Special to The Globe and Mail.
Wednesday, April 13, 2005.
Doug Peden was arguably the greatest athlete in Canadian history. A world class cyclist, he played professional baseball and basketball; powered Canada's hoops team to an Olympic silver medal; at cricket, once hit for 32 runs (four sixes, two fours) in an over; displayed a ferocious will in rugby; dominated all comers as a teenaged amateur in track, boxing, swimming, softball and tennis.
Even as an octogenarian, he was not an opponent on the golf course against whom one would wish to play for money. Any sport he attempted, he excelled. "I liked them all," he once told me from a hospital bed, "Except chess."
Mr. Peden was all but forgotten at his death in Victoria on Monday, a week before his 89th birthday. He had outlasted his contemporaries and had even outlived one of his sports (the six-day bicycle race, a Depression-era marathon).
At 6 feet, 190 pounds, he was a lean and muscular athlete blessed with power and agility surprising in someone so physically unimposing. A long-time chain-smoker, he was a friendly yet shy man saddled in his later years with a Walter Matthau hangdog expression.
Mr. Peden acknowledged the enormity of his talent even as he disputed the superlatives attached to his name. His modesty was not false. After all, he had shared a parquet floor with the great Norm Baker, voted Canada's basketball player of the half-century. Among his closest friends were Muzz Patrick, a Canadian amateur heavyweight boxing champion, and Lynn Patrick, brothers who played in the National Hockey League.
Whenever he was called Canada's greatest athlete, or British Columbia's best, or Vancouver Island's top, Mr. Peden would note that he was the younger brother of William (Torchy) Peden, the cycling champion. Doug Peden was not convinced he was even the best athlete in his own family, let alone the entire Dominion.
James Douglas Peden came into the world just two days after his red-haired brother had celebrated a 10th birthday. The Peden home in Victoria was filled with children and sporting gear. Local sandlots beckoned and organized sport was reserved only for older children in the latter years of high school. Doug flourished as an athlete, as did other families in what is now recognized as a golden age in Victoria sports. Three sets of brothers the Pedens, the Patricks, and the Chapmans (Art and Chuck) -- would all achieve greatness on the world athletic stage.
As a schoolboy in 1929, Mr. Peden won the provincial under-15 doubles tennis championship. At age 18, he swept Vancouver Island honours in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. He enjoyed tennis more than any other sport yet at the time did not want to limit himself to a single specialty. Only as an adult did he appreciate what might have been achieved on the courts.
In 1936, he faced rugby's mighty New Zealand All-Blacks in an exhibition match. The formidable 15 were completing an east-to-west tour of Canada after demolishing the best rugby teams of England and Wales. The All-Blacks so thoroughly dominated their Canadian challengers that not a single point had been recorded against them. They were victorious in Victoria as well, but not before Mr Peden ended the shutout streak. Modest as ever, Mr. Peden recalled carrying "only two Maoris" on his back as he scored a try.
By then, he had also gained a reputation for bringing rugby aggressiveness to basketball. The Victoria Blue Ribbons invited young Peden to join them at age 16 in 1932. He would win five Canadian titles with the team, which later changed its name to Dominoes.
A few months after the famous rugby match, Mr. Peden and the Blue Ribbons lost the national title in a showdown against the Windsor (Ont.) Fords, who earned the right to represent Canada at the Olympic Games in Berlin. The Fords were so impressed by Mr. Peden's play that he and other Victoria players, including the Chapmans, were added to the roster, a decision which saved the team from embarrassment.
One of the youngest players, the powerful forward sat out the first game of the inaugural Olympic basketball tournament. In the second game, a surprising team from Brazil threatened to quash Canada's medal hopes. "We were behind by eight points with seven minutes left in the game," Mr. Peden told the Vancouver Sun many years later. "I came off the bench and scored 10 points to give Canada the win."
He became a starter for the rest of the tournament. Against Poland in the semifinal game, he "ran wild," according to an Associated Press account scoring 18 points in leading Canada to a 42-15 victory and a showdown against the United States in the gold-medal game.
The taller Americans, led by 6-foot-9 centre College Joe Fortenberry, were heavily favoured. The match was played outdoors on a clay tennis court, where a steady drizzle turned the playing area into a quagmire. The U.S.jumped to a 15-4 half-time lead before winning 19-8, as Mr. Peden was limited to a single point. The silver medal remains the only one claimed by Canade in Olympic basketball.
After the Games, Mr. Peden turned professional, joining his brother in contesting a bicycle race at Wembley Pool in London. The Pedens were a formidable pair in 35 races, celebrating six victories and recording nine runner-up finishes. Doug Peden recorded a seventh victory with another partner. The week-long races to nowhere were a Depression fad.
Cyclists struggled to survive 15-hour days atop their machines. Mr. Peden learned to eat, read and even complete his correspondence while pedaling.
It was while enjoying a holiday in Hot Springs, Ark., that Mr. Peden became a baseball player. He bumped into the manager of a barnstorming House of David team. team. The team, whose bearded players promoted a Christian se by touring the countryside, had a vacancy for an outfielder. (Not just the team needed recruits. The sects belief in celibacy, even for married couples, limited growth.) The team travelled in a pair of Cadillac touring cars, fulfilling 211 engagements in the summer of 1941, sometimes playing three games in a single day. At one of those games, Mr. Peden was scouted by Rogers Hornsby and signed a minor-league contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.
After the season, he enlisted in the Canadian Army. He was serving overseas as a lieutenant when the war ended three years later. Mr. Peden was still in uniform when he won his fifth and final national basketball title, as the Dominoes dominated their opponents in recording a 46-5 season.
Mr. Peden's return to the baseball diamond was less successful. He injured his arm in spring training in 1946 and, although he hit a respectable .292 with the Albany (N.Y Senators, he was sent down to the York (Pa.) White Roses, where he lead the Inter-State League with a .35 average.
He also played pro basketball after the war, completing two seasons with the Vancouver Hornets. It was after suffering a foot injury with the Hornets that he hobbled into downtown Victoria drugstore and spotted his future wife, Trudy McVeeters.
Tired of the gypsy life of an itinerant athlete, Mr. Peden decided to try his hand at sports writing. His first assignment was a barnstorming show whose feature attraction was a wrestling bear. The bruin "working with the advantage a never being introduced to Scope, emerged triumphant, Mr. Peden wrote.
He spent a quarter-century as a reporter and sports editor in Victoria. He showed less artistry at the typewriter than in the arena, yet was praised for launching the careers of several noted journalists. Words never came easy to him, whether spoken or written. Actions always spoke louder.
Mr. Peden was often described as a runnerup to Lionel Conacher, a football and hockey star, in voting for Canada's athlete of the half-century in 1951. What was respected then had been forgotten a half-century later. In balloting for male athlete of the century in 1999, Mr. Conacher placed fourth and Mr. Peden finished tied for 42nd, named on a single ballot. Mr. Conacher's feats had been remembered after death, while Mr. Peden's had been forgotten even as he lived a quiet life in a modest Victoria bungalow overlooking Cadboro Bay.
Mr. Peden was enshrined in the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame, the Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame, and Canada's Hall of Fame, where he joins his brother. Torchy Peden died of cancer in 1980.
Doug Peden was born in Victoria on April 18, 1916. He died there on April 11, a week before his 89th birthday. He leaves his wife, the former Trudy McVeeters. They had no childen.