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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Will They Remember?

It's been said of young players today that they have no sense of the history of their games. There have been some famous stories about rather well-known players in many games not knowing the rich histories of their sports. Jackie Robinson? Who was he? Oscar Robertson? Ditto. Walter Johnson? Same thing. Charitably, let's say the players are extremely focused on the here and now and that the history of the game doesn't mean anything to them. Bluntly, let's say that they're so focused on themselves that they believe themselves to be larger than the games they play. That anyone went before them is of little consequence.

Shaquille O'Neal said that he decided to end his feud with Kobe Bryant because of a recent conversation he had with Bill Russell when the Heat were in Seattle. He asked the Celtics' great if he hated anyone he played against, and Russell replied that he had not. He wanted to win, yes, but it wasn't personal against anyone. Russell encouraged Shaq to bury the hatchet, and he and Bryant shook hands before the most recent Lakers-Heat matchup. Good to see that Shaq has a sense of history and, in this particular instance, put the good of the game before his own personal pique.

Believe it or not, Mike Tyson, pariah that he has become, has a great sense of boxing history. Legendary boxing trainer Cus D'Amato and his wife took a young Tyson under their wings when Iron Mike was a young teen, and D'Amato drilled Tyson in the history of the heavyweight division. In many an interview, Tyson waxed eloquent about the legends of the fight game. His discourses at times were impressive, and it was good to see that he had a sense of history. Unfortunately, Tyson had too many personal demons to become one of the all-time greats. Yet, he was unique in his knowledge about the history of his sport.

I was driving in the University City section of Philadelphia the other day, near the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel campuses, and saw a big hole in the ground around 33rd Street, across from Children's Hospital (called CHOP by the cognoscenti) and near the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (called HUP by the same), and not far from Penn's Franklin Field (where the Eagles' Chuck Bednarik sat on the Packers' Jim Taylor in the final seconds of the 1960 NFL Championship Game to seal the title for the Eagles) and Penn's fabled Palestra, the best place in the country to watch a college hoops game before a packed house.

Something seemed to be missing in this neighborhood, and then it hit me what it was.

Convention Hall.

Where they had a basketball court.

And where Wilt Chamberlain once played games for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Against Russell. Against Bellamy. Against Thurmond.

Gone. For many years. (CHOP and HUP are both building on the site).

No, it wasn't a great venue, and no, it wasn't the House that Wilt Built (the 76ers moved to what's now known as the Wachovia Spectrum in the late 1960's, only to have Wilt feud with then 76er owner Irv Kosloff and get traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for guys like Darrell Imhoff, Jerry Chambers and the like), but it was a place where the greats played.

And it's gone.

As are, in no particular order of preference, Baker Bowl, Shibe Park (later known as Connie Mack Stadium), Veterans Stadium and Municipal Stadium (later known as JFK Stadium, where the Army-Navy game was played for years. Let's also not forget the Parkside Avenue field in West Philadelphia where the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro National League played.

These were places where all the greats played. Grove, Simmons, Foxx, Ashburn, Roberts, Schmidt, Carlton, and all of the out-of-town greats, Ruth, DiMaggio, Williams, Davis and Blanchard, Russell, Havlicek, West.

Once upon a time.

Baker Bowl was legendary for an incident involving pitcher Walter "Boom Boom" Beck. He was getting shelled one day so badly that when the manager came in to take him out of the game, he threw the ball out of anger toward the right-field wall. The wall was made of aluminum and gave off a loud noise every time a ball hit it. So tired was the rightfielder (reputed to be Jimmie Foxx), that he was standing in the outfield, hands on his knees, getting some rest. When this outfielder heard the "clang" from the wall, he sprinted toward the ball and threw a nice peg to second base. Punch drunk, the rightfielder negelected to remember that time had been called.

They had a sign painted on that wall that said, "The Phillies Use Lifebuoy", in reference to a one-time popular soap brand. Underneath that ad a fan scrawled in big letters in some early-day graffit, "And they still stink."

Baker Bowl was at Broad and Lehigh, a neighborhood that used to be the men's clothing capital of North America, if not the world. An ILGWU official told me there had been 50,000 jobs in that industry in the city in the 1950's (today, there might be 20,000 manufacturing jobs in Philadelphia). Now, well, it's a neighborhood that time has mostly forgotten.

