The Philadelphia Phillies never wanted to play at Shibe Park.
Frankly, they didn’t have much of a choice. Their stadium, the Baker Bowl, was a dump. It hadn’t always been — when it was rebuilt after a fire in 1895, it had been a state-of-the-art-facility featuring fireproof building materials and a then-innovative cantilevered upper deck. Alas, the legendarily cheap Phillies owners skimped on maintenance and upkeep and the stadium suffered. The upper deck partially collapsed on “Black Saturday” in 1903, killing 12 fans and injuring two hundred. Another bleacher collapse in 1927 injured fifty more.
By 1938 the decrepit stadium was totally inadequate for the team’s needs. They had to move, but they had precious few options. Local college fields weren’t large enough to handle major league crowds. They certainly had no plans on sharing a stadium with the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro leagues. Building a new stadium was right out of the question because the team sucked, and as Richie Ashburn once said, “You don’t build an air-conditioned stable for a worn-out horse.”
In the end, they were forced to rent Shibe Park from their inter-league rivals, the Philadelphia Athletics of the American League.
Scheduling games at Shibe Park was a nightmare. Not only was it home to the Athletics and the Phillies all summer, but the Stars would play games there on Monday nights and the Eagles took over the turf once or twice each September. Somehow, the various teams and leagues always made it work.
Still, it was always an uncomfortable place for Phillies fans. The old-timers had never forgiven the Athletics and the American League for hollowing out the Phillies roster with their talent raids back in the early 1900s. Newer fans just felt unwelcome in a stadium that flew a lot of pennants for the Athletics — and none for the Phillies. That unwelcome feeling only intensified in 1941, when the Athletics renamed the park “Connie Mack Stadium” in honor of their longtime manager.
The Philadelphia Phillies certainly never wanted to own Connie Mack Stadium.
In 1954 the Athletics were sold, and the new owners moved the team to Kansas City. The new owners had no interest in owning and operating a stadium in the city they were leaving behind. They offered to sell Connie Mack Stadium to the Phillies, who were now the stadium’s only tenant.
The Phillies declined. They were perfectly happy just renting, since they didn’t have to pay for the stadium’s rather expensive upkeep. The Athletics threatened to bill them for that upkeep and raise the rent, and the Phillies still didn’t budge. So the Athletics threatened to just shut the stadium down and the Phillies had to cave. There just wasn’t another stadium in the entire Delaware Valley that could be converted into a major league park.
So the Phillies bit the bullet and bought the park. Or rather, owner Bob Carpenter did. He ran the stadium as its own legally distinct entity as kind of a tax thing. His initial reluctance to purchase was soon vindicated — running Connie Mack Stadium was an absolute nightmare. Upkeep and maintenance cost a small fortune. The surrounding area had almost no parking and poor access via public transportation. And the neighborhood was also going to hell in a handbasket, with a skyrocketing crime rate.
On top of it all, the stadium’s only revenue was a measly rent check from the Phillies. Carpenter tried to see if he could add a second tenant by luring an American Football League franchise to Philadelphia, but when that fell through he threw in the towel and sold the stadium to a consortium of New York real estate developers.
A few years later those developers also threw in the towel and sold the stadium to Jerry Wolman, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles. Wolman was very interested in modernizing the relationship between the stadium and the city. Which is to say, he wanted to make the City of Philadelphia take on all the expenses of maintenance and upkeep while he kept all of the revenue. Needless to say, the City of Philadelphia wasn’t all that interested in that plan and Wolman eventually had to sell.
The Phillies saw all of this chaos and began looking for a way out. They scouted the area for possible locations for a new stadium, but every site they looked at had problems.
A stadium in Fairmount Park was constantly held up as a glittering pipe dream, but there was no real way to make it work financially or logistically. Locations in the northeast of the city, in the neighborhood of Torresdale or the suburb of Cheltenham, came with a host of logistical and transportation problems. Moving across the river to Camden, New Jersey would have caused fans to riot. Someone suggested enclosing the railroad tracks at 30th and Arch street and building a new stadium over top of them, but there was no way federal transportation authorities would allow construction that would screw with a large chunk of the nation’s railway infrastructure.
And of course there was the problem that the Phillies still stank. They were bad. Historically bad. Most losses of any professional sports team ever bad. So bad that one player threatened to resign rather than be traded to Philadelphia, which he called “the graveyard of baseball.”
No wins meant no revenue, which meant no new stadium.
In the end the Phillies just had to keep renewing their lease with whoever the stadium’s current owner was. In 1966 they signed a new ten year lease, even though it was obvious to everyone that the stadium only had about five years of life left.
