Larry Mendte needs no introduction. I doubt there is a Philadelphian who doesn’t know his name. He has a house swimming in Emmys for his terrific television work (including two earlier this year). And though his career at KYW ended in scandal in 2008, he has since recovered nicely, writing for Philly Mag, doing commentary for WPIX in New York, and becoming an advocate for the 9/11 First Responders. And this isn’t the first time he’s been gracious enough to respond to an inquiry from me. In 2006, he talked to me about ghosts. Well, here he talks about the ghosts of 1972, when Philly sports hit rock bottom, and how surviving during the lean years has made the recent success of Philly sports all the sweeter.
The present is the best of times for Philadelphia sports fans. The Phillies are the best team in baseball. The Eagles will be the Super Bowl favorites in football. The Flyers made moves that put them in the mix for a Stanley Cup run. Even the Philadelphia 76ers are showing signs of something better than mediocre thanks to the return of my favorite Sixers’ player, now my favorite Sixers’ coach, Doug Collins.
And that takes us back to the worst of times. For to truly be able to bask in what is, you need to have suffered through what was. In 1972 I was 15 years old and a sophomore at Monsignor Bonner High School in Drexel Hill, Delaware County. It was an age and a year when you were fully invested in your sports teams for better or worse. But in Philadelphia there was no column A – everything was worse, record setting worse.
The Philadelphia 76ers started out the year losing their first 15 games and the season went downhill from there. In the middle of the year they suffered a then record setting 20 game losing streak. And yet I can remember the names of every player on that team as I used to go to the Spectrum, buy a nose bleed seat and by the 3rd quarter I was courtside. The team was so bad I had the urge to yell “next.” When the team ended the season 9-73, the worst record in NBA history, it was depressing.
But the 76ers were not alone, every team was pitiful. I challenge anyone to come up with a worse year in Philadelphia sports than 1972 bleeding over to the beginning of ’73. I contend it stands as the worst year in Philadelphia professional sports history.
The Philadelphia Phillies were 59 – 97 that year and finished last in the National League East. Cy Young award winner Steve Carlton won 27 of those games. Without Carlton the Phillies could have easily contended for the title of worst team in Major League Baseball History. One shudders to think how many games the team would have lost without Lefty.
The other team to play at The Vet was even worse. The Philadelphia Eagles were 2-11-1 in 1972 and finished last in the NFC East. They beat the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Oilers both by one point, so they were just two points away from a winless season. The team scored just 12 touchdowns in a 14 game season.
The Philadelphia Flyers finished with a 26-38-14 record in 1972. In a city of last place teams, the Flyers fourth place finish in the NHL West made them a giant among midgets. But there was more than that, a new coach named Fred Shero seemed to have a vision. And Bobby Clarke in his third season had the making of a superstar.
The four teams I mentioned had a combined record of 96-219-15. 1972 may not only be the worst year in Philadelphia sports history, but the worst year that any city with at least four major league franchises has ever suffered.
Philadelphia was dubbed The City of Losers. It was depressing for a 15 year old kid in Lansdowne who felt a deep connection with the teams. It was no wonder that Big 5 basketball and Penn State football was so big in the early 70’s. The college teams gave Philadelphia our only taste of winning.
But that would quickly change, for Fred Shero did have a vision. The very next year, the Philadelphia Flyers would shed their reputation for mediocrity; emulating the swagger of a city that had something to prove and nothing to lose. I watched all six games of that Stanley Cup series from the kitchens and living rooms of friends and family. It was on everywhere.
Famously, before game six against the great Boston Bruins, Shero posted a note in the locker room. “Win today and we walk together forever.” They won game six and the Stanley Cup series 1-0 thanks to the brilliance of goalie Bernie Parent.
That night I remember celebrating with my friends and a few hundred other people in the middle of street in Yeadon, Delaware County. The crowd chanted “1,2,3,4. Who the F—is Bobby Orr.” There was sheer elation. Philadelphia became a hockey town that year. The team known as the Broad Street Bullies defiantly ripped the label “City of Losers” from all of our chests.
Philadelphia became a hockey town that year. Suddenly kids, who used to play stick ball, pick-up basketball and touch football, were playing street hockey. And Fred Shero’s prophecy came true, as Clarke, Shultz, Barber, Parent, DuPont, Dorhoefer and Saleski were overnight household names. They were walking together forever into Philadelphia Sports immortality.
