July 25, 2014

The REAL story of Philly, Santa and the snowballs

santaclaus.jpegHow often do we hear the national media mention the Philly fans booing Santa Claus? I want to know how many know the real story. Not many. It’s become urban legend and no one knows what really happened. Oh but wait, Philly sports guru’s Glen Macnow and Anthony Gargano do. This is an excerpt from “The Great Philadelphia Fan Book” entitled “Snow Job!” It also follows up with the story of the 1989 Jimmy Johnson snowballing at the Vet.

The book is phenomenal; go out and buy it if you are a Philly fan (Copyright 2003, Middle Atlantic Press). Whether you are an Eagles fan or not, read this. I have had it with the national media repeating this nonsense without knowing what really happened. I’ll bet most think it happened at the Vet. So here we are, the real story. Thanks Glen and Anthony!:

“No one says no to Santa Claus—unless you live in Philadelphia, where they throw snowballs at him.” — Washington Business Journal, 2001

“Philadelphia is a tough, nasty city where fans have been known to throw snowballs at Santa.” — Ottawa Sun, 2002

No event has been used to tar-and-feather Philadelphia fans as much as the day we chucked a few at Santa down at Franklin Field.

And no event has been exaggerated, misconstrued and inaccurately recalled. Snowballs-at-Santa has become pure mythology, our Greek tragedy.

Yeah, it happened. But somehow a minor laugh-it-off incident evolved into Christmas Armageddon. To hear our critics (chief culprit: Howard Cosell) tell it, poor St. Nick was virtually killed under an avalanche of angry, icy projectiles.

And now, let’s hear from Santa himself: “I thought it was funny.”

More from the jolly one in a moment. First, let’s set the record straight. We’ll begin by setting the scene.

The date was December 15, 1968. It was the last game in the last season of the Joe Kuharich Era (soon to be followed by the equally dismal Jerry Williams Era). The Eagles record stood at 2-11. Actually, they had been 0-11 before beating the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints. Those late-season victories might be cause for consolation in other years, but all they did in 1968 was take the team out of the running for the nation’s top collegian, future Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson.

The Eagles were playing the Minnesota Vikings on a miserable Sunday afternoon. It had snowed steadily since the night before. By game time, the temperature had dropped 22 degrees and gusting winds approached 30 miles per hour. Fans arriving at Franklin Field found their wooden seats covered with a three-inch layer of slush.

That 54,535 would show up in a snowstorm to see a last-place team is a testament to the loyalty of Philadelphia fans. That angle, however, rarely gets mentioned.

Anyway, on this day, the Birds got off to a surprising lead. Early in the second quarter, split end Gary Ballman took a swing pass from quarterback Norm Snead and bulled his way five yards into the end zone for a touchdown. For a brief moment, Eagles fans considered the notion that, even if the team was out of the O.J. sweepstakes, finishing the season with three straight wins might be something to build on.

That feeling didn’t last long. Minutes before halftime, Snead threw an interception into the hands of safety Paul Krause. A few plays later, Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp threw a deep pass to fullback Bill Brown at the Eagles’ 20-yard line. Brown knocked over two would-be tacklers, eluded another and rumbled in for a 57-yard touchdown.

And so, the half arrived, the cold, wet fans considered the lot of their team.

They considered how owner Jerry Wolman, who bought the club back in 1963, dismantled a strong, proud franchise. The Eagles began the 1960s as NFL champions. They were ending the decade as a laughingstock.

They considered how Wolman signed Joe Kuharich (official nickname: “The Dumbest Coach in Notre Dame History”) to a fifteen-year contract extension during the 1964 season. Kuharich could not hide his glee over the $900,000 deal (“Now I know how Sutter felt when he found all that gold,” he publicly crowed), and went on to go 22-34-1 after signing it. By 1968 planes flew over Franklin Field towing signs reading, “Joe Must Go.”

They considered how Kuharich—serving as coach and general manager—traded Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen to Washington for journeyman Snead. The swashbuckling Jurgensen was adored by Eagles fans, but the prudish Kuharich chafed at Sonny’s playboy ways. Kuharich tried to explain the unexplainable by calling the quarterback-for-quarterback deal, “rare but no unusual.”