There's a church at 17th and Lehigh, where Shibe Park used to be, and the neighborhood around there was called Swampoodle. The A's moved to Kansas City in the 1950's, and the Phillies remained. My mom grew up a Phillies fan, and her Uncle Joe, who once had been a boxing commissioner in Pennsylvnia, took her to games. My dad grew up an A's fan and talked wistfully about a stellar infield that had Ferris Fain at first, Pete Suder at second, Eddie Joost at short and Hank Majeski at third. The Phillies flirted with fame in 1964 only to blow a 6 1/2 game lead with 12 to play. The park was in some decay by the time I got there as a kid, and it's last night was memorable. The fans simply trashed the place after the game ended. A developer bought the place, but vandals set fire to it, and until the church acquired the land it lay dormant for years. As with Baker Bowl, there's no sign of the old stadium.

To a Jetson's-like stadium the Phillies moved, the multi-purpose Vet that was built in the late 1960's. The Phillies were bad then, and people didn't flock to that stadium the way they did to Citizens Bank Park two years ago when it opened. I'm not sure that the Phillies drew even a million people then; two years ago, they drew 3.25 million to Citizens Bank Park. I always have thought the Vet to be an underrated stadium. When it opened, it was known as a hitter's park or at least an even park, fair to both pitchers and hitters. By it's end, it was known as a pitcher's park, as the new "retro" stadiums were more prone to give up easy home runs than the old, decaying Vet. Once they decided to built Citizens Bank Park, they tore the Vet down, and they had to, because now it's the site of parking for both CBP and Lincoln Financial Field, the relatively new home of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Underrated stadium? You'd think that only if you're a diehard hometown fan. Why? Because some outstanding Phillies' and Eagles' teams played there during it's time, and we Philadelphians would prefer a cow pasture to a palace if a winner played in the former and a cellar-dwellar in the latter. It was the home to our great memories, so for us, well, in its own way the Vet was a palace.

No more Vet. No more Connie Mack. No more places where my father, who has been dead for a while, took me to games. Where we so immensely enjoyed a father-and-son bond over the national pastime. No more Vet, no more place where we donned all the layers we had to see the Eagles battle the Vikings in a late December playoff game in Philadelphia. My right foot still shivers when I think of how cold it was that day. But we were together, we had some hot chocolate, and the home team won. I can tell my kids about those places, but I can't show them.

Industrial sites, churches, parking lots, an research buildings for nationally known hospitals. Progress? Evolution?

You can't expect old stadiums to remain forever. What will they be used for? And, if they're not used, then they will probably decay. Vandals will target the places, anything worth stealing probably would be, and then you have an eyesore. So perhaps it's better that they get torn down. A sad fact of life, perhaps, but a necessary one. You can't, after all, make a museum out of everything.

The young players today don't necessarily have a sense of any of this, of days when salaries were comparable to people who lived in every neighborhood, of days when the travel wasn't by charter, the arenas were Spartan and there wasn't much television. Of a game in which Wilt Chamberlain snared 55 rebounds, of another game in which he scored 100 points. Of the days of Davis and Blanchard at Municipal Stadium, helping lead Army to national prominence, of Steve Carlton twirling a masterpiece on a hot Sunday at the Vet in only an hour and a half. Of watching Mike Schmidt in the middle of a hitting streak, simply carrying a team. Of Richie Allen hitting rocket-like home runs over the Coca Cola sign perched atop the left field roof at Connie Mack Stadium.

Of Ruth and Gehrig and Grove and Feller. Of Robinson, Mays and Aaron.

Will they remember? Will they pick up a book and learn the history?

And who is they? The fans of today? The players? The ownership?

The buildings are most definitely gone, in most places, without a trace.

But when I drive down Parkside Avenue near the Philadelphia Zoo, I take heart that Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard played about 12 blocks west. And when I drive up or down North Broad Street I wonder what it must have been like when the A's were playing a day game against the Yankees or what Lehigh Avenue must have been like when three blocks west a later version was doing the same thing. And when I go to Citizens Bank Park I think about the days of Carlton and Schmidt, of Tug McGraw and Garry Maddox.

And going to baseball games with my dad.

