House that Jack built

Quarterback Jack Jacobs started what is considered one of the more memorable decades in the history of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. His influence on the team and community was so great that a new stadium had to be built to accommodate a growing legion of fans electrified by his on-field play. In the context of football, he, more than anyone else, changed the face of the Canadian game.

It was because of his impact in Winnipeg and beyond that Jacobs has been named as an inductee into the CFL club’s ring of honour at Investor Group Field, the stadium constructed to replace the “House that Jack Built” at Polo Park. 

The old Polo Park stadium, which was demolished to make way for a retail complex, still holds fond memories for many Manitobans. When Winnipeg Stadium (later Canada Inns Stadium) opened to great hoopla, the stadium was considered a state-of-the-art venue and the pride of the city and province. On August 15, 1953, “bands, flags, costumes, fireworks, Blue Bombers, Rough Riders, and a Hollywood movie star” were on hand for the official opening of the new $500,000 stadium in Winnipeg. “Winnipeg scores!” exclaimed Foster Hewitt, the voice of Hockey Night in Canada, who emceed the opening ceremony.

To witness the ceremony, more than 12,000 people were in the stands of the 15,000-seat stadium. The prelude to the ceremony was a Shriner’s parade to the new stadium. Convertibles interspersed among the Shriners carried Ottawa Rough Rider and Blue Bomber players, as well as Corinne Calvet, the Hollywood star mentioned in the Free Press article.She was carried into the stadium on a white-and-gold litter borne by four Rough Riders. “I am very happy and proud that the Shriners and Blue Bombers made me queen of the new stadium,” she gushed. “I am sure that the Blue Bombers are going to win — I just felt their muscles and I KNOW (Free Press’ emphasis) they’re in shape!” Besides the corny comments by the film star, who few remember today, the more serious speakers included Mayor Garnet Coulter, who described the opening of the stadium as a “dream of yesterday” come true.

In the evening, the Bombers beat the Rough Riders 18-11. While the new stadium was touted as the “House that Jack built,” the quarterback was pulled in the second half in favour of Tommy Thompson, a veteran signal-caller who previously played for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Talk about a new Polo Park facility began when it became evident that the 9,100-seat Osborne Stadium (where Great-West Life Assurance now stands) was inadequate due to site deficiencies and the growing legion of fans attracted to games by the passing prowess of Jacobs. He didn’t invent the forward pass, but during his career, he was one of its greatest practioneers.

Jacobs had played in the NFL for  Cleveland, Washington and Green Bay before arriving in Winnipeg in 1950. He was motived to play for the Bombers by the promise of a $6,000-a-year contract and the guarantee of playing quarterback (he was also a superb punter). During this era of Canadian football, many top U.S. players were lured north by salaries that were higher than those offered in the NFL. How times have changed!

As a Bomber, Jacobs completed 709 of 1,330 passes for 11,094 yards. In 1951, he became the first professional football player to pass for 3,000 yards in a season with 3,348. With his 33 touchdowns that season, he was also the first players to pass for more than 30 TDs in a season. The next season he passed for 34 TDs. Overall, Jacobs had 104 TD passes as opposed to just 53 interceptions.

His magic on the playing field turned the Bombers from a dismal team (2-12 record in 1949) to a contender. The turnaround was extraordinary, as the next year under Jacobs, the team finished first in the West with a 10-4 record.

The one blemish in his all-star career was that Jacobs never led the Bombers to a Grey Cup championship. He took his team to the final in 1950 losing to the Toronto Argonauts (13-0) and then lost to the Hamilton Tiger-cats (12-6) in the 1953 final.

“The time is ripe now to consider the stadium question,” said Alderman Jack Blumberg on November 9, 1951, telling the city’s finance committee, “There may still be some philanthropists in Winnipeg,” who would share in the cost of a new stadium.

A stadium committee was formed  and in 1952 a plan for the stadium was approved.  The stadium was to be built on city-owned land — the same land now turned into a commercial development. In 1952, W. Culver Riley, the Bomber president, said it was necessary for the land to be donated by the city in order to build the stadium. Riley told the media the stadium was to be organized on a non-profit basis with city council required to back a $500,000 loan.

The executive said the club had to sign a lease to play their 1952 home games at the privately-owned Osborne Stadium until the new facility was completed. At the same time as Riley made this announcement, reports appeared that the new lease — details of which were still being negotiated — meant plans for the new stadium had to be scrapped. The football club paid $92,000 to lease the stadium in 1951 and 1952.

Groups appeared before a provincial legislature amendment committee opposing a change to the city charter to guarantee a capital expenditure on the new stadium without consulting taxpayers through a referendum. But Mayor Coulter told the committee that  council was “responding to the demand of the man on the street in endorsing a new stadium.” He said council was convinced the city would never have to pay out on its guarantee of the loan. “The net result,” Coulter said, “will probably be that the city will become owner of the stadium and, meanwhile, will have a voice in its construction and management.” Construction was slated for the spring of 1952, he added. “We are rushing because we know that the public is demanding that we do something.”

With construction delays and arguments over costs, it took four years from initial approval in 2009 to complete the new Investors Group Field. On the other hand, it took just two years from conception to open the new stadium in 1953 at Polo Park, and only one year for its actual construction.

But as was the case way back in 1953, the Investors Group Field gave Bomber fans a first-class facility to watch their favourite football team. The big difference this time around is that the new stadium represents a rather significant improvement as a sports facility over the old stadium — it’s now the city’s state-of-the-art entertainment venue.

Jacobs retired from the Bombers in 1954. The “House that Jack Built” may no longer exist, but his influence on making the pass an integral part of the Canadian game was recognized when the CFL made him an inaugural inductee into its hall of fame in 1963. He was also among the first inductees into the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame in 1974.

Jacobs was born in Oklahoma in 1919 and died in 1974 in North Carolina.