Everything seemed to change after the cup came to town. The Flyers would win again and the Phillies, 76ers and Eagles all seemed to drink from it. The City of Loser was now the City of Winners. Clarke and Parent were joined by Schmidt, Dr J and Vermeil. Within the next ten years the City would have a World Series win, an NBA Championship and a Super Bowl appearance. I was there when Tug McGraw lifted the trophy over his head at JFK stadium and I chanted “Fo, Fo, Fo” as Moses moved down Broad Street in a victory parade. But my favorite sports moment in Philadelphia happened at the intersection of Church and Whitby when I shared in shared in a loud and emotional mass transformation of Philadelphia sports fans from what we were, repressed and resigned, to what we are today, proud and passionate.
The suffering of 1972 made 1974, 1980, 1981 and 1983 more meaningful. It makes those of us who remember 1972, the worst of times, treasure today, the best of times.
This is Part 4 of our series on Philly sports memories. Here are the previous entries.
Part 1, with Nick Staskin of Phillies Nation.
Part 2, with John Finger of CSN Philly.
Part 3, with Maxx of Black Landlord.
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.
Remarkably, the longest home run ever hit at Veterans Stadium came just 3 months into its 33 year history. Others came close (Thome missed it by a few feet), but no-one ever went further at the Vet than Willie Stargell did on June 25th, 1971.
The Phils were on their way to a last place finish in 1971, while the Pirates were on their way to a World Series championship. So nobody was surprised by the 14-4 drubbing the Pirates laid on the Phils on that hot June day. But the final score was a mere footnote to the blast Willie Stargell hit off of Jim Bunning. The left-hander launched one into the right field seats, and over 30 years later, the Phils on the field that day remembered it clearly. Said Bunning, who served up the meatball:
“The Stargell Star was a high slider that I used to get Stargell out on, only I didn’t throw it hard enough and didn’t get it in. It got over the fat part of the plate. He couldn’t hit it any further.”
Bunning probably would agree with Don Sutton, who once said of “Pops”, “He doesn’t just hit pitchers. He takes away their dignity.”
Said Larry Bowa:
“That ball was still going up. As an infielder, when a guy hits one that you know is a home run, you give it a casual look. When he swung, you didn’t take your eyes off it because you wanted to see where it was going. It was majestic.
“I couldn’t believe how far that ball went. It would take me three swings to get one up there — from second base.”
Here’s a couple of photos that give you some perspective of how far he hit it. In the first one, taken from home plate, the color area is the section where he hit the ball..and keep in mind, everyone agreed that it was still gaining speed when it hit the stands. The star marking the section where he hit it is in the upper right of the 2nd pic.
In honor of the legendary #20, take 20% off your Mike Schmidt t-shirt with the discount code, “Astrodome”.
In the first inning of a June 10, 1974 road game in Houston, a 2nd-year Phillies third-baseman hit the longest single in the history of the game.
After a Dave Cash leadoff walk and a Larry Bowa single, Mike Schmidt stepped to the plate to face Houston lefthander Claude Osteen with no outs and runners on first and second. Osteen challenged Schmidt with a fastball and Schmidt absolutely crushed it, sending the ball towering to center field and on its way well over the fence. Even though Astros center-fielder Cesar Cedeno knew the ball was gone, he did the customary trot back to the wall. But, before Schmidt reached first base, something went wrong. That something wrong was caused by a public address speaker suspended from the Astrodome ceiling 329 feet away from the plate and 117 feet in the air. Schmidt’s ball was hit so hard and so high, that it struck the speaker and bounced all the way back to shallow center field. Dave Cash, who was on second base at the time, said “I took one look and knew it was gone. Then I took another look and there it was coming down in front of Cesar Cedeno.” Fully expecting the ball to sail far over the fence, the Phillies base-runners didn’t break very hard and Schmidt was in full-on home run trot mode. When Cedeno collected the ball, Cash was on third, Bowa on second, and Schmidt, perplexed, was standing on first.
Also confused was the Astros play-by-play announcer: listen to the call here.
It was the first ball in Astrodome history that struck a speaker, but ground rules were in place for such a contingency. The rule related to the speakers is that as fixed objects in fair territory, they are in play. Therefore, on one hand, Cash, Bowa and Schmidt could have advanced if the ball careened far enough away from Cedeno. And on the other hand, if Cedeno got under the ball and caught it, it would have been ruled a fly out.
