by Jane O’Hara
If you want to know how respected Toronto sports columnist and editor George Gross summitted sports journalism, if you’re trying to figure out how this tough-minded outsider with not even an uncertain grasp of the English language bulled his way to becoming one of this country’s media insiders, you must go back a half a century to the journey that brought him here.
It’s 1948, the Communists have taken power in his homeland, Czechoslovakia. Gross, then a 25-year-old newspaperman, and a friend hatch a daring plan to escape from Bratislava to Austria.
The friend is a kayaker and provides two things needed for escape: the kayak, but better yet — a permit enabling him to train on the restricted waters of the Danube River. In full daylight, while Slovak guards watch, the two young men slide their boat into the water. They look like ordinary kayakers just out for a routine afternoon training session. They are wearing running shoes, shorts and track suit tops. George has $2 in his pocket. They’ve already been warned not to paddle anywhere near the center of the river, not to veer near the Austrian side. But when has George ever taken orders. In no time, they have blistered their way across the 350-yards wide channel and collapse on the other shore.
George eventually made it to Toronto and found work in construction and then at Eaton’s. He got to know Toronto columnist Bob Hesketh who tells him The Toronto Telegram’s soccer reporter is on holiday for two months. George fills in as a freelancer. His English still isn’t so good, but the Tely’s editors are efficient and, each day, George memorizes the changes made in his copy: He won’t make those mistakes again. In January 1959, George is hired on full-time at the Tely for $105 a week — huge money. The rest, as we say, is history. When the Tely folded in 1971 George became the first sports editor at the newly-born Toronto Sun, responsible for turning out arguably the best sports section in Canada. He held that position until 1985 — long enough to win a National Newspaper Award –before being drop-kicked into the executive suites as Corporate Sports Editor where he still resides.
There are many achievements of which George is proud: his tennis game; his fundraising efforts for charities such as Variety Village and the Easter Seals Sports Celebrities dinner; his diligent work on behalf of amateur sport and as president of Sports Media Canada; his vice-presidency of the Association Internationale de la Press Sportive, the world’s largest organization of sports writers; and finally being the only Canadian to receive the Olympic Order.