PRISM: The Orignal Regional Sports Network

PRISM logoBefore Comcast SportsNet came about in 1997, there was PRISM. No, not the NSA’s mass surveillance program, but rather the cable television channel, Philadelphia Regional In-Home Sports and Movies. PRISM was launched in 1976 as a joint venture between Ed Snider’s Spectacor and 20th Century Fox. For a subscription fee of around $12, Philadelphians had, for the first time, the ability to watch all Flyers, Phillies, and Sixers home games, all Big 5 basketball matchups, and all WWF events held at the Spectrum.

In addition to broadcasting live sporting events, PRISM showed a variety of other programming. Under the direction of Sport Director Jim Barniak, PRISM and its sister station SportsChannel Philadelphia, had a slew of sport talk shows and anthologies (The Great Sports Debate, Broad and Pattison, and Sports Scrapbook among others), as well as countless movies (and even the occasional late night skin flick). PRISM had it all. However, the station had some teething issues.

PRISM spent the first five years of existence operating at a loss. This could be attributed to the cost of acquiring the rights to broadcast sporting events and movies, as well as management’s reluctance to run advertisements. At launch, PRISM had a grand total of six subscribers. In the early days of cable, there were very few cable providers and the vast majority of American urban areas were not wired for cable. Those who were fortunate enough to live in an area with the necessary wiring faced astronomical costs. In 1976 PRISM’s $12 price tag was the equivalent of $52.20 in 2017 dollars. At a time when gasoline cost $0.59 per gallon, and median income was around $13,000, PRISM was a luxury that many families could simply not afford.

By 1986, PRISM had a subscriber base of approximately 370,000 households in the Philadelphia area. The majority of these subscribers were suburbanites, as much of the actual city of Philadelphia remained unwired for cable. However, there was a slight loophole that Philadelphian’s could exploit. From 1983-1985, the signal for PRISM was broadcast over the air via WWSG Channel 57. The signal was scrambled, however, this scrambled signal was easily decoded with the proper equipment. This arrangement ended after channel 57 was sold to a new owner and changed over to an entertainment channel later to become UPN-57 (now CW Philly).

Ownership of PRISM varied a great deal over the station’s lifetime. Originally a joint venture between Spectacor and 20th Century Fox, the network became fully owned by Spectacor in 1982. Ed Snider’s group would promptly sell PRISM a year later to a joint venture between Rainbow Media and the Washington Post. In 1985, CBS purchased a minority share in the network before cashing out in 1987. The Washington Post also sold its interest in the venture to Rainbow Media, leaving the Cablevision (formerly owned by the Dolan family, now Altice USA) subsidiary as the sole owner. A deal to sell a 50% share to NBC for a 50% Cablevision interest in the new NBC cable channel CNBC fell through in 1989, leaving Cablevision as the sole owner of PRISM until shortly before the channel’s demise.

In 1990, Cablevision launched a sport-specific basic cable channel called SportsChannel. This channel carried PRISM sport events in the event that there was a scheduling conflict. While the channels were affiliated, they maintained their own separate graphics and announcing teams until 1995, when Cablevision created a uniform appearance that was used on both channels. With a growing network of channels, a new 10-year carrier deal with Comcast, and an ever growing subscriber base, life must have been looking pretty sweet to PRISM’s management. Unbeknownst to all, the end was nigh.

The end of PRISM came rather suddenly in the form of the juggernaut that is Comcast. In 1996, Comcast acquired Spectacor and all of its assets, including the Philadelphia Flyers, and the Philadelphia 76ers, the Spectrum, and the new arena now known as the Wells Fargo Center. The new Comcast-Spectacor behemoth announced that they would be allowing the Flyers and Sixers broadcast deals with PRISM to lapse in favor of starting a new regional sports network that would be centered around their team’s games. PRISM had already lost their TV deal with the Big 5 over a monetary dispute (The Big 5 wanted to be paid for the broadcast rights, while Cablevision felt that the Big 5 should have been paying them), and now lost two of their three professional sports broadcast deals. However, there was one saving grace: this new network would take some time to get started. As the Flyers deal had lapsed just after the merger, this meant that the team was without a broadcast partner. Cablevision, believing that they could get a one-year deal on the cheap, sent the Flyers (and thusly Comcast) a low-ball offer. The response from the Flyers was that they would be producing their own broadcasts in-house, and would sell the rights to said broadcasts to local networks until Comcast SportsNet was ready to air. Panicked, Cablevision agreed to a one-year deal worth approximately $5 million dollars.

