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.
The 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.”
It 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.
With the Eagles stinking up the joint this year, we are looking back at some of their worst teams ever. Next up, the 1968 squad. In the photo at left are, from L-R, head coach Joe Kuharich, team treasurer Ed Snider (yes, that Ed Snider) and owner Jerry Wolman.
The 1968 Eagles are famous for one game, the game in which Santa Claus got booed. That was the final game of the season, on December 15th against the Vikings. But you’ll have to forgive Eagles fans if they weren’t really in a festive spirit. The season could not have possibly gone worse.
It started with the coach. “Joe Kuharich couldn’t sell iced tea to a Tasmanian at a dried up water hole,” wrote Sandy Grady in the Philadelphia Bulletin. He had been hired in 1964, and even at the time it was a poorly received choice. After all, Kuharich was at the time best known for being the only coach to have a losing career record at Notre Dame (a distinction he still holds). Incredibly, new Eagles owner Jerry Wolman gave Kuharich coaching and GM duties, and signed him to an unheard of 15-year contract. He instantly started making foolish moves. He traded fan favorite Tommy McDonald for two guys only their mothers could recognize. He traded Hall of Famer-in-the-making Sonny Jurgenson to the Redskins for a steady but unspectacular Norm Snead.
He did have one year of glory, a 1966 campaign that saw the Birds go 9-5 and finish 2nd to the Cowboys. But things went downhill fast after that. They went 6-7-1 the next year, and then the bottom fell out. The team opened the 1968 season with a 30-13 loss to the Packers. The Cowboys would humiliate them twice in 3 weeks, 45-13 and 34-14. In a battle between pitiful Pennsylvania teams, they lost to the Steelers 6-3. Philadelphia let out its frustration on Kuharich, wearing “Joe Must Go” buttons and even hiring a plane to fly a “Joe Must Go” banner over the Franklin Field.
By Thanksgiving day, the team stood at 0-11 and coming off a 47-13 loss to the Browns, looked like they were headed for an 0-14 season. There would be quite a silver lining in doing so: they would therefore have the number one pick in the draft, and acquire the electric OJ Simpson out of USC. Needless to say, they botched this opportunity too.
It poured rain nonstop for two days before their Thanksgiving day game against the Lions, and the teams played in a mess that came to be known as the Mud Bowl. In the end it was Eagle kicker Sam Hall booting 4 field goals to lead the Birds to a 12-0 win. Buoyed by their success, the team then came back to Philly and knocked off the Saints, 29-17, led by Tom Woodeshick’s 122 yards (he led the team in rushing that year with 947). It was a disaster. Needing only to lose their final three games, they had instead won 2. With the Bills already having finished their regular season at 1-12-1, the Eagles had cost themselves OJ Simpson before they even took the field for the infamous Santa game.
Say what you will about Eagles fans, they are nothing if not loyal. Almost 55,000 of them came out to Franklin Field on a snowy 28 degree day (Wind Chill 15) to cheer on a team so pathetic that it couldn’t even lose when it needed to. After a listless first half that ended in a 7-7 tie, the halftime Christmas pageant was set to begin. But the field had turned to muck, and the float Santa was supposed to be on got stuck in the mud. Furthermore, no-one could find Santa (Rumor had it that he got drunk). Whereas in Miracle on 34th Street, the real Santa took over for the drunk Santa, in this case the real Santa had decided not to attend this game (hard to blame him). The Eagles brass, desperate for a Santa, picked 20-year old Frank Olivo out of the crowd. Despite his 5’6″, 170 pound frame, he had decided to wear a Santa outfit that day. (You can read a great ESPN piece on what Olivo is up to today here.)
As this meager, skinny Santa ran around the field waving at fans, they began to boo. Olivo described it years later.
“At first I was scared because it was so loud. But then I figured, hey, it was just good-natured teasing. I’m a Philadelphia fan, I knew what was what. I thought it was funny.”
The booing soon turned into snowballs, as fans pelted him from the upper deck. Olivo took it all in stride, saying that he laughed it off. Nonetheless, when the Eagles asked him if he’d do it again the next year, he answer, “No way. If it doesn’t snow, they’ll probably throw beer bottles.”
The Eagles went on to lose the game 24-17 and finish the season 2-12. Their consolation was the third pick in the draft. The Bills got OJ Simpson, who would rush for 11,236 career yards. The Eagles took Leroy Keyes, who would rush for 369. With the 4th pick, the Steelers took Mean Joe Greene. Kuharich was fired in the offseason, when Wolman sold the team to Leonard Tose.
Nonetheless, he continued to get paid for the remainder of his incredible 15-year contract. Kuharich passed away from bone cancer on the same day the Eagles played in Super Bowl XV against the Raiders. Eagles GM Jim Murray visited him in the hospital a few days before, right before the Eagles left for New Orleans.
“The man is lying there devastated by that disease, and you know he’s in agony, and all he can do is wish us luck. The team that fired him, the city that crucified him, he’s wishing them nothing but success. There are more records in this life than winners and losers. And I’d love to have his report card.”