Longform Philly

Month: October, 2014

So Taguchi Has Lost His Wa

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G.W. Miller III | Philadelphia Weekly | July 2008

It’s three hours before a game in early June and our heroes stand on the field, stretching, laughing, gazing at the glorious blue sky as though it’s the first they’ve ever seen.

For the moment, they seem to appreciate this great fortune that allows them to grow rich beyond expectation by throwing hard, swinging accurately, running fast and tossing their bodies in front of objects moving at lightning-quick speeds.

Jimmy Rollins’ cheeks bulge as he converses with Ryan Howard, the Bunyanlike figure holding a piece of boned lumber in his left hand. The two stand near the batting cage almost posing, as though someone’s chiseling their likenesses in marble.

The Reds’ Ken Griffey Jr., a future Hall of Famer currently sitting on 599 career home runs, approaches the league’s two Most Valuable Players. They shake hands, tell jokes and double over in laughter. Mere mortals aren’t permitted near the batting cage so it’s impossible to hear what they’re saying. No doubt they’re discussing the state of their magical powers, their innate abilities to perform the inhuman tasks they execute every day.

Chase Utley, the leading All-Star game vote-getter who’s hit a home run in each of the last five games, picks up his bat and practices his quick, majestic swing.

Players remain scattered along the first-base line. Gregg Dobbs lies on his back, his legs facing home plate while his head faces the outfield bleachers. Chris Coste, stonefaced, struggles his way through push-ups. Geoff Jenkins extends his arms in front of him as though he’s trying to fly.

Farthest from the batting cage and slightly removed from the others stands So Taguchi. The boyish-looking Japanese utility outfielder leans on his left leg, stretching the right. His eyes are open wide but he seems not to be looking at anything.

He’s alone, physically and mentally.

Taguchi’s the 25th man on a 25-man team, and he’s suffering through the most difficult season of his 17-year professional career. He’s 7,000 miles from home, the only Japanese-speaking player on a team in a city without a large or active Japanese population. He barely gets to play.

On top of all that, he could lose his job any day now.

Yet there probably isn’t anyone more excited to be on the field right now than Taguchi.

“This is the major leagues,” he says with a huge smile after batting practice. “It’s the best baseball in the world.”

Writer bio: G.W. Miller III, a journalism professor at Temple University, served as a photographer and writer for the Philadelphia Daily News for 11 years. He currently publishes JUMP Magazine, which focuses on the city’s music scene.

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Gone Like the Wind

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Buzz Bissinger | Vanity Fair | August 2007

It was a cardinal rule of horse racing for any owner, and Gretchen Jackson, straightforward and no-nonsense, with a voice of silky gravel, knew it as well as anyone:

Never fall in love with a horse. 

She and her husband, Roy, had been in the business since the late 1970s, so they had had ample time to learn the cardinal rule. It was a business, and they treated it as one. The horses they owned weren’t pets. They were Thoroughbreds, as beautiful as they were fragile, and engineered for speed, the musculature of their bodies propelled by legs as thin as spindles.

They were susceptible to coughs and allergies and heaves and a highly contagious condition called strangles, in which pus discharges from the nostrils, and abscesses form in the lymph nodes under the jaw and sometimes burst. They were susceptible to viruses such as West Nile and equine herpes, to diseases spread by the larvae of flies that hide out in manure. They were susceptible to leg fractures that require them to be euthanized on the spot, and to the puzzling mystery of laminitis, a disease in which the hoof wall separates from the inner foot, causing such intolerable pain that it too could result in euthanasia.

Never fall in love with a horse.

They were taught to race when they were two, and they didn’t all take to it. Some were just stubborn. Some, like juvenile delinquents, went out of their way to do the exact opposite of what you told them to do. Some were scared. Some were just bored. Some were just mean. Some were dumb as rocks. In 2005, 72,487 horses pulled out of the starting gate in races across North America. Their average earnings were $15,851. It wasn’t enough to pay for the cost of maintaining them, and of those who ran, 26 percent earned less than $1,000.

Never fall in love with a horse.

But the problem for Gretchen Jackson was she did fall in love with a horse. She fell in love with him because when he was in his element on the racecourse there were moments he ran with such joy and abandon that he actually flew, all four feet off the ground. She fell in love with him because of the way he soldiered on after he was tragically hurt in the Preakness Stakes in May 2006, his sense of self so intact that he bit one veterinarian smack on the butt and ran a masseuse out of the stall. She fell in love with him because of the gleam in his eyes, still bright, during those dark days in July 2006 when both his rear lower limbs became a medical nightmare, and she wrote in the private journal she kept:

It’s not good. Oh my God I am so concerned. Dear Lord we cannot let the bright light fade, flicker, die. We must conquer. Where are you God in my suffering? Are you holding my hands showing me full moons and breezy nights? Yes Lord, they are magnificent but my heart is looking at Barbaro. That is not the horse that won the derby.

She fell in love with him because of the way he was trying to communicate, Don’t give up on me yet. She fell in love with him because of the way he rallied after that. And then she fell in love with him because of the way he died.