In the meantime, Cablevision sold a 40% stake in their sports holdings to Fox/Liberty media for a cool $850 million in June of 1997. PRISM was meant to be rolled into the new Fox Sports Networks, with national pieces being mixed in with local content. There was a slight issue with this however, as the Phillies had just jumped ship to Comcast. This left PRISM with no long-term commitments from any sport organization. Fox decided that the best way to handle this was at the negotiating table. In late summer, Comcast and Fox came to an agreement. PRISM and SportsChannel were shutdown on October 1st, 1997, and the Sixers were let out of their broadcast deal. In exchange, SportsChannel’s signal was purchased by Comcast to be used by the new Comcast SportsNet, while PRISM’s signal was retained by Fox/Liberty, and hosted the Premium movie channel Starz!. Just like that, PRISM was gone.

PRISM and SportsChannel undoubtedly changed the course of Philadelphia sports fandom. Prior to PRISM, Philly fans had three options for consuming Philly sports. They could go to the game, listen to it on the radio, or read about it the next day in The Bulletin, Inquirer, or Daily News. They could also hope and pray that their team was good enough to feature on nationally televised games. Outside of the ranks of the dedicated beat writer, the sport media lens was very broad and unfocused. PRISM was a key part in focusing that lens in Philly, and came about at a time where all of the teams were winning. This success, coupled with the ability to watch that success helped to create the Philadelphia superfan of today.


The Philadelphia Stars: Philly’s Negro League Baseball Team

Until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, American Major professional baseball had been segregated. African-American baseball enthusiasts were forced to form their own leagues, known collectively as The Negro Leagues. From 1933-1952, the Philadelphia Stars were the team that represented Philadelphia’s black community. They were founded by Ed Bolden, the former owner of the Hilldale Athletic Club. The team was also partially owned and financed by Eddie Gottlieb, the owner of the SPHAS basketball team and the future owner of the Philadelphia Warriors NBA franchise.  They played at 44th and Parkside in West Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Railroad Company YMCA Ballpark, except for on Monday nights, when they played at Shibe Park. In 1933, the Stars were an independent team, meaning they were not part of any official league. However, the next year saw them join the Negro National League, the country’s premier baseball league for African Americans.

That initial NNL season would be a great year for the club. Behind the superb pitching of Stuart “Slim” Jones and the hitting of Baseball Hall of Famers Jud Wilson and Biz Mackey, the Stars controversially won the 1934 National Negro League Championship over the Chicago American Giants. During the 6th game, a scuffle broke out in which a Stars’ player apparently touched the Umpire. As this was an ejection worthy offense, Chicago’s manager protested, but the player was not ejected. The Stars would win game 6 to tie up the series at 3-3. The deciding game 7 would be called due to darkness at 4-4. In game 8, Slim Jones would dominate the Giants lineup, pitching a shutout on the way to a 2-0 Stars victory. However, neither team was pleased. The Stars claimed that the Giants used illegal players, while the Giants were upset that there were games played at night. The NNL commissioner threw out both complaints, and the Stars were declared champions. This championship was to be the team’s only triumph in their history. The team’s fortunes slumped with the performance of Slim Jones. Jones died in December of 1938 of pneumonia at age 25 after, allegedly, selling his coat for a bottle of whiskey.

Due to the lack of consistent record keeping in the Negro National League, much of the history of the Stars is unknown.  However, what is known is that they played in the NNL until 1948, when the league went under. After Jackie Robinson integrated the Major Leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the talent level in the Negro Leagues declined severely as black players were poached from their Negro League clubs. This left only the Negro American League for the Stars. The Philadelphia Stars played two more seasons in the NAL before the team folded.

The Stars had some notable players not named Slim Jones. They had several Hall of Famers play for them, including but not limited to: legendary pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige (two separate stints 1945, 1950), Philadelphia’s own Roy Campanella (1944), Jud Wilson (1933-39), and James “Biz“ Mackey (1933-1937). Additionally the Stars fielded 1956 MLB All-Star Harry Simpson (1946-1948), and Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, a player-coach for the legendary barnstorming New York Renaissance basketball team. (1940).


