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Remembering The Late George Gross

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
You may not have ever heard of George Gross. He was a creature of the newspaper game. He founded the Toronto Sun sports department after the Toronto Telegram closed in 1971. He was the Sun’s sports editor for 15 years and something called a Corporate Sports Editor until Friday when for the first time ever, he failed to wake up and go to work.

They called him The Baron, a nod to his origins in what was once Czechoslovakia, his urbane manner, the cut of his clothes and the steadfastness off his beliefs.

The Baron was 85 when death found him and thus became the first and only thing that ever snuck up on George Gross.

He was an intelligent man, simultaneously alert and oblivious to the nuances of life. The kind of boss that would chew someone out mercilessly but who filed his grudges in the garbage can. I worked at the Sun for seven years and saw the Baron most days, ensconced in an office rife with memorabilia.

One of the framed posters bore the image of Ben Johnson. The Baron had the first exclusive with Johnson after his disgrace. Johnson loudly professed his innocence. George, the product of an era where athletes were men of their word, gave Ben ample room for his denial. The 1988 Dubin Inquiry ended any suspicion of Johnson’s innocence.

“Never mind George,” someone told the Baron. “He lied to you first.”

He had a job for life and to George, who dressed immaculately, that was as indispensable as oxygen. He was a player in a shriveling circle, a holdover from the days when the players played, the writers wrote and there was really nobody else to stick their nose in the fiefdom. The medium that you employ to read this story today as well as television changed all that.

To steal from a terrific writer named Molly Ivins, George Gross was like everyone else, only more so. He swam across the Danube to freedom as a young man. Today’s young person often considers it an act of singular courage to leave home by 30. He made a career writing in what was for him, his fourth or fifth language. Most of us struggle with just the one.

He built something from a few typewriters and some wooden crates and he could still surprise you with an exclusive from someone who didn’t return calls from mortals.

All those things happened before I met him and yet the essential element of his personality, the competitiveness, the orneriness hadn’t yet been worn away by time.

When you are in your 70s and 80s, they stop recognizing the capital you have spent your adult life accruing. It’s a bit like the women who sacrificed career and their own interests for the good of the family and the assurance of a golden future. When they are betrayed and divorced, as they often are, they carry around them a molten anger.

It is an intensely personal matter, but it is rarely the fault of one person. Managements and ownership change. So do priorities and objectives and budges and lifestyles. What worked once may not any more.

Every person who draws a paycheck knows the devils conundrum. Bitch and push and paint yourself a cancer. Detach yourself emotionally and sacrifice what might be one of the great passions of your life. One of the dark jokes of the workplace is that if you feel ignored as a young employee…wait.

The Baron made his choice. Every day. As Dylan Thomas wrote, he railed against the dying of the light.

I remember the latest in an unending series of imperfect men. A husband hopelessly devoted to the health of his wife, who bore his burdens with a steadfast grace.

He was one of those guys you thought would life forever.

That he did go gentle into that good night is, against all reason and logic, a sad, sad surprise
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