FOOTY: Life and times of the bush Bartel

By Paul Daffey

Terry Bartel was still 15 when he announced himself to North East Victoria as a serious sporting talent. A slip of a kid with deceptive strength through his shoulders, he opened the batting for the Beechworth senior team and plundered 227 to break the Ovens and King Cricket Association record.

In a match around that time for the Beechworth Colts, he hit a century in less than an hour. As he walked from the field, the Myrtleford captain muttered to a Beechworth official: “Thank God we got him before he was set.”

At the end of that season, Bartel won the batting, bowling and fielding awards for the competition’s senior and colts divisions. He continued that form throughout his teenage years. Vic Rowlands, Bartel’s captain at Beechworth for four seasons, said that during his 40 years of teaching and playing cricket in country Victoria he never saw a greater talent, and that includes those who went on to Shield and Test cricket. Rowlands, who’s now retired in Leongatha, is convinced that Bartel could have been a Test cricketer.

When Bartel was 15 he also made a big impression during his first season in Beechworth’s senior team in the Ovens and King Football League. He was a rover — cheeky of course — who kicked five goals in his first game. At the end of the season, he missed out on the best-and-fairest award by a whisker.

The next season, in 1966, Bartel played for Beechworth until joining the powerful Ovens and Murray club Wangaratta Rovers on permit before the finals. At 16, he played in the Rovers’ September campaign under legendary former South Melbourne ruckman Ken Boyd. At no time during those years did he look out of place when he stepped up to the next level of senior competition.

Stories such as these are now circulating through bars and clubrooms in country Victoria with greater urgency because Bartel has cancer. It began as a brain tumour, and has spread down through his spine and torso. He’s lasted a year longer than expected, but doctors said recently he had little chance of seeing his 60th birthday at the end of the month.

Friends — and there are many — are paying their respects and remembering a prodigy who never achieved to his vaulting talent in sport, and who suffers with a pain in his heart as well as his limbs because of an infamous family dispute. Bartel is the father of Geelong midfielder Jimmy, whom he always calls James. James and his two older sisters, Olivia and Emma, have not spoken to their father for five years. Bartel’s one remaining wish is to speak to his children before he dies.

To this day, sportspeople throughout the North East say Terry Bartel is the most talented sportsman to emerge from the region. At 174 centimetres he’s short but, in keeping with a home town with a Ned Kelly link, he was game. He was blessed with great speed, prompting a suggestion during his one season with the Albury footy club that he should aim for Stawell, but his eye and his reflexes were like lightning.

It’s these traits that enabled him to overcome a flawed batting technique. Bartel brought his blade through at 45 degrees rather than straight. Opposition players thought they were a chance to get through him, but few were able to do it. “He was no stylist,” said a lifelong friend. “But once he hit it, it stayed hit.”

Sam Kekovich grew up in Myrtleford, near Beechworth, and he and Bartel played in opposing junior footy teams. By 17, Bartel was roving to John Nicholls in practice matches with Carlton. At that age, he was considered a more talented prospect than Kekovich, a player who later lit up the footy world like a box of Catherine wheels.

John Welch was Bartel’s teammate at the Rovers and his captain at the United Cricket Club in Wangaratta, where Bartel opened the batting and bowling in a team that included half a dozen teammates who played district cricket in Melbourne. Welch said Bartel had an extraordinary eye. When the cricketers started a baseball team, he made an immediate specialty of hitting the ball out of the park. “He thought baseball was the easiest game in the world,” Welch said.

When Bartel and his then wife Dianne moved to Geelong in their mid-20s, he took up golf and became a single handicapper. Tony Rigg, a teammate at the St Mary’s Cricket Club in Geelong, said: “He was the type of guy to walk into a pub, pick up a dart and go boom — bullseye!”

Rigg will never forget Bartel’s first innings with St Mary’s. After the jaunty recruit had joined him at first wicket down, Rigg began explaining what the pitch and bowlers were doing, only to have Bartel cut in. “Don’t muck around,” Bartel told his captain. “Just belt shit out of it. They’ve got to try and catch it.’”

Bartel made 70-odd. Later he made 175 to break the club record. As a bowler, Bartel never stepped out his run-up. “He just guessed,” Rigg said. “Geez, he could whip ’em down.”

Hugh Boyd is a close friend of Bartel from their days of junior and senior cricket in the North East. Boyd has always worn very thick glasses; Bartel calls him Six Eyes. One day when United was hosting Whorouly at the Findlay Oval in Wangaratta, Bartel despatched a delivery towards Boyd on the mid-wicket fence. Bartel ambled a few steps, stopped mid-pitch and cupped a hand to his mouth. “Catch that one, Six Eyes,” he said.

