It was a soggy, rainy night at Franklin Field, and almost everyone in Philadelphia had found something better to do. A mere 1,293 fans were on hand to watch the Philadelphia Bell take on the Charlotte Hornets, and those fans were treated to a sloppy, turnover-filled game that ended with the Bell ahead 18-10. There wouldn't be much time for the home team to celebrate, however. The World Football League would go under 4 days later. It was the last game the Bell would ever play.
The team had started with so much promise the year before. The owners, Al Sica and John Bosacco, convinced Jack Kelly, Princess Grace's brother, to be their president. They signed King Corcoran as their QB, a playboy whose cocky swagger and eccentric dress had given him the nickname "the poor man's Joe Namath." At wide receiver, the squad signed a former track star at St. Joe's by the name of Vince Papale.
They decided to play games their first season JFK Stadium. It was considered a strategic error. JFK had seating for 100,000 people, and the puny crowds the pundits were predicting would look even tinier in such a massive stadium. But those pundits were proven wrong when over 55,000 fans showed up to cheer the Bell on to a 33-8 victory over the Portland Storm (a team that had a young linebackers coach by the name of Marty Schottenheimer).
Two weeks later, the Bell returned home, and a crowd of 64,719 showed up to see the Bell battle the New York Stars. The game was a thriller, with the Bell missing two field goals in the final three minutes and falling 17-15. Nonetheless, the enormous crowd had the city abuzz and the World Football League looking like a real challenger to the NFL. Then, a few weeks later, it all fell apart.
Reporters began asking questions when a mere 12,396 fans showed up for the Bell's next home game. It turned out that the Bell had been selling many of their tickets at a remarkably cheap discount, and in fact gave tens of thousands of tickets away to local businesses to give to their customers. When the league was forced to pay city taxes on the tickets, the actual figures for paid attendance for those two games was a paltry 13,855 and 6,200. Bell Executive Vice President Barry Leib confessed, What can I say? I lied. I never thought those figures would come out."
A few days later, Jack Kelly held a press conference at the Warwick Hotel and announced his resignation. The team, and the league, never recovered from a scandal that was quickly dubbed "Papergate". The league began a downward spiral, but the stories of the characters that played, coached, and owned teams in the league became legendary.
Jacksonville Sharks owner Fran Monaco borrowed $27,000 from his head coach Bud Asher, then quickly fired him. Several players on the Hawaiian Islanders allegedly got cut without getting the money owed them, and therefore couldn't afford flights back to the mainland. The Charlotte Hornets had their uniforms seized after a game with Shreveport Steamer. The Hornets, who had bounced out of New York midway through the season and headed south, had been followed by a cleaner who claimed the team owed him over $26,000. Team owners had to post bond for the uniforms. The Detroit Wheels were coached by a screwdriver salesman.
The Memphis team was known as the Grizzlies, and had an actual grizzly cub as a mascot. At one game, the cub came across an electrical wire and began to chew on it. Eventually, it got to the core, and received a shock that not only knocked the poor bear on its back...it also shorted the stadium scoreboard. In Houston, the local sheriff showed up with a warrant for renowned wildman John Matuszak (who would later win two Super Bowls with the Raiders and star as Sloth in the Goonies). Matuszak had blown off his contract with the Oilers to play for the WFL's Texans. The coach allegedly told the sheriff he would give him a game helmet if he would just let the Tooz play a couple of series. The sheriff relented, and Matuszak was served papers after playing 7 plays, one of them a sack.
King Corcoran would recall shortly after the league folded in 1975, " Once we flew commercial to Portland and the flight back made eight stops. It was brutal. Then we got on a bus in Philadelphia and it broke down and we had to get out, carry our bags and hitchhike."
The insanity continued at the "World Bowl". The game was initially supposed to be played in Jacksonville, but when the Jacksonville team folded, the league moved the game to Birmingham. The Birmingham Americans would face the Florida Blaze. They were two of the best teams in the league. However, they weren't the best compensated; players on both teams hadn't seen a single paycheck in over a month. The Americans held on for a dramatic 22-21 win. After the game ended, federal agents arrived and seized the Americans' helmets and uniforms, hoping to recoup part of what their owner owed the IRS.
The Bell had lost $2 million in 1974, but incredibly were one of only two franchises that decided to move forward in a restructured WFL in 1975. They made history shortly before the '75 season began: after head coach Ron Waller quit, they hired Willie Wood, former star of the Green Bay Packers. He was the first African American ever hired as coach of a professional football team. The team also decided that it's low attendance wouldn't look quite so paltry at Franklin Field, and decided to stop playing at JFK.
A few months later, with the writing on the wall, in front of a miniscule crowd at the hallowed Franklin Field, the Philadelphia Bell played their final game. The league owners decided, a few days later, to scrap the league. Bell head coach Willie Wood was emotional when he spoke about the end of the league. "I can't say I was shocked by what has happened. But I suddenly realized how hard I've been rooting for this underdog. I suddenly realized a whole lot of good people are out of work. I suddenly realized a great idea had gone to dust."