Jurgensen went on to throw more touchdowns than any other NFL quarterback in the 1960s. Snead led the decade in another category: interceptions.

So, as the half ended, the fans sat there—frozen, frustrated, their galoshes soaking in snow that no one had shoveled away. Some sucked warmth out of flasks. Others huddled under mounds of heavy clothes. Kuharich trotted to the locker room in a short-sleeve shirt and sports jacket, looking, according to the Philadelphia Daily News, “as if he were strolling down the boardwalk in Atlantic City.”

Could you really fault the fans for what was about to happen?

The Christmas Pageant was about to begin. Eagles cheerleaders—then known as “Eagle-ettes”—were decked out in elf costumes, modest by today’s standards but considered risqué at the time. A 50-piece band, “The Sound of Brass,” was cued up to play carols. Bill “Moon” Mullen, the Eagles entertainment director, figured that the fans may not see good football but, dammit, they were going to see a good halftime show.

Except there were a few problems. Fifteen hours of snowfall and thirty minutes of football had reduced the field to muck. Zaberer’s Restaurant, a Jersey Shore institution back then, had built a Christmas float to parade Santa around the joint. The float was huge, carrying an ornate sleigh dragged by eight life-size fiberglass reindeer. Indeed, it was so huge that it got stuck in the mud before it ever got onto the field. Santa would have to hoof it.

That was, if they could locate Santa. According to most reports, the regular St. Nick hadn’t made it through the storm. The Eagles needed a stand-in. Mullen, now in his eighties, does not recall seeking a replacement Kris Kringle, but concedes, “It may have happened that way.”

They apparently found one in the end zone. Sitting in the seats with his family was 20-year-old Frank Olivo of South Philadelphia. Olivo had worn his red corduroy Santa suit and fake beard to the game, hoping the TV cameras might find him.

Olivo—who stands all of five-foot-six and weighed 170 pounds those days—says Mullen approached him in a panic and begged him to stand in for the AWOL Rent-a-Santa.

“I figured, what the heck, this could be fun,” recalls Olivo, who now lives in Ocean City, N.J. “Little did I know what was about to happen.”

Mullen gave his faux Santa a big toy bag and stationed him under a gate in the end zone. The dancing Eaglettes formed two 100-yard columns down the field. When the brass band struck up “Here Comes Santa Claus,” little Frank Olivo was cued to jog between the cheerleaders and wave to the crowd.

“That’s when the booing started,” Olivo recalls. “At first, I was scared because it was so loud. But then I figured, hey, it was just a good-natured teasing. I’m a Philadelphia fan, I know what was what. I thought it was funny.”

There remains debate on how much of the fans’ ire came from Santa’s less-than-rotund physique and ragged red suit. Olivo describes himself as “a terrific Santa. That was a $100 suit back in the Sixties. I looked really good.”

Others aren’t so sure. “He was the worst-looking Santa I’d ever seen,” recalls Jim Gallagher, who was the Eagles public relations director at the time. “Bad suit, scraggly beard. I’m not sure whether he was drunk, but he appeared to be.”

Regardless, when Olivo finished his run down Santa Claus Lane, he got into range. A fan in the upper deck threw the first snowball. As Santa hit the south end zone, one turned into ten, then into 100.

“Oh, I got pelted,” Olivo says. He remembers being hit by several dozen snowballs, which suggests that many of the upper-deck denizens were more accurate passers than Snead. “I didn’t mind,” he says. “I started kibitzing with some of the people throwing the snowballs.”

Olivo also rationalizes that no one was really unloading on Father Chrismas. He was merely a surrogate for Wolman, Kuharich and Snead.

Still, he had his limits. “When I finished, Mr. Mullen asked if I wanted to do it again the next year,” Olivo says. “I told him, ‘No way. If it doesn’t snow, they’ll probably throw beer bottles.”

One of the strong-armed fans that afternoon went on to become a perennial Pro Bowl player in the NFL. Matt Millen grew up an hour west of Franklin Field and still proudly describes himself as “a Philly rowdy through and through.”

“It was a miserable day and a miserable team,” recalls Millen, who was 11 years old at the time. “That was the only fun part of the game, and everybody joined in—fathers, sons, even the old ladies. That guy had it coming. I still remember the song, ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’—BOOM! Got ‘im! Hey, it was just the thing to do at the time. No big deal.”

