1940s — but twice finished last in the four-team East Division. During the CFL’s short-lived expansion to the US, the Argos finished seventh out of eight teams in the North Division in 1995. Average attendance at SkyDome was over 25,000 per game for the first four years of the 1990s but dropped below 20,000 per game four times over the decade.

Hockey star Wayne Gretzky, actor/comedian John Candy and L.A. Kings owner Bruce McNall bought the Argonauts in 1991. Candy was often on the sidelines, which generated higher ticket sales at home and on the road. The team also had star power in Michael “Pinball” Clemons — named CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in 1990 — and rookie returner and receiver Raghib “Rocket” Ismail from the University of Notre Dame.

The Argonauts won the 1991 Grey Cup — the first played in Winnipeg — in frigid conditions by a score of 36–21 over the Calgary Stampeders, as Ismail returned a kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown. However, the team finished last in the East Division in both 1992 and 1993 and was sold to TSN Enterprises (a division of Labatt Breweries) in May 1994.

After finishing seventh in the eight-team North Division in 1995, the Argos signed free agent quarterback Doug Flutie from the Calgary Stampeders and re-hired Don Matthews as head coach in 1996 (he had coached the team for one season in 1990). Toronto won a franchise-record 15 games in 1996 and 1997, defeating Edmonton 43–37 to win the Grey Cup in 1996 and beating Saskatchewan 47–23 to win in 1997.

Toronto Argonauts: 2000–Present

In 1999, New York insurance executive Sherwood Schwarz bought the Toronto Argonauts. Under his ownership, the team had four general managers and three head coaches in four years.

Attendance was poor during the first four years of the 2000s, falling as low as 15,083 in 2003 — the lowest since the Argonauts left Varsity Stadium in 1959. The team went bankrupt and the CFL took control of the club from Schwarz in July 2003. Toronto businessmen Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon bought the Argonauts on 5 November 2003 and recruited Adam Rita as general manager in 2004.

Under head coach Michael “Pinball” Clemons and veteran quarterback Damon Allen, the Argonauts won the 2004 Grey Cup, 27–19, against the BC Lions, only a year after declaring bankruptcy. Average attendance returned to over 25,000 fans per game — the highest since 1993.

Attendance at SkyDome hovered around 30,000 per game from 2005 to 2008, with the Argos finishing first twice but failing to reach the Grey Cup. After finishing in third place in 2008, attendance began to steadily drop again. Hamilton businessman David Braley, who also owned the BC Lions, bought the Argonauts in February 2010.

In 2012, Scott Milanovich became head coach and the Argonauts won the 16th Grey Cup in franchise history, defeating Calgary 35–22 at Rogers Centre. It was the first championship won by the Argonauts in Toronto in 60 years.

In 2015, the Argonauts played their last season at Rogers Centre, finishing third in the East Division with a 10–8 record but losing the East Division semi-final to Hamilton. Home attendance was only 12,430 per game.

At the end of the 2015 season, Braley sold the Argonauts to a partnership between BCE Inc and Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. The team moved from Rogers Centre to BMO Field at Exhibition Place, which had been expanded to accommodate 26,500 fans for football. In 2016, the Argos finished last in the East Division with a 5–13 record, but average attendance increased to 16,380 for home games.

On 27 November 2016, the Ottawa Redblacks beat the Calgary Stampeders, 39–33, in overtime to win the first Grey Cup game played on Exhibition Stadium grounds in 34 years.

The following year, the Argos won their 17th Grey Cup, defeating the Calgary Stampeders, 27–24, at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa.

Toronto Argonauts in the Grey Cup

Year Won Lost Host City
1911 U of Toronto Varsity Blues 14 Toronto Argonauts 7 Toronto
1912 Hamilton Alerts 11 Toronto Argonauts 4 Hamilton
1914 Toronto Argonauts 14 U of Toronto Varsity Blues 2 Toronto
1920 U of Toronto Varsity Blues 16 Toronto Argonauts 3 Toronto
1921 Toronto Argonauts 23 Edmonton Eskimos 0 Toronto
1933 Toronto Argonauts 4 Sarnia Imperials 3 Sarnia
1937 Toronto Argonauts 4 Winnipeg Blue Bombers 3 Toronto
1938 Toronto Argonauts 30 Winnipeg Blue Bombers 7 Toronto
1945 Toronto Argonauts 35 Winnipeg Blue Bombers 0 Toronto
1946 Toronto Argonauts 28 Winnipeg Blue Bombers 6 Toronto
1947 Toronto Argonauts 10 Winnipeg Blue Bombers 9 Toronto
1950 Toronto Argonauts 13 Winnipeg Blue Bombers 0 Toronto
1952 Toronto Argonauts 21 Edmonton Eskimos 11 Toronto
1971 Calgary Stampeders 14 Toronto Argonauts 11 Vancouver
1982 Edmonton Eskimos 32 Toronto Argonauts 16 Toronto
1983 Toronto Argonauts 18 BC Lions 17 Vancouver
1987 Edmonton Eskimos 38 Toronto Argonauts 36 Vancouver
1991 Toronto Argonauts 36 Calgary Stampeders 31 Winnipeg
1996 Toronto Argonauts 43 Edmonton Eskimos 37 Hamilton
1997 Toronto Argonauts 47 Saskatchewan Roughriders 23 Edmonton
2004 Toronto Argonauts 27 BC Lions 19 Ottawa
​2012 ​Toronto Argonauts 35 ​Calgary Stampeders 22 ​Toronto
​2017 ​Toronto Argonauts 27 ​Calgary Stampeders 24 ​Ottawa
​2022 ​Toronto Argonauts 24 ​Winnipeg Blue Bombers 23 ​Regina

