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This article was published 8/11/2021 (234 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Brandon has produced a lot of great athletes over the decades, but few have had the impact on the region’s sports community that Gerry MacKay has.
Now 91, MacKay cut a wide swath in baseball, golf, curling and shooting, while the family store he operated with his brother Darcy, Curly MacKay and Sons, became a retail institution and cornerstone of Westman’s sports community.
"I think I was ready for any kind of interesting thing," MacKay said of his life in sports and business. "I was lucky as hell. There was nothing to really keep me from doing whatever I wanted, and hardly anybody ever told me what to do."
MacKay was born in Kenton in 1930, and spent the first decade of his life on a farm north of the community. His father Curly, a fantastic ball player and curler in his own right — "He was more into sports than farming" — moved the family to Shoal Lake in 1940 after he bought a cafe.
Curly MacKay was a hunting friend of legendary Brandon Sun sports editor Krug Crawford, and when Brandon Harness Limited came up for sale, the newspaperman shared the news with his buddy.
Curly bought the store when Gerry was 16, and the family, which included siblings Darcy, Lois and Loree and mother Agnes, moved to the Wheat City.
It was a life-changing event for MacKay, in part because it exposed him to a new world of sports.
Although his mother curled — she grew up in Oak River and every small village had its own facilities back then — Gerry and Curly were the family’s two main athletes.
Curly picked up a team every weekend in the summer to go somewhere to play ball, and Gerry would sometimes get to run bases for his father, who was close to 50 and still playing.
"Dad was really quite a character," MacKay said.
Gerry attended Brandon Collegiate Institute, and started playing virtually whatever sports were offered, including track, basketball, curling and hockey.
"I was so lucky," MacKay said. "We came into this little store and Dad was really popular and all of a sudden the store is going good and I didn’t have to work. I was able to play all of the games."
In 1949, the 19-year-old baseball player made the jump to the Brandon Greys of the Man-Dak League, for the start of a three-year run with the legendary club.
In an era when Jackie Robinson had just recently integrated the sport, the Greys had five black players in MacKay’s second season.
"These are all really well known baseball players who couldn’t get anything going," MacKay said. "They were happy as hell to come up here, so all of a sudden our whole league was black with some really known people."
MacKay’s game improved with the increased competition, and Winnipeg manager Willie Wells made contact with the Chicago Cubs organization on his behalf and he was granted a tryout.
MacKay had been so well prepared by the Grays, that when he went down to spring training camp with about 200 players in Macon Ga., he earned a spot with Chicago’s farm team at Sioux Falls in the Class C Northern League.
The outfielder split 1952 between the Sioux Falls Canaries — hitting for a .347 batting average and .477 slugging percentage in 60 games) and the Visalia Cubs (.291 batting average, .350 slugging percentage in 28 games).
If MacKay had qualified with enough at-bats, he would have led the Northern League in average, eclipsing future major leaguers Joe Caffie (.342) and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron (.336).
"My batting average was better than theirs, which I think relates to the baseball here," MacKay said when asked about he would compare leagues. "I would say it was C or B ball here."
In his second year, he spent most of the 1953 season with Sioux Falls, hitting .335 in 462 at-bats and contributing 10 home runs.
He said the sudden change to playing 150 games a season was hard on the body but went just fine. He said one season he got three days off in an entire summer.
"I was young and stupid," MacKay said. "It didn’t seem to bother me, and I was having fun, hitting the ball and enjoying it."
After splitting the 1954 season between Visalia and the Brandon Greys, the Pittsburgh Pirates purchased his contract from the Cubs for the 1955 season, and he reported to El Paso. He had his finest professional season there, hitting .371 with 17 home runs in the Class B Texas League.
The New York Yankees bought his contract from the Pirates, and he spent the majority of the 1956 season with AA Birmingham. That was a problem for two reasons.
First, there wasn’t much upward mobility with the powerful Yankees team above them. Second, the Birmingham roster had seven other left-handed batters, so Birmingham was fed a steady diet of left-handed pitchers.
"Everywhere we went we faced left handers, which wasn’t good for me," MacKay said.
MacKay, who later said he wished he had become a switch hitter, saw his production at the plate fall to a .248 batting average despite hitting three home runs on opening day, and he was sent down to Winston-Salem.
It ultimately proved to be the end of the line for his professional baseball career, but not because of what happened at the plate.
"I finished that year and came home, and my father had a heart attack," MacKay said. "I had to go to work in the store. I did have a contract sent to me to go to the Yankees, but I couldn’t go because it was time to go to work."
The store, which had been renamed Curly MacKay and Sons shortly after it was purchased in 1948, proved to be a good fit. MacKay, who became a part owner of the business in 1960, didn’t have any regrets about the end of his baseball career.