But there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
Wolman’s failed gambit finally managed to get the wheels of government turning. The City of Philadelphia began to think the solution to all of their woes was a municipally-financed multi-purpose stadium, something like the exciting and futuristic “Astrodome” that had just opened in Houston. The new stadium would have plenty of seating, every modern amenity, connections to public transit for urban fans, and access to the highway and plenty of parking for suburban fans.
It took a while to convince voters and secure land rights, but they pulled it off. In October 1967 construction of Veterans Stadium at the South Philadelphia Sports Complex began.
The original plan was for the Phillies to move to the Vet on Opening Day 1970. The final home game of the 1969 season on September 28th was billed as a farewell to Connie Mack Stadium. It was a quiet and understated affair, with only 6,875 fans in attendance, most of them old-timers. And Athletics fans.
In the off-season, though, it became clear that the Vet was not going to be ready by Opening Day, so the team scheduled a month of home games at Connie Mack with the hopes of moving to their new home in May.
As April progressed it soon became clear that the Vet wouldn’t be ready by May, either, so the Phillies scheduled more games at Connie Mack with the hopes of moving into their new home after the All-Star Game.
It soon became clear that wasn’t going to happen, either. City officials assured them that, one way or another, Veterans Stadium would be ready for Opening Day 1971. But for now, the Phillies were stuck at Connie Mack Stadium for another year.
Enter Bill Giles.
Giles was a junior executive with the team, and had thrown himself into their marketing and promotion efforts with relish. He had big, splashy ideas to get fans talking about the Phillies.
Giles wanted the 1970 home opener at Connie Mack to be a big event, with fireworks and marching bands and a skydiver in a Phillies uniform landing on the pitchers’ mound to deliver the game balls to the umpires. Other Phillies executives nixed the idea, preferring to pull out all of the stops for their first game in Veterans Stadium.
The other executives finally caved when it became clear that the team wouldn’t be playing at the Vet until 1971. They would let Giles have his big event at the final home game of the season: October 1st, 1970.
Giles had his work cut out for him. The team had been terrible all year and were struggling to stay out of last place in the National League East. That final home series would be against fellow cellar dwellers the Montreal Expos. It was going to be hard to drum up attendance for a game that was guaranteed to be a stinker.
Giles did his level best, promising the “Farewell to Connie Mack Stadium” would be a night to remember. There would be marching bands and fireworks, all-stars and old-timers. There would be promotional giveaways for all fans before the game, and after the game stadium memorabilia and a new Ford Mustang would be raffled off. Then City Council President Paul D’Ortona would land in the ARCO Go Patrol helicopter to fly home plate over to the Vet to signal the start of a new era.
On Tuesday, September 29th, the Phils dropped the first game of the series, 10-3. Only 1,055 fans turned up to watch the loss, one of the smallest crowds Connie Mack Stadium had ever seen. In the fans’ defense, it was a weeknight, and a very cold one at that.
The night of Wednesday, September 30th wasn’t half as chilly, so 1,186 fans turned up to watch the Phils drop the second game of the series, 5-4. That loss officially put the team in last place, and their only way out was to win in the season closer.
And then, on Thursday, October 1st, it was finally time for what the Phillies had been calling “Operation Split.”
No one had high hopes for the game, so it was a huge shock when some 31,822 fans turned up. That was almost triple the attendance of the average Phillies game, and several thousand more fans than the next closest game. It turns out advertising actually works.
Things did get off to a bit of a rough start. Before the game Joseph Sohosky of Exton, PA was stabbed in the back by another fan while he was purchasing a ticket at the box office. Sohosky was rushed to Temple University Hospital, stitched up, and was in his seat for the first pitch.
It did set the tone for things to come, though.
All fans entering the ballpark were given souvenir seat slats stamped with the date and the phrase, “I was there.” They were cute souvenirs, but they weren’t popular with everyone. Nurse Joan Rosney had practically begged the team to stop the giveaway. She’d been working at the stadium long enough to see the trouble Philadelphia fans could get under normal circumstances, and thought handing rowdy fans what was essentially an 18″ long wooden club was just asking for trouble.
Once fans were inside the gates, they were in for a treat. Stadium concessionaires were dressed like it was Opening Day 1909, and the concessions were priced to match. Well, the peanuts and crackerjack, at least. Hot dogs and beers were still regular price. Stadium prices didn’t stop fans from consuming some 20,000 bottles of beer during the game, not to mention the countless bottles consumed by fans pre-gaming at home or across the street at Charlie Quinn’s Deep Right Field Cafe.
As the drunken fans settled into their seats they could enjoy on-field entertainment that included stuntmen doing tricks on old-timey bicycles, accompanied by music from the Cardinal Dougherty High School Band (go Cardinals).
Just before gametime, a 1933 Rolls Royce drove onto the field with three VIPs on board.
First, there was team owner Bob Carpenter, who was lustily booed by the fans, and for good reason.
