April 7, 1977. Exhibition Stadium. As a zamboni clears the snow at and Anne Murray sings "O Canada", Toronto’s brand new Major League Baseball team prepares to take the field for the very first time. In blue letters across the chests of their white uniforms, the players are wearing the team's name. At first glance, it seems like a pretty straightforward and uncontroversial moniker. But the story of how the Blue Jays became the Blue Jays is a much more epic tale than you might think — a story tied to booze, boxing and one of the most infamous kidnappings in Canadian history.
In the most direct sense, the Toronto Blue Jays got their name thanks to a “Name The Team” contest. Over the course of five weeks, more than 30,000 entries flooded in and more than 4,000 different possibility were suggested. Toronto’s baseball team could have been called The Towers or The Trilliums. The Hogtowners or The Orangemen. The Iroquois or Algonquins. The Godfreys or The Crombies. The Fighting Turtles or The Sea Fleas. The Unicorns, The Peacocks or The Hippos. The Sad Sacks. The Titanics.
But one theme united many of the suggestions: the word “blue.” There were The Blues, The Blue Sox, The Blue Shoes, The Blue Hats, The Blue Bonnets, The Blue Bats, The Blue Balls (yikes), The Blue Bloods, The Blue Beavers, The Blue Birds…
And the reason for all those “blue” names was obvious. Even today you might even know what it was. But the naming contest was just half of the story. You can keep digging from there…
…all the way back to the Labatt brothers.
John and Hugh Labatt were the grandsons of John Kinder Labatt — the Labatt who opened a brewery in London, Ontario in 1847 It would go on to become one of the most successful businesses in Canada: by the time the Labatt brothers were born, the company was a massive operation. In time, John and Hugh would take it over. But their time at the helm together was nearly cut short in tragic fashion: in 1934, John came face to face with death during a harrowing ordeal that made headlines around the country.
It began on a dusty gravel road outside London. John was attacked: dragged out of his car by three men, forced to write a ransom note to his brother, and then driven up to a cottage in Muskoka where his kidnappers blindfolded him and chained him to a bed. The ransom note instructed Hugh to check in at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, where he would be contacted by a man named Three-Fingered Abe — the leader of the kidnappers. Hugh would have to pay $150,000 to save his brother’s life.
Hugh did as he was told and headed to the Royal York. But word of the kidnapping got out. As reporters descended on the hotel, the story hit the front pages. The kidnappers panicked; they were in over their heads. So instead of contacting Hugh, they aborted their scheme. They drove John back down from Muskoka, brought him to the corner of Vaughan Road and St. Clair Avenue, and just let him go.
John Labatt was free. It was over. And having survived the terrible experience and come safely out the other side, John and Hugh would run the company together for many more years to come.
It was more than a decade and a half later, in the early 1950s, that the two brothers introduced two new landmark beers. They called the first beer their “Anniversary Ale"; it was released to celebrate 50 years of partnership between the two brothers — a liquid testament to their love and resolve in the face of their harrowing ordeal. In time, that beer would become known as Labatt 50. It's still one of the most popular beers in the country today.
The following year, the Labatt Brewing Company introduced a second new beer. It was a lager inspired by Hugh’s recent trip to the city Czech city of Pilsen: “Labatt Pilsener”. At first, this new lager was only available in Ontario. But five years later, when it was finally introduced to the province of Manitoba, it found a loyal new group of fans.
That's where the Blue Bombers come in. Winnipeg’s CFL team was created as an amalgamation of local rugby and football teams — with roots going back all the way to the 1870s. But the team didn’t have a great name: the Winnipeg Winnipegs Rugby Football Club would eventually be known simply as “The Winnipegs”.
But in 1935, that finally changed. One fateful day, a sportswriter at The Winnipeg Tribune by the name of Vince Leah decided to borrow a phrase from the legendary American sportswriter Grantland Rice. Rice had given a famous nickname to one of the greatest boxers in the history of the world: he called Joe Louis, “The Brown Bomber” — which became the most popular of Louis’ many racialized nicknames. And so Leah, in tribute, called the Winnipeg football team, with their snazzy blue uniforms, “The Blue Bombers of Western football”. And the name stuck.
When Labatt Pilsener arrived Winnipeg with its flashy blue label, the beer won a place in the hearts of Blue Bomber fans. They adopted it as part of their fandom and they gave it a simple new nickname: Blue.
Soon, that name stuck, too — in no small part thanks to golden age of Blue Bombers football, which saw the team win back-to-back Grey Cups in 1958 and '59. Labatt officially adopted the nickname in the early 1960s and even became the official sponsor of the CFL. The name "Labatt Blue" was here to stay.
And yet, despite the strong association with Canadian football, Labatt found itself struggling to promote itself as a Canadian brand. A study conducted a decade later found that most Canadians assumed that Labatt was actually a foreign business — owned by Schlitz or the Pall Mall cigarette company. Labatt was determined to change that perception, and encouraged by their success with the Blue Bombers, they decided they should go even bigger: they should associate themselves with another major Canadian sports team playing in an even more popular league. And thus, they helped lead the charge to bring Major League Baseball to Canada.
The Labatt Brewing Company owned 45% of Toronto’s new baseball team. And since Labatt Blue was now their flagship brew — about to become the most popular of all Canadian beers — all those "blue" themed entries in the naming contest were clearly meant to curry their favour.
It worked. It came as no surprise when a panel that included a bunch of Labatt executives seized their chance for brand synergy: the brand new baseball team would be named after the beer that was named after the Blue Bombers.
The Toronto Blue Jays were born.
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image background: Robert Taylor via Wikimedia Commons.