It all hit me when I was driving near the site of the old Convention Hall the other day.

I am starting to sound like some of the guys my dad worked with who are all dead now, who were born around the turn of the century, guys named Sig, Bernie, Harry and Babe. When I was a kid, they talked about where they famous boxers fight or hotels where they ran into guys like DiMaggio or Williams (most of those places are gone, too). I marveled at them, because they talked of a world that seemed very old to me. It was a world without television, a world where everyone didn't have a car and a world without air conditioning. It was a world with afternoon newspapers and where the men not only wore suits, they wore hats too. And they wore them to the games. They used to talk about where they used to go, and how things had changed.

It's hard to say whether they've changed for better or for worse. My guess is that the sporting world was more special then because it didn't become the event-oriented, celebrity-studded spectacle it has become today. It was also more personal -- you could chat with a player at his hotel or after a game, and sometimes the hometown players came from or lived in your neighborhood. Unless you're very wealthy, that most certainly isn't true today.

The structures are gone, but the feats remain, and the memories live on.

Stadiums come and go, but the experiences we had at them remain forever.

And that's probably the way it should be.


Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon said...

One minor correction, Prof: Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium was at 21st and Lehigh.

Saying that Convention Hall was not a wonderful venue for basketball is a candidate for "Understatement of 2006". If there were 2000 good seats in the house, you are being generous with the definition of "good".

The Vet was OK when it opened; it was "state-of-the-art" at the time for a dual-use stadium. At the end of its life, it was a rat infested dump that made the Black Hole of Calcutta look like a neighborhood that could use just a wee bit of gentrification.

BTW, dual use stadiums were a bad idea in the 70s and continue to be. Football is played on a rectangular field; baseball is played on a field that is - or ought to be - almost square. Even a modest student of geometry will tell you that squares and rectangles are not the same thing; ergo...

You wonder if the players/fans of today will remember... Fans might because fans tend to be interested in the history surrounding the teams they follow. You follow the Phillies and so you have to know that they had a team in the early 1930s with eight players hitting over .300 for the season. And they finished dead last because their pitching staff was - to be polite - atrociously inept. Check out "Sleepy" Claude Willoughby one of these days. Then check out some of his "mound mates". Then shudder!

Players have no incentive whatsoever to be interested in the history of any franchise because they are merely mercenaries these days. And if one doesn't care about any franchise, why would one care about "the game" as a whole?

10:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are always going to be some players who respect the history of their sport and the majority who do not. I’m not sure that’s any different than it ever was. Hockey may be the exception – you often hear the players talking about the great players of the past. I guess this will probably change too over time.

Speaking of the old venues, I grew up in the Detroit suburbs. I spent many wonderful days and nights at Tiger Stadium (first Navin Field, then Briggs Stadium until the Briggs family sold the team) watching both my beloved Tigers and Lions. Tiger Stadium had a great quirky upper deck that actually extended beyond the lower deck in right field, and the upper deck was almost as close as the lower deck all the way around.

Tiger Stadium had the 15,000 best seats in the world to watch baseball and the 40,000 worst. It was a great place to watch football, especially from our upper deck seats in right field (at about the 35 yard line as I recall).

In 1967, I was at the game with my dad the day the first smoke began to rise signaling the beginning of the riots and the eventual demise of downtown Detroit. The following year I attended many games as the Tigers won the AL going away with Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich, Al Kaline, Norm Cash (and my personal favorite Don Wert). Yes, I can name the entire roster. The Tigers won every regular season game I attended that year, but lost in game 4 of the World Series, ironically the only game I saw McLain pitch that year. I can still remember Lou Brock’s leadoff homerun disappearing into the right field upper deck. Though I had moved to the east coast, I made a pilgrimage to Detroit in 1999 to see one more game in the stadium’s final year. I still have not been to Comerica Park.

We were huge Lions fans (and I still am – probably the only Lions fan south or east of Toledo). I remember trundling off to games REALLY bundled up, and watching the almost very good teams of the late sixties and early seventies – Lem Barney, Dick LeBeau, Alex Karras, Greg Landry, Mel Farr and the like. When I moved back to Michigan in the eighties, I went to many games in the Silverdome, close to my home, but pretty antiseptic, though quite loud when the team was playing well. I have been to one game at Ford Field, which is downtown. It is fabulous, and those who go to the Super Bowl will be impressed by the facility, if not Downtown Detroit. But you are still not as close to the action as at Tiger Stadium.

