The Discovery of Bob Pratt

While I never played football at the Highest Level, I think I can legitimately lay claim to being one of the game’s greatest archaeologists.  For it was me in 1995 along with my good friend Mike Lefebvre who rediscovered the man, the legend, that was Bob Pratt.

During that year, Mike and I were researching our book on South Melbourne’s fabled Foreign Legion which had captured the imagination of the Australian public during the desperate Depression years of 1930s.  One of the more intriguing questions during our research was “whatever happened to Bob Pratt?”  Nobody really knew.  Some said he was dead.  Some said he had drifted off into retirement.  Some said that he had lost his marbles and some just openly said they had no idea.  For us it was incredible that the man who held the record for kicking the greatest amount of goals (150) in a VFL/AFL season (in 1934) could have been able to simply drift off into the ether.

However we were in the mid 1990s, a time when the internet was still in its infancy and those monstrous intruders like email, Facebook and Twitter were not even on the radar, so to speak.  Mike and I could not do a Google search or log on to ebay for memorabilia. Wikipedia was but a dream.  And as conservative types, we went straight for the tried and tested route and just picked up the phone book.

To our amazement in the middle of the columns dealing with Pratt, there it was. Pratt, Bob. Full stop. In bold. Station Street, Box Hill.  Not Robert. Not R. Not some paranoid silent number. The only thing missing was “greatest goal kicker ever” after his name.

We took the plunge, called the number and a Bob answered.  He sounded like a slightly distracted farmer with a high-pitched broad Australian accent, that sort of voice we knew from documentaries of Sir Donald Bradman. Bob was chatty, pleasant and more than obliging.  In fact he invited us over to have an interview with him that Thursday night on one proviso – that we were out by half past nine so that he and his wife could sit down to watch this new TV show called The Footy Show.

The Pratts lived in a modest house in an extremely modest retirement village.  But that exterior was quickly overwhelmed by the warmth and presence of Pratt and his wife, Olive.  A name that was just right for this world. That first interview turned into three separate meetings, several hours in which we were able to explore every part of Pratt’s life and his career at South Melbourne.  While our discussions went on, Pratt happily shared his precious scrapbooks and even invited us (virtual strangers) to take them home with us.  We respectfully declined and by the second visit, Olive produced a packet of Iced Vo-Vo biscuits to have with our tea.

There were however some slight disappointments in our discussions.  In our research, Mike and I had discovered that during the 1930s, the Victorian Football Association had become a credible alternative football league that could have threatened the VFL.  Indeed one of the more attractive features of the VFA was that it introduced rule changes so as to speed up the game, in particular, allowing the throw to be used instead of the hand pass.

Many big names had also defected from the VFL to the Association, particularly as there was bigger money on offer.  This included the likes of Collingwood champions Todd, Fothergill and Pratt’s old teammate, Laurie Nash. The VFA was not constrained by the Coulter Law which at the time prevented a VFL player from earning more than two pounds per week, or at least that was the official player payment limit.

Mike and I were fascinated by these developments and grilled Pratt closely about his experiences when he eventually moved from South Melbourne to the VFA in 1938.  It was during that year that Pratt kicked a record 188 goals with Coburg, an Australian senior football record of the time.  As we warmed up to the discussion believing that we were covering one of the most innovative and dramatic issues in the development of the history of the game, the use of the throw, we finally put it to Pratt, “So what was it like playing in the VFA with the throw?”, “How revolutionary was that?”.  Pratt blinked, stared at us and said “What throw? Don’t remember any throwing”. We were devastated.

Despite this setback, Mike and I had a brilliant time.  Even aged well into his 80s, Pratt still had a virtual barrel of a chest and a certain strength in the way he moved.  When he showed us positioning for marking contests, that strength and vigour came through despite the ageing.  And of course there was the healthy ego.  Pratt struck us as incredibly humble but there was also a certain nerveless self-belief still smouldering close to the surface.  He was the one to point out his goals record at Coburg.  He was also quick to remind us that his 150 goals in 1934 were scored in only 21 games, in contrast to Peter Hudson’s 24 games.

