Freddie would be really pissed right now.
Pissed that it’s been a week and I haven’t written anything on his passing. “Give it to Frank Graham,” he’d often say of “old” news, referring to the former sports historian who delighted in gathering and archiving old material.
My life changed a little bit last week while I was away from the office. Fred Jackson died of a massive heart attack in the early morning hours of Aug. 10, six days before his 55th birthday.
He was my first boss. Moreso, he was my friend.
As he rose through the ranks in the newspaper business, from sports reporter to sports editor to assistant managing editor here at The Telegram and later managing editor in Sydney, N.S., he referred to himself as “Fred”. To those of us who really knew him, he was — and always will be — ‘Freddie’.
I have countless memories of Freddie, including the time he fired myself and Joe Gibbons — shortlived as it was — from the Higher Levels minor softball field, after Joe tossed a big rock under the steamroller Freddie was riding.
The time Freddie and I were stopped on the Canadian side of the Windsor-Detroit border, and he was slapped with hefty duty charges on the whack of Red Wings’ gear he’d purchased. The border agent elected to cut Freddie — who always had a bit of weight on — a break on the diet pills in the bag. Thing was, I owned the pills, having picked them up for a friend back home.
Then there was the time former Toronto Maple Leaf Brad Smith wanted to strangle Freddie. A half-dozen or 10 of the Leafs were in town to play charity softball back in the ’80s, and we were busing back from Holyrood, all hands with a few beers in.
“Motor City Smitty” was never a big goalscorer (28 career NHL goals), but Barry Atkinson, who worked at Q Radio at the time, confused Smith with someone else and picked him in our hockey pool, in the second or third round, no less, to great laughter (best line was Brian Brock’s query regarding Randy Cunneyworth).
So we’re on the bus, having a few, and Freddie bawls out, ‘Hey Smitty, can you believe someone took you in a hockey pool?’ All hands roared except Smith, who wasn’t amused.
There’s the story Mark Dwyer, who like a lot of us got his start because of Freddie, often recalls when he was with Freddie’s Canada Games softball team. They were on the mainland somewhere when the fire alarm rang in the hotel, where the team, along with Freddie’s young family, were staying. Freddie, in a mad panic, was counting all the ball players, ensuring everyone was present and accounted for.
Freddie breathed a sigh of relief until Mark asked, “Freddie, where’s Beattie and the kids?”
Freddie had his detractors, but for the most part they were those who didn’t always agree with his opinions during his years penning a sports column. Par for the course when you’re in the public eye, so to speak.
Anyway, those shallow enough to dislike someone merely because they write “The Leafs suck” are insignificant.
Freddie, with his parents, was behind the Higher Levels Minor Softball Association. On any given summer’s day, many a youngster would traipse through Angela’s Rankin Street kitchen, looking for a glass of water or to use the phone.
After a day’s work with city council down at the dump — “Robin Hood Mall,” he’d often call it — Fred Sr. would usually be around, ensuring the workers Freddie had hired weren’t goofing off.
Higher Levels sent many a team to provincial, Eastern Canadian and Canadian softball championships. Freddie would scrape and scrounge to get the money, but in the end he’d find a way to make it happen.
Higher Levels produced a lot of good ball players. Moreso, it produced a lot of good people, people contributing to society as university professors, doctors, engineers, accountants, lawyers, policemen, firemen and, yes, sports writers.
I wasn’t from the area, but I played ball at Higher Levels. I met people there with whom I remain friends to this day. Through Freddie, this career found me, not the other way around, and it’s become a passion.
There is no more Higher Levels Minor Softball Association. Most of the people who lived in the neighbourhood have moved away. The field, on which a book could be written for a variety of reasons, is being replaced by a housing unit.
Freddie and I lost contact a little when he moved to Nova Scotia, though we did stay in touch fairly frequently (“Whaddaya at, gearbox?” he’d reply to my “Telegram Sports” greeting when he called work).
I was heartbroken to learn of his death. On the other hand, I was content in the knowledge that he didn’t die before I had thanked him for the break he had provided me.
Freddie gave a lot of people their breaks. And when it comes right down to it, for all the Halls of Fame and softball awards, that may be his crowning achievement.
Thing is, it’s just way too early to be talking about that.
Rest in peace, my friend.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org