TORONTO — Pry open the archives and you’ll unleash a flurry of memorable lines penned by Trent Frayne, a sportswriter extraordinaire — no matter the game.
A natural storyteller and an ace wordsmith, Frayne worked for almost every magazine and newspaper in Canada, including two stints at The Globe and Mail in a more than half-century career as a reporter, columnist and feature writer.
Slight and gnarled with a face as wrinkled as a prune, his writing was as sleek and warm as amber. The late Pierre Berton called him “likely Canada’s greatest sportswriter ever.”
He died Saturday morning in Toronto of complications from old age and pneumonia. He was 93.
He belonged to the sports writing coterie that included Scott Young, Ted Reeve, Jim Coleman, Dick Beddoes and Milt Dunnell, scribes you read for the pleasure of their syntax, their wit and their irreverence. Writers who followed the action and put flesh on the players in images that lodged in your memory banks. Their heyday was print, before television made visualizing what was happening on the ice or the field obsolete.
About hockey legend Elmer Lach, Frayne once opined: “less polished than persistent, less artistic than artisan, less incomparable than inexorable.” After watching the “willowy” high-jumper Debbie Brill at the Olympic trials in Quebec City in the summer of 1976 he wrote: “There she is, maybe 20 yards from the crossbar, calmly eyeing it, one foot slightly ahead of the other, teetering slowly, back and forth, back and forth, long legs bare and smooth and tanned, twin cynosures.” Cynosures? What editor would let you get away with that these days?
The author of more than a dozen books and a writing member of the hockey, football and Canadian news halls of fame, he also won a National Newspaper Award for sports writing for The Toronto Sun in 1975, a feat that journalist Steve Simmons recalled last November in an elegiac article in the tabloid. “He was a big-game journalist, who could write John McEnroe one day, Reggie Jackson the next, and Punch Imlach after that without missing a beat,” said Simmons, praising Frayne with his “great ear” and “inquisitive eye” as “the most elegant” columnist of his sports writing generation.
Married to the late June Callwood for more than 60 years, Frayne stuck to sports while she took on the world. “He liked the human drama of sports, not just the physical nature of accomplishments,” said his friend, Phil King, a sports editor at The Globe. “With his easy writing flair and biting wit, he’s entertained millions of Canadian sports fans for several generations.”
Frayne was one of the boys, but he never forgot that he too had once been a rookie in the newsroom. Back in the early 1980s when Frayne was a four times a week columnist for The Globe, novice reporter Jim Christie looked up to Frayne not just because he was a signature writer, but because “he was such a great and co-operative team player, a guy with no ego who had no interest in hogging the limelight.”
On a hot summer night in July, 1983 swimmer Alex Baumann was expected to break a world’s record at the World University Games in Edmonton, but if Christie was to make his deadline, he had to be hitting his typewriter keys when Bauman emerged dripping from the pool. “I’ll be on the pool deck,” Frayne said, “and if he breaks the record, I’ll get some quotes for you.” In the end Baumann, won two medals, but failed to break a record “by a fingertip.” Still, Christie never forgot the generosity of spirit, which is largely unknown in the competitive world of sports reporting, but which he says was “emblematic” of Frayne.
Trent Gardiner Frayne was born on Sept. 13, 1918 in Brandon, Man., the only child of Homer Frayne, a brakeman and later a conductor on the Canadian Pacific Railway, and his wife Ella Trent. The baby’s given names were his mother’s and his paternal grandmother’s surnames, but he was always called Billy, a name he used until he moved to Toronto at age 24. His oldest friends continued to call him Bill, but he was “my fella” or “dreamy,” to Callwood.
“I was an only child growing up in a one-bedroom apartment, sleeping on a pull-out couch in the living room,” he wrote in his memoir, “The Tales of an Athletic Supporter.” “I was raised by a father who was away a lot and a mother who was the oldest girl in a family of 10 children.” The Fraynes survived the Depression because his father had enough seniority to keep his job, although he didn’t work regularly and often played poker to supplement the family income.