Millen is no president of the Detroit Lions. How would he feel if fans threw snowballs at his stadium? “Well, we play in a dome,” he says. “So I guess they’d have to smuggle them in.

But it was different in that era,” he adds. “Very passionate. Franklin Field was a crazy place. People took their football seriously. Hell, they’d run on the field to get at the players and coaches.”

Indeed, during the second quarter that day, one fan sprinted to the Eagles bench to debate Kuharich’s coaching methods. The man’s point of view was muffled by a forearm from huge offensive tackle Bob Brown. Another fan danced to the 50-yard line dragging an effigy of Wolman. Yet another hung a green-and-white sign on a flagpole above the north-end stands reading simply, “Kuharich Stinks.” Appropriately, it was hung upside down, the international signal of distress.

Years later, these men’s offspring would come to be known as “The 700 Level.”

Anyway, the second half began and, to no one’s surprise, the Eagles finished the season with a 24-17 defeat. Driving home afterward, few people thought much of the snowball incident. Most focused their thoughts on how the Eagles would bollix their next first-round draft pick (which they did by taking Purdue running back Leroy Keyes and promptly turning him into a defensive back).

The local papers made scant mention of the St. Nick affair. Inquirer columnist Frank Dolson worked it into the eighth paragraph of his story, saying that Santa “made his tour of the stadium, waving cheerfully in the best holiday tradition. The fans responded, pelting him with snowballs, in the worst Philadelphia tradition.”

The Bulletin’s Ray Kelly spent most of his column describing a gruesome eye injury that Eagles fullback Tom Woodeshick sustained in the game. In his eleventh paragraph, Kelly wrote, “The fans even threw snowballs at Santa when he paraded around the field at halftime.”

And that was that. The entire incident might have been forgotten if late Sunday night the local news had not been followed by the “ABC Weekend Report,” a national news show featuring Howard Cosell on sports. Two years before his Monday Night Football gig, Cosell contributed a weekly package of NFL highlights to the show. When the whip-around got to Franklin Field, Cosell showed no football. Instead, he aired the pelting of Santa, accompanied by his polysyllabic verbiage shaming the Philadelphia faithful.

And so, our infamy began.

“The Cardinals are off to Philadelphia, about to encounter fans that once threw snowballs at Santa Clause.” —Dan Bickley, Arizona Republic, 2002

“Philadelphia sports fans are notoriously hard to please and irascible. Some are jus plain crazy. This is, after all, where fans once booed and hurled snowballs at Santa Claus.” —Eric Westervelt, National Public Radio, 2001

Not long after the season ended, Wolman fell into deep financial trouble. A bankruptcy referee in Baltimore oversaw the team’s sale to trucking magnate Leonard Tose, who would later have his own money problems. One of Tose’s first acts as owner made him an instant hero. He fired Kuharich, even though he had to pay the bumbling coach another 11 years’ salary.

It would take another ten years before the team produced a winning season under Tose and head coach Dick Vermeil. Still, the Snowballs-at-Santa afternoon at Franklin Field put the punctuation mark on one bad era. Things could only get better from there.

Problem is, long after the scale and circumstances of a minor incident recede from memory, the label of hooligan remains the albatross slung around our collective necks. The fact that Eagles fans turned out year after year to support a bad football team becomes irrelevant. That a few folks had some laughs and let our frustrations by pasting a sad-sack Santa becomes permanent fodder for anyone looking to bash our town. Hey, Richard Nixon and Patty Hearst got pardoned. Why not us?

“Everybody was laughing when the thing happened,” says Jim Gallagher, the former PR man. “Who knew it would endure for all these years?”

“It wasn’t a big deal at the time,” echoes Bill Mullen, the entertainment director. “But it grew and grew and over the years it became huge. Every time some one needs to say something negative about Philadelphia, they pull out the Santa episode.”

On the other hand, maybe it’s better that our critics regard us as the great unwashed. If visiting players think we’re rabid enough to go after the symbol of Christmas cheer, perhaps they’ll look over their shoulder a bit when they come to town.

