This week is giving you a little peek into the beginning of my life as a sports fan and my early life in Philadelphia. Monday I shared with you a history of Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium, the baseball home of the Philadelphia Phillies and Athletics. And Wednesday I shared with you some personal memories of Philly and sports in the late '50s.
Today I want to share with you a pair of vignettes, written two years ago. One took place in my teen years and the other was how I got into sports writing.
My grandfather probably came from a long line of irascible characters. But he did help me get my first job.
Thomas apparently had the unique gift of staying busy without the burden of gainful employment. One of the ways he would earn pocket money was to sell Christmas trees from a street corner in the Nicetown section of North Philadelphia in the deep of winter. But in the fall and early winter he would hawk programs at football games, mostly at Franklin Field on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Penn played its Ivy League games in the aged, brick horseshoe of Franklin Field. The annual Army-Navy football game used it as a venue and, on Sundays, the Philadelphia Eagles would suit up against their enemies in the National Football League.
My grandfather became something of an entrepreneur when he first started selling soft pretzels outside Franklin Field, that filling Philly favorite that required a squeeze of mustard along its length. But Thomas soon found an angle that paid better. There was a higher profit margin selling game-day programs at the football games.
Perhaps you remember. Programs … get your programs. Names and numbers of all the players. Get your programs heeerrrreee! Obviously, program information was critical before Jumbotrons, replays and mobile devices. Without a program, you were skunked. Who was it that made that tackle?
I have no illusions. Thomas brought me to Franklin Field the first time because he believed people would buy more programs from a cute kid (I was) than a grizzled, sour-looking old man. And he was right.
But it got cold and Thomas got cold and I soon found I was on my own. But that was okay. I could jump on the Broad Street subway, transfer at City Hall, and get to Franklin Field on my own, lie about my age and buy a stack of programs at ‘wholesale’. Because I could sell programs. And I made money at it.
But the best part?
After hawking programs on the street corners around the stadium, you could sell them inside Franklin Field once the game started. Then, when my bag was empty, I’d find an empty seat, or an empty stair, and watch football. What a great deal!
Sports was always an integral part of my youth, from losing my lungs over the Phils or the Iggles, to creating a sandlot baseball team, the Bluebirds (we were not very menacing) that travelled as far north as Happy Hollow Playground. Sports was not a way of life in our family … it was life. And death. And every sorrow and joy in between.
I had graduated from Penn State and was the first in our extended family to earn a college diploma, with a degree in Secondary Education, Social Studies. A history teacher. In fairly short order, I had taught school – badly – in a Massachusetts high school, sold pumps and fluid moving systems in Philadelphia, stamped prices on cans as an overnight stock boy in a Penn Fruit supermarket and held down the fort as the “coordinator” of a music school. This was not what I had in mind!
I saw an ad in the local weekly newspaper that the chain was looking for people to cover high school football games on the weekends and submit game stories, and a box score, for the next week’s editions. And they paid $10 a game! How could I say no?
I was in. Until the sports editor asked me if I had a car. What else was I going to say? Sure!
Well, I had no car. So, I would hitchhike to high school football games. One on Friday night, three on Saturday, one on Sunday afternoon. In the sun; in the rain; in the snow. And I would go home and pull out a map and measure the distance from game-to-game. After all, I had to turn in mileage or the sports editor would know I didn’t have a car, right? I covered high school football games over the length and breadth of Montgomery and Bucks Counties for four months. Never got pneumonia. But I did get a full-time job. A real job. As a full-time sportswriter. In January of 1970. And that’s how my career began.