Boyd ran 20 metres only to spill the catch. The next delivery, Bartel smashed the ball into the same region. Again he stopped mid-pitch. “Catch that one, Six Eyes,” he said.

Boyd again sprinted, only to spill the catch. This happened for four consecutive deliveries. The Whorouly bowler, Stuart Elkington, a leg-spinner who had played at district level in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, was dragging his hands across his face. Boyd’s other Whorouly teammates and the United players behind the boundary were rolling with laughter.

“That was the skill of the guy,” said Boyd, whose many eyes still light up at the memory. “He hit it just right. The distance and trajectory were such that I had to sprint and lunge and spill.”

Boyd remembers Bartel hitting 210 in a session around that time. “It was an absolute onslaught.”

Boyd’s main point during an interview in a Collins Street café was that Bartel would have become a household name, renowned in Melbourne and beyond, if only there were a strong mentor in his life. “Terry was the sort of guy who might be there or he might not,” Boyd said. “He just needed the discipline and direction of a father. Local people were very sympathetic to it. They were hugely aware that there was a huge talent going to waste.”

Bartel was born in Beechworth when his mother was 16. His mother later married and settled in Beechworth, while young Terry grew up with his grandmother around the corner. He grew close to his stepfather, Raymond “Bluey” Wallace, and three stepsiblings, Susan, Raelene and Russell, as the years progressed, but he was unsettled by growing up without a father. His uncle, Ron Bartel, a Beechworth footballer, was a stable influence, but to this day Terry longs to know the identity of his Dad. When he was 50 he asked his mother; her answer led him to try in vain to track down a former soldier in Melbourne. Just last month Bartel asked his mother about the rumours of a prominent post-war local footballer being his father. She said no.

Bartel was said to be wild in his youth; he partied like other teenagers and he was popular with the girls. But, as Vic Rowlands noted from Bartel’s Beechworth school days, he was always respectful. Rowlands had to counsel him regularly for his absences from school, but Bartel never let their relationship at school affect their friendship at the cricket club.

Nor was he a fighter or a drinker. In 2007 the Herald Sun ran a report on his family predicament that claimed Bartel was an aggressive drunk. The report sat oddly with those who spoke to The Age for this article. The half-dozen, interviewed individually, were unanimous that he was not much of a drinker. The only problem Bartel gave anyone was that he was difficult to pin down.

He was known as Ferret in Beechworth because he was small and lively. At Wangaratta Rovers, he was called Gipsy because no one could be sure when he would wander off. Many times he missed training because he preferred to try to complete a sale in the caryard in which he worked. During one finals series, he returned from checking out a car in Melbourne as his teammates were jogging on to the field.

Bartel said in an interview with The Age — his first interview since his heart was broken by the media coverage in 2007 — that his habit of wandering off began in childhood. His grandmother would go into his room and he would be down the street playing marbles under a streetlight with Heinz Schwarz, the father of current footy media identity David. In time his absences became more pronounced. “I had a habit of going out and not coming home for days,” he said.

The best-known example of a disappearance is taken from his brief stint under Ron Barassi at Carlton. Bartel abandoned his first stint at Carlton soon after his arrival. Carlton officials then made the trip to Beechworth with a wad of notes to entice him to return. During the pre-season, Bartel played cricket for Melbourne on Saturdays and footy practice matches with the Blues on Sundays. He started playing cricket with Melbourne on the same day that Max Walker made his debut. The pair progressed from the fourths to the seconds within weeks. But then Bartel was gone.

When he showed up larger than life in his whites at Myrtleford, hoping to play in a final with Beechworth, Vic Rowlands tore through him about the responsibility of letting others know his intentions. Rowlands said Bartel was genuinely surprised at the notion that he had disappointed anyone. Rowlands made the star teenager 12th man for Beechworth.  Bartel would have been humiliated, having played with Melbourne the previous week, but he accepted his punishment in silence as he had done throughout his relationship with Rowlands.

Bartel did go back to Carlton, but he struggled to settle. He had a desultory job at Kodak and unsatisfactory lodging with a tyrant of a woman in Coburg. He played a handful of games in the Blues’ reserves before turning up back at Wangaratta Rovers. “I was just lonely,” he said.

Bartel’s last attempt to leave the North East for Carlton ended when he pulled up on the Hume Highway outside the Fawkner cemetery. He rang and said he was not coming and returned home. Barassi wrote him a long letter to no avail. Bartel also spent short stints training at Richmond and Collingwood, and he spoke to Essendon, North Melbourne and South Melbourne, but without any support he was unable to settle in the city.

