There have been so many historic moments over the 90-year existence of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, from dramatic last-second victories authored by legends, to the Grey Cup championships that now total 11.
Still, it could be argued there was no more influential decade for the franchise than the 1950s.
The Bombers moved into a brand new stadium at Polo Park in 1953, appeared in five Grey Cups – winning twice – while fans were introduced to icons like Jack Jacobs, Bud Grant, Ken Ploen, Gerry James, Leo Lewis, Buddy Tinsley and a host of others all now enshrined in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
The decade gave us the ‘Mud Bowl’ in 1950 and one of the greatest Grey Cups ever played in 1958. It introduced us to Grant, who arrived as a player, became the Blue Bombers coach and is now the only person to be enshrined in both the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It also marked the start of the ‘Glory Years’ – a span of five years from 1958-62 that saw the team win four Grey Cups.
The decade began on the heels of two disappointing seasons, with the club combining to go 5-21 over the 1948 and 1949 campaigns. But in 1950 the team’s fortunes began to change when the Bombers signed Jacobs – who had spent eight years in the NFL with Cleveland, Washington and Green Bay – to play quarterback. Unhappy in Green Bay, Jacobs agreed to a contract with the Bombers that guaranteed he would not be switched to another position.
He was brilliant during his days as a Bomber and in 1951, became the first pro football player to throw for 3,000 yards in a season. The Bombers appeared in two Grey Cups during his days, but lost both. His success – and how he helped thrill fans with the passing game and pack Osborne Stadium’s 7,800 seats – led to the opening of Winnipeg Stadium in 1953, dubbed ‘The House That Jack Built.
There were many that would then help the Bombers take that next important step from contender to champion, but the man whose fingerprints are all over the wheel was Grant. The Superior, Wisconsin product arrived in 1953 after two years with the Philadelphia Eagles and played four years with the Bombers – three times named a Western Conference All-Star.
In 1957, just shy of his 30th birthday, he was named the Bombers head coach – to the surprise of many – but the move was nothing short of a stroke of genius.
Grant helped build a team with Canadians like Cornel Piper, Gerry James, Steve Patrick, Gord Rowland, Norm Rauhaus, Ron ‘Pepe’ Latourelle, Nick Miller, and George Druxman as its foundation and had that crew surrounded with the likes of Ken Ploen, Frank Rigney, Ernie Pitts, Buddy Tinsley, Herb Gray and Leo Lewis.
That crew combined to go 37-11 from 1957-59 and appeared in three consecutive Grey Cups, winning in back-to-back seasons in ’58-59.
The ’58 Grey Cup is considered to this day one of the greatest in the championship’s history, as Jim Van Pelt scored two touchdowns, kicked two field goals and four converts in a dramatic 35-28 win over Hamilton. A year later the Bombers dominated the Ticats 21-7 courtesy touchdowns from Charlie Shepard and Ernie Pitts, marking the first time the franchise would win back-to-back titles.
There was more to come, too, as the 1960s beckoned.
- For many Bombers fans, the Bud Grant legend is all about the work he did on the sidelines as a head coach and guiding the team to Grey Cup titles in 1958, 1959, 1961 and 1962 before leaving for the Minnesota Vikings. But Grant was a heckuva player, too. In fact, he still holds the CFL playoff record with five interceptions in a win over Saskatchewan in 1953 – one of the oldest marks in league history that remains untouched.
- Leo Lewis, ‘The Lincoln Locomotive’, came to the Bombers in 1955 as the club had offered more money than the Baltimore Colts, the team that had drafted him in 1955. He retired as the Bombers’ all-time leading rusher (since surpassed Charles Roberts) and remains the team’s all kickoff returns yardage and combined yardage leader.
- Robert (Buddy) Tinsley is one of the many Americans who came north to Winnipeg and ended up staying to live and raise a family. A member of both the WFC Hall of Fame and Canadian Football Hall of Fame, Tinsley is often linked to the 1950 Mud Bowl. During that Grey Cup game, Tinsley lay motionless and face down in a puddle before being turned over by an official who, at the time, was credited with saving him from drowning – a story Tinsley repeatedly said was exaggerated.
- An All-American at Texas, Herb Gray was another player who turned down an NFL offer – he also said no to the Colts – to sign with the Bombers. He played both guard and defensive end during his 10 years with the Bombers, was a captain for nine of those seasons and not only was part of four Grey Cup teams, but in 1980 was named the top defensive player for the first half century of the club’s existence.
- Ken Ploen was as popular a player as the Bombers have ever had in their long and storied history. The hero of Iowa’s win in the 1957 Rose Bowl, Ploen came to Winnipeg and made an immediate impact. In his 11 years with the club, 1957-67, he was a dominant presence as a leader and versatile athlete who was an all-star both as a quarterback and defensive back. He retired as the sixth-leading passer in CFL history and was named the club’s offensive player of the half century in 1980.
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