"I was lucky as hell," MacKay said. "I found out I couldn’t hit left handers good enough so maybe I wasn’t going to (play in the majors). The senior league here was a damn good quality senior league … so I was quite happy just to get on with the Brandon Cloverleafs and really enjoy life."
Before he moved to the MSBL, however, he played one last season with the Greys in 1957 prior to the Man-Dak League folding. He was sorry to see it go.
"It was a helluva show," MacKay said.
After that, he began what proved to be nearly two decades in the Manitoba Senior Baseball League until he retired at age 45 in 1975. He was a six-time all-star in the league, even began to pitch for the first time and managed the Cloverleafs in the early 1970s.
"It was very relaxed ball," MacKay said. "It was a bit of a different atmosphere. These guys would have a beer after. The other way (in pro), you behaved yourself. All the way through the pro ranks, I don’t think I ever saw anybody drinking."
He said there was a drop-off in the quality of the play between the Man-Dak League and the MSBL, but by that time he had begun to golf more and also enjoyed shooting and hunting.
But that certainly didn’t mean MacKay’s days of contributing to the sport were over.
Winnipeg was awarded the 1967 Pan American Games, and it eventually occurred to organizers that it would be nice for Canada to enter a baseball team for the first time. Just 57 days before the event was set to begin, MacKay and Gladwyn Scott were handed the task of assembling a national team.
But it wasn’t as simple as just reaching out to the best players.
Many of the provincial associations weren’t interested in letting their players go for a month, but some guys heard about the national team and contacted MacKay about joining it anyway.
With players from across the country, including a handful from Westman, the Canadian team ended up going 1-7, with their win coming against the eventual gold-medal winning Cuban squad. They also beat Puerto Rico, but that victory was overturned because some of the Canadians had pro experience.
"Everything was brand new to us, and I think Gladwyn and I thought we did a good enough job," MacKay said. "We did a couple of crazy things, like beating Cuba in the last game, which was their first loss in years, and different little things that popped up."
He led Canada into the 1971 Pan Am Games as well, plus a handful of other events around the world. In 1973, the Canadian Federation of Amateur Baseball decided to go in a different direction, but MacKay stayed busy in the game.
After retiring from active duty with the Cloverleafs, he helped get the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame off the ground.
He also had lots to keep him busy off the diamond. There used to be a golf course in the east end of Brandon with sand greens, and MacKay played it a lot before the Wheat City Golf Course opened.
He golfed in Brandon men’s leagues, and because his family had a cottage at Clear Lake, he was a frequent participant in the Grey Owl and Tamarack, where he won senior men’s titles in 1989, 1990, 1992, 1995 and 1997.
He estimates he golfed 50 times last season, although he now has a significant issue that hinders his play.
"I can’t see," MacKay said. "I had an operation on my eyes and I can’t read so that’s been a major problem. If I put a golf ball down there, I can see kind of a thing and I still have the swing."
In the winter, he was a competitive curler, playing in dozens of provincial events and reaching five provincial senior men’s finals, winning two.
"We had a lot of fun going to provincials," MacKay said. "I went with different people, and didn’t skip all the time, but most of the time I did."
He also helped found the Senior Super League with Eldon McLean and Don Sumner 30 years ago after they reached 60 and needed a competitive outlet. The league still exists at the Brandon Club.
His impact on Brandon’s sports scene was also reflected in another way when he was named the Brandon Sun’s athlete of the year in 1967.
Professionally, the store emerged as a centrepiece of the Westman sports community, partly because it equipped players but also because it frequently sponsored teams.
"Every day there was always somebody asking for support, and that’s probably still going on," MacKay said. "Every sport was getting going and looking for help. It cost us but it was good advertising."
The store was into a wide variety of sports, with a seasonal rotation of stock. All four MacKay kids helped in some way, with Gerry usually to be found in his office down in the hockey section.
"Hockey was by far our biggest sport," MacKay said.
Darcy and Gerry retired in 1987, and while the store was passed down in the family, it closed soon after. Gerry and his late second wife Anne opened a trophy shop for a couple of years on the site but then sold the building on 10th Street and he left the retail industry for good.
MacKay, who has children Gary, Lisa and Gord, was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in 1990. Remarkably, he was also inducted into the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame as an individual and as part of four teams, the 1948-51 Greys, the 1954-60 Cloverleafs, the 1966-71 Cloverleafs and the 1967 Pan Am team.
"The good part is that I was on the main committee to start that, so they had to put me in," he joked with characteristic modesty.
"I’m lucky," he added. "Lucky, lucky."
MacKay has been planning a big birthday party since he was set to turn 90, but pandemic restrictions have forced him to shelve those plans. With things opening up, he still hopes to celebrate what he considers a fortunate life with his friends one day.
"I didn’t work," MacKay said with a chuckle. "I played all the time."
» Twitter: @PerryBergson