The highlights of his footy career were to be playing in Wangaratta Rovers’ 1971 and ’72 premiership teams, in which he roved to Mick Nolan (“great ruckman, great friend”). He’s also famous for kicking nine goals for the Ovens and Murray and an interleague match against NSW’s South West at Yerong Creek.

One Saturday Bartel and a Rovers teammate, Greg “Ab” O’Brien, went to Bartel’s caryard in Wangaratta to borrow a car to get to that day’s game in Yarrawonga. The boss told him to take the Fairlane, with a strict warning not to damage it. Unfortunately, a stone went through the windscreen. “Needless to say, he kicked 1.13 that day,” O’Brien said. “I still stir him about it.”

Soon after the Rovers’ 1972 grand final victory, Bartel quit footy. Ostensibly his reason was to concentrate on work and family, but the move also fitted his pattern of drifting. Towards the end of June 1974, just before clearances closed, he was ferreting in a paddock outside Wangaratta when a Beechworth footy club official tracked him down as he was poised above a burrow. Some local businessmen had raised the cash to entice Bartel back to his home club. He was rusty in the first few games. “You’ve just got more hundreds than you had kicks,” he was told. Bartel laughed. In the grand final, he booted six goals against North Wangaratta to be the difference between the teams. He never played again.

In Beechworth last weekend, Bartel spoke with humour and sadness while his ravaged body stretched out on the couch in his comfortable home. His wife Rona worked in the background, while Giff Thompson, a friend from cricket days who’s moved in next door, got up to get the morphine that would ease his pain. South Australia and Western Australia were playing a one-day match on the telly in the background.

Bartel said he had made mistakes. “I regret a lot of things.”

But he’s thankful for the role that footy and cricket played in his life.

“Sport was everything,” he said.

This article first appeared in The Age on Saturday 6 February 2010.

Comments

  1. Daff – this is brilliant stuff. I love these stories. This one has it all. I was talking to a bloke last night about this and we wondered why it is that such talent can go “to waste”. Then we checked ourselves. Did it go to waste or did (in this case Bartel) take his talent exactly where HE wanted it to go, not necessarily where we (the spectator)wanted it to go. It’s an interesting question. Some bloke just want to play with their mates and enjoy the game for what it is. Good luck to them.

    Congratulations on a really stirring and moving piece.

  2. Dips,

    Thanks very much for your feedback.

    I’ve long considered that question about wasting sporting talent. If a talented sportsperson wants to play footy or cricket just as sport, as the way it was originally intended, then there’s nothing wrong with that at all. It’s only sport.

    In a sense, I admire sportspeople who choose against fulfilling the dreams of others. Many times I’ve heard the line, “If only I had his talent, …” The point is, you don’t. This person who has the talent was handed it in a genetic lottery. If he or she chooses against using it, that’s just part of the run of life.

    I do think, however, that many talented sportspeople who choose against fulfilling their talent have something that holds them back. In my experience, these people regret it later in life, when they realise they haven’t lived life to the full.

    The shortest explanation for these and many other vagaries in life is that youth is wasted on the young.

  3. Steve Healy says:

    Daff, great article, I saw it in yesterday’s age as well. Bartel definitely sounded like a man who just played his footy and cricket for the love of it, which is all that matters sometimes.

  4. Hope Jimmy reads this Daff.

  5. And how could the other paper get it so wrong?

  6. JTH – I was wondering that myself; I hope Jimmy reads this.

    It’s fascinating that Terry Bartel had the wander lust, and I’ve heard and read stories about how Jimmy (in the off season) will literally pack up one day and take off to some far, remote place. Apparently a year or two back Jimmy was in Tahiti, got bored, and took off to New Guinea the next day to walk the Kokoda Track. Interesting character.

  7. Paul, I read your fascinating piece on Terry Bartel in Saturday’s Age and
    have just used it a reflection for the De La Salle staff. Each staff
    member has to present a prayer or reflection at the morning briefing. I
    was waxing eloquent to Tim Phillips last night at soupvan about the
    abovementioned piece and later on in the evening as I was sniffing round
    for stuff to use at the reflection, I decided to use your article. I will
    probably use it with a couple of English classes as well. I trust I’m not
    breaking any copyright laws here!. A number of people, unfortunately those
    that read that nasty rag the Hun, have requested a copy of the article
    from the school library. It has certainly sparked interest, Paul. I hope
    you continue to produce ripper stuff like this.
    Regards
    Gerard Barns

  8. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Brilliant work Daff,

    these are the sort of stories that sport’s hagiographers avoid. Honest portrayal, beautifully researched and a fantastic read to boot. Aspiring young players would benefit from reading this story.

  9. John Butler says:

    Paul

    I’d just like to echo the above sentiments.