By all accounts, had Schmidt’s blast not struck the speaker, it would have traveled somewhere between 500 and 600 feet. Those who witnessed the shot said that the ball was still rising as it hit the speaker. Astros manager Preston Gomez called it “the hardest hit ball [he’d] ever seen at the Astrodome.” Cesar Cedeno said he “never saw a ball hit that far in his life.” Michael Jack was left wondering: “I would have liked to see where it would have landed.” I’m pretty sure June 10, 1974 was the only time things like that were said of a single.
Beer Week at PSH continues with the story of a new sponsor’s demands, the firing of the Dean and the beginning of our love affair with Harry Kalas.
The final game of the 1970 season marked the end of an era for the Philadelphia Phillies. In the midst of a re-branding to attract younger fans, the Phillies would be leaving Connie Mack Stadium for the new Astroturfed, exploding scoreboarded, mini-skirted usherette filled Veterans Stadium; they’d updated this logo to a more stylized “P”; they’d be sporting red cleats for the first time in team history; they’d be introducing Phil and Phyllis; they’d be televising more games in ’71 than ever before and adding a 4th camera in addition to slow-mo replays; and they’d made an advertising deal with a new sponsor in C. Schmidt and Sons, the brewer of Schmidt’s Beer.
Another change Phillies fans would be “treated to” in 1971 was the voice of a new play-by-play announcer. Prior to the start of the season, the Phillies announced that Bill Campbell, the Dean, would not be returning to the booth with By Saam and Richie Ashburn. Since 1942, Bill Campbell had been the voice of Philadelphia sports. His career in Philadelphia started at WCAU and in 1946 he became the play-by-play announcer for the expansion Philadelphia Warriors, a post he held until the team relocated to San Francisco in ’64. He was also the play-by-play guy for the Eagles from 1952 to 1966 and did the same for the Phillies from 1963 to 1970. He even called Big Five games. If you watched or listened to sports in Philadelphia during that time period, you did so through Bill Campbell.
Needless to say, the Philadelphia sports world was shocked and disappointed by the news that the Phillies were canning Campbell. At the luncheon when the announcement was made, reporters simply asked “Why?” They were told that the decision was made because the Phillies wanted to move to a younger announcer to draw a younger audience. The new, younger announcer was a relatively unknown 35-year-old from Houston named Harry Kalas.
The media jumped all over the Phillies for the decision. Frank Dolson of the Inquirer described the firing as premature, saying “Bill Campbell enjoyed doing big-league baseball as much as his fans enjoyed hearing him do it. Which is why his dismissal came as such a shock.” Stan Hochman of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote, “the Phillies youth movement has claimed another victim: Bill Campbell. Announcer-type fellow. Still has the tonsils. Can go from ho-hum to home run screech in 3.2 seconds. Can still snap open a can of beer with èclat…Campbell might be the town’s most professional announcer. Does his homework, talks to athletes, lets his emotions tumble through his descriptions…Oh, and by the way, the new guy’s name is pronounced Kal-us, as in callous.” A few days later, Bill Conlin chimed in with the strongest criticism of the firing with an article entitled “Striking Out and Honest Voice.” He wrote that “all Bill Campbell ever wanted to do was call a good baseball game with some flair and integrity.”
Kalas, who loved Campbell and felt horrible about the situation, ended up doing a pretty good job as Campbell’s replacement. He built a rapport with Whitey that was second to none in all of sports broadcasting and engendered a special bond with generations of Phillies fans. The Hall of Fame announcer is sorely missed and will be always remembered. And Campbell didn’t simply walk off into the sunset after he was pink-slipped. He became the play-by-play announcer of the Sixers in 1972 and lasted until 1981. After his play-by-play career was over he hosted a sports talk show on WIP until 1991, when he retired at the age of 68. Campbell never resented Kalas and the two became great friends.
So what does this have to do with Beer Week? Well, rumors about the real reason Campbell was let go swirled. Most didn’t accept the “youth movement” justification because Bill Campbell was still shy of 50 when he was fired. People thought Bill Giles, who knew Kalas from their time in Houston together and whose wife was best friends with Harry’s wife, was the real force behind the move to replace Campbell.