As Frayne wrote in his memoir, “we were poor in the way that most of the people we knew were poor in those days, but my mother was ingenious at stretching our income and we were never hungry. I remember for instance, that she used to add bread cubes to stretch a pan of fried potatoes. For years, I thought that was the way you cooked fried potatoes.”
He played a lot of sports as a child — hockey, basketball, baseball and tennis — and turned to writing about sports when he was in high school and college for the local paper, the Brandon Sun. “I had to write my copy before I went to school in the morning, so I’d set the alarm for 5 a.m. and go into the bathroom and close the door to avoid waking my parents. I’d perch on the throne, next to which was a small radiator with a wooden cover where my mother would pile towels and facecloths. I’d move them off and use the radiator cover for a desk. I’d write my copy with a thick black pencil, hike down to the Sun and drop it through the letter slot, then continue on to school.”
He always had jobs growing up and only went to what is now the University of Brandon by trading off his tuition cost for working nights at the Brandon Sun. He dropped out in third year to take up a job as a junior reporter in the Winnipeg Bureau of Canadian Press. That’s where he met Scott Young and came under the writing and editing influence of Ralph Allen, then a writer for the Winnipeg Tribune. When Allen went to The Globe in 1938, a spot opened up in the Tribune’s sports department, which Frayne grabbed as soon as it was offered.
Five years later, Frayne himself went east to join The Globe. That’s where he met Callwood, who had admired his writing and his handsome mug in his newspaper logo, while she was toiling as a reporter at The Brantford Expositor. They married May 13, 1944 and eventually had four children, Jill (1945), Brant (1948), Jesse (1951) and Casey who was born in 1961 and was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1982.
In a 2006 interview, Callwood described what had attracted her to Frayne. “Everything. My dad was a rascal and I was never in love with any of the men I said I would wait for 1/8during the war 3/8, but I fell in love with him because he was a rock. He is an honourable man. He’s got integrity, he’ll never let you down. I wanted somebody I could be safe with who I could count on and who wouldn’t walk out in the middle of the night like my dad did, never be promiscuous, never lie — just an honourable man.
“And I got him and he was handsome as hell, which always counted in the early days of a relationship. What I didn’t understand was going to be so important was his sense of humour. He’s hilarious. Dear with his children and the freaky thing was that it never occurred to him that his wife shouldn’t work. He didn’t have to be educated 1/8on that issue 3/8 because it never crossed his mind.”
The two were freelance-writing stalwarts at most of the monthly and weekly magazines in the good old days of print journalism. The couple stayed together in good times and bad, including career highs and lows and Frayne’s arrest for drunk driving in October, 1964. According to newspaper accounts from the time, a provincial police officer was forced to drive onto the centre median of Highway 401 near Milton to avoid a head on crash with a motorist going west in the east bound lanes. The police officer was only shaken up, but another motorist was rear-ended. Frayne pleaded guilty, was fined $400 and had his license suspended for two years. He also put the cap on the bottle and kept it there for the rest of his life.
Of course, the incident was too juicy not to be repeated by Frayne himself as the years rolled by. King, the Globe editor, often joined Frayne for lunch in recent years, especially after Callwood died in April, 2007. For Frayne it was a “way to pass the time” and to “hold court,” but what “you’d glean among the dribbles of soup or cracker crumbs was often priceless,” King said. “Like the reason he quit drinking: He woke up in the middle of the night on the other side of the 401, having crossed over the median, while drunk driving, on his way home from Mohawk racetrack in Campbellville, Ont. … Or the reason he hated Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium so much was that he once got a parking ticket there. Or if you really prodded him, about the four or five sports halls of fame he was inducted into. And the time he won a National Newspaper Award writing about injustice in the horse-racing world and then in the same sentence said, ‘Did you see the smile on that baby over there?’ and it really was a baby, and not just a waitress he was flirting with.”
Frayne died at 5 a.m. ET Saturday at Christie Gardens retirement home in Toronto. He is survived by three children and his extended family.