A brief history of the Philadelphia Arrows: Philadelphia’s original pro hockey team

Philadelphia ArenaIn autumn of 1927, long before the Flyers were even a glimmer in the eye of Ed Snider, Philadelphia received its first professional ice hockey team: the Philadelphia Arrows of the Canadian-American Hockey League, a minor league.

The Arrows played their home games at Philadelphia Arena, located on the 4500 block of Market Street in West Philadelphia. It was on the same block as the legendary WFIL television studio that hosted Dick Clark’s iconic American Bandstand TV program.

The Arrows got off to a very poor start, coming in last place in both of their first two seasons, and going through two head coaches in the process. The club’s fortunes changed dramatically in their third year with the appointment of Herb Gardiner as head coach. Gardiner, a World War I veteran and the winner of the 1926-27 Hart Trophy (NHL MVP), completely turned the team around and would coach the Arrows for the remainder of the club’s existence. They finished in second place during the 1929-30 regular season before an early playoff exit at the hands of the Boston Tigers. The team took a couple of steps back in the subsequent two seasons, just missing out on the playoffs in the 1930-31 and coming in second to last place in 1931-32.

The 1932-33 season saw the Arrows dominate behind league points leader, Center Paul Runge. They finished the regular season in first place, earning them an automatic berth in the Finals. In true Philadelphia fashion they lost the finals against the Boston Cubs. The Arrows would jump out to a two-games-to-none lead before losing the final three games of the best-of-5 series, culminating with a heartbreaking 4-3 loss at home. The following season saw the Arrows drop down to third place, losing to Boston in the first round of the playoffs. In 1934-35, their last season as the Arrows, the team slumped down to last place.

In the offseason, the team changed names to become the Philadelphia Ramblers. The name change must have helped as the Ramblers won the 1935-36 Canadian-American Hockey League championship. In 1936, the Canadian-American Hockey League merged with the International Hockey League to form the International-American Hockey League. This would later be shortened to the American Hockey League. The Ramblers would make the finals of this new league two out of the next three years, losing on both occasions. After three seasons out of the playoff picture, the Ramblers (Now with a new moniker: the Philadelphia Rockets) ceased operations for good in 1942.

Philadelphia Arena fell into disuse after the construction of the Spectrum in 1967, and was renamed after Martin Luther King Jr. in 1977. On August 24th, 1983, the arena was burned down by arsonists. Today the location where the arena stood is occupied by an apartment complex.

Fun Facts about the Philadelphia Arrows:

  • The Arrows had three Hockey Hall of Fame members involved with the club. They were Herb Gardiner (enshrined in 1958), Marty “Goal-a-game” Barry (enshrined in 1965), and Art Coulter. (enshrined in 1974)
  • When the Philadelphia Flyers were created in 1967, Ed Snider sought out Arrows coach Herb Gardiner (still living in Philadelphia) and awarded him the honor of being the Flyers first season ticket holder. Gardiner attended Flyers games until his death in 1972.
  • Tommy Anderson, who played for the Arrows from 1930-1934 won the Hart Trophy (NHL MVP award) in 1942 with the Brooklyn Americans. He became the last player from a non Original Six team to win the award until Flyers great Bobby Clark won in 1973.
  • In 1930, the NHL moved its Pittsburgh Pirates franchise to Philadelphia and rebranded them as the Philadelphia Quakers. The team was so bad that they were out-attended by the Arrows. The Quakers folded after just one season.

Shibe Vintage Sports features this vintage Philadelphia Arrows shirt now available.

 

 


The Philadelphia Bell, Papergate, and Possibly the Most Disastrous Pro League Ever


It was a soggy, rainy night at Franklin Field, and almost everyone in Philadelphia had found something better to do. A mere 1,293 fans were on hand to watch the Philadelphia Bell take on the Charlotte Hornets, and those fans were treated to a sloppy, turnover-filled game that ended with the Bell ahead 18-10. There wouldn't be much time for the home team to celebrate, however. The World Football League would go under 4 days later. It was the last game the Bell would ever play.

The team had started with so much promise the year before. The owners, Al Sica and John Bosacco, convinced Jack Kelly, Princess Grace's brother, to be their president. They signed King Corcoran as their QB, a playboy whose cocky swagger and eccentric dress had given him the nickname "the poor man's Joe Namath." At wide receiver, the squad signed a former track star at St. Joe's by the name of Vince Papale.

