- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
At 21st and Lehigh, in Philadelphia, there once was a glorious baseball field. They called it Shibe Park and, later, Connie Mack Stadium. Eventually it didn't have a name at all, becoming nothing more than a rusty, padlocked, graffiti-ridden eyesore that looked more like a gigantic abandoned car rotting away in a junkyard than the proud ball park it once had been. I worked at Shibe Park when it was still proud. I sold cold drinks there in 1950, the year the Phillies won the pennant and played the New York Yankees in the World Series.
The Philadelphia Athletics played there, too, but they were another story. I forget how few games the A's won that year, but I know it wasn't many. Hardly anyone came out to old Shibe Park to see the A's play—mostly vendors like myself, and a lot of pigeons. When the A's were in town, there were more vendors than spectators. We came to the ball park early, carrying our mitts and spikes, and worked out with the team. When the Phillies were home we made more money, but when the Athletics were in town we had more fun.
What a thrill it was for me—an 18-year-old baseball freak—to find myself playing shortstop between the likes of third baseman Hank Majeski and second baseman Pete Suder, occasionally making the long throw to Ferris Fain at first. Ferris Fain at first: It sounds almost poetic. All of this would take place while Bobby Shantz was on the mound (tossing batting practice, of course). All I had to do was shut my eyes and dream. It was just a matter of seconds before I'd see the red, white and blue bunting draped around the park and all 33,223 seats filled, and maybe even a few hundred people standing, watching that famous all-star double-play trio of Barris to Suder to Fain chalk up yet another DP for the record books. Maybe not as good as Tinker to Evers to Chance, but good enough. While some of the vendors and players were messing around in the infield, the A's outfielders were in centerfield playing touch football. It really was wonderful.
And then, just before they opened the gates to the public, everyone on the field would line up facing the rightfield wall with a baseball in his hand. Someone would holler "Go!" and starting with the first person on the far right, one after the other, we would all throw our baseballs at the wall as hard as we could. Believe me, it was a sight to see. The pinwheel action of our arms looked like a row of dominoes falling down. Once in a while we were as precise and coordinated as a Radio City Music Hall Rockettes dance routine (though I must admit I've never been to Radio City Music Hall). And what a racket! Our baseballs hitting the corrugated metal sounded like a humongous extra-super-powerful machine gun firing small atomic bombs. When we threw at the wall, all of North Philadelphia would rise from their armchairs, or beds, or stoops, or whatever they were sitting on, and wonder what the hell was going on.
Afterward, the gates would open to all those demented dyed-in-the-wool Philadelphia sports fans whose state of allegiance was so retarded that they would even root for the miserable Athletics. As these pathetic baseball misfits straggled into the park, some of the vendors would scurry to their stations. Not all of us, not for the A's games. Since the attendance that year was embarrassing when the Athletics were in town, about half the vendors were released and told they could go home. But I never went home. I would just pick a good seat—I had about 30,000 to choose from—and root for the home team, just like all the other crazos in the park.
The Phillies were a different story altogether. When they played, none of the vendors went home: The park was sold out. The Phillies were in a pennant race in 1950, the first since God knows when, and the team was all business. Consequently, none of the vendors fooled around with any of the players. The Phillies never let the hawkers take infield, and none of their outfielders played touch football. (Needless to say, we were forbidden to throw baseballs at the rightfield wall.) But, as I mentioned, we made tons of money, maybe $20 a game! At least the hot-dog guys did, and even, on occasion, the soda poppers who had sections close to home plate. (Behind home plate, in the park's cellar, was where we had to go to get our refills of hot dogs and soda pop.) Unfortunately, my territory was as far away from home plate as you could get.
I sold cold drinks to the crowd at the far end of the rightfield stands. I had to lug my two buckets of soda pop from the cellar to the upper tier—no small feat in itself—and then all the way out to right-field where the stadium hooked, and you couldn't go any farther. I had to leave for my post earlier than any of the other vendors. The trip took about 20 minutes. By the time I got there, the ice in my buckets had started to melt, and the sloshing, freezing water would be soaking through my trousers to the skin. The damn buckets were so heavy, my shoulders and back ached far into the night. The concessionaire gave us a bottle opener that appeared to be a relic of the Middle Ages. I'm convinced this ancient instrument was undoubtedly responsible for my "bottle elbow"—something akin to tennis elbow—plus the early arthritis in my right shoulder.
And because of my poor eyesight, I suffered additional anguish. I was unable to recognize the players from my distant section. I was forced to ask my customers who was batting, giving them the idea that I had little ongoing interest in the game or knowledge of the home team's personnel. This appearance of dubious loyalty on my part bothered me no end, but there was really nothing much I could do about it.
The good part of the job, though only faintly good, was that by the time I emerged from the tunnel into the daylight of my territory, everyone was so thirsty I'd sell out in minutes.
But even the parched, expectant crowd didn't dispel my blues. Though basically a capable soda popper, I was more often than not discouraged and miserable. Before each Phillies game, the sight of the two buckets hanging from their hooks guaranteed an immediate and deep funk. The act of changing into my white, starched and creased vendor's jacket brought on a rapid mood swing, one that automatically meant any existing high spirits were replaced by dark melancholy.