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.


David Reid’s Incredible Gold Medal

We’re back after a brief hiatus. Things have been crazy, as I’ve taken on a 40-hour a week part time gig for Comcast for the Olympics. Posting will be fairly sporadic for a few weeks, then we’ll hit the ground running hard in September with football, and October of course marks our 2nd annual “Relive the World Series Spectacular.” This year we’ll be doing the ’29 Series between the A’s and the Cubs. Contributor Michael Collazo penned this piece about a former Philly boxer who took gold in Atlanta in ’96.

David Reid, a soft-spoken kid from North Philly, was a highlight of the 1996 Olympic Games – even though Muhammad Ali, changing sports TV marketing and a bomb upstaged what could have made him a star.

Lots of boxing’s past stars used the Olympics to become household names. Ali (then Cassius Clay), Joe Frazier, “Sugar” Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya come to mind. By 1996, TV storylines — from Ali’s torch lighting to more family-friendly gymnastics, basketball and track & field coverage — hogged up NBC primetime, not boxing. Remember too on July 27, a scary bombing at Centennial Olympic Park marred what was supposed to an America’s love-in at the Atlanta Games.

On top of all that, Team USA Boxing had put up a disappointing showing. While Cuba – Team USA’s natural boxing rival – were on its way to scoring four gold and three silver medals, the local team was struggling to finish with just five bronze medals. Trenton’s Terrance Cauthen, who trained at Joe Frazier’s Gym on his way to Atlanta, scored one of those bronze medals at 130 lbs. On August 2th, two highly touted fighters you may know took crushing defeats. Future pro Light-heavyweight champ Antonio Tarver – AKA Mason “The Line” Dixon from the film Rocky Balboa — lost handily in his semi-final bout. And before he had a “Money Team,” a 19-year-old Floyd Mayweather lost a controversial, one-point decision to Bulgaria’s Serafim Todorov – a fighter who was eight years older than Floyd and in his third Summer Olympics.

So on August 3rd, Reid, Team USA’s light middleweight (160 lbs.) representative, entered his gold medal fight against Cuba’s Alfredo Duvergel as the last hope. Reid’s advantage was a familiar face in his corner. As a middle-school kid, Reid had met Team USA’s lead coach Al Mitchell at Athletic Rec Center on 26th and Master Streets. Ever since, Reid trained and followed the instructions of Mitchell – all the way to the Olympics and beyond.

Early on Duvergel, a southpaw, used his counter-punching to control the first two rounds. Reid was stunned in Round 2, taking an Olympic-style standing eight-count. Entering Round 3, computerized scorecards showed Reid trailing 15-5. It felt like 1948 all over again – the last time a US boxing team had not scored a gold medal. Then before Round 3, Coach Mitchell gave Reid some advice.

“I told him ‘Hey, you can’t win,’” Mitchell told NBC’s Beasley Reece. “’The only way you can win is meet him with the right hand, go for the knock out – meet him.’”

And meet him he did. Reid threw a shrewd right, hitting Duvergel square and flooring the frontrunner. The referee counted to ten then waived off the fight. Reid’s jumping for joy was classic. He had won the gold.

“I’ve finally fulfilled my dreams now,” Reid said after the fight. “I look at myself – another Roy Jones, Ali…ah man.”

Reid’s highpoint was Atlanta. He essentially fought through an entire amateur and pro career with one bad, droopy eye. His poor vision cut his pro career short. Reid’s highest profile fight was his overwhelming loss to Tito Trinidad in 2000. Today, there are stories of Reid staying close to Coach Mitchell now in Michigan, broke and slowed by his illnesses.

But to Philly fans, Reid should always remember that elated gold medal winner jumping for joy.

David Reid should always be a star to us.

North Philly native and former Syracuse University classmate of Donovan McNabb, Michael Collazo is Group Sales Manager for Prudential Center in New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter: @MCollazo215.