They decided to play games their first season JFK Stadium. It was considered a strategic error. JFK had seating for 100,000 people, and the puny crowds the pundits were predicting would look even tinier in such a massive stadium. But those pundits were proven wrong when over 55,000 fans showed up to cheer the Bell on to a 33-8 victory over the Portland Storm (a team that had a young linebackers coach by the name of Marty Schottenheimer).

Two weeks later, the Bell returned home, and a crowd of 64,719 showed up to see the Bell battle the New York Stars. The game was a thriller, with the Bell missing two field goals in the final three minutes and falling 17-15. Nonetheless, the enormous crowd had the city abuzz and the World Football League looking like a real challenger to the NFL. Then, a few weeks later, it all fell apart.

Reporters began asking questions when a mere 12,396 fans showed up for the Bell's next home game. It turned out that the Bell had been selling many of their tickets at a remarkably cheap discount, and in fact gave tens of thousands of tickets away to local businesses to give to their customers. When the league was forced to pay city taxes on the tickets, the actual figures for paid attendance for those two games was a paltry 13,855 and 6,200. Bell Executive Vice President Barry Leib confessed, What can I say? I lied. I never thought those figures would come out."

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Bell star RB Claude Watts runs a sweep left.


A few days later, Jack Kelly held a press conference at the Warwick Hotel and announced his resignation. The team, and the league, never recovered from a scandal that was quickly dubbed "Papergate".  The league began a downward spiral, but the stories of the characters that played, coached, and owned teams in the league became legendary.

Jacksonville Sharks owner Fran Monaco borrowed $27,000 from his head coach Bud Asher, then quickly fired him. Several players on the Hawaiian Islanders allegedly got cut without getting the money owed them, and therefore couldn't afford flights back to the mainland. The Charlotte Hornets had their uniforms seized after a game with Shreveport Steamer. The Hornets, who had bounced out of New York midway through the season and headed south, had been followed by a cleaner who claimed the team owed him over $26,000. Team owners had to post bond for the uniforms. The Detroit Wheels were coached by a screwdriver salesman.  

The Memphis team was known as the Grizzlies, and had an actual grizzly cub as a mascot. At one game, the cub came across an electrical wire and began to chew on it. Eventually, it got to the core, and received a shock that not only knocked the poor bear on its back...it also shorted the stadium scoreboard. In Houston, the local sheriff showed up with a warrant for renowned wildman John Matuszak (who would later win two Super Bowls with the Raiders and star as Sloth in the Goonies). Matuszak had blown off his contract with the Oilers to play for the WFL's Texans. The coach allegedly told the sheriff he would give him a game helmet if he would just let the Tooz play a couple of series. The sheriff relented, and Matuszak was served papers after playing 7 plays, one of them a sack.

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Bell QB and underground sports legend King Corcoran.

King Corcoran would recall shortly after the league folded in 1975, " Once we flew commercial to Portland and the flight back made eight stops. It was brutal. Then we got on a bus in Philadelphia and it broke down and we had to get out, carry our bags and hitchhike."

The insanity continued at the "World Bowl". The game was initially supposed to be played in Jacksonville, but when the Jacksonville team folded, the league moved the game to Birmingham. The Birmingham Americans would face the Florida Blaze. They were two of the best teams in the league. However, they weren't the best compensated; players on both teams hadn't seen a single paycheck in over a month. The Americans held on for a dramatic 22-21 win. After the game ended, federal agents arrived and seized the Americans' helmets and uniforms, hoping to recoup part of what their owner owed the IRS. 

The Bell had lost $2 million in 1974, but incredibly were one of only two franchises that decided to move forward in a restructured WFL in 1975. They made history shortly before the '75 season began: after head coach Ron Waller quit, they hired Willie Wood, former star of the Green Bay Packers. He was the first African American ever hired as coach of a professional football team. The team also decided that it's low attendance wouldn't look quite so paltry at Franklin Field, and decided to stop playing at JFK.

A few months later, with the writing on the wall, in front of a miniscule crowd at the hallowed Franklin Field, the Philadelphia Bell played their final game. The league owners decided, a few days later, to scrap the league. Bell head coach Willie Wood was emotional when he spoke about the end of the league. "I can't say I was shocked by what has happened. But I suddenly realized how hard I've been rooting for this underdog. I suddenly realized a whole lot of good people are out of work. I suddenly realized a great idea had gone to dust."