Writer bio: Buzz Bissinger, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, is a contributor for Vanity Fair. He wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he and two colleagues won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, before leaving for Odessa, Texas, where he wrote the American classic, “Friday Night Lights.”

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The JFK Conspiracy Theorist

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Robert Huber | Philadelphia Magazine | February 2014

THREE YEARS AGO, Vince Salandria got a phone call from Arlen Specter, a man he didn’t know. Salandria had been in the Senator’s company only once before, but that was almost a half-century earlier, at a public event. When he called, Specter wasn’t running for anything—he had recently been voted out of office. All he had was a simple request of Salandria, who was 83 years old, a retired Philadelphia school-system lawyer: Would you have lunch with me? They eventually met at the Oyster House, on Sansom Street in Philadelphia. The lunch would turn out to be one of strangest meetings of Salandria’s life.

Vince is a man of high energy; he’s still doing pro bono lawyering in labor relations for the city’s schools. He’s small—all of 137 pounds—with a large balding head that narrows toward his jaw. He has an impish smile, and it would be easy to call him cute. But he isn’t, by nature, impish or cute—Vince is intense. And that was especially true when, as a young man, he attended an event held in Arlen Specter’s honor.

In October 1964, the Philadelphia Bar Association invited Specter, then a young prosecutor in the D.A.’s office, to speak about his work as an investigator for the Warren Commission, which had been formed to come up with a definitive answer to who assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Specter was assigned to figure out the basic logistics of the shooting: how many shots, how many gunmen, where did the bullets come from? The commission’s report had just come out, declaring Lee Harvey Oswald the lone killer, and the bar association had Specter address about 150 people one evening in a City Hall courtroom.

Afterward, he asked if there were any questions.

Writer bio: Robert Huber is a writer and editor for Philadelphia Magazine.

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A Life Amid Cans And Cannes

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David Lee Preston | Philadelphia Inquirer | June 1994

A true-life Jersey scene: Behind the counter at the only convenience store in town, Kevin Smith, the 23-year-old clerk, snatches mouthfuls of Frosted Flakes in skim milk from a styrofoam cup, while Vincent Pereira, 21, thumbs through July issues of Stacked, Juggs and Biker Parties.

Pereira, a clerk at the video store next door, prefers to while away his workday hanging here at the Quick Stop. But Smith, who has been out of town for two eventful months, has chosen the worst possible day to return – New Jersey Lottery day – and from the start of his 4 p.m. shift comes a steady parade of customers needing mainly cigarettes or tickets to fortune, or both.

Look who’s back! Kevin! Congratulations! . . . How’s movie life treating you? . . . I need five Quick-Sixes, and my wife wants your autograph. . . . I saw you on the news. You gonna do more films? That’s your purpose in life? . . . Movies started in New Jersey, right? Thomas Edison!

It was on the news a few days ago: The kid jockeying the cash register at the Quick Stop has hit the big time. On May 21, Clerks, a raunchy, low-budget, semiautobiographical movie that Smith filmed at the Quick Stop and video store in three weeks in the middle of the night between shifts – the video store’s stained red carpet serving as the cutting-room floor – captured two international awards at the Cannes Film Festival.

Now, after four years behind this counter, Smith, a postal worker’s son who had never made a movie, has a “Jersey guy’s trilogy” in the works and a huge advance from Universal for his next project.

So why is he back here in Leonardo, working at the Quick Stop?

“To stay grounded,” he says, carving out a scoop of Entenmann’s Golden Chocolatey Chip Loaf cake with a plastic spoon.

“‘Cause it’s easy to believe your own press after a while. And then you forget all the important stuff. Writers buy into that lifestyle, and their writing loses that freshness. They wind up going back to that place where they did their best work.

“So,” he adds, “I just figured I’d skip the middle man.”

Writer bio: David Lee Preston is an assistant city editor for the Philadelphia Daily News. He wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer for 17 years before leaving for CNN in January 2000. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1986.

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How A Grays Ferry Street Fight Became A Racial Crisis

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Mark Bowden | Philadelphia Inquirer | April 1997

Raheem Williams remembers a sole white man in a black leather jacket and blue jeans, standing on the corner as he approached. The man was drunk.

It was after midnight on a cold Sunday morning, Feb. 23. Williams, a big 17-year-old, and his 17-year-old cousin, Warren Williams, were walking home down 30th Street from the 24-hour Pathmark on Grays Ferry Avenue. Raheem, who is black, was carrying a grocery bag.

“Got anything in that bag for me?” Raheem said the man on the corner asked.

The man was standing in light that spilled from the front door of St. Gabriel’s Social Hall. A party was winding down inside.

“You’re drunk,” Raheem said. “Why don’t you go home and sleep it off.”

Raheem had to walk past the man to reach his house. They bumped into each other. Words were exchanged. Shoves. Then blows.

This fight, which soon involved dozens of whites from inside the hall and Raheem’s cousin and mother, Annette Williams, would develop into the most serious racial crisis in recent Philadelphia history. Over the next six weeks, Grays Ferry’s long-simmering racial distrust would threaten to boil over into riot, with