In 2001, the Ravens got ready to play the Ravens in a preseason tilt. The teams got to the stadium, got dressed, and then nothing happened. The team had to cancel a preseason game because the already terrible Vet turf was even worse than usual, and the Ravens refused to play on it. Thus set off a series of unfortunate events, and a condemnation of the field from Joe Banner.
Some disappointed fans, among the estimated 45,000 in attendance, smashed will-call windows and other areas outside the 30-year-old stadium. Six people were arrested for unruly behavior, and that was just one problem.
The press elevator then got stuck between the first and second level while a news conference took place. There were no injuries, but 18 people waited 41 minutes to be let out….
…”It was completely unanimous from everybody’s perspective,” Eagles president Joe Banner said. “The field is not suitable to playing.
“We’re disappointed. We’ve been going through this for years. It’s not acceptable. The conditions this team is forced to play in is absolutely unacceptable and an embarrassment to the city of Philadelphia.”
In fact, the Eagles were hoping that the Vet was going to be nicer in 2001 than it was the year before. It was the first facility to ever get Nextturf installed. Unfortunately, therein lied the problem. Since it was rather new, the people installing it didn’t realize that it was tough to fit it properly over the segments of the field that were also used for baseball, and that’s why they had to cancel the game. Before the Nextturf, the field had been even worse. This from a 2000 article in the Orlando Sentinel.
No official body count has been kept regarding the injury toll that the infamous turf at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium has taken on NFL players over the years.
Perhaps the most tragic victim was Chicago Bears wide receiver Wendell Davis. In 1993, Davis leaped to catch a pass and landed awkwardly on the hard surface. Davis ruptured tendons in both knees on the play.
Bucs secondary coach Herman Edwards played nine seasons (1977-85) with the Eagles and never missed a game. He considers himself fortunate.
“It’s like this,” Edwards said, banging his foot on Tampa Bay’s concrete locker-room floor. “Only green.”
Actually, it’s worse these days. Stadium maintenance personnel erred last week in failing to cover the field in the days before Philadelphia closed the regular season against the Cincinnati Bengals. When an ice storm froze the field, workers treated it with calcium chloride solutions normally used to de-ice roads. The treatment left an oily residue that made the field even more slippery.
“It was on the players’ shoes, on their bodies, on their hands,” Reid said. “They couldn’t lick their fingers unless they wanted to taste that stuff. Plus, it was water resistant.”
It is somewhat amusing that some Philadelphia sports fans could never understand why the Eagles never built a winning sports franchise, at the same time they played at the most despicable stadium in sports history, as if the two weren’t interrelated. As for the Wendell Davis injury, SI wrote about it in 1993. Pretty gruesome.
Chicago bear wide receiver Wendell Davis looked over his shoulder into the blue sky above Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium on Oct. 10 and saw the football spiraling toward him. Davis, in full gallop, had Eagle cornerback Mark McMillian right with him, and the pass was a bit under-thrown. Davis figured he would have to stop, turn and outjump McMillian for the ball.
At the precise moment that Davis planted his feet to jump for the ball, his turf shoes dug into the AstroTurf and held solid, as though they were nailed to the carpet. Davis felt something snap simultaneously in both knees, and he flopped to the artificial turf as if he’d been shot. He began screaming in pain. He tried to move his legs but couldn’t. When the trainers and team doctor reached him and straightened both legs, Davis looked down to see why it felt as if someone were stabbing him in both knees with knives.
“I saw the doctor trying to find my kneecaps,” Davis said last week from his hospital bed in Chicago. “They found my kneecaps up in my thighs.”
It’s so interesting to me that while it is considered common knowledge today that artificial turf is horrific in terms of injury, less than 20 years ago, people were saying that the evidence was far from conclusive (from the same article).
Says Greg Grillone, the stadium director at Veterans Stadium, “It’s not practical to have a grass field. I haven’t seen evidence that AstroTurf is responsible for injuries. But with all the injuries this year, it does make you scratch your head.”
There is simply no question that the green concrete at the Vet was a tangible cause of increased injury, making Grillone sound like Bob Dole refusing to acknowledge the health risks of tobacco smoke. But even as fewer and fewer pro teams play on it, it is still a very lively business, and there have been incredible advancements in making it safer and more “realistic”. In fact, with giant chunks of sod flying up in the air whenever the Bears play a home game, there are plenty of folks in Chicago clamoring for artificial turf. It would eliminate the sod problem. There are no chunks of grass, it’s obviously much easier to maintain in harsh winters, and there are some studies that the newer stuff causes fewer injuries. The Packers actually play on a turf field, though you wouldn’t know it to look at it. There is, technically, no more “frozen tundra at Lambeau Field”. So while thankfully the green concrete is no longer en vogue, it is interesting to note that artificial turf is poised to make a comeback.