You can grab your Philadelphia Bell shirt by clicking above or by swinging by our store, Shibe Vintage Sports, located at 13th and Walnut in Center City. Be sure to like us on facebook and follow us on twitter!


The (Crazy) First Year of the Philly Spectrum

In February of 1966, the NHL awarded the city of Philadelphia an expansion team, on the condition that they have a new place to play by the time the 1967 season began. Ground was broken on June 1, 1966, with Flyers part-owner Jerry Wolman and Philly Mayor James Tate doing the honors. Wolman, Ed Snider’s 41-year old brother-in-law who also owned Connie Mack Stadium and the Eagles, was the money behind the Spectrum.*


A complex financial agreement resulted in Wolman getting the arena and then selling it to the city for $1. Wolman, who also owned the Eagles and Shibe Park, would pay Philly $60,000 in annual rent in return for a 50-year lease. The sweetheart deal carried with it an ultimatum: Wolman had to get the arena done in 16 months, or Philly wouldn’t get an expansion hockey team.

As the arena came closer to completion, Wolman began to run out of money. To come in under budget, he got a building code variance on the roofing material. It was a decision that would come back to haunt him, the Sixers, the Flyers, and Philadelphia sports fans.

The first event at the Spectrum was a Jazz Festival in September 1967 featuring Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie, and Stan Brubeck. The first sporting event was a Joe Frazier fight against tomato can Tony Doyle in October. Frazier had little trouble knocking out the Utah native in the 2nd round. After the fight, Frazier told reporters that he had heard that Doyle’s wife had just had twins. “I figured, let’s get him home to see them.” The win moved the brash Philadelphian to 18-0 and cemented his status as the heavyweight district’s #1 contender.

On October 18th, Wilt Chamberlain and the Sixers, happy to no longer be playing in the Philadelphia Civic Center but rather in a state of the art arena, made their debut with a convincing 16 point win over the Lakers. The next night, the Flyers played their first ever home game, holding off the Penguins 1-0. Beers at those first games costed ten cents, with premium beers costing an outlandish forty cents.

20130807_inq_o-wolman07-aThe arena was off to a hot start, but in February of 1968, the roof caved in. Literally. High winds ripped a huge chunk of the roof off of the Spectrum shortly before an Ice Capades show, and the crowd found themselves staring up into the sky. (Showing a rather remarkable sense of humor, the Ice Capades band began playing “Into the Wild Blue Yonder”.) It was quickly patched up, but two weeks later it blew off again. This time Mayor Tate came down from City Hall to examine the damage, and closed the arena.

Philly politics took a fix that should have taken 10 days to repair into a month, as arguments erupted about who was going to pay for the repairs. Arlen Specter, who had narrowly lost to Tate in the recent mayoral election, sent his own investigators to the Spectrum, and announced that it had been built without the proper permits. The roof became a political football.

As Tate and Specter were trading barbs in the paper, the Flyers and Sixers were forced to play home games on the road, the Flyers playing home games in Quebec (where their farm team, the Quebec Aces, called home), the Sixers returning to their old haunt, Convention Hall.

“The Spectrum wasn’t a very valuable property back then,” co-owner Ed Snider would recall years later. “The roof had made it a national laughingstock.”

nsapnl36l_extrIt could have have hardly been a more inauspicious start. But as we all know, the roof was finally fixed, and the Spectrum recovered from its early disasters to become one of the most historic venues in America. It would go on to host Stanley Cup Finals, Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley concerts, the greatest game in NCAA tourney history, and some of Dr. J’s most memorable dunks. It was a raucous yet warm venue that catered to the everyday fan, and not the well heeled like most modern arenas. Fans were very close to the action, almost every seat was a good one. As a result the home court and home ice advantages were undeniable. The Sixers won 65% of their games there, while the Flyers won 61% of their home tilts. Perhaps former Flyer Dave Poulin said it best, “The Spectrum is a unique, tiny building that somehow enabled the fans to be closer to you physically and as a result were much closer to you emotionally.”

You can wear a piece of the Spectrum’s remarkable history with this incredibly comfortable Spectrum shirt created by local artist Jon Billett. It’s an incredibly comfortable tri-blend shirt, and is part of our stadium series that also includes Shibe Park and Palestra shirts.

READ MORE: A very interesting story in the SI Vault about the political debate that erupted after the roof came off.