Tiger Stadium still stands, though I don’t know how much it has deteriorated. It’s not in the central part of downtown Detroit, and there’s not much demand for real estate in its neighborhood. It may stand for a long time.

I also went to many games at the Olympia, where the Red Wings played before Joe Louis Area was built about 25 years ago. Like Tiger Stadium, the upper deck was right over the ice, and you really felt close to the action. I got to see Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio and other Red Wings greats near the end of their careers. I still remember the aroma of grilling burgers as you walked in the theatre-like front doors. The Joe is a great venue too, but you aren’t quite as close to the game, particularly in the upper deck. The Olympia has been torn down.

The Pistons used to play in Cobo Arena downtown. I didn’t go to too many games. It is part of the complex that houses the downtown convention center and the Joe. The Palace is in the suburbs, not far from the Silverdome, and was very convenient to where we lived.

I spent a couple of years in Philly growing up in the early seventies, so I missed Connie Mack. I am sorry about that. I have some good memories of the Vet as well, but I never liked the proportional concrete, and I hated the turf. Citizens Bank Park is a great facility, not just for the amenities, but because there are so many great seats. I have sat all over the park –row two behind the plate, the absolute top row behind the plate, the lower deck on the first base side, and in right field lower and upper decks. The sight lines are really good. Sorry, but I like the Vet best as a parking lot.


9:57 AM  
Blogger Abe said...

And, don't forget to make your nomination at this week's Sour Jock competition! Thanks.

7:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a Brit indulging my passion for US sports at this blog, SportsCurmudgeon's comment below is a headscratcher.

'Players have no incentive whatsoever to be interested in the history of any franchise because they are merely mercenaries these days. And if one doesn't care about any franchise, why would one care about "the game" as a whole?'

Now, how does one attach oneself emotionally to a franchise? Isn't the franchise concept itself a mercenary one? Should fans of the old Chicago Cardinals football team still be rooting for today's Phoenix franchise (via St Louis) now?

This becomes particularly poignant to me with events such as the death of John Unitas. How was his passing marked? Clearly, he was, and no doubt remains, the icon of the Colts franchise. The fact remains, however, that he didn't play a down in Indianapolis, and any special mourning there would have smacked of manufactured grief.

Meanwhile, back in Baltimore, the city synonomous with Unitas's achievements, how could the Ravens have commemorated him with genuine feeling?

No doubt, many athletes lack the finer feelings for their sport we fans hold and which are articulated beautifully in the reminiscences in the Prof's post here and the comments.

In their defence, we might find it equally difficult to maintain such a view if we had experienced big-time sports from the inside. The injuries, the contract negotiations, the exploitation by adults in high school and college must leave most with a pretty jaded outlook.

6:32 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Wow, great stuff, so thanks for your time and thoughtfulness.

As for fans, I suppose that our memories are what we make of them. As with real estate, where location is key, many tend to follow the teams that are closest to them, although some franchises, such as the Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, among others, have national followings. While Baltimoreans follow the Ravens, I don't think they do so with the passion that the older fans once attached to the Colts. Then again, during the days of Unitas, there weren't as many sports on television, there weren't as many distractions, and the players were more tangible around town.

As for the players, it can't be easy to be well-known within the community where you play and handle it with maturity at such a young age, can it? It's hard to get privacy, hard to hide, and there are many people who'd like to get a piece of you -- free tickets, endorsements for small stuff, etc.

I still can't fathom that many players don't know the rich histories of their games. Perhaps it's because they're so focused on honing their skills that there isn't time for much else. Or, perhaps that what makes them elite athletes is comprised of such a unique set of criteria -- a set that is disjoint from reading histories of the games they play. Or, finally, perhaps they don't have a clue as to how fortunate they are to be playing kids' games for huge money, and instead of approaching their profession as a privilege, they see it as a right. If that's the case, then they justify their lack of knowledge of history precisely because they're so good at what they do that no one should care. The lack of knowledge, though, mystifies me. It can be explained, but I'm not sure it should be excused.

1:30 PM  

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