Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ruggles' rep was a burden

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I had the good fortune to be included on the 1965 Western Canadian little league baseball championship team that was featured recently in the Free Press.

Besides receiving my 15 minutes in the spotlight and laying claim to being a "has been" instead of a "never was," life goes on.

The feature also revived some debatable notoriety for first baseman Richard (Dickie) Ruggles. Since I was pictured next to Dickie, I was asked, "Is Dickie Ruggles from that infamous North End Ruggles clan?"

The answer is yes, but there have always been a lot of misconceptions about the Ruggles family and I want to clear them up here, once and for all.

I grew up down the street from the Ruggles household on Pritchard Avenue. They were a large family -- lots of boys and a few girls in a tiny house.

I played on all the sports teams with Dickie at King Edward Elementary School, and we won that championship with CPAC, but I knew his older brother Gordie better.

Gordie had this little gang called "the pack," but it was more of a social club of boys who hung out, shot some pool and got into a little mischief like boosting copper from a scrap-metal company on Sundays and selling it back to the same place the following Monday.

I knew the Ruggles boys were good fighters, but there were plenty of tough kids in the North End in those days. I didn't realize the Ruggles boys had this big "reputation" until I started venturing outside the North End to go to parties and I got into this minor argument with another kid in Elmwood.

"I'll get the Ruggles after you!" he threatened.

That just sounded silly to me, but it seems there were a lot of people making the same threat throughout Winnipeg, so it must have "worked" at one time or another. I guess that says a lot about the reputation the Ruggles family had. It became kind of an urban legend that actually prevented some people from venturing into the North End on weekends.

My opinion based on personal experience is that this bad rap on the Ruggles gave them an undeserved rep.

Far from a gang of thugs, the Ruggles were a close-knit family who lived modestly because the salary their father made working on the railroad didn't go very far after the children reached their teens (in total number as well as age).

Family notoriety probably started with the oldest boy, Dennis. "Butchie" Ruggles was a tremendous athlete who starred for the Winnipeg Hawkeyes Football Cub. Butchie could take care of himself but he was never known as a street fighter. Dennis Ruggles became best known as a transit union leader.

The two boys who followed are probably most responsible for the notorious image the Ruggles family had. But even though Jimmie and Charlie Ruggles, especially Charlie, were excellent scrappers, I never saw either of them show up for a street fight with a bunch of their brothers in tow.

And, yes, Charlie has compiled quite a criminal record, but that doesn't mean the whole family should be tarred with the same brush.

It got so bad that Karen Ruggles, an excellent jazz singer I once directed in the TV variety show Indian Time, had to change her surname to King after police routinely checked IDs in a pub lineup over an unrelated incident one night.

Karen was pulled into a paddy wagon for questioning, while all of the other patrons were considered "clean" (I have heard some of my North End friends who became police officers brag about the thrill and status they got for arresting a Ruggles).

I was closest to Gordie Ruggles and I swear that Gordie would only fight to stand up for somebody else. Gordie loved to laugh more than anything else.

Dickie Ruggles won that baseball championship and then basically disappeared to get married, raise a family and put his adult years into a Hydro job. He now enjoys being a snowbird and a grandfather.

I got the impression from Dickie at our baseball reunion that he hated the fact he had to tend with this false odour of negativity that followed his family around.

The youngest brothers, Erskine and Wally, were constantly compromised having to live down to this reputation.

And, tragically, the Ruggles who most wanted to laugh and make other people laugh instead of cry died in a holding cell at the Public Safety Building.

People speculate that Gordie Ruggles just couldn't handle the unfair label that was always being placed on him, one that at times he had to live up to even though it was the last thing he wanted to do.

The very last thing that Gordie Ruggles wanted to do was to be some kind of enforcer.

 

Don Marks is a freelance writer in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 9, 2011 A15

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