Memoirs of a Baseball Fan: Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia

Chris SurovickContributor IJanuary 20, 2010

See those fascinating old photos of Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium? The score of eager telegraph operators? The hearty fans perched on Somerset Street rooftops?

I’m too young to have been among them. But I did spend an awful lot of time inside that now-vanished ballpark one summer, working as a vendor.

Thanks to my grandmother and Dick Allen, the job added more pounds to my physique than cash to my bank account.

It was 1966, and I was 16. I was also a devoted Phillies fan. Two summers earlier, my world had crumbled when Gene Mauch’s overachievers so famously spit the bit, losing 10 straight and a pennant that was theirs.

When my junior year of high school ended, I needed a job. There weren’t many options for a lazy, unskilled, baseball-crazed teenager. Except for Connie Mack Stadium.

Our family had long-established links there. One uncle had worked for Ben Shibe, the ballpark’s original namesake and the owner of its first tenants, the Philadelphia Athletics.

Two other uncles and my father sold programs there. (It was no surprise when one night during the previous season, my mother had the winning program number in the nightly contest and guiltily took home the prize, a portable radio.)

Working there seemed like my birthright. So after getting my working papers and a TB test, I reported for duty. My hawkers’ task was twofold: programs and yearbooks in the stands before games, Cokes and 7-Ups during them. Sounded simple enough.

I lived in Philadelphia’s western suburbs. Commuting would have been time-consuming and problematic, especially since I didn’t drive and wouldn’t for another six years. I couldn’t count on my father either, since he didn’t work every game and often went there directly from his job as a proofreader at the Evening Bulletin.

Fortunately, my maternal grandparents still resided in Olney, a rapidly fading German-Irish neighborhood of rowhomes and narrow streets just a few miles from the ballpark. I would stay with them during Phillies homestands.

It was a dreamy summer. I had everything but girls. I ate apple fritters, sauerbraten and home-baked pies at my grandmother’s table. I never missed a home Phillies game. And I was getting paid to watch baseball.

The eating and watching were superb training for a future sportswriter. So was the pay. I earned 1½ cents for each program I sold, a dime per yearbook and a nickel per soda. After bus fare and snacks, there typically wasn’t much profit.

Night games began at 8:00in those days. I’d rise about noon. My grandmother, enjoying my outsider’s presence in a home where she and my sullen grandfather barely communicated, would prepare a big lunch.

Afterward, I’d watch some soap operas and quiz shows and then, at about 4:30, walk a half-block to Roosevelt Boulevard to catch the R bus. 

At Hunting Park Avenue, I’d transfer to the 33. Before getting to the ballpark, I’d stop somewhere for a takeout hoagie or cheesesteak, a Tastykake (chocolate juniors, if they stocked them) and a Coke. My grumpy grandfather, watching me eat that summer, once exclaimed, “My God, he’s got a hollow leg.”

Connie Mack’s employee entrance was on the 21st Street side. You walked up a steep flight of stairs to a dreary changing room lined with open lockers that stank of dirty clothes.

Except for the field itself, everything about the old stadium either stunk or was dreary— usually both.

Situated in a deteriorating neighborhood, the then-57-year-old structure had just four more years of usefulness before the Phils would abandon it for Veterans Stadium, miles away on the city’s southern edge. Infrastructure investment wasn’t an option for the penurious Phils.

Once I found an empty locker, I’d get out of my clothes (except for my sneakers) and don a cheesy blue-and-white uniform and an apron. We also were required to wear adjustable paper hats that touted the concessionaire: Harry M. Stevens.

That was a problem. I’ve got a size-7 5/8 head, and making the hat fit was impossible. I would have to extend the adjustable band so far that it invariably popped apart, usually as I made change for an attractive girl.

I tried going without one a few times, but my crusty superiors made it clear that vendors had to wear the hat. When I asked why, they couldn’t tell me, but they made it clear no self-respecting vendor could possibly function without one.

Eventually, a compassionate woman who worked in one of the concession stands bobby-pinned a cap to my hair.

Things weren’t much better at the other end of my uniform. By the end of the night, the bottoms of my sneakers would be coated in spilled-soda goo, which puddled on the floor of the soda room.

Walking was difficult. The goo, when it dried, adhered to the floor as securely as Crazy Glue. Each step was a struggle to yank the sneaker off the floor.

By summer’s end, my legs were powerful from the nightly workouts, and the dried-goo accumulation added an inch to my stature.   

The gates didn’t open until 6:30. For the rest of the vendors, this was a second job and they showed up at the last minute. I typically was the first to arrive.

I’d take my dinner into the stands near where the third-base and leftfield seats met and watch batting practice as I ate. This was a different era.

You couldn’t keep balls hit into stands during BP. So if one landed near me, and it happened several times a night, I’d hurl it back, usually, it seemed, to outfielders Jackie Brandt or Don Demeter, hoping they’d be impressed by my arm strength.

Connie Mack’s seats were close enough to the playing surface that, with the stadium empty, you could hear the players’ chatter.

This was the beginning of my sporting disillusionment. In that era, before “Ball Four,” I was stunned to hear players swearing and behaving like horny sailors.

They dropped F-bombs into every sentence. And once I saw a few Phillies pitchers motioning to an attractive, early-arriving fan, seated in the upper deck, in a skirt to spread her legs. These were my heroes?   

At 6 p.m., I’d walk down to the dank program room in the basement, where a bald, hawk-nosed man named Al ran the place as if it were NASA’s mission control.

He distributed programs and yearbooks, hats and other merchandise with an efficiency that would have been comical were it not so frightening for a 16-year-old. There were forms to fill out, rituals to follow, lessons to be learned and woe to the vendor who didn’t follow Al’s rules.

I’d generally get a bundle of 50 or 100 programs and a dozen yearbooks. The books were thin and, except for the accompanying pencil and inserted scorecard, not worth the 15 cents.

Plus, those wanting a program probably were going to get one from my father or one of the sellers who occupied the little kiosks near the 21st and Lehigh entrance.

So it was usually in vain that I yelled “SCORECARD. LINE-UP” incessantly, while roaming the sparsely populated stands.

Sometimes, if the Dodgers or Giants were in town, the crowds were bigger, livelier and I sold a few yearbooks, made a couple of bucks. But typically, my program take was less than a dollar.

You could do better with the sodas, though if anyone had tasted them before forking over the quarter, sales would have plummeted. In the second inning, I turned in my leftover programs and yearbooks, settled up with Al and made my way to the drink station, located off a second-deck balcony in the third-base stands. 

There you got a metal tray that someone had loaded with 24 cups, filled with foul-tasting Philly ice and very little Coke or 7-Up.

They cost 25 cents apiece, and when you sold out your tray, you turned in $6, got a refill and a voucher for your commission, $1.20.

The trays were heavy and cumbersome. Being a self-absorbed teenager, I was convinced that a summer of carrying them would give me the strongest wrists this side of Hank Aaron.

That season, the highlight for me (and most Phillies vendors and fans) was Dick Allen’s at-bats. His titanic, roof-clearing home runs, struck with a 40-ounce bat, are still recalled with awe in Philadelphia 40 years after the last of them.

Philadelphia fans either loved or hated Allen. A season earlier, he had been in a pre-game fight with Frank Thomas, a white teammate, an altercation that triggered a vicious reaction from the city’s racists.

He was, even I had to admit, an enigma. He showed up late occasionally, apparently drank a beer or two before games and marched to his own peculiar drummer.

In the midst of the Civil, Rights Era, Allen further puzzled Phillies fans when he asked to be called “Dick” and not “Richie.”

Allen injured his throwing arm early that summer and had great difficulty making even short tosses. Mauch still needed his bat, however, so he moved him from third base to left field.

Whenever a ball was hit to left, shortstop Bobby Wine had to hustle into the outfield to collect Allen’s labored shuttle throws.

But there was nothing wrong with his swing. Allen would hit 40 homers that summer, many of them disappearing into the North Philadelphia night as they soared over the lofty leftfield grandstands or the massive Ballantine scoreboard in deepest right-center.

His at-bats were all Phillies fans had to enjoy after 1964. So whenever Allen was due up in an inning, I would take a seat in the stands, strip the plastic wrap off the top of a Coke and enjoy the show.

Four at-bats a game meant four Cokes, meaning I’d have to sell an extra 20 sodas just to make up for what I’d consumed. It was worth it.

Once, after settling up with Al, I waited in a basement corridor for Allen to depart the stadium, hoping to score an autograph. The Phils had lost to the Dodgers that Sunday, largely because of a rare error by first baseman Bill White.

Soon I spotted Allen, a huge cup of beer in each hand, walking my way. White was with him. I asked my idol to sign a tiny piece of paper that, at risk of beheading, I had purloined from Al’s office. Allen stopped and handed the beers to White while he signed.

Nervous and wanting to say something, I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind. “Mr. White,” I said, “how could you have missed that ball?”

I felt terrible the instant the question left my lips. But White was a gracious man. “Son,” he said, “we all make mistakes.” I’ll never forget that overlooked mine.

I watched them walk away, then headed for my locker, eager to get out of the sweat-soaked uniform. I took the autograph, folded it neatly and placed it in my wallet.

But first, I glanced at it. Allen wrote with a flourish as well, the first letters of his first and last names done with a curly-cue flair. And then it hit me. He had signed it “Richie Allen.” I never did figure him out.

I’m not sure how much I made that Sunday. Not much, I’m certain. But the Allen autograph was a treasure. I carried that autograph with me all through that summer and for many years afterward.

Occasionally, I’d pull it out in a bar to try to impress a new acquaintance. But somehow, about the time I got married in 1973, I lost it. But not the memories of the summer when my grandmother fattened me up, Dick Allen kept me broke, and Bill White took me down a peg.

Frank Fitzpatrick, Owner of Sports Buzz.


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