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Both the Eagles and the Steelers (initially called the Pirates) were born on July 8th 1933, a few months after Pennsylvania voters repealed the law banning sports on Sundays. The Pirates were brought into existence by Art Rooney, while the Eagles were created by a syndicate headed by Bert Bell. Both teams were a disaster on the field and off: they lost almost every game they played and hemorrhaged money. The other Eagles investors dropped out, and Bell was left as the teams coach, owner, GM, scout, and ticket salesman. (By the late 30s, he would actually hawk tickets to Eagles games on Philly street corners. Can you imagine Jeff Lurie or Howie Roseman doing that today?).
The Birds played at the 102,000 seat Municipal Stadium (later known as JFK) with over 100,000 people disguised as empty seats. They won one game in 1939 and again in 1940: both of those wins were against the equally pitiful Pirates (In 1939, the Eagles lone win was against the Pirates and the Pirates lone win was against the Eagles). In 1940, the Eagles averaged less than a yard per carry.
Things weren’t much better for the Pirates, and in 1940, things got so bad for the Pittsburgh team that Art Rooney sold them to a 26-year old steel heir living in New York named Alexis Thompson, who planned to move them to Boston and call them the Ironmen. Rooney then bought a half interest in the Eagles, and Rooney and Bell decided to field a combined PA team known as the Keystoners that would play half of their home games in Pittsburgh, and half of their home games in Philly. But Thompson changed his mind about moving and decided to keep his team in Pittsburgh, foiling Bell and Rooney’s dream of the Keystoners (There would later be a PA soccer team called the Keystoners, or “Stoners” for short).
Not wanting to set up headquarters in Philly and having some regrets about leaving his hometown, Rooney asked Thompson if he would simply swap teams: Thompson would move his new Steelers to Philly to become the Eagles, and Bell and Rooney would take their players to Pittsburgh and come up with a new team name. Thompson agreed. So the players on the 1940 Eagles became members of the 1941 Pittsburgh team, and members of the 1940 Pittsburgh team moved to Philly and became the Eagles. Make sense?
To further confuse matters, Rooney decided he wanted a break from the past and held a contest to come up with a new name for his team. The winner was Steelers. The two teams actually went head to head in week 2 of the 1941 season, with the Eagles prevailing, 10-7. It would be one of two wins the Birds had all season. The Steelers had one. A change of scenery didn’t seem to do the players on either team much good.
Two seasons later, both teams still stunk, but the Steelers were in a further bind: most of their players had been drafted into the armed forces due to WWII, and with only a few weeks to go before summer practice, they had six players under contract*. That’s when Rooney and Bell decided to revisit their idea of a few years previous and combine the two teams. Thompson wasn’t crazy about the idea but agreed, and the “Phil-Pitt Combined” were born (they were never officially called the Steagles. The Philly press still called them the Eagles, but a writer for The Pittsburgh Press named Chet Smith coined the term and the name stuck). They were scheduled to play four home games at Shibe Park and two home games at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. They wore the Eagles kelly green.
The team was co-coached by Steelers coach Walt Kiesling and Eagles coach Greasy Neale. The primary problem with this arrangement was that the two men hated each other. They decided to split the team, with Neale coaching offense and Kiesling coaching defense. According to former Steagle Jack Hinkle,”There was a big blow-up about halfway through the season when Neale called one of the Steelers a ‘statue of s**t.’ Kiesling pulled all of the Steelers off the practice field.”
Despite the awkward arrangement, the team was fairly successful on the field, going 5-4-1. It was the first winning season for the Eagles franchise ever, and they actually defeated and tied eventual division winner Washington. The team played well and Rooney and Bell probably would have been up for reuniting when the leagues asked them to in 1944. Thompson was not. The rift between Kiesling and Neale was too wide to repair, and Thompson had supplied most of the manpower for the 1943 season and didn’t want any more credit going to Bell and Rooney.
The Steelers instead teamed up with the Chicago Cardinals in 1944 to become “Card-Pitt.” The team was awful, and sportswriters called them the “Carpets”, since everyone walked all over them. They finished the season 0-10. The Eagles, meanwhile, drafted Steve Van Buren in the draft that year, and went 7-1-2, missing the playoffs by a mere half game. The year as the Steagles would set into motion their greatest run in team history, as they would finish 1st or 2nd in the division in the following six years, appear in three championship games, and win two of them.
Thompson would sell the team a few years later and die of a heart attack at the age of 40. Rooney would continue to own the Steelers until 1974 when he handed it off to his son Dan. Dan’s son Art II now runs the team. Bell relinquished his role as c0-owner when he became NFL commissioner in 1945. He was still commish in 1959 when he died of a heart attack…while attending a game at Franklin Field between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles.
*The vast majority of NFL players who weren’t at war didn’t serve because they were either too old or classified 4-F. The Steagles leading receiver in 1943 was Tony Bova, who was blind in one eye and partially blind in another.
You can read a more in-depth report about the Steagles here, and there is also an excellent book on the topic. You can watch a short video history of the team, featuring Ray Didinger, here. The Steagles shirt is a Shibe Vintage Sports original. You will not find it anywhere else.
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.
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.