*Shortly after the SPectrum was completed Wolman ran into financial difficulties after the John Hancock Tower in Chicago, which he financed, turned into a white elephant. He could get financial help if he could sell the Flyers. To do that, he needed Snider to sell his shares. Snider refused, and Wolman was driven to bankruptcy. Snider then tried to buy the Eagles from Wolman for a song. Wolman needed the money, but refused to sell to Snider. He eventually sold to Leonard Tose. Wolman and Snider never spoke again. You can read more about it here.


Infamous Fan Moments In Philadelphia Sports History

Philadelphia sports fans are known for being arguably the most passionate fans in all of professional sports. Despite the fact that the Philadelphia Phillies are the city’s only professional team to win a championship in the last 40 years, Philadelphia fans constantly sell out stadiums in support of their various teams. This year, the Phillies have one of the worst online MLB sportsbook odds of making the playoffs, but it won’t stop their die-hard fans from filling the stadium in support of their team.

While Philadelphia fans are known to be extremely passionate about their teams, they are also known to blur the lines between passion and insanity, which is why we have decided to take a look at some of the most memorable moments in Philadelphia sports history.

Pukeman

One of the most recent instances of a Philadelphia fan taking things to extremes is the story of Matthew Clemmens. Sports fans from other cities might not know who that is, but anyone who has followed Philadelphia sports in the past should be familiar with his story.

In 2010, Clemmens was upset that a little girl’s father called security on his group for being unruly during a game. After security escorted a friend of Clemmens from the ballpark, he walked up to the man and his daughter, shoved his fingers down his throat, and puked all over the girl and her dad, who happened to be an off-duty police officer.

Fights during Ring Ceremony

As previously mentioned, the Phillies are the only Philadelphia team to win a championship in over 40 years. In 2008, the Phillies won the World Series for the first time since 1980. Fans of most franchises would have been happy their team just won a championship, but Philadelphia is not like every other city. During the championship parade, Phillies fans were fighting each other instead of celebrating the championship. At the ring ceremony following the championship, the fans booed Adam Eaton then fights broke out during the game.

Ed Rendell’s Bet

Former Philadelphia district attorney and current governor Ed Rendell made a $20 bet that fans sitting in the 700 level of Veterans Stadium could not hit the field with snowballs from their section. Never ones to back out of a bet, the fans pelted the field with snowballs during the Eagles game, leading to the installment of a jail under the stadium.

Indecent Proposal for World Series Tickets
Having passion for your favorite team is one thing, but one Phillies fan took the word fanatic to a whole new level when she offered sex to anyone who could provide her with tickets to the World Series. The put an ad on Craigslist and it was answered by a cop who arrested her for attempted prostitution.

Santa Claus Gets Booed

This is probably the one thing Philadelphia sports fans will catch grief for as long as professional sports are played in the city. According to some fans, Santa was booed and attacked with snowballs because he was drunk, while others say he was attacked because fans were upset with management. Even if either excuse was true, it doesn’t justify their behavior that day.

Michael Irvin Injury Cheered

The Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys have a bitter rivalry so it is understandable that fans of both teams can’t stand each other. Philadelphia fans took things to the extreme in 1999 when Hall of Famer Michael Irvin suffered what would turn out to be a career ending injury. Irvin remained motionless on the field after a hit from an Eagles defenseman. Instead of fans hoping the receiver would be okay, which is the norm for injured players even if they wear an opposing jersey, Eagles fans were cheering Irvin’s injury solidifying their position as the most hated fan base in professional sports.

Now that we have listed the most infamous moments in Philadelphia sports history, it is time to declare a winner. All the behaviors listed in this article are pretty bad, but puking on a kid has to take the cake.


A Brief History of the Philadelphia Ramblers

RamblersVsKnoxville1963Frizelle4OConnor6The Philadelphia Ramblers that joined the Eastern Hockey League in 1955 were actually the second minor league hockey team by that name. The first had played in the American Hockey League in the 1930s as a farm club for the New York Rangers, but folded in 1941. One of the Ramblers players during their first go-round was a gentleman named Bryan Hextall. You’ve probably heard of his grandson.

After hockey sputtered in the city over the ensuing 14 years, the Ramblers made a return in 1955, coached by an English native named Chirp Benchley. The team was owned by a rather well-to-do fellow by the name of George L. Davis, who married Grace Kelly’s sister Margaret and who owned The Arena at 4530 Market, which is where the Ramblers played. They were later owned by Bud Dudley, who founded the Liberty Bowl.

