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APRIL 2000 | VOL. 4, NO. 4

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When Baseball Was Baseball [April 1999]

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A simple walk yields comparisons to cartoon characters and buxom blonds.

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CHRIS WILLIAMS, an announcer at a Christian radio station in Baltimore, Maryland, is a contributing writer to Renaissance Online Magazine. His short stories have appeared in Junior Trails, The Salt and the Light, Standard, and Live, among others.


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Send Us Feedback: Bad as the Phillies were, Connie Mack Stadium stood a house of dreams and heroes

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STAT STORY
1960 59-95
1961 47-107
1962 81-80
1963 57-75
1964 92-70
1965 85-76
1966 87-75
1967 82-80
1968 76-86
1969 63-99
1970 73-88

 

Visit to an Old Friend

CHRIS WILLIAMS
  Connie Mack Stadium
CONNIE MACK STADIUM
Tenants: Philadelphia Athletics (AL), 1909 to 1954; Philadelphia Phillies (NL), part of 1927, 1938 to 1970.

Opened:
April 12, 1909
First night game:
May 16, 1939
Last game:
October 1, 1970
Demolished:
June 1976
Capacity:
20,000 (1909);
33,000 (1925).


I admit it. I'm a Phillies fan. No matter how bad they play, I can't stop rooting for the guys in the red pinstripes. Explaining why I feel this way is impossible; it's like being in love. But instead of being smitten with a pretty cheerleader, being a Phillies fan is like being stuck on the mousiest girl in school.

This emotional bondage goes back many years. Growing up in Levittown, PA in the 1960s, I was the only kid in my neighborhood who rooted for the Phils. The rest of my friends followed clubs who had an honest chance to win the pennant. The Pirates, Reds, Dodgers and Giants were among the most popular teams. By the end of the decade the Phillies were on a downward spiral. A week of .500 baseball was a cause for optimism.

Even though my friends didn't share my affection for the Phils, they did like to go to Philadelphia to see major league baseball. Many a Saturday or Sunday afternoon we hopped on a train to North Philly to old Connie Mack Stadium.

Years later, my parents were horrified to learn that a bunch of us regularly went into the big, bad city without adult protection. Understandable, considering that the neighborhood we ventured into wasn't exactly a haven of peace and tranquillity.

Connie Mack Stadium opened in 1909 and was the first concrete and steel baseball palace in America. Originally named Shibe Park, it was home for some great Philadelphia A's teams managed by the legendary Connie Mack. The Phillies became tenants in 1938 and were generally terrible. Among the few exceptions include a pennant winner in 1950 and the famous choke of 1964.

By the time I started to follow the Phillies, the stadium had deteriorated in proportion to the club's chronic lack of success on the field. I recall ancient filthy bathrooms that smelled awful on hot days and mildew clinging to the walls under the grandstand. Seating was serviceable at best; spectators paid for a couple of hours in hard, wooden chairs that had been painted numerous times to mask their age. A nearly imperceptible grime had settled on the ballpark, a mute testimony to the smokestack industries that surrounded the neighborhood and the city.

Despite this, Connie Mack Stadium possessed certain charms, such as a neatly manicured grass playing surface. Beyond the rest rooms, your sense of smell was massaged by the ingrained aroma of hot dogs, popcorn and beer. If you weren't saddled with an obstructed seat, it was a great place to watch a game. Fans were close to the action and you didn't need binoculars to see the players.

The magic of Connie Mack Stadium transcended its diminished condition. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Lou Gerhig head the list of baseball luminaries who graced those pastures. Even the sad-sack Phillies boasted excellent players like Richie Ashburn, Robin Roberts and Del Ennis. A trip to 21st and Lehigh was a trip through baseball history.

My memories of games I witnessed there consist mainly of mental snapshots. I see Richie Allen launching a ball over the giant scoreboard in right field; Fergie Jenkins shutting out the Phils on a sunny afternoon; Willie McCovey's big swing and a young Johnny Bench making a perfect peg to second base. The images are clear and real, and I hope I never forget them.

One visit to the ballpark stands out above all the others. It was August 1970. The morning began gray and evolved lazily into a gloomy afternoon. On the train rumbling toward North Philadelphia, I passed the time apprehensively looking through the tinted rail window. The horizon was swollen and dark. Unlike some of my friends, I couldn't afford to waste money on train fare just to find out the game had been canceled. So I hoped, prayed and crossed my fingers that the Phillies would play the Houston Astros as scheduled.

The air felt heavy and moist as we walked the six blocks from the train station to the stadium. I felt a renewed sense of hope when I saw the arc light standards that were visible above the skyline. With each step, Connie Mack Stadium got larger and larger, and soon seemed bigger than anything nature could hurl its way.

Maybe they'll get the game in after all, I thought. Traffic around the ballpark was light, a harbinger of the eventual sparse crowd of 4,000. Few wanted to spend the afternoon in the rain watching two also-ran teams.

Lines at the ticket windows were nonexistent. We paid our admission and headed for the dugout areas. Our seats were in the upper deck but we wanted to get a few autographs before the game started. In those days, it was easier to do. There was less of a preoccupation with keeping fans away from their heroes.

The first player I pestered was Jesus Alou of the Astros. He was good-natured, talkative and seemed to appreciate the attention.

"What's theese?" he asked when I handed him my program. A photo of the Met's Tom Seaver was featured prominently on the front. "How come no Phillies on the cover? They have some good players, no?"

"Not many," one of my friends wisecracked. Alou scribbled across Tom Seaver's face and smiled.

"Maybee you bee on theese cover someday, no?" he said.

Because of his kindness, I walked away an Jesus Alou fan. For the rest of his career, I rooted for him to get as many hits as possible. Except against the Phillies.

[ CONTINUED: a World Series for 4,000 ]

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