The Great Jimmy Young Goes Toe-to-Toe With Ali

by Michael Collazo

Most boxers live the life cycle of cars. Like cars, boxers are hip, sleek and seemingly unstoppable at first. Never mind both notoriously depreciate – both basically start losing value as soon as they roll off the lot – but in their primes can be the awe of their peers. Both can pick up the hot chicks.

Boxers fleetingly make the big bucks; cars show off those big bucks.

Thirty five years ago, Philly’s Jimmy Young was in his prime. By 1977, Young was good enough to be a contender but seemingly never could beat an elite heavyweight. His boxing style didn’t help his perpetual underdog status. Young’s best skill was his defense and counterpunching – which doesn’t always sell tickets. Ask B-Hop about that. So he was vulnerable to close-but-no-cigar decisions.

In 1976, Young fought the great — but at fight time, the listless — Muhammad Ali for the WBC and WBA World Heavyweight titles. Expecting an easy fight in preparation for a title defense against Ed Norton, Ali looked overweight and lacked snap in his punches. Meanwhile, Young looked sharp and took advantage. Despite the unanimous decision for Ali, Young certainly made it close – and some feel could have won a close decision.

So after the tough loss to Ali, Young had to climb his way back up to another title shot. In his way was George Foreman. The Don King Production took place at Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico: March 17, 1977. Young, seemingly confident off his Ali performance, came in at tip-top shape. The opening six rounds were feel-out rounds – Young was measuring George’s power; Foreman was looking to explore where to score a big blow and knock Young out.

By Round 7, the fight heated up – but at first not for Young’s benefit. ABC’s Howard Cosell reported during the fight that Young had predicted a win if he could stay unscathed after Round 5. Well early in Round 7, it didn’t look like Young’s prediction would work out. Foreman threw a big right cross then an uppercut, staggering Young. This is when George overpowers the light-punching Young right?

Wrong.

Young held his way out of trouble then late in the round countered twice to stun Foreman. By now several thousand Puerto Ricans began chanting “JIM-mee Jung! JIM-mee Jung!” Foreman was the brute who lost to Ali in Zaire; Philly’s Jimmy Young was the scrappy underdog potentially winning the fight. The locals were on Jimmy’s side.

Using Round 7 as a turning point, Young won a unanimous decision, controlling the fight until the final bell – even falling Foreman in Round 12, in a fight that was named Ring Magazine’s 1977 Fight of the Year. Foreman would avoid comment after the fight and not get in the ring for another 10 years. Foreman would say later basically he found God after this devastating loss. A Michael Moorer title win and millions of George Foreman Grills later…well, the rest is history. You can watch the Foreman-Young tilt here.

Sadly, Young’s Second Act didn’t go as well. He would lose a title eliminator bout against Norton the following November. Young meddled around with bouts until 1988. Young fought financial and drug problems until his death in 2005.

Postscript: while living on Broad St. and 71st Ave. in the late 80s, we always saw this powder blue late 70s Cadillac broken down and parked on the corner. So one day my Dad and I noticed a bushy-haired guy turning a wire hangar down the window to get inside. Dad recognized that man.

It was Jimmy Young.

Indeed, boxers rarely drive off into the sunset.

If you like this, you’ll also like The Fast Rise and Tragic Fall of Tyrone Everett.

North Philly native, former Syracuse University classmate of Donovan McNabb, and childhood friend of Jimmy Young’s son James, Michael Collazo is Group Sales Manager for Prudential Center in New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter: @MCollazo215.


The 15 Most Underrated Athletes in Philadelphia History

Here’s our final list. A bartender who heard the list thought it should have been most under-appreciated, not underrated. “Everybody knew Joe Frazier was great, they just didn’t appreciate that he was great.” Perhaps a fair assessment, but I guess the final word here is that these are guys who don’t get their just due when great athletes in this city come up in conversation, and we want to make sure they don’t get overlooked. Whatever word best applies to guys who don’t get their just due, please feel free to apply. Feel free to agree, disagree with these in the comments. Thanks to Lalli for helping me put this together.

#1. Paul Arizin

#2. Hal Greer.