Giles always denied that was the case and instead, blamed C. Schmidt and Sons. Interviewed about the situation decades later, Giles claimed that the real reason Campbell was fired was because the new beer sponsor demanded it. The deal provided that Schmidt’s would pay the Phillies $1 million for broadcasting rights and would also pay the announcers salaries. According to Giles, the Schmidts wanted Campbell out because he appeared in ads for Ballantine beer, the Phillies previous beer sponsor at Connie Mack.
Campbell, forever disappointed by the decision, never bought that excuse. He said “Bill Giles blames it on the sponsor. There wasn’t any sponsor conflict. Bill wanted to bring Harry in and the problem was the beer sponsor only wanted to pay three of us…Somebody had to go and it was me.” Bolstering Campbell’s position is this poster and this schedule, which feature the whole crew (Ashburn, Campbell and Samm) in Ballantine ads.
Giles disagreed with Campbell’s thinking: “That’s bullshit. I didn’t want to embarrass the Schmidt’s beer people, so I put the onus on myself. When Schmidt’s said Bill Campbell had to go, I knew the guy I wanted, so I called Harry.”
Thank God for Schmidt’s Beer. In a shitty sort of way, it looks like the ends justified the means.
h/t to Randy Miller’s book “Harry the K, the remarkable life of Harry Kalas,” which served as a source for this post.
My favorite part is when she does jumping jacks. Keep it classy, Philadelphia! We’re going to be doing booze related posts all week for Beer Week, so stay tuned. Here’s some great photos and a terrific short bio of Schmidt’s Beer, which was founded in 1860 and closed in 1987, on the site of what is now the Piazza at Schmidt’s.
Another great interview with an author. This time it’s Steve Bucci, who has spent over 20 years as a sports journalist, over half of them as a sports anchor and reporter on KYW. He has written several books on the Phillies, his most recent one with Dave Brown called Drinking Coffee With a Fork: The Story of Steve Carlton and the ’72 Phillies. The title comes from a great quote from Willie Stargell, who once said, “Sometimes I hit him (Carlton) like I used to hit Koufax, and that’s like drinking coffee with a fork.” As most local sports fans know, Lefty’s ’72 season was nothing short of jaw dropping, as he won 27 games for a team that won 59 games all year. Steve tells us whether or not Carlton ever blew up on his less talented teammates, whether Philadelphians knew they were watching something special that year, and the biggest question of them all: was Steve Carlton’s 1972 season the greatest pitching year in MLB history?
JGT: What inspired you guys to write this book?
STEVE: We were inspired by the numbers Carlton put up that season for such a bad team. Dave Brown and I thought it would make a good book, because it doesn’t seem possible, does it? How could a guy pitch that well for a team that bad? And I’ve always felt that Carlton’s ’72 has gone largely overlooked in the annals of great seasons. Most people automatically think of Gibson’s ’68, or Guidry’s ’78, or one of Koufax’s great seasons of the mid-60s, but few every mention Carlton in 1972. He was the first, and up until recently, the only Cy Young Award winner from a last place team. We thought it was time he was given his due.
JGT: If Carlton had played on an even decent team, how many games do you think he would he have won that year?
STEVE: My guess is he would have definitely gotten to 30, which is a magic number in baseball history. There was a players strike that year that wiped out the first week of the season, and cost them six games. The Phillies only played 156. So that may have cost him two or three starts. As it was, he almost won 30.
I first came across the name Tyrone Everett in a list of Philly’s Best Ever Fighters compiled by Bernard Hopkins in The Great Book of Philadelphia Sports Lists. Everett’s entry was a mere two sentences long, but the 2nd sentence more than piqued my interest.
He was robbed in his 1976 Spectrum title fight against Alfredo Escalara and was tragically shot to death just 6 months later.
An athlete dying young and a potentially fixed fight? It was worth looking into. I would soon discover that Tyrone’s story was more than a tragedy. It was pulp non-fiction, a story that included the Mob, transvestites, drugs, snakes, and a mysterious murder.