The team was entertaining but not particularly good. Their best known players were Ted Harris (who would play for the Flyers second Stanley Cup team many years later) and John Brophy, who would later coach the Maple Leafs.

Perhaps the highlight of their existence was a thrilling 3-3 tie with the Soviet National Team in 1959, a game in which the Ramblers scored twice in the final four minutes before a sellout crowd of over 5,611 at the Arena. The Soviets had steamrolled their previous opponents but were stopped by Rambler goalie Ivan Walmsley.

In 1964, the team packed up and headed across the river, where they became the Jersey Devils, and played at Cherry Hill Arena. Players on the Devils included Bobby Taylor, who later backed up Bernie on the Flyers, and Vic Stasiuk, who would coach the Flyers for two seasons. That team would fold with the rest of the EHL in 1973.

One of the great things about the Ramblers was their game programs. The artwork on them was really, really cool. Here are a few game programs below. At the request of Ray Didinger, who used to attend Ramblers games as a kid, Shibe Sports has created a Ramblers shirt, which they decided to create in the style of one of the game programs. You can also check out some great old photos of the team posted online by the daughter of former player Rocky Rukavina.

IF YOU DUG THIS ARTICLE, YOU MIGHT WANT TO CHECK OUT A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE PHILADELPHIA FIREBIRDS.

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The Malice in the Spectrum

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On January 6th, 1972, the St. Louis Blues got into a fight with Flyers fans that made the Malice in the Palace look like child’s play. It started after the two teams had skated off the ice following the second period, with the Flyers taking a 2-0 lead into the intermission. St. Louis Blues coach Al Arbour went over to referee John Ashley to complain about a call on his way down the ramp. As the two spoke, a Flyers fan decided to pour beer down Arbour’s back. Soon other fans followed by throwing trash and taking swings at Arbour. Incensed at the treatment their coach was getting, several Blues players took off in the direction of the ramp and started to swing their sticks and climb into the stands to fight the fans in question. The cops at the arena quickly got involved, and the then-notorious Philadelphia police (Interestingly, the game occurred three days after Frank Rizzo was sworn in as Mayor) were all too happy to use their nightsticks on the Blues players, beating them back into the locker room. Legend has it that a Philly newsman who had rushed over to the scene of the mayhem asked a nearby cop what was going on.

“It’s the Saint Louis Blues against the cops, and we’re winning.”

Blues coach Al Arbour received a gash needing 10 stitches and Blues player John Arbour (no relation) needed 40 stitches. They were also among the four Blues who were arrested following the game. Bail was set at $500, and they weren’t released from the police station until Ed Snider paid their bail at 5 in the morning. They had an arraignment the next month when they came to visit the Flyers again, but all charges were dropped. You can see some video footage of the fight here.

After the 25-minute melee the Blues, seemingly inspired, came out in the third period and scored three unanswered goals to win 3-2. After the game, the Blues owner was furious, saying, “That was the worst case of police brutality I’ve ever seen or heard about.” He threatened a lawsuit against the city. Ed Snider disagreed, arguing that the Blues players had no right to go into the stands.

Remarkably, the win would be the Blues last one in Philadelphia until the late 80s. The Flyers would go 31-0-3 against the Blues over the next 16 seasons at the Spectrum until finally falling in November of 1988.


Penn vs. Oregon: The 1917 Rose Bowl

Oregon's Shy Huntington runs around the right end.

The Oregon Ducks won their third Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day over Florida State. Their first win in the Rose Bowl came against a local squad, the powerful Penn Quakers.

The Quakers were led by quarterback Bert Bell, who would later found the Philadelphia Eagles. The Webfoots were led by brothers Hollis and Shy Huntington. Shy was not only the QB, but also a star defensive back, and had been named All-American.

The Quakers came into the game heavily favored, as the East was known for a more physical brand of football than the West. The Quakers also featured four All-Americans. Before the game, Oregon coach Hugo Bezdek lamented, “I’ve got only overgrown high school boys, while Penn can field a varsity of big university strength. We haven’t a chance.” As humble as Bezdek was, Penn’s coach Bob Folwell was equally as boisterous: “We are going to put a team on the field that won’t be licked and consequently can’t be licked.” Aw snap!