#3. Donovan McNabb.

#4. Ricky Watters.

#5. Joe Frazier.

#6. Bobby Abreu.

#7. Kimmo Timonen.

#8. Dick Allen.

#9. Eddie Plank.

#10. Del Ennis.

#11. Brad McCrimmon.

#12. Freddy Leach.

#13. Von Hayes.

#14. John LeClair.

#15. Byron Evans.

 


#5 Most Underrated Athlete in Philly Sports History: Joe Frazier

I think I pretty much summed it up in this column I wrote for Philyl Mag a few months ago. If you haven’t already read it, please do. I honestly think it’s one of the best pieces I’ve ever written.


The Sad Tale of Matthew Saad Muhammad


An interesting article in this month’s Philly Mag about former Philly boxing standout Matthew Saad Muhammad (aka Matthew Franklin), and his fall from greatness. We here at PSH are no strangers to tragic boxing tales, as a few months ago we brought you the story of Tyrone Everett, who was gunned down in the prime of his career under mysterious circumstances. But Muhammad’s story is a different type of tragedy. It’s about a man who had it all and now has next to nothing, bouncing in and out of homeless shelters, with his brain scrambled by so many hits to the head.

It’s taken months to get this interview with Saad, one of the all-time-great Philadelphia fighters, a warrior of the ring who plied his trade in the ’70s and early ’80s, back when the city had great fighters in gyms and the boxing game still had a modicum of respect. Saad was part of the sport’s golden TV age, when purses of $300,000 or more per bout were de rigueur for top fighters. He earned around four million bucks during his 18-year career, maybe more—no one kept close count.

I’m not looking to talk to Matthew because of all the money he earned, though, or all the fame he achieved, but because of what he lost, which is everything—all of it, every last cent.

 


Joey Giardello Gets a Statue

A real life boxer in Philadelphia is finally getting a statue. Joey Giardello, an Italian fighter from South Philly who was middleweight champion of the world in the mid-1960s, will be honored with a statue at 13th and Mifflin, the unveiling of which will be Saturday at 1 p.m. Giardello was a middleweight who fought out of Philly starting in the late 1940s, and it took until 1960 for him to finally get a title shot. He fought the champion, Gene Fullmer, to a draw. In 1963 he upset Sugar Ray Robinson and became the #1 contender for the title. He won the title in a win over Dick Tiger, and held it for two years, successfully defending the title four times. One of those defenses is his most famous fight, the one against Ruben Carter that was falsely portrayed in the movie Hurricane. In the movie, Carter loses to Giardello because he’s black. In reality, he lost to Giardello because Giardello outboxed him. It was a unanimous decision, almost all writers present agreed with the decision, and Carter never protested the outcome. Tiger won the belt back from Giardello in 1965, and the South Philly fighter only fought 4 more fights before retiring.

After his retirement, Giardello spent countless hours helping with the Special Olympics. He had a son with Down’s Syndrome. As for the statue, Bernard Fernandez recently wrote an excellent piece about it in the Daily News.

PSH’s Take: Absolutely no offense to Giardello, but Philly finally gets a statue to a real boxer and it’s not Smoking Joe? No doubt that Giardello deserves a statue and I’m glad he got one, but giving him one before giving one to Frazier doesn’t seem right. It would be like making a statue of Mo Cheeks before making one for Dr. J. It’s nothing against Mo Cheeks, who we love, but…At the end of the DN article, John DiSanto, the tireless boxing fan who runs the excellent phillyboxinghistory.com and who helped make the Giardello statue happen, says, “There’s been a lot of talk about a Joe Frazier statue. A Frazier statue in Philadelphia is going to happen. It has to happen. I would hope that the Giardello statue would help get the Frazier statue done. If our motley crew can do something like this, anybody can.” Bernard Hopkins has told the Metro that he would pay for a Frazier statue if they can find a place to put it. So,  uh, what’s the city waiting for?

RELATED: A Sports Illustrated article about Giardello from 1964.

RELATED: New Joe Frazier documentary to be released soon.