Courtesy of the Temple University Library, here are scale models of the Vet, presented to the Mayor in 1965 (above). There seemed to be a lot of excitement about the proposal above. In the following photo, you can see then-Mayor James Tate (in glasses, between the woman and guy pointing at home plate) looking at it excitedly. I think that while it’s not great, it would have undoubtedly been better than the Vet. The proposed stadium would have housed both the Eagles and Phillies, as you can see above.
I love the flags leading up the walkway to the main entrance. I’m guessing they had all of the MLB teams on them? Notice how low and dark the entrance to the stadium is, though. Really weird. Also, what’s that white box at the bottom? Is that the subway stop?
Now, what would this stadium look like if you just plopped a dome on top of it and changed almost nothing else? This. In the age of the Astrodome, people were nuts about domes, and Philly would have probably gotten one if voters had agreed to a tax hike.
That wasn’t the only dome proposal either. The other one was for the ultimate Vet Stadium winner, except with a big ugly dome on top. Interesting to think about how loud it would have gotten in a Philadelphia dome. When doing research I found that the Daily News did a poll in 1984 asking fans if they wanted a dome at the Vet. 93% said yes. The idea gained political steam, as then-Mayor Wilson Goode said, “We will, over the next several weeks, take a good hard look at the economics of whether or not there should be a dome placed on the stadium.” In fact, the stadium had been constructed in a way that if voters ever changed their minds, the city could add a dome. And 1984 wasn’t the first time the topic of a dome had come up. According to the Gettysburg Times, in 1982, Owens-Corning proposed a dome that would cost between $34 and $42 million. “The 10-acre roof would be woven from Teflon Coated Fiberglas yarn, according to a spokeman for Owens-Corning. Air pressure from constantly operating electric fans would support the fabric, the same technique Owens-Corning used to cover Detroit’s Silverdome.”
The football team was interested, and the city thought a dome might bring a Super Bowl here, but the Phillies weren’t as intrigued. Here’s an incredible quote from Bill Giles in 1984: “My personal preference would be to make JFK a domed football stadium.” That would have been…something else. Obviously, none of these plans made it past the initial proposal stage.
Here is more or less the winning proposal, followed by an actual photo of the Vet. A few differences from the final product. Less dirt on basepaths (not sure when they decided to go with artificial turf) and the “roof” didn’t extend as far as it did in the proposal.
And it’s pretty obvious where they got the inspiration for the Vet’s design.
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.
Had a chance to sit down with local author and Penn prof Bruce Kuklick recently and ask him about his excellent book, To Every Thing a Season. To read Part One of that Interview, where Bruce talks about who was better the 1929 A’s or 2011 Phillies, click here. To read Part Two, where he talks about Connie Mack and the best and worst things about Shibe Park, click here. Today we present part 3, where Bruce talks about why Connie Mack couldn’t serve beer at the ballpark, when Philly fans first got their reputation as being rowdy, and how Penn’s former President prevented Citizen’s Bank Park from being built downtown.
JGT: One thing I found interesting about the book was Mack’s fight to serve alcohol at the ballpark. And that was something that went on for decades. And he never got it done. They wouldn’t let them serve beer in the ballpark until after the A’s left town. Why was their so much pushback to serving beer in ballparks?
KUKLICK: Well first of all, you’ve got to understand, it’s Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is not a dry state, but it’s one in which there are enough rural Protestant Republicans who really want to control drinking to the extent that they can. And this has been true long before the 20th century and it has nothing to do with sports per se.
Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. What do they represent? They represent bad things to a lot of these people. Because they’re urban, there’s a lot more liquor, women, and things like that. And another thing, there are a lot more Catholics in the big cities in comparison to the rest of the state. Mack is a Catholic. And so when he starts agitating for liquor at the ballpark, this represents to the powers-that-be something that is off-color, it’s vulgar, it’s nasty.
JGT: So is Mack fighting more the state or the city?
KUKLICK: He’s fighting the state. There’s a whole series of blue laws which not only control drinking but control your behavior on a Sunday. You know what they say today. They say today, “You’ve got Pittsburgh and you’ve got Philadelphia, and in between you’ve got Alabama.”