Pratt was also diplomatic about one of football most controversial characters, Nash.  At their peak between 1933 and 1935, Pratt and Laurie Nash were the most gifted and star-studded pair of forward targets the game had probably known.  Pratt was super-efficient goal kicker with spectacular marking but far more of the headlines went to Nash for his incredible talent, versatility, strength and high marking for a smaller player and of course his outrageous ego.  Our research indicated that there was had been some degree of tension between the two, but Pratt insisted that he and Nash always got on

Pratt told us of the despair of South Melbourne’s surprise loss to Richmond in the 1934 grand final.  The Bloods in that game had been the red hot favourites but played poorly.  Pratt actually kicked only two goals bringing his total for the season to 150 but it was a devastating result.  Pratt told us that there were vicious arguments and a violent punch-up in the South Melbourne dressing rooms after the game amid allegations of bribery.  It was certainly an unhappy place.

For some reason and it may be attributed to the devastation of the 1934 grand final loss, South Melbourne seemed to lose its direction in the following two years.  The Bloods lost two more Grand Finals to Collingwood in 1935 and 1936. There were however, other reasonable and logical explanations for the failure to deliver more success, primarily with injuries including Pratt’s absence from the 1935 game,and a growing disaffection within the playing unit. Pratt himself was injured and ended up moving from the goal square to defence. He was also courted by Carlton who offered to pay him to stay out of the game.

Another reason for the decline was that the club’s fabulously wealthy president Archie Crofts had become distracted from his hands-on presidential role. Early in the 1930s, Crofts had arranged to recruit players from interstate and brought them to Melbourne with the offer of employment.  At a time when the out of work numbered up to 40 per cent of the workforce in some places, Crofts’ offer of a chance to play VFL football in Melbourne along with a secure job had been an incredible lure.

Crofts and South Melbourne had profited by bringing together one of the most diverse and talented group of footballers ever seen in the game. Crofts though had moved on from football into successful racehorse ownership and a seat in the Victorian parliament. Pratt had worked for the millionaire Crofts in his grocery business and said Crofts was good. “A bit tight but orright”.

Pratt explained to us that after own football career finished after the War, he and his wife had taken a low profile.  They had moved around Victoria and also spent a stint living in Queensland before returning to Melbourne to be closer to family.  Pratt had once been offered an opportunity to go onto television in the late 1950s and had even spoken with Lou Richards about this prospect.  Pratt dismissed television as a bit of a flash in the pan and decided not to go ahead.  Without a media career or the profile of so many other former footballers who ran pubs, Pratt had indeed appeared to have disappeared without trace.

We were very grateful for the opportunity to interview the great man and his lovely wife.  The most gentle and kind and decent types, the sort of people that you would love to have as your own grandparents.  We loved our supper, the cups of tea and the Iced Vo?Vos.  But soon it was time for Eddie and The Footy Show and we were politely aware that we needed to pack it up.

As we did, we asked Olive to tell us what Bob was really like in his prime she said, “Well …. I can only say this. He led like Dunstall, he marked like Ablett, he kicked like Lockett and best of all … he looked like Modra”.  It was unprompted and delivered with pure admiration for her long-term partner.  Bob also looked pretty pleased with that comment himself.

As a post-script, the rediscovery of Pratt and his contribution to our book brought him back into prominence.  By the following year, 1996 the AFL had launched its massive year of celebration of its centenary.  Ironically it was to be a year in which the old Bloods of South Melbourne managed to fight their way into a grand final and on that day Pratt was there as one of the most prominent and famous Australian football players of all time.

Pratt was also inducted that year into the AFL’s newly created Hall of Fame as one of its all time legends.  Pratt was not quite everywhere, but he was certainly around a lot more than he had ever been during those intervening 50 to 60 years. We still claim that we rediscovered him and we’re glad that we did.

Mark Branagan

Comments

  1. Andrew Fithall says:

    Nice work Brano.Fine sleuth work and an excellent article. I am intrigued that in your first sentence you say you haven’t played football to the Highest level. Does that imply that you actually played to the highest level? And that makes me wonder “what does that mean?”.

  2. Mark Branagan says:

    Nugget – having played “At The Highest Level” is a phrase that can be used interchangeably as the ultimate accolade or putdown. It was recently applied quite effectively as a defensive mechanism by Rocket Eade against SEN’s Andy Maher when questioned about another derogatory Akermanis article. Eade noted Maher’s failure to make it At The Highest Level and abruptly ended the interview. An At The Highest Level distinction can be shield or sword. It should only be unleashed in exceptional or highly emotional circumstances. It needs no further comment and is a sure-fire winner against bloated media hacks. It is however facing a potential challenge from Australian cricketers and their coaching panels, who are all In A Good Place. Cricket fans of the future may face the demeaning prospect of being humiliated by “but you’ve never been In A Good Place”.