Penn's backfield, from L to R: QB Bert Bell, FB Ben Derr, and HB Joe Berry (Berry would later play 13 games in the Major Leagues.)

Penn’s backfield, from L to R: QB Bert Bell, FB Ben Derr, and HB Joe Berry (Berry would later play 13 games in the Major Leagues.)

It was a very different brand of football than we watch today. The forward pass was nothing more than a gimmick. In fact, if a team passed into the end zone and the ball fell incomplete, the other team got possession. The QB had to be at least 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage when passing. You could only throw the ball once per series of downs. The ball was stubby and nearly round, much closer to a rugby ball than a modern football.

It was also a very different world. Many of the players on the field that day would later serve in WWI, including Bert Bell. It took the Penn team almost two weeks to make the cross-country trip. And there was no radio yet, so it was impossible to hear the game live. But it was possible to watch it live…sort of. In Eugene, a vaudeville theatre advertised that they’d be carrying the Rose Bowl live, and an overflow crowd packed the theatre to “watch”. Here’s how: there was a guy backstage who received play by play via telegraph. He then relayed that info to an announcer onstage, and there was a large plywood board onstage that looked like a football field, similar to the one below.

football field

There was then a production of the game onstage. There was a system of ropes and pulleys that sent the ball back and forth across the field as the announcer described the action he was receiving from the telegraph operator. (You can learn more about this contraption in an excellent piece on Benzduck.com) The telegraph operator, Mac McKevitt, would describe the excitement of that game in a 1931 newspaper piece:

ShyMcKevitt took the results of that game play-by-play off the wire and gave them to the announcer at the Heilig theater. The house was packed, Eugene fans were standing in the aisles and clear back to the top of the balcony. The little gridiron was rigged up on stage, and the miniature football was being worked back and forth with the plays. “Mac” remembers getting the message and giving it a word at a time to the announcer: “HUNTINGTON …. MAKES …. TOUCHDOWN!” Pandemonium broke loose, and Mac couldn’t find out whether Oregon converted the [extra] point because the place was so full of noise that he couldn’t hear the ticker, even with his ear down against it. McKevitt was sitting on the stage, with the footlights turned on, and he said as he looked out over the glare of the lights, the theater looked like a giant fountain with hats, coats, sweaters, everything being thrown into the air.”

The Huntington in question was the Oregon stalwart Shy, who would turn out to be the star of the game. The QB would run for 69 yards and a TD on offense, throw for a TD, secure three second half INTs on defense, and the Webfoots pulled off a 14-0 upset.

It was a turning point for college football, as it proved that West Coast teams, which had been held scoreless in the previous two Rose Bowls, could compete with the East Coast teams. As for the two teams involved, it would be Penn’s first and last appearance in a bowl game, though they would be named co-National Champions in 1924 along with Notre Dame. Oregon would lose their next four appearances in the Rose Bowl before finally getting over the hump in 2012.


Phillies You Should Know: Former Philly Pitcher Phenomenal Smith

Phenomenal_SmithLooks like I’m also gonna have to update the Phillies All-Nickname Team.

Phenomenal Smith was born John Francis Gammon in Manayunk in 1864, and made his pro debut with the Athletics of the American Association in 1884. The next year he joined the Brooklyn Grays. It did not go well. His teammates didn’t appreciate the cocky 20-year old, and when he said he didn’t need teammates to win, they taught him a lesson.  In his first start, the Grays intentionally committed 14 errors and Smith lost 18-5. The team President fined the players $500 each, but in an effort to ensure team harmony, fired Gammon after only one game.

Following that debacle, he joined the Newark Little Giants of the Eastern League. On October 3rd of 1885, he threw a no-hitter in which he struck out 16 and didn’t let a ball leave the infield. The performance was so remarkable that it earned him a new nickname, Phenomenal Smith.

He kicked around the majors and minors for the next several years, re-appearing with the Athletics in 1889, then joining the Phillies in 1890. He was cut in 1891, and never made it back to the majors, though he played and coached in the minors for another 15 years, playing for colorful teams such as the Green Bay Bays, the Hartfort Cooperative, and even a team that named itself after him, the Pawtucket Phenoms. While coaching a team in Norfolk, VA, he signed a young Christy Mathewson. Under Smith’s tutelage, Matthewson thrived, and by the end of the season he was signed by the New York Giants.

After retiring, Smith joined the Manchester, Massachusetts police department. He died in 1952 at the age of 87.