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Philadelphians love the sculling races on the Schuylkill River (pronounce it "Skookul" and people will think you grew up in the city). There is a small waterfall below the course, equally hazardous to winners and losers. "If the boats don't go over the falls," said Bob Uecker, "they are booed!" Sandy Grady recalled a Phillie outfielder who broke his arm trying (and failing) to make a catch. "They booed him as he was being carried off the field on a stretcher," Grady said. At the splendid new Veterans Stadium the 1972 Opening Day ceremonies included an act by Kiteman Richard Johnson, who wore enormous makeshift wings and skis and stood atop a wooden ramp 140 feet long and eight feet wide at the upper rim of the stadium. He was to ski down the ramp, become airborne, fly to the mound and deliver the first ball to the waiting catcher. Gusty winds delayed his takeoff. Anxious to get on with this most unusual of first-ball routines, the fans began booing. Reluctant to take off but pricked by the catcalls, Johnson zoomed away. Down the chute he sped, fighting gusts. Near the end of the ramp a crosswind bucked him off and sent him sprawling at top speed into the seats. Miraculously, Johnson survived without any broken bones. He did break five chairs and an iron railing, however, and as he lay in a tangle of debris the crowd, which numbered more than 38,000 that day, rose as one to pay tribute—yes, with thundering boos.
Not that Philadelphia booing is limited to baseball, sculling, Easter egg hunts or Santa Claus. Some of the most devastating assaults in Philadelphia sports history were the prolonged and vitriolic torrents, ominous as foghorns at sea, directed against Joe Kuharich, former coach and general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles (pronounced "Iggles"). Accustomed as local fans are to continuous defeat, there was something about Kuharich's discussions of them that left the citizens appalled. Even his remarks about the odd victories left them unsure. Talking about a game in which the Eagles made a second-half comeback, he said, "That was a horse of a different fire department." Another time, defending his choice of the Eagle backfield, he said, "Keeping three quarterbacks is rare, but not unusual." When the Eagles lost a game 56-7, the fans did not like it when Kuharich played down the defeat by saying, "A missed block here, a missed assignment there—it all adds up."
As he traded away players like Sonny Jurgensen, Maxie Baughan, Irv Cross, Timmy Brown, Lee Roy Caffey, Mike Clark and Tommy McDonald, the fans' uneasiness increased. At one game a ramshackle outhouse was placed near the field, bearing a label: "Joe's Home." Then, one Sunday afternoon, a plane appeared above Franklin Field trailing a banner that read GOODBYE JOE BABY. The plane was rented by the Get Rid of Joe Kuharich Club, which claimed to have 500 card-carrying members. But Kuharich, though fired in 1969, has the last laugh. He still draws a $49,000 annual salary from the Eagles on a 15-year contract that does not expire until 1979.
A team is known by its nickname and by the locality it inhabits. In these days of franchise transfers, teams often lose their personal identities—e.g., the baseball Dodgers, who were as much Brooklyn as they were Dodgers, are now the Los Angeles Dodgers, but they might as readily be the Dodgers of some other city or the Bank of America Dodgers. Not all teams have been so smothered. Particularly in Philadelphia the clubs seem to cling to the shreds of their heritage. To understand the local sports panorama it is vital to understand how this is part of the life of the town, its history and its mores.
Philadelphians simply do not fret about being the biggest, the tallest, the richest, the swingingest. Perhaps the reason there is no Superman in Philadelphia is that there is no tall building to leap over with a single bound. It is an unwritten law that no building shall rise above the hat on the head of the statue of Billy Penn atop City Hall, a height of 548 feet. Thus it is that there are more than 100 taller buildings in the U.S., including one or more in such places as Albany, N.Y. and Columbus, Ohio.
But there is more to Philadelphia than that. Much more. There is the Museum of Art, aglow in tawny brilliance under evening spotlights, The Franklin Institute of science, the splendid Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. And there is Fairmount Park, extending for five miles along both banks of the Schuylkill River and up Wissahickon Creek for five miles more, 4,109.6 acres in all. Fairmount Park is the largest municipally run park anywhere, with miles of trails for riding bicycles and horses, acres of playing fields and grassy knolls—a paradise for those with energy to expend or thoughts to contemplate.
There is the Germantown Cricket Club, whose Bill Tilden was seven times U.S. singles tennis champion, the Merion Cricket Club, whose Diehl Mateer dominated squash racquets for years, the Philadelphia Country Club, whose Glenna Collett Vare was six times U.S. amateur golf titlist. It was at Merion that Bobby Jones completed his Grand Slam by winning the U.S. Amateur. The first archery club in the U.S. was the United Bowmen of Philadelphia, formed in 1828. Bowling on the green was a prominent sport from colonial times onward, and Philadelphia cricket teams were almost invincible around the turn of the century against clubs from other U.S. cities and Canada, and competed respectably against visiting teams from Britain and on tours of England. Fox hunting was one of the passions of wealthy Philadelphians. It is said there was once another obscure sport among the upper crust—cat hunting. It seems one John Sergeant Price was annoyed by the howls of his neighbors' cats and organized a cat-shooting expedition. It was so successful that it became an annual event, and was evidently a social as well as a sporting occasion, since there is a record of a debutante in the 1930s describing the difficulties of hunting cats by moonlight in a ball gown.
No American city has so conscientiously preserved the record of its past as has Philadelphia. To be sure, there are artifacts in parks and museums besides the Liberty Bell or the relics in Independence Hall: the jawbone of Grover Cleveland, a statue of Leif Ericson's brother-in-law, the wallet carried that day by Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Given a chance the city can prove it was the home of innumerable firsts in the U.S.—lager beer, the ice-cream soda, the merry-go-round and the revolving door. But principally the history of Philadelphia for 300 years is one in which it could have been first, and was often found wanting.
William Penn founded the city in 1682 (after obtaining the land from King Charles II in payment for favors owed his father) as "a holy experiment," and in colonial days Philadelphia was the largest, wealthiest and most cultured community in the New World. When the first U.S. census was taken in 1790 the city was second to New York. By 1830 it had been shoved into third place by Baltimore. Twenty years later it was pushed out of third by Boston. By taking in the entire county, Philadelphia regained second place in 1860, only to be passed by Chicago, remaining third until the rise of Los Angeles reduced it to fourth in 1960.
Herbert Lipson, who publishes Philadelphia Magazine, said, "I think Philadelphians love to be third or fourth in all things. Being first makes you stand out, and they don't want that. If you're second, people think that you want to be first, and it's too bad you didn't make it. That's uncomfortable. But third or fourth, those are comfortable niches."