    JTH, how often does the other paper get much right?

  10. johnharms says:

    Gerard

    A very fine piece to use, as the comments here demonstrate. Daff knows how to get to the heart of the matter.

    Do you mind dropping me an email at j.t.h@bigpond.net.au

    I wanted to let you know about the Manning Clark House ‘Be a journo for the day’ essay competiton, which I suspect some of your kids might like to enter.

    And any other teachers out there please let me nkow if you are interested via email as well.

    JTH

  11. Steve Healy says:

    I agree with all these complaints about the Herald Sun, the Age is the paper the Herald Sun is a boring, plain thing.

    Great to see that the older generation of Almanackers are pro-age, im having trouble convincing some of the younger generation which is the better paper

  12. Great stuff, Daff.

    Any idea what Jimmy has against his dad?

  13. Tony,

    Yes and no. I know a bit more than what I wrote but it doesn’t quite stack up. I can’t explain fully the reasons behind the dispute.

  14. David Hyland says:

    Daff,

    Saw the article on the weekend in the age and loved it. I was lucky enough when I was 14 years old to be playing in the thirds and fourths when Terry was at St. Marys. “Riggy” recruited me as an 8 year old. To say Terry Bartel was a freakish talent is an understatement. I remember him having a whippy slinging action and opening the bowling off quite a short run with the ability to generate incredible bounce off a good length. Also he was a very hard hitting batsman. As a 14 year old he was quite a handful on the malthoid in the nets. But a very quiet bloke whom kept to few of his close friends at the club. As a Geelong supporter I hope also that Jimmy read it and that they mend their differences as we are all a long time dead.

    Fantastic Stuff

    David Hyland

  15. Peter Flynn says:

    Daff,

    Brilliant. Great that you got the piece published.

    Do you reckon some similiarities in character exist between T Bartel and G Ablett Snr?

    Like others above, I hope Jimmy read it.

    I wouldn’t wipe my bum with the Cream Bun.

  16. Flynny,

    Very similar in that they couldn’t handle the city, but I think Terry was certainly more socially able, and I don’t think their upbringings were similar. Gary grew up in a large family, etc.

    But, yes, great talents who were hard to harness. Those 20 years between their arrivals might have made all the difference.

  17. Beautiful Daff, just beautiful. And sad.

  18. Steve Healy says:

    Sad to hear Terry died, it was brave of Jimmy to play on the weekend

  19. One of the best pieces to feature on this site…beautifully presented Daff and well worth revisiting. What a talent Terry must have been.

  20. smokie88 says:

    Daff
    I recall reading this piece on that Saturday morning in February; it stirred up a number of feelings, mostly sadness in that a wider audience never got to see appreciate his talent. Reading it all over again has stirred up those same emotions.
    Darren Dawson

  21. pauldaffey says:

    Thanks Steve, Crio and Smokie.

    Glad you enjoyed it.

  22. John Butler says:

    Paul

    Again, I echo the sentiments above.

    It makes you wonder what is in Jimmy’s mind at present.

  23. Paul – not quite sure how to say this – but for whatever your part in healing a family, and the main part in healing the public perception of a man- well done. Having spent time with Terry Bartel I’m sure today has its sadness for you, but you should also feel proud. A death with unreconciled differences is a terrible thing, and the good of the true story you told will always outweigh the opportunist lies of others in your trade.

  24. Dave Nadel says:

    I was moved by the story when I read in The Age and again when I reread it last night. I am pleased to see in this morning’s paper that there was some sort of reconciliation.

    I am not all that bothered that Terry never played at the highest levels of Football and cricket. Lots of people make those choices and not only in sport. I went to high school with three blokes who played VFL in the sixties and early seventies. The consensus at the time was that a fourth member of the school team might of have been the best of all. But in the days before full time professional football, he preferred to play VFA and have a more relaxed lifestyle and a teachers college degree. Equally I had friends at school and at Uni who wrote short stories and poetry which might well have been better than the work done by people who have gone on to win literary prizes but my friends wanted to do other things with their lives.

    What saddened me was the rift between Terry and his family. When I was young I had mates who broke all connections with siblings and parents. Now I have friends and acquaintances who don’t speak to their kids. That must leave a huge gap in their lives. I am glad Jimmy and his sisters spoke to their dad in the end.

  25. Chalkdog says:

    Daff
    I recall reading this article when it was published. I thought it was a great piece at the time. I think it shows how tough the subject must have been as I note on re-reading today that you said he wasnt expected to see the end of Feb.
    Keep finding the good stories

  26. Louise Carter says:

    Looks like the Herald Sun had it right after all. Sad.

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