Monday I shared with you a little bit of the history of Shibe Park, the baseball home of the Philadelphia Athletics and Phillies. In 1950, the field's name was changed to Connie Mack Stadium.
Today I want to share with you a reminiscence that I wrote two years ago about my experience with Connie Mack Stadium and the life around it when I was still a youth.
And Friday I'll give you a peek at a couple of the steps that led me to become a sportswriter. Here's my look back at the late '50s in Philadelphia.
What was once called Shibe Park was shoehorned into a residential neighborhood of North Philly. Just off Lehigh Avenue, west of Broad Street and on the way to the Philadelphia Zoo, it had been renamed Connie Mack Stadium in 1950 to honor the legendary manager who took the Philadelphia Athletics to the World Series championships in 1910, 1911 and 1913. Philly’s ubiquitous row houses squeezed up against Connie Mack Stadium on two sides. Other than a small ‘official’ parking lot to the stadium’s west, and a few fly-by-night ‘parking lots’ on the far side of Lehigh Avenue, there was no place to park a car.
In the mid-Fifties, North Philly was becoming a neighborhood well into ‘transition.’ Like most of America’s old cities, growth, expansion and decay happened in concentric circles rippling out from the center of the city … in Philly’s case, from the statue of founder William Penn that still dominated the skyline from atop City Hall. One of those ripples of change had already swept through North Philly when I started going to the ball park. My family lived in the Nicetown section of North Philadelphia. But the neighborhood surrounding Connie Mack Stadium, and all those around it for blocks on end, had morphed from mostly an ethnic enclave of Poles, Italians and Irish, like the one we lived in, to mostly an ethnic enclave of African Americans.
We were foreign to each other, those ethnic groups. My parents and their friends would call that part of North Philly “a bad neighborhood.” We were taught to fear.
So those few who felt it necessary to drive to Connie Mack Stadium instead of taking the trolley or the bus, would often grudgingly engage in a practical transaction. “Watch your car, Mister?” The question would come from a young entrepreneur sitting on the steps of one of the row houses. The underlying supposition was clear, and born of that fear. Pay me, or your car may not be the same when you return … if it’s still here. For the young entrepreneur, it was easy money. For the driver, it was peace of mind.
When my Dad took the family, he would pay the extortion money to ensure his 1950 tan Ford sedan wouldn’t be any more ugly when we left the game than when we arrived.
Sadly, looking back on that time of my youth, I can see one part of the underlying, systemic racism that permeated life in Philadelphia, and cities across the nation, at that time. The poor, the ethnically different, were left to a city that decayed around them while those who could, fled to the suburbs in white enclaves that perpetuated a lie. But, back then, in the late ‘50s of my youth, we weren’t color blind. We were just blind.
Often, to go see a ballgame – and you’ve got to remember, times were very different then – I took the trolley on my own, the 23 trolley along cobblestoned Germantown Avenue. Then the bus along Lehigh Avenue. And paid fifty cents to sit in the sun-burnt bleacher seats and watch some truly horrendous Phillies’ teams. But they were my Phillies – Richie Ashburn, Stan Lopata, Robin Roberts. And at ten, eleven, twelve years old, I wouldn’t let a bad neighborhood scare me away from my bad Phillies.