The Strange and Infamous History of Exhibition Stadium 

On June 23rd, 2016, the Toronto Argonauts played their season home opener against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Since 1989, the Argos’ home games had been played at Rogers Centre (better known as the Skydome) but this time round they were playing in a new home, BMO Field. The Argonauts had a lot of success in the Skydome, they won the Grey Cup five times in that spell and even won a Grey Cup at their home stadium in 2012. But in a way, BMO is the Argos’ spiritual home.

BMO was built on the ground of the former Argos’ home, Exhibition Stadium. Exhibition Stadium is one of the decried stadiums in Canadian history, with a blacklist of controversies and problems that could rival any stadium in North America.

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Exhibition Stadium, otherwise known as Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) Stadium began life as a single grandstand stadium in 1948, after the previous grandstand built on the site had burnt down, which oddly enough was also been built to replace a grandstand that had burnt down. This new grandstand which cost three million dollars ($35,702,479 in 2021 money) was structurally much stronger than before and was built to last. It would be eleven years, however, before the stadium would have a year-round tenant. By 1959, a new $650,000 stand along the south end of the stadium had been built, giving it a capacity of 33,150 and the Toronto Argonauts soon moved in.

The Stadium was chosen to host the 1959 Grey Cup, and it would be the first of twelve Grey Cups it would host in its lifetime, along with three Vanier Cup finals. But despite being chosen to host multiple marquee matchups, it was immediate that the stadium had its problems. Exhibition Stadium was built on the shore of Lake Ontario, and the stadium’s design left it vulnerable to the elements, particularly in the winter months at the end of the CFL season. In the 1962 Grey Cup Final between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Winnipeg Blue Bombers, thick heavy fog from the lake began to wreak havoc on the game. By the end of the second quarter, the field was completely covered in fog, making the visibility of the game almost impossible. The fog got so bad that for the first and only time in Canadian Football history, a Grey Cup final was postponed, with the last nine minutes of the game to be played on the following day.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers play the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in foggy a Grey Cup game in 1962.

Just three years later, with the Bombers and Ti-Cats again in the Cup final, the weather conditions at Exhibition Stadium would again be the talking point. This time it was the Lake Ontario wind that would distrust the game. Indeed the 48–64 km/h (30–40 mph) winds were so strong, that the receiving team on punt returns would not be able to run back a punt when the wind was at their backs, such was the unprecedented advantage it would give a team. Even then, the Bombers intentionally took a safety three times so they wouldn’t have to give up short fields on their punts. Hamilton won the game by six points, the exact number of points surrendered by Winnipeg on safeties.

The poor weather was taking its toll on the natural grass surface used at the stadium, and the playing surface made headlines for all the wrong reasons in the 1970 Grey Cup. Played between the Montreal Alouettes and Calgary Stampeders, the game was marred by constant chunks of grass coming off as the game progressed. Montreal quarterback Sonny Wade at one point even had to throw a big chunk of torn-up grass out of the way of the ball so a yardage measurement could be made.

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The playing surface was almost unplayable, and resulted in Stampeders head coach Jim Duncan branding it “a disgrace”. The stadium would have artificial turf installed for the 1972 season, but for Exhibition Stadium, the problems were only just beginning.

Starting in 1974, work began to redevelop Exhibition Stadium as a multipurpose stadium with the hope being it would attract a Major League Baseball team to Toronto. The city of Toronto got its wish in 1976 when Toronto was awarded an expansion team, and in 1977, The Toronto Blue Jays played their inaugural season with Exhibition Stadium as their home ballpark, now with three stands and a 54,741 capacity for football games.

Related: The Strange and Expensive History of Olympic Stadium

While the development of a baseball diamond inside a football stadium did on paper, it was a very unorthodox fit that just didn’t look right and all in all, was a complete eyesore. The length of the sideline stands stretched far past the baseball playing area, with some seats as far back as 820 feet from the home plate, and practically useless for watching Baseball.

Exhibition Stadium & Grandstand in Toronto (1978/87 City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 363, Item 12)

While multipurpose stadiums were common at this time, having to accommodate MLB and CFL was a much bigger problem than accommodating MLB and the NFL. CFL fields are longer than their NFL counterparts, about 33% larger, which meant seats would be even further away from the action than at other MLB stadiums at the time. Of the stadium’s 43,739 total Baseball capacity, only 33,000 seats were used regularly. The impact of the stadium now being used for Baseball was also felt by the Argonauts. In order to accommodate the baseball diamond, the two sideline stands were no longer able to be parallel to each other, furthering the distance away from the action for many supporters.

Indeed, unless you sat in the corners beside the east end zone, you now had a worse viewing experience for football games than you did before the renovation. With its unorthodox and much-maligned look, the stadium began its new era with a familiar problem, the weather.