“They throw snowballs at Santa Clause in Philly…That’s why there’s a jail under the stands.” —Elfin and Snider, Washington Times, 1999

“Philly, the city that throws snowballs at Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, has embraced the Sixers as a team with a very hot future.”
—John Shivers, San Francisco Express Metro, 1999

Nobody ever gets this right. Hell, the Vet Stadium jail came nearly 30 years after the Franklin Field Santa. And we never threw anything at the Easter Bunny. Didn’t even boo him. That urban legend derives from a joke by former Phillies catcher and stand-up comedian Bob Uecker, who always cracked his oft told Easter Sunday joke about fans booing children who couldn’t find any eggs in the Easter egg hunt.

Again, not true.

We did, however, host a second Snow Bowl. If there was ever a chance of escaping our Animal House reputation, it ended in 1989 when we aimed a few hard-packed grenades at the impeccably perfectly coiffed hair of Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson.

What a season that was. The Birds were headed to the playoffs under Buddy Ryan. The Cowboys would finish 1-15 and, in our glee, we hadn’t yet realized that Johnson was building the nucleus that would win three Super Bowls.

In the Thanksgiving Day game earlier that year, Eagles linebacker Jess Smalls knocked Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas woozy with a cheap shot. Zendejas later learned from Eagles special teams coach Al Roberts (the rat!) that Ryan had placed a $200 bounty on his head. The diminutive kicker hired four lawyers to sue Ryan and whined for weeks to anyone who would listen. That only served to whip up Philadelphia Eagles fans headed into the mid-December rematch.
Snow fell for several days in the city, but none of the folks who managed Veterans Stadium thought to shovel it away. Once again, customers arrived at the game to find their seats blanketed under several inches.

Everyone expected an ugly affair. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue came to oversee the players’ behavior (if not the fans’) and brought along 25 league security officials. Jimmy Johnson was flanked by two Philadelphia policemen everywhere he went—starting the night before the game. Zendejas wore a mouthpiece for the only time in his career and taped shut the ear holes on his helmet. Still, he ran down the field with his head on a swivel.

The precautions didn’t really matter. As players scuffled on the field, fans started hurling the snow that accumulated around their seats. Initially they aimed at a section of Cowboys fans (the lone star logos made easy targets) cowering in the 100 Level at the Vet’s southwest corner. Eventually, they expanded their range to include Cowboys players, Eagles cheerleaders, quivering referees and woozy police officers. They bombarded the open-aired CBS broadcast booth with such fury that Verne Lundquist compared our town to Beirut.

The mood at the Vet grew so intoxicating that it swept in a career politician, who goaded a section-mate with the challenge, “Betcha $20 you can’t reach the field.” The missile landed at the feet of a referee, and Ed Rendell—typical Philly fan—went on to become mayor and governor. It was never recorded whether he paid off his wager but, like most of us, he had a good laugh that day.

The fun was followed by a scolding. The network news shows broadcast the bombardment, again and again, comparing us to British soccer hooligans. Eagles owner Norman Braman (who made Wolman seem lovable) called us “a disgrace.” Specifically citing the 700 Level, he said, “If they can’t come here and behave in a normal, decent manner, than we don’t want them here.”

That from a man who sat in a heated luxury box eating catered food. Nobody saw Norman Braman pushing snow off his seat with a frozen mitten that afternoon.
The quotes that really counted came from enemies other than Braman. Cowboys linebacker Eugene Lockhart called Eagles fans “classless animals.” And Jimmy Johnson termed us “thugs,” adding that he’d rather not ever play here again.

And that, in many ways, was the point. The Eagles won the game 20-10, and we, as fans, felt we deserved at least a game ball for our well-aimed intentions.

“Eagles fans are really booing their punter. Remember, these are the same fans who once booed Santa Claus.” —Fox Network announcer Sam Rosen, 2002

“(Jim) Thome can stay in a city that adores him or he can go to a place where they throw snowballs at Santa Claus. Is there really any decision to make?”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer, 2002

In Cleveland, they only throw beer bottles at replay officials, and cheer when their own injured quarterback is lying motionless on the field. In New York, Giants fans had their own Snow Bowl, sending a San Diego Chargers assistant to the hospital with a concussion. In Denver, they hit their own defensive back in the eye with a size E battery, putting him on the injured list.

But we’re the bad guys. Because decades ago, our dads tossed a few at a laughing, under-sized Santa.

Hey world—get over it.