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Fred Allen once remarked on his television program that he had a friend who took a sleeping pill every morning so people would think he was from Philadelphia. For that addition to Philadelphia jokes the Philadelphia Public Relations Association presented Allen with its Scrapple Award—25 pounds of scrapple—given annually to the public figure who comes up with the best addition to those old cracks about the city: e.g., I went to Philadelphia last weekend, but it was closed; or, I spent a month in Philadelphia last weekend; or, first prize, one week in Philadelphia, second prize, two weeks in Philadelphia.
"Ah, Philadelphia," said W.C. Fields, who began his career there. "If a woman dropped her glove, she might be hauled before a judge for stripteasing." Fields made jokes about the city throughout his life, which lasted from 1879 to 1946, and nobody enjoyed them more than Philadelphians. This year Philadelphia's Shackamaxon Society held a party on his birthday (Jan. 29) with a W. C. Fields impersonation contest, a martini-oliving contest, a dog-kicking contest (with a stuffed dog) and a child-insulting contest (with a live child). Long before Fields, and for that matter long before Fred Allen's drowsy friend, and before innerspring mattresses and water beds, Philadelphia had a reputation for excessive sobriety and somnolence. It was known as a nice place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit there. If you did so expecting a lively weekend, you would find the pinnacle of night life consisted of dropping a quarter into one of those vibrating-bed gizmos.
Philadelphians do not mind if you amble down their streets. They do the same. As for traffic, first-time visitors are in for a shock. They must soon realize that Philadelphia is not a city; it is one huge Stop sign. On the other hand, taxi drivers are not horn-happy, they take corners on four wheels instead of two and, having delivered you to your destination, they alight from the front seat, open the back door and thank you for your fare. A survey of deaths from coronaries among middle-aged men in 163 cities revealed that Philadelphia ranked 34th, well behind Savannah; Norfolk, Va.; New York; Los Angeles and Dallas. The Relaxation Club of America once gave its most-relaxed-city award to Philadelphia, for one reason among several: "Drivers swear less than in other cities."
The most conspicuous kind of civic action in Philadelphia appears when inhabitants are at last aroused to defend the town's name or to get rid of some local evil. Then the action is one suggesting "a committee be appointed to study the situation." Philadelphia leads the world in committees. The city has been mired in indecision for so long that these committees invariably begin with an ominous snort, sputter out quickly and fade from the scene with a furious shrug of the shoulders. Much the same pattern has been observed in boxers who come from Philadelphia. They sparkle through gym workouts like so many Sugar Ray Robinsons and then step into the ring for real and wind up like Canvasback McGoon. There is a name for them in boxing, no matter where they come from: Philadelphia fighters.
Fortunately for Philadelphia, a good-natured attitude toward disagreements is deeply ingrained in its traditions. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787 Benjamin Franklin, according to one historian, "contributed to the success of the sessions by the spirit of conciliation that he induced. Without Franklin's humorous anecdotes at moments of heated argument, the Convention might have exploded into controversy and bitterness." Franklin came to Philadelphia as a long-haired teen-ager. He was a wrestler of some skill, a fine swimmer and, at 46, he experimented with kite-flying in a thunderstorm; he also provided the city with its first paved streets, first fire company, its street-cleaning service and regular police force, established the subscription library, the first hospital and fire insurance company, organized militia forces and built a fort on the Delaware River to protect the city's eastern flank. But his greatest achievement came in his 80s when he calmed the embattled delegates at the Convention. Franklin accomplished this, said a biographer, because "he knew well that learning to laugh at one's self was an impregnable refuge of tranquillity and sanity."
Being able to laugh at one's self—and at one's home teams—has been a trait of Philadelphians for a long time. To be sure, sports fans in the city are noted for their booing; in fact, they are renowned as the booingest in the major leagues. Philadelphians boo performances outside of sports, too. "They have Easter egg hunts," said Bob Uecker, a former catcher with the Phillies, "and if the kids don't find the eggs, they get booed."
"I remember a crowd booing Santa Claus at a football game," said Sandy Grady, a columnist with the Bulletin. He is a transplanted North Carolinian, once a sportswriter, who has made a profound study of Philadelphia booing psychology. "When Sonny Jurgensen quarterbacked the Eagles," Grady went on, "he had a neighbor who had never been to a pro game. So Sonny gave him a ticket. It was one of those days when he kept throwing interceptions, and he got booed badly. After the game Sonny asked his neighbor if he had heard the boos. 'Yeah,' said the neighbor. 'It's fun. You ought to try it yourself.' "
Grady believes that having terrible teams has a purifying effect on Philadelphians, such as Aristotle ascribed to tragedy: pity and terror effecting a catharsis. "By booing the teams," Grady said, "they don't have to take out all their anger on politicians." Speaking of terrible teams, the baseball Phillies have very likely lost more games than any team in history—6,221 since 1900. While Phillie fans are generally castigated for their booing and intolerance, they are actually the longest suffering rooters in any city, a fact dramatically substantiated in 1964. That was the year the team led by 6� games with just 12 to go, then folded up faster than a $2 tent when they lost 10 successive games and blew the pennant. But neither fans nor press berated the Phillies, the overriding feeling being that the club had attained maximum success with minimum talent.
The best assessment of Philadelphia fans was made by Harry Walker, who was with the Phillies for a couple of years. "This is a lunch-pail town," he said. Walker's thesis was that in a workingman's town the fans expect an athlete to put in a full day's work for a full day's pay. Like fans everywhere, they boo umpires and errors, but in Philadelphia nothing sets them off as much as players who refuse to give their all. Toward the end of the 1969 season, when Richie Allen was still a Phillie, he pawed the ground around first base, writing messages with his spikes: "Hi, Mom," or numerals reminding one and all how many games he had to play before he mercifully would be traded. This sparked some of the most venomous boos ever heard, even in the City of Brotherly Love. Now, three years later (and three teams removed from Philadelphia) he wants to be known as Dick Allen rather than Richie Allen. Why? "Richie reminds me too much of Philadelphia," he says.
Outfielder Del Ennis bore up better under the fusillade of boos aimed at him during his career. Looking back on the period when those discouraging waves of melancholy sound poured from the stands in his direction, he sometimes speculates that the fans hassled him so much because he grew up in North Philadelphia. Ennis said he should have understood. Eventually, he learned not to let boos bother him. But it took some doing. "One guy was on me all one game," he said, "so after it was over I went into the stands and challenged him. He didn't want to fight, and it was only then I realized that people came to the park to let off steam, and they didn't mean any harm." Ennis began to go along with their gags. "At times the whole park would stand and cheer me," he said. "Other days they threw things at me." One of the items hurled at Ennis was a bag in which a fan, in a calmer moment, had placed the sandwich he planned to eat during the game. "I ate the sandwich," Ennis said, "to show I could enjoy a gag."