The Blue Jays’ first ever game was on April 7th, 1977 against the Chicago White Sox. Baseball is a summer sport played in warm conditions but that looked far from the case on the day. The turf was covered almost entirely with snow with a game-day temperature of just two degrees. The game was the only game in MLB history to be played in the snow at the time, and the game even required a Zamboni to clear it.

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Later on that season in September, the Jays were playing the Baltimore Orioles, and it was raining. The decision was made to use a tarpaulin to cover two mounds in the Jays’ bullpen, roughly about five feet outside of the left-field foul line. Orioles coach Earl Weaver was incensed by this, claiming it was a risk to his players. When it was clear the issue couldn’t be resolved, Weaver ordered his team to forfeit the game, the first time a team had deliberately forfeited a game since 1914. Early and late season game weather problems became a common feature at Jays’ games, but the most infamous weather game to happen would involve the Toronto Argonauts.

Exhibition Stadium had three stands, but only the main grandstand was covered with a roof which left thousands of spectators completely vulnerable to the weather. This configuration came to ahead in the 1982 Grey Cup between Edmonton and the hometown Argonauts. Edmonton won the game 32-16 but for the fans in attendance, the game was overshadowed by the unrelenting rainfall and cold which made the experience unwatchable for the thousands of fans who left the stands to watch the game in the drier concession stands, leaving huge sections of the stands empty. The game was watched by a Canadian record 7.862 million people who all got to see the stadium’s obvious flaws and by the time the game was over, the stadium’s fate was sealed.

Related: A Look Back at Former CFL Stadiums

One the day after the 1982 Grey Cup, fans gathered outside Toronto town hall and made their feelings clear, chanting over and over again, “we want a dome”. The city of Toronto would answer their calls by putting together a task force looking into a dome stadium in 1983, and by 1986, ground had been broken on what would become the Skydome. But while the Skydome was being constructed, both the Jays and Argos would have to contend with Exhibition Stadium’s problems in the meantime.

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One problem the stadium had which was a particular source of frustration for fans and players was the presence of seagulls in and around the stadium. The proximity to the lake and an easy source of food from fans in the stands made the stadium irresistible to the birds and they were a constant nuisance. The most infamous moment involving a seagull came in August 1983. The New York Yankees were the visiting team, and while warming up in the fifth inning, Yankees pitcher Dave Winfield went to throw the ball to a ballboy but in the process accidentally hit and subsequently killed a seagull. Winfield was charged by the Toronto police after the game but the charges were quickly dropped.

Dave Winfield, New York Yankees

Exhibition Stadium’s location and unique weather challenges even went as far as to get a game postponed in 1984. In April 1984, The Blue Jays faced the Texas Rangers, but as the game began, winds of up to 97 km/h (60 mph) came swirling into Exhibition Stadium. Many players struggled to even stand in the conditions and after just six pitches and a thirty-minute delay, the game was ultimately postponed and played on the following day.

In 1989, after thirty years of wind, rain, snow, and fog being regular fixtures in Football and Baseball games in a stadium that was unable to properly incorporate both sports, the Argos and Jays moved into their new stadium, the Toronto Skydome.

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The Stadium was solemnly used after its tenants moved out and in 1999, it reached its inevitable fate of being demolished, officially bringing an end to an era in Toronto Sports. Former Blue Jays team president Paul Beeston once described Exhibition Stadium by saying “(it) wasn’t just the worst stadium in baseball, it was the worst stadium in sports.” It has also been disparagingly referred to as “the mistake on the lake” and is considered to be one of the worst stadiums in Canadian and North American history.

Rogers Centre

The stadium was poorly designed for its location, with its uncovered stands left completely open to the elements which, thanks to its lakefront location, meant that it frequently had to constantly battle unfriendly conditions. Perhaps if the stadium was only used for only football it may be more fondly remembered, its dimensions meant that baseball in the stadium would always be impractical. Today though the stadium isn’t missed all too much by either old tenant.

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Exhibition Sports spiritual successor, BMO Field was built on the same site, and its more enclosed build and roof covering all the stands make it much more suitable for the Lake Ontario weather. Although BMO isn’t perfect, it has given the Argonauts a home in a modern up-to-date stadium that has already hosted a Grey Cup game, and will likely go on to be a venue for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. The Blue Jays meanwhile still call the Skydome their home and it has become the synonymous home of the Blue Jays. It was the site where they clinched their second World Series championship in 1993. With two World Series championships for the Blue Jays and six Grey Cups for the Argonauts, the legacy of Exhibition Stadium can at least live on in the success of those who once called it home.

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