Other Toronto Teams in the Grey Cup

University of Toronto

Year Won Lost Host City
1909 U of Toronto Varsity Blues 26 Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club 6 Toronto
1910 U of Toronto Varsity Blues 16 Hamilton Tigers 7 Hamilton
1914 Toronto Argonauts 14 U of Toronto Varsity Blues 2 Toronto
1920 U of Toronto Varsity Blues 16 Toronto Argonauts 3 Toronto
1926 Ottawa Senators 10 U of Toronto Varsity Blues 7 Toronto

Toronto Balmy Beach

Year Won Lost Host City
1924 Queen’s University 11 Balmy Beach Beachers 3 Toronto
1927 Balmy Beach Beachers 9 Hamilton Tigers 6 Toronto
1930 Balmy Beach Beachers 11 Regina Roughriders 6 Toronto
1940 Ottawa Roughriders 20 Balmy Beach Beachers 7 Toronto/Ottawa
(two-game total point series)

Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club

Year Won Lost Host City
1909 U of Toronto Varsity Blues 26 Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club 6 Toronto
1913 Hamilton Tigers 44 Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club 2 Hamilton

Toronto RCAF Hurricanes

Year Won Lost Host City
1942 Toronto RCAF Hurricanes 8 Winnipeg RCAF Bombers 5 Toronto

Toronto Rowing and Athletic Association

Year Won Lost Host City
1915 Hamilton Tigers 13 Toronto Rowing Club and Athletic Association 7 Toronto

Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame

Name Position Year Inducted
Damon Allen Quarterback 2012
John Barrow Defensive Line 1976
Danny Bass Linebacker 2000
Harry Batstone Running Back 1963
Paul Bennett Defensive Back 2002
Leroy Blugh Defensive Lineman 2015
Ab Box Running Back 1965
David Braley Builder 2012
Joseph M. (Joe) Breen Running Back 1963
Frank Clair Builder 1981
Michael “Pinball” Clemons Running Back/Receiver 2008
Tommy Joe Coffey Receiver 1977
Royal Copeland Running Back 1988
Lionel Conacher Running Back 1963
Condredge Holloway Quarterback 1999
Jim Corrigal Defensive Lineman 1990
Wes Cutler Receiver 1968
Matt Dunigan Quarterback 2006
Terry Evanshen Receiver 1984
Alfred “Cap” Fear Outside Wing 1967
Dan Ferrone Offensive Lineman 2013
Doug Flutie Quarterback 2008
William C. Foulds Builder 1963
Bill Frank Offensive Lineman 2001
Jake Gaudaur Builder 1984
Tracy Ham Quarterback 2010
Rodney Harding Defensive Lineman 2016
Lewis Hayman Builder 1975
Russ Jackson Quarterback 1973
Bobby Jurasin Defensive End 2006
Ellison Kelly Offensive Lineman 1992
Joe “King” Krol Quarterback/Punter 1963
Eric Lapointe Running Back 2012
Alexander Smirle Lawson Halfback 1963
Don Loney Builder 2013
Marv Luster Defensive Back 1990
Don Matthews Builder 2011
Derrell “Mookie” Mitchell Receiver 2016
Joe Montford Defensive End 2011
Frank Morris Offensive/Defensive Line 1983
Ray Nettles Offensive/Defensive Line 2005
Jack Newton Builder 1964
Bob O’Billovich Builder 2015
Michael O’Shea Linebacker 2017
Jackie Parker Quarterback/Halfback 1971
James “Quick” Parker Defensive End 2001
Elfrid Payton Defensive Lineman 2010
Willie Pless Linebacker 2005
Dave Raimey Defensive Back/Running Back 2000
Ted Reeve Running Back 1963
Michael J. Rodden Builder 1964
Rocco Romano Offensive Lineman 2007
Ralph Sazio Builder 1988
Dick Shatto Halfback 1975
Annis Stukus Builder 1974
Don Sutherin Defensive Back/Kicker 1992
Bill Symons Running Back 1997
Dave Thelen Running Back 1989
Frank Tindall Builder 1985
Andy Tommy Sr. Halfback 1989
Pierre Vercheval Offensive Lineman 2007
Tom Wilkinson Quarterback 1987
Ben Zambiasi Linebacker 2004
William “Bill” Zock Offensive/Defensive Line 1985

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