  3. Alovesupreme says:

    Mark,
    What a fabulous story! It seems that you have captured the essence of the man, modest but confident in his ability, and his standing in the game. I’ll bet he was rapt to have the opportunity which Mike and you provided. So much of the pre-television era footy is dependent on personal reminiscence.
    I expect that it was your book that revealed that Archie Crofts knew the value of a quid. I remember an anecdote which indicated that the players who worked in his stores were never permitted Saturday mornings off, irrespective of how crucial the match. Shades of that wonderful tale of John Landy’s mile record when he fell just short of breaking 4 minutes at OP, after working Saturday morning at his uni holiday job at the Titles Office.
    I recall Bob junior playing a few games at South, but he carried a huge burden of expectation in the poor South teams of the fifties (not unlike Austin Robertson junior a decade later).
    I played (defo “not at the highest level) with two nephews, who were also quite useful suburban footballers.

  4. Adam Muyt says:

    Beaut tale, beaut sleuth work, thanks Mark!

  5. Mark – ripper read. I wander if Pratt had played for Carlton or Collingwood or Essendon if his “profile” in the game’s history might be greater. The poor old Bloods could never win a trick.

    Did he have any kids who played footy?

  6. bernard whimpress says:

    That’s a lovely story Mark, well told and with a superb closing comment by Olive who was obviously his biggest fan as well as his wife. Incidentally I note that Nash kicked six goals in South’s losing grand final in 1934 so he could not be blamed for the loss.

    My only demur is your claim of being the ‘game’s greatest archeologist’. Surely an archeologist has to dig to discover relics or antiquities. You made one successful phone call and was Bob really an antiquity? In the early 1980s I interviewed a man who began watching senior association football in Adelaide in 1895, another who played in Port Adelaide’s pre First World War premiership sides, and then practically every Magarey Medallist for sixty years from 1919. Funnily I’ve never thought of using the term ‘archeologist’ until you mentioned it.

  7. John Butler says:

    Pratt and Nash.

    How big would they be today?

    Great story Mark.

  8. Joe Dalo says:

    Many thanks Mr Branigan.

    Interesting to hear of the fracas in the changerooms after Pecy Bentley’s mighty tigers had plucked their feathers in ’34. The RFC, for what it’s worth, claims ‘overwhelming superiority in all departments enabled Richmond to win the Victorian Football League premiership over an over-confident and rattled South Melbourne’. May such themes continue through the weekend.

    Iced vo vos? Had you pegged as a tic toc kinda guy, especially the pink ones showing at 3pm.

    Joey Dalo

  9. Paul Daffey says:

    Love the piece, Brano. I especially love Bob, who must have been a sensation in his day. (Just ask his wife.)

    As a journalist, I’m sometimes asked: “But how did you get my number?”

    The answer often is: “It was in the phone book.”

  10. Great Story. What other relics could you dig up? Have at it!

    I listened with glee the morning after the Eade/Maher exchanged as Tim Watson confronted Rocket on behalf of Mahar. Think Dad in teachers office sticking up his boy who he feels is getting unfairly targeted. It was joyous radio. Eade ended up apologising to Maher.

  11. Noel Newton says:

    I lived opposite Bob & Olive at East Cmberwell/Canterbury & played footy
    nightly with young Bob Pratt, Brian Coleman & my mates & young Bob
    was great bloke. Bob senior was our idol & he once took me to box Hill
    youth club where I learnt a little boxing. Came in handy fighting a prelim
    approx. 1952 at Leichardt to the Curruthers, Taffy Hancock fight. Loved
    photoes of Bob’s high marking and well remember a beautiful marking
    photoe at entrance to the Age Newspaper. As a Hawthorn fan for 64 years
    when Alec Albiston was Capt. & Butch Prior full forward I used to wonder
    how good we would have been with the “Great Bob Pratt”

  12. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Great read, Mark and interesting how the game has developed where used to have players leave the , VFL for the , VFA for money . Superstars such as , Robran , Michael , Aish etc opted to stay home for various reasons than play ,VFL where today there are some players who should be picked up arent but generally every ,1 has a crack at making it . Pratt and , Nash would they have been as big as , Brereton and , Dunstall of the recent era ? Loved the line by , Olive comparing him to modern greats pure gold !
    Thanks Mark

Leave a Comment

*