How my photos of a pick-up football game made a mark on Canadian political history

How my photos of a pick-up football game made a mark on Canadian political history
Robert Stanfield hooks Canadian Press photographer Doug Ball with an umbrella in an undated photo. Fifty years ago, on May 30, 1974, Ball was there when Stanfield tossed around a pigskin with reporters as they travelled together for an election campaign.

“Hey, Doug — did you take that shot of Stanfield on the front of the Globe and Mail this morning?”

We were boarding the Progressive Conservative campaign bus outside the Hotel Vancouver early on May 31 during the 1974 federal election.

I was a photographer working for The Canadian Press out of Montreal, where I had been stationed the previous year.

Early the day before, we had flown out of Halifax heading for a rally in Saskatoon and then overnight in Vancouver.

We had a refueling stop in North Bay and were allowed to deplane and stretch our legs on the tarmac.

Someone with the PC party brought out a football and started throwing it around.

I asked Robert Stanfield, the then-Opposition leader, if he was going to join in — and he suggested he might.

I put my Nikon F2 camera aside and joined the game.

A few minutes in, I saw Stanfield take off his suit coat and prepare to enter the fray.

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Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield grimaces as he drops a football May 30, 1974, while campaigning in North Bay, Ontario. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Doug Ball

Robert Stanfield playing football at North Bay Airport, during an election campaign stopover, May 30, 1974. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Doug Ball

I quickly grabbed my camera and fired off the full roll of 36 frames of him catching the football, throwing it around — and missing it, too.

When I finished the roll, I ran into the terminal and sent the film back to my office in Toronto, where it would be developed, made into prints and transmitted to news clients.

After the evening rally in Saskatoon, I made a quick call to see how the photos had turned out.

All they said was: “It’s on the front of the Globe and Mail!”

After waking up in Vancouver, I went to the door of my hotel room and saw two pictures on the front of the Vancouver Province newspaper — one of Stanfield dropping the football, another of him catching it.

Then I saw the Globe and Mail headline: “A Political Fumble?”

On the bus, while I waited to catch hell from Stanfield’s political aides, Charles Lynch of Southam News sat down in front of me and asked the question — if it had been my photo. I said yes.

“Trudeau just won the election,” he said.

Then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau had won a large majority in 1968, but Stanfield had given him a run for his money in 1972, cutting the Liberals down to minority control in Parliament.

Lynch wasn’t wrong. Stanfield lost, and Trudeau formed another majority government.

Shortly after the election, Stanfield announced his intention to retire. He would go on to serve as the Opposition leader until 1976, when Joe Clark took the party helm.

When Stanfield spoke at the press gallery dinner in 1975, I wasn’t in the room — but a friend told me that he gave the funniest speech, in which he called me out by name.

That year, I won the National Newspaper Award for best political photo.

More than a decade later, I got ahold of the ex-politician’s phone number.

I dialed and expected a secretary to answer. But Stanfield picked up the phone.

I got nervous. I blurted out my name. I asked the question I’d been wondering about for years: would he sign a copy of the football photo?

It was the most pregnant pause I had ever heard.

Then: “Ah yes,” he said. “You won an award for that, and I got nothing. Unbelievable!”

We met for lunch a few weeks later, and he signed a copy: “Doug — I should have taken off my tie.”

After the meal, we headed out into a grey, drizzling day and took a few pictures together. Stanfield asked the photographer if we could take one more, on the count of three.

On three, Stanfield put the hook of his umbrella around my neck and gave it a playful tug, and we laughed.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2024.

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