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.