CFL Heroes: Fritz Hanson
Who He Was
Melvin “Fritz” Hanson was a running back for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He joined Winnipeg in 1935, signed at the princely sum of $125 a game – and yes, in the middle of the Great Depression that was indeed a princely sum. He also got free room and board in the deal. He might have been out-earning R.B. Bennett at the time, is what we’re saying.
In his time in Winnipeg, he was instrumental in three Grey Cup wins in 1935, 1939, and 1941. After the 1941 season, he went overseas with the army, but he returned to football with Calgary in 1947. He won his fourth Grey Cup championship with the Stampeders in his second year there, his last as a CFL player.
He was a tiny guy at only 145 pounds, but he was quick. The ‘Galloping Ghost’ was one of his nicknames, along with ‘Twinkle Toes’, ‘Mighty Mite’, the ‘Perham Flash’ (shout-out to his hometown or Perham, Minnesota), and ‘Who Was That Guy Who Just Scored Again Oh It Was Hanson’.
Why He Was Great
Hanson was a dominant running back in a league that was all running backs. The forward pass was, of course, well in place by the 1930s, but the running game was king. And Hansen was a king among kings.
He was the All-Western running back in the west from 1937 to 1941, inclusive. He not only won four Grey Cups in 14 years of play, his team – the ‘Pegs when he signed, the the Blue Bombers later on – were in the Grey Cup for five straight years, from 1937 to 1941, or six out of seven if you start from 1935. He was part of the first western dynasty in CFL football.
But the most important year was the 1935 Grey Cup win. That was the first time a team from the west ever won the championship. If there was ever a time to shine, this was it. And Fritz Hanson, oh, he shone all right.
One Great Moment
The 1935 Grey Cup was played on the Hamilton Amateur Athletic Association Grounds, and Winnipeg’s opponent was the Hamilton Tigers. The Tigers had won the championship in 1932, they were the home team, and they looked ready to take the Cup again.
Winnipeg took the lead early and held it, but in the third quarter, Hamilton was on the way back. A blocked kick was returned to the 15 yard line, leading to a Hamilton touchdown. The score was 12-10, and the Tigers were threatening to take the game momentum for the first time.
Hanson had been having a stellar game all day. He was receiving the Hamilton punts, and was racking up dozens of yards on each return. As the Tigers began to roar, though, he had the play of the day.
A Hamilton punt sailed to Hanson just above the 30 yard line. He caught it, and then rambled 78 yards to pick up the touchdown that would seal the championship. In the end, he returned 13 punts for an astounding 334 total yards.
Oh, and Hamilton’s only other score was a safety, which put them within a single score of the lead. By the last play of the game, they were right on the ‘Pegs doorstep, and tried an onside kick into the Winnipeg end zone. But Winnipeg ran the ball out, denying them even the rouge. And taking the ball out of the end zone? Hanson again, natch.
Why We Should Stand in Awe
It’s always easy to dismiss the achievements of the players in the first few decades of Canadian football. You could point out that Canadian football was a rough-and-ready affair, that no one really took it seriously, that it was essentially the equivalent of a beer league today. (The 6,405 fans watching the 1935 final might disagree with you.)
But Fritz Hanson deserves the same accolades any modern player might receive. He was among the first Hall of Fame inductees in the inaugural 1963 year, putting him alongside such immortals as Lionel Conacher and Joe “King” Krol.
But Hanson’s 1935 Grey Cup performance truly stands alone. Why? His 334 yards in punt returns is still a league record. If you think today’s players are setting records that will still stand over 80 years later, think again.
The Galloping Ghost was a one-of-a-kind player, and it’s entirely possible that his punt return yards record will stand for another 80 Grey Cups. Name a player who can say that nowadays.
Images used with the permission of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.