The forgotten story of … Ted Whitfield

Desire indicators, hyperbaric chambers, GPS numbers, skin fold tests: such is the nomenclature of modern Australian Rules football. In an age when football is a billion dollar industry and the financial rewards for successful football players are prodigious, it was inevitable that hoary management catchphrases and yardsticks should colonise the game.

It’s a long way from an era when footballers held down day jobs at rail yards and breweries and where preparation and recovery for games was somewhat, shall we say, relaxed. LP Hartley’s observation that “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” is an apt starting point for the era of our subject, Edward Carlyle “Ted” Whitfield.

Whitfield was born on 13 June 1916 in working-class North Melbourne. Originally playing as a wingman for VFA team Coburg, Whitfield was eventually picked up by South Melbourne as a mature age 23 year old, at the diminutive height of 170cm. His first game was against Carlton in round 12 1939, a team against which he would have multiple colourful interactions. Whitfield’s VFL career would be short-lived but what it lacked in length it made up for in colour.

In his history of the 1945 “Bloodbath” Grand Final, played between South Melbourne and Carlton, and described as the most violent Grand Final in VFL/AFL history, Ian Shaw informs us that Whitfield marched “to a different drum” – an understatement if ever there was one.

As Shaw goes on to recount, South Melbourne’s coach, William “Bull” Adams, was not entirely thrilled to hear of his new recruit’s pre-game preparation, which consisted of imbibing six beers before a game and an occasional topper at half-time. We are not informed of the science here, but as a creature of habit, Whitfield insisted it was a practice he’d followed since he was 16, and he was not about to upset the pattern of many a flashy player: the neurotic routine.

That’s not to say that Whitfield was a footballing dilettante. He was happy to follow club best practice and the advice of retired 1930s South Melbourne player, Peter Reville, by visiting a local publican for some pre-game refreshments. The Cricket Club Hotel in Clarendon Street, South Melbourne was the preferred destination of some of his team-mates who, like Whitfield, would wear their football gear underneath their civvies, a habit which allowed them to get their fill of tonics before rushing to the changing rooms a few minutes before the game, where they would quickly disrobe.

Shaw tells us how on one occasion Whitfield’s timing went awry and he arrived just as a game against St Kilda was about to start. Whitfield explained to his team-mates that he was not waylaid by any tonics but had lost track of time while “entertaining a lady friend”, who joined him for a hectic taxi ride to the ground. Getting changed in a taxi was no easy feat but Whitfield explained that by a stroke of good fortune his companion was adept at helping him remove his clothes in the back seat of a car.

Given his game day preparation, it is perhaps not surprising to find that Whitfield only played 11 games in his first three seasons with South Melbourne. In 1941, Whitfield would enlist with the Australian Army before his discharge in June 1942. The VFA had suspended their competition in 1941, which meant a host of VFA players were signed up by VFL clubs.

Whether Whitfield was squeezed out by the influx of VFA talent and that had any impact on his decision to enlist is not clear. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t be until 1944 that Whitfield would resume his spot in the South Melbourne team, playing 11 games out of 18 that season.

But it was the 1945 season when Whitfield would reach his zenith and nadir, playing 18 games of 22, including the infamous final which would stamp his ticket.

In the lead up to the game, Whitfield had run-ins with two characters in the 1944 season that he would butt up against again in the 1945 Grand Final: Carlton’s wingman, Fred Fitzgibbon ,who like Whitfield had served briefly in the army, and umpire Frank Spokes. As a report in The Argus of 26 July 1944 states, Whitfield was reported by Spokes for deliberately kicking the ball away after a free had been paid to Fitzgibbon. Whitfield protested that he was merely kicking the ball back to Fitzgibbon when it accidentally hit him in the head and sailed past him.

The Bloodbath cometh

The first trigger for the violence in the Bloodbath Final occurred when Carlton’s Bob Chitty king hit South Melbourne’s Ron Clegg in the second quarter then shortly after, South rover Jack ‘Basher’ Williams. In due course, Williams knocked out Carlton’s half-forward, Ken Hands, who lay prone behind play. Another melee ensued as players streamed to the scene, with Williams striking a pugilist’s stance and asking: “Who’s next?” When umpire Spokes asked what had happened, Williams is believed to have stated it may have been a case of sunstroke.

When in the fourth quarter Chitty made a menacing bee-line for Laurie Nash in a marking contest, Nash gave him a short left which let him unconscious, stating later “he went down as cold as mutton”. Another brawl erupted, which required the intervention of six policemen, while at the boundary line another scuffle erupted. As Shaw states: “Ted Whitfield, throwing punches left and right at the centre of the brawl, looked up to see a man in a navy blue suit and gabardine coat wade into the melee. It was Carlton’s suspended wingman, Fred Fitzgibbon.”

Fitzgibbon was removed from the field by police and the game continued to degenerate with bottles and stones being thrown at players on the ground, as had also occurred at half-time as South Melbourne approached the race. As the situation descended, Whitfield attempted to exact some arbitrary retribution around the ground, including an attempted strike at goal umpire Whyte. When Spokes attempted to take Whitfield’s number, he ran up the ground, lifting his jumper over his head in order to hide his number, later stating he believed the bell had sounded and he was merely looking to swap jumpers with the opposition.

Multiple reports were laid after the game (which, for the record, Carlton won) with Whitfield charged with abusive language, kicking the ball away and attempting to strike Whyte.

But true to form, when Whitfield was summoned to the tribunal to answer the charges, he refused to appear, stating he had already purchased tickets to a cabaret ball and didn’t want to squander the money. Whitfield was charged in absentia and given a 12 month ban by the tribunal.

Whitfield was certainly off his game that day and was accused at half time by coach Bull Adams of playing dead. Whitfield stated he was off his game because he hadn’t had a drink. Duly a trainer was dispatched to the local establishment to get Whitfield his special elixir which he efficiently dispatched.

The somewhat cavalier attitude of Whitfield to the tribunal hearing saw South Melbourne suspend him shortly after, not only from the team, but as a spectator. After a notorious 54 games, it was not until the 1960s that he returned to South Melbourne as a member of the Past Player’s Association.

Whitfield then made his way to country footy where from 1949-51 he built a formidable reputation at Ararat via his penchant for staging, goal-kicking and being the worst trainer. If an award was up for grabs, which was presented at Thursday night training, you might expect a cameo from Ted otherwise you’d expect to see him next Saturday.

Whitfield may have been a pariah at South Melbourne, but he was lionised at Ararat where he went on to become captain-coach. But having escaped the urban football landscape, he did not evade another encounter with umpire Spokes, nor his old team-mate Jack Graham. During the 1951 Wimmera Football League Grand Final, Whitfield was reported by Spokes for striking Graham, the player-coach of Minyip. Whitfield would also lead Yarram to a premiership in 1954 as player-coach.

It took a ruptured spleen to end Whitfield’s playing career at age 42, but he remained a country coaching and footballing legend, etched for eternity into the annals of the Ararat Football Club’s team of the century and a footnote at South Melbourne. Whitfield, despite the punishments his organs had absorbed at his and others’ hands (and knees), died in 1993.

 To find out more about Ted Whitfield and the 1945 Bloodbath Grand Final, read Ian Shaw’s The Bloodbath: The 1945 VFL Grand Final.

*Originally appeared in The Guardian