I don’t think that Mack saw this as a Catholic drinking issue, which a lot of people have accused him of. He saw it as a revenue stream. And (when it came to drinking laws) from the 1930s to 1970s (They allowed sales of beer in the ballpark starting in 1961, but no beer on Sundays until 1972) it was always politicians in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia against the rest of the state, and the politicians in the big cites get their biggest support from professional sports teams.
JGT: So other ballparks in the country were serving beer well before Shibe?
KUKLICK: Yeah. I don’t know what the exact history of the other ballparks is, but Philadelphia was particularly noted for its dryness. One of the things I didn’t put in the book is that you have so much smuggling of beer into the ballpark. Which is one reason why a place like Kilroy’s (The bar located behind right field where Phillies relief pitchers sometimes snuck into to grab a drink during games.) does so well, because people just grabbed beer there and put it in a bag. So there was a lot of technically illegal beer drinking. Which I think in football contributed to a lot of this rowdy behavior. There’s this history of people smuggling stuff into the parks.
JGT: Speaking of rowdy behavior, Philly fans have a reputation of rowdyism. Does that go back to the Shibe Park days?
KUKLICK: Yeah. Well it first starts in the first decade of the 20th century when the A’s are battling the Detroit Tigers and Ty Cobb (“Sliding” into home, right). And Philadelphia fans hate Cobb. And I find out that they send a death threat to him. And at one point he’s riding on a subway to get to the park and fans come and topple over this subway and he runs scared and runs out. Now, I don’t know that that’s the beginning, but that’s the earliest time I could trace it. They say that today this (CBP) is the only stadium where the crowd can really rattle an opposing pitcher because the fans get so boisterous and angry. There’s a tradition of it here, it goes back over 100 years. Why we got it? I don’t know.
JGT: A guy I interviewed a few weeks ago who was a fan of the A’s in the 20s said that Al Simmons, one of the stars of that team, couldn’t catch a break from the fans. Then you had Del Ennis in the 50s…
KUKLICK: And then you had it with Mike Schmidt.
JGT: So this strange phenomenon of Philadelphia fans beating up on their own is nothing new.
KUKLICK: There’s a story of one guy, Gus Zernial, who was a slugger kind of like Ennis but he didn’t have that long of a career in Philadelphia (note: he played here from 1951-1954). He fell and broke his leg trying to catch a fly ball, and they all cheered when he broke his leg. They’re out for blood.
JGT: Getting back to the ballpark. Looking at what’s happened in the neighborhoods surrounding Wrigley and Fenway since the teams decided to stay, and how those neighborhoods have come back up, had they decided to rehab Shibe instead of tear it down, do you think that neighborhood would be different today?
KUKLICK: I absolutely do. My wife and I went on vacation one time to Club Med, and we were talking to some people, and we said, “Where are you from?” and this guy said “Wrigleyville.” He didn’t say Chicago. And we knew exactly where he was talking about. That ballpark is known all over the Western World. And every once in a while, I think, “Gee if they had only had the foresight.” But basically that area went through a really terrible period. It’s now come up considerably on its own. It’s a lot less nasty and dangerous than it was.
But Carpenter (The Phillies owner at the time) was just not interested. He didn’t think in those terms at all.
JGT: Like the guys in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, he thought, “I can save a fortune by not having to grow grass.”
KUKLICK: When I teach Vietnam, I’ll say, “Those ballparks that they are now tearing down (Riverfront, The Vet, Three Rivers, etc.), they were all built during that period, and it’s kind of our Roman period. The United States thinks it’s going to conquer the world. And we have these ballparks that look like Roman Colosseums.” So Carpenter isn’t alone.
JGT: So now they’re at Citizen’s bank. Not in a neighborhood. Are you a fan of Citizen’s Bank?
KUKLICK: Oh yeah. I’m not overwhelmed by it, but I do like going there. I’d like it a lot better if it were in the city. I was one of the people who, well, I’ll tell you this story. The previous President at Penn was a woman named Judy Ronin, who had no sense of baseball or sports at all. And then there were plans to put a stadium on stilts next to the Walnut Street Bridge, so that a home run would go into the river. They had all of these terrific downtown urban plans, and she said, “I don’t want those baseball drunks pissing in my University.” And she vetoed it. I wanted it right there.
You know, Philadelphians have never wanted to build their ballparks right in the middle of the city. When they built Shibe, it was the countryside. I think you have to have more of an urban mindset more so than these planners have had in Philly.