Tyrone Everett was born in April of 1953 in South Philadelphia and started boxing at a young age. It was quickly recognized that the lefty had some serious talent, and his fame grew in South Philly, where young girls would jump rope while chanting “Ty, Ty, Butterfly.” The superfeatherweight was a regular attraction at the Spectrum’s Monday Night Fights in 1973 and ’74, and he won every bout. Along the way he earned the USBA superfeatherweight title. In June of 1975, “The Mean Machine” as he was known, finally travelled off his home turf to fight in Honolulu. The exotic locale didn’t affect his fury. He won by KO in the first round. By 1976, he was undefeated and a national contender for the WBC World Title. On November 30, 1976, he got his chance.
Now with a record of 34-0, Everett was given a shot at title holder Alfredo Escalara. Escalara was a flashy showman, known for his love of salsa music and for entering the ring with a snake around his neck when he fought in his native Puerto Rico. Though he was the challenger, Everett got to host the fight in his backyard, the Philadelphia Spectrum. There were three judges; a Puerto Rican judge, the referee, and a Philadelphia judge named Lou Tress.
If the fight was close, most people expected Tress to side with Everett, the Puerto Rican judge to stay loyal to Escalara, and that the fight would be determined by the referee. The fight was not close. From the opening bell Everett was the superior fighter, and he ran circles around the Puerto Rican, dominating the 15 round bout. The AP scored it 146-139, Everett. The UPI had it 146-141. Every ringside observer had Everett winning at least 10 rounds. The South Philly southpaw was going to be crowned World Champion. The future was his. And then it was stolen.
Daily News writer Tom Cushman wrote the next day,
“Tyrone Everett won the junior lightweight championship of the world last night. Won it with a whirling, artistic, courageous performance that brushed against the edges of brilliance. Tyrone was standing tall, proud, bleeding in his corner after the 15 rounds, waiting for the championship belt to be draped around his waist, when they snatched it from him. Picked him so clean it’s a wonder they didn’t take his shoes and trunks along with everything else.”
Years later Cushman wrote a book called Muhammad Ali and the Greatest Heavyweight Generation. And though Tyrone was far from a heavyweight, Cushman decided to include a chapter about Everett. In it, he wrote that Everett’s promoter, J Russell Peltz happened to run into renowned Philly fixer (and Frank Sinatra buddy) Blinky Palermo a few days after the fight. Peltz asked him if he thought that the fight might have been fixed. Palermo responded, “You can buy Lou Tress for a cup of coffee.”
Everett handled the screw job well, bouncing back to win his next two fights and setting up a rematch with Escalara that was to take place in Puerto Rico. The fight never happened. 10 days after his last fight, Tyrone Everett was killed, shot through the head in South Philly.
On May 17th, 1979, a howling wind blew straight out to left in Wrigley Field, and it carried a lot of baseballs with it. By the time this historic game was done, there had been 45 runs scored, 50 hits, and 11 Home Runs. The two starting pitchers lasted 1/3 of an inning each. 11 pitchers were used, and there could have been plenty more runs scored: the two teams combined to leave 22 men on base. The game featured future postseason heroes (Tug McGraw and Willie Hernandez) and future postseason goats (Bill Buckner and Donnie Moore.) It was one of the wildest baseball games a Philly team has ever been involved in, in any sport. How well were the teams hitting? A Phillies pitcher (Randy Lerch) homered in the top of the first inning. In the bottom of the first, a Cubs pitcher (Moore) tripled.
The Phillies got off to an early lead, scoring 7 runs in the top of the first. The Cubs answered quickly, scoring 6 in the bottom of the first. But the Phillies were hitting out of their minds, and had a comfortable 21-9 lead going into the bottom of the 5th. The Cubs came roaring back, thanks to the exploits of Dave Kingman, who hit 3 home runs to keep the Cubs in the ballgame, and Bill Buckner, who had a grand slam and finished with 7 RBIs. After 9 innings, the two teams were tied at 22 apiece. In the 10th, Schmidt hit his 2nd home run of the game to give the Phillies the lead back, and Rawly Eastwick retired the side to end the game. Here’s the box score of the game.
Incredibly, the two teams had played in another slugfest 3 years earlier at Wrigley, with Schmidt’s 4 Homers propelling Philly to an 18-16 victory. And there was only one game in MLB history in which two teams scored more runs. Those two teams were the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies. The place was Wrigley Field. The only thing different from the other two games was the result: the Cubs won 26-23, in a game in August 1922.
Here’s a great 2009 NY Times article about the game. And MLB doesn’t allow embedding for some insane reason, but you can watch video highlights of the 23-22 slugfest here.