Then, there was Connie Mack Jr., son of the stadium’s namesake. Mack read a brief “eulogy” for the stadium while a trumpeter played taps. He, too, was also booed, but found it surprisingly nostalgic.
For a while I thought I was dreaming I was in Philadelphia, then I heard the boos and knew I was back.
Then, finally, Claude Passeau, who notched the Phils first win in Shibe Park back in 1938, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. That, at least, got some cheers.
And then, it was time to play ball.
The Phillies jumped out to an early lead in the bottom of the third, when catcher Tim McCarver smacked a rocket to right field for a triple and scored Tony Taylor from first. They struggled to hold on to that lead all night, against both the Expos and the fans.
The fans were rowdy from the start. The Phillies had beefed up their security by bringing in some 200 off-duty cops, but the cops were under orders to take it easy. After all, they weren’t facing off against hardcore criminals, just over-excited fans.
The cops apparently interpreted “take it easy” to mean “stand around slack-jawed, doing nothing.” Throughout the game drunk idiots repeatedly managed to elude security and run onto the field, forcing stoppages in play. In the eighth inning alone some five fans ran onto the field. One grabbed some balls off the mound, and another stole several rosin bags.
Phillies pitcher Chris Short would later recall:
It was unreal. They were throwing seat slats at the guys in the bullpen and in the outfield the whole game. They were still pelting us even when some cops moved out by the fence. I got hit in the foot by beer cans twice, both thrown by the same guy. Jackie Donnelly, the guy who shags the fly balls, got hit in the head with one of those big bolts that hold the seats down.
Wait, an industrial-sized bolt? Where did that come from?
Well, from the beginning of the game fans had been attacking stadium seats, which they viewed as the ultimate souvenir. Some brought hammers and saws from home to make the job easy. Others just used their souvenir seat slats as pry bars. Still more just rocked back on rows of seats in unison until they broke free of their moorings. During lulls in play, the stadium rang out with the sounds of hammering.
In the top of the ninth, Expos catcher John Bateman hit what should have been a routine fly ball to the left field wall. When left fielder Ron Stone went to make the catch, a 12-year-old-kid grabbed his arm and started yelling, “Great game, great game!” The unexpected fan interference turned an easy out into a base hit, and a double from Expos shortstop Bobby Wine tied up the game.
At this point the umpires had seen enough. Between innings, they made stadium announcer Art Wolfe go on the PA and declare that if there was any more fan interference, the Phillies would forfeit the game.
That drew a chorus of drunken boos, and forced a hasty conference on the mound. Both managers were worried about the same thing, but Expos skipper Gene Mauch said it best: “Don’t you even think of forfeiting. You’ll get somebody hurt bad.” The umps reassured both men that they were just trying to scare the crowd straight, and play resumed.
It worked. The fans were comparatively well behaved for the next one-and-a-half innings. In the bottom of the tenth, Phillies right fielder Oscar Gamble slapped a single to center, scoring Tim McCarver from second. Not only did that win the game, it knocked the Expos down into last place in the NL East, and bumped the Phillies back up to fifth.
The Phillies were elated, and as McCarver rounded the bases they rushed onto the field to celebrate.
So did the fans.
The Greatest Day for Vandals Since the Huns Played Rome
The cops panicked. They had trouble keeping isolated drunks off the field all night, and they certainly weren’t prepared to stop thousands of fans from rushing the field. So they formed a cordon around home plate, where a frantic Bill Giles was screaming at fans to keep off the field so the post-game festivities could get underway.
As he rounded first, Oscar Gamble saw the wall of fans bearing down on the field and decided that discretion was the better part of valor. He sprinted back to the clubhouse. Along the way he grabbed manager Frank Lucchesi and yelled,
Run, man, run like hell. We’ll be happy later.
Tim McCarver was close behind.
I’ve never been afraid to admit that I’m a coward in a mob.
Pitcher Bill Wilson showed a bit more spine. A fan made a grab for his cap, scratching his face in the process. Wilson responded by tackling his assailant and threw in a few punches for good measure.
Coach Billy DeMars wasn’t so lucky.
Some son-of-a-gun hit me in the back, like a karate chop. They were stealing helmets, bats, everything in sight…
Boy howdy, were they!
Once on the field the souvenir-hungry fans started tearing up everything that wasn’t nailed down.
They ransacked the dugouts and bullpens. They tore up the infield tarp into handkerchief-sized shreds, and some rowdy teens rolled the tarpaulin cylinder into the outfield. Then they started pulling boards out of the outfield wall. People stole sod from the outfield, and dirt from the infield. The pitching rubber and bases were ripped out and carried off to parts unknown. Home plate, at least, was safe behind a wall of cops.
The grandstands were smashed to pieces. Rioting fans tore up entire rows of seats, only to drop them when they realized they had no way of getting them home.
Behind the stands, concessionaires were relieved of their unsold hot dogs, sodas and beers. Doors were knocked off their hinges. Fire extinguishers were ripped off the walls and light bulbs stolen from their fixtures. The bathrooms were destroyed. After the game, someone was even spotted in Charlie Quinn’s carrying a urinal. A goddamn urinal!
Once the field was destroyed, the fans turned on each other with the weapons they’d been handed on their way into the park. There were countless injuries, but twenty-five of the worst made their way to the infirmary for treatment. Nurse Joan Rosney was horrified.
Unreal. Horrible. I thought this might happen. Especially with those planks. They’re worse than beer cans. Heads were slashed open… It was truly horrible.
The nine most severe cases were rushed off to nearby Temple University Hospital for treatment. They were joined by a sixty-five year-old who was swept onto the field by the mob and who suffered a stroke from all the excitement.
The ARCO Go Patrol copter circled the stadium, but couldn’t land. Needless to say, the rest of the post-game festivities were called off. Eventually, the crowd started to peter out and the cops sprang into action, clearing the stadium.
In the cold light of day, the city of Philadelphia took stock of the situation. The stadium had been totaled. The field and stands were littered with cups, beer bottles, and all sorts of miscellaneous debris. And it turned out the Phils were on the hook for all the damage, because their insurance coverage had been dropped for the last few games just to save a few bucks.
Two days later the Phillies announced the results of their post-game giveaways by telephone. The Ford Mustang was won by John O. Hoover of Glenside. Other souvenirs, like the pitching rubber, never made it to the raffle because the fans had already made off with them.
Coverage in the Philadelphia Daily News was typical, claiming fans “raped” the stadium and calling it a “homicide.” A letter writer was a bit more introspective, claiming the destruction was the fans’ revenge for years of mediocrity. John Dell of the Philadelphia Inquirer had the pithy-but-historically-inaccurate line of the day, declaring “It was the greatest day for vandals since the Huns played Rome.”
Everyone agreed it was a shameful day for Philadelphia sports and reflected poorly on the city as a whole. And that it would never happen again.
Last Day at Franklin Field
So of course, the fans did the same thing at Franklin Field a month later.
On November 23rd the Eagles played the New York Giants on Monday Night Football. It was a close game that ended after midnight, and when the Eagles finally won the fans rioted. They pulled up the goalposts out of their foundation, tore up the synthetic turf, and carried off every souvenir they could get their hands on.
Astoundingly, it wasn’t even the Eagles’ final game at Franklin Field. They had one more home game to play, against the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 20th. That time, the cops turned out in force and were under orders not to take it easy. Unsurprisingly, the crowd behaved and the last Eagles game at Franklin Field went off without a hitch.
After the looting the stadium was cleaned but not repaired. It sat there, a reminder of Philadelphia’s shame.
On August 20, 1971 some evangelists rented the field for an old-fashioned tent revival. Two young boys snuck in to watch the holy rollers set up, and while they were there they lit a small fire just for kicks. That fire grew into a five-alarm blaze that destroyed the roof, leaving behind a burned hulk and an eyesore.
At least Connie Mack wasn’t there to see it. In an ironic twist, on that very day the statue of the Athletics manager that had stood outside of the stadium was across town being re-dedicated in front of Veterans Stadium.
The rusting and burned out hulk of the stadium stood for several years, just generally being an eyesore. On June 22nd, 1976 Connie Mack Stadium was finally torn down by wrecking balls. Today its former location is a church.
Philadelphia fans still remain the worst.
- Epstein, Dan. Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010.
- Kuklick, Bruce. To Every Thing a Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia, 1909-1976. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
- “1970 Philadelphia Phillies: Schedule and Results.” Baseball Reference. https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/PHI/1970-schedule-scores.shtml Accessed 7/28/2021.
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- Dolson, Frank. “Warm memories on a cold night.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 1 Oct 1970.
- Conlin, Bill. “Connie Mack Stadium expires with a smash.” Philadelphia Daily News, 2 Oct 1970.
- Fox, Tom. “The Deep Rightfield Cafe survives the final cut.” Philadelphia Daily News, 2 Oct 1970.
- Dell, John. “Wrecking crew of 31,822 breaks up the old ball park.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 Oct 1970.
- Dolson, Frank. “Nostalgic evening ends in nightmare.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 Oct 1970.
- Lewis, Allen. “Phils win, 2-1, escape cellar in finale.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 Oct 1970.
- Corr, John P. “Fans not sentimental, but stadium ‘went all to pieces.'” Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 Oct 1970.
- “Phillies list prize winners.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 Oct 1970.
- Dolson, Frank. “What price grid madness after happy night?” Philadelphia Inquirer, 25 Nov 1970.