Living legends reduced by two in week

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:00 AM ET

It has been a dreadful week for the legends.

First, Don Cooper passes and then, five days later, Joe Black is gone and the most enduring story in London sports is diminished by two important chapters.

"I called Joe the other day to tell him about Don and left a message," said Jack Fairs, now one of three surviving members of the fabled 1948 London Majors that won the Sandlot World Series in 1948 over Fort Wayne, Ind.

"Now this."

In speaking with the guys who were around when the Majors reached the top of their baseball world, you begin to understand the texture of the times. Fans packed Labatt Park and their heroes were every bit as big to London as the hockey Knights are today, maybe more.

They were talented, colourful and razor-sharp competitors who brought much to the game. The youngest one, Joe Black, had just turned 20 and brought a relentless bat and lots of humour as a player and later as an umpire and hockey referee.

Ken Benjamin, former sports supervisor for the old PUC, remembers playing golf with Black in Florida once. Benjamin wondered where his drive went and Black told him it was near a log by the water.

"The log turned out to be an alligator," Benjamin recalled. "I can still hear him laughing."

Black could take it, too.

"Joe was, um, conservative with money," Benjamin said. "We presented him with new refereeing pants one time. But we'd sewed up the pockets -- we told him he never reached into them anyway."

Benjamin once wagered $10 he'd hit for a better average than Black in their slo-pitch league. Black won and scooped the $25 original St. Louis Cardinals cap Benjamin wore.

Another time, Benjamin won MVP honours at a slo-pitch tournament in Michigan. When he was handed an envelope, Black speculated it was a voucher for two hamburgers. It turned out to be airline tickets for two anywhere in North America.

"Joe immediately started hollering he wanted a recount," Benjamin laughed.

Black's pal Rick Telfer refereed with him for a decade. He said it was a time nobody made any money. "Except Joe," Telfer added with a chuckle. "We'd all go out for a beer afterward. We'd buy."

Telfer termed Black that breed of official who commanded order from the start of a game. "He said 'It's your game, you play it your way, but if I have to step in, I will, and then we'll play it my way,' " Telfer said.

The rookie's presence on the Majors roster that championship season was hardly a surprise. As a high schooler, the kid from 613 Hamilton Rd. was already a big name in high school sports for his feats with Beal, where he starred in rugby, football, track and field, baseball and basketball.

Black, whose Baltimore-born wife Marcie had equity in the old Baltimore Colts, resided in Baltimore part of the year, Grand Bend in the summer. In recent years, he lost both legs as a result of a diabetic condition.

Fairs, who has coached just about everything at Western, was the catcher on the '48 team. He has the boxscores and can tell you about Black's championship performance.

"His clutch hitting against Fort Wayne was a major factor in that series," he said. "He was a smooth-fielding first baseman and he was always a lot of laughs."

Teammates found that out even after they were retired from the Majors. Black had become a cop in London.

"He'd go by on his motorcycle and holler something at you in fun," Fairs recalled.

Black later was employed by the Ontario government as a property assessor.

Benjamin summed him up with the most telling accolade a game official can get.

"He was a player's ref," Benjamin said.


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