The Phillies and my father: A memoir

They warmed my heart, and broke my father's

Shibe Park, circa 1945: Fringe benefits for the neighbors.
Shibe Park, circa 1945: Fringe benefits for the neighbors.

The year was 1948. I was a little girl who wanted to play baseball, which my father encouraged. So as part of my education, we were going to Shibe Park to see the Phillies play the St. Louis Cardinals.

From our sheltered enclave in Chestnut Hill, the neighborhood around the ballpark was considered a bit of a hellhole. My mother was appalled. "You can't take a little girl there," she cried.

Her words fell on deaf ears. My father and I wouldn't be deterred. Hand in hand, we climbed into his 1942 Plymouth sedan, where I sat proudly beside him in the front seat. If seat belts had existed, we would have buckled them tightly—we were on the ride of a lifetime.

We entered the gritty environs of North Philadelphia, a place of magic, miracles, and mayhem. Shibe Park— squared by Lehigh Avenue, 20th, Somerset, and 21st Streets— had opened in 1909. The park, owned and operated by the Philadelphia Athletics of the American League, was originally named for one of that team's owners, Benjamin Shibe.

This historic park had hosted the first nighttime baseball game and two All-Star games. Here Babe Ruth had sailed one of his long balls over the right-field fence into some unfortunate neighbor's second floor bedroom.

According to Rich Westcott in Philadelphia's Old Ballparks, people took their windows out during summer games to avoid having them broken. If a window did get smashed, an A's employee, easily identified by his red cap, would see to the installation of a new window, within minutes.

Protection money

So on this sweltering summer afternoon in July, we slid into the "'hood. My father found his customary parking spot at 23rd and Opal, on a street that was generally used as a ball field by the neighborhood kids. Once a Phillies or A's game started, these same kids, along with their fathers, would climb onto the roofs of their two-story houses and watch the game for free from their own "bleachers." Eventually, the residents of these homes charged admission to outsiders, incurring the wrath of the parsimonious Connie Mack, who eventually raised the fence around the outfield to a height that precluded viewing the game from outside the stadium.

On this day, however, my father, as was his custom, handed one of those kids a buck.

"Watch my car, will ya, Sonny?"

This, my father explained, was to protect the car from flat tires, perpetrated by that same kid.

An old fielder's mitt

Into the stadium we sailed. Picking up a free scorecard, we climbed to the right field bleachers. After we found our wooden seats, my father pulled out his worn fielder's mitt, the better to protect the head of his eldest child, his daughter, from getting beaned by a fly ball. We ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, watched batting practice, stood for the National Anthem and the seventh inning stretch, and only took our eyes off the field when I had to go to the bathroom, outside of which my father stood guard.

That first game with my father was the beginning of a life-long love affair—and heartbreak—that was in some ways genetically predetermined. Dad's sisters were rabid Cardinals fans. His father and brother were sports enthusiasts, too. And my father never missed a game, going in person as often as he could, spending his vacations near the Phillies' spring training in Clearwater when he could, and watching games on TV. In his later years, when the mechanics of the TV and cable systems proved too daunting for his intermittent dementia, he returned to the radio of his youth. He switched off his radio shortly before his 91st birthday, hours before he died.

"'You bums, I am off you!'

Over the years, my father and I must have attended hundreds of Phillies games and spent hours studying and debating Phillies statistics. We didn't have a championship team although we came pretty close in 1950 with Richie Ashburn, Curt Simmons, Robin Roberts and their fellow whiz kids.

Those decades of losses, bad pitching, missed playoffs, and sojourns in the cellar had been hard ones for our family. When the Phils won, my father was overjoyed. When they lost, he would throw his scorecard and pencil down on the living room rug and yell at the telly, "You bums. I am off you like a dirty shirt!" And he would walk away, only to return for the next game—or the next inning.

The greatest generation

By the time the championship season of 1980 arrived, I was living elsewhere but glued to the radio, then on the phone with Dad after the games to discuss every hit, error, ERA, and RBI. While Dad huddled in front of his TV set back in Chestnut Hill with my brothers, I, the world traveler, sometimes had to follow the Phils in the pages of international newspapers.

These last few years since my father's death, on the other hand, have been halcyon years for the Phillies, with their wild winning ways and their World Series victory. But they've been melancholy ones for me. When I imagine how happy my father would be with the likes of Ryan Howard, Utley, Werth, Rollins, and Lee, I miss Dad more than ever.

As the Phillies open their World Series defense in two ball parks my father never saw, it comforts me to imagine that, somewhere in that right-field bleacher in the sky, my father and his fellow codgers from Tom Brokaw's "greatest generation" are sitting in their celestial Barcaloungers, Schlitz beers in hand, scorecards on laps, No. 2 yellow pencil at the ready behind their ears, preparing to dance with the angels in celebration— or, conversely, to mutter, "I'm done with them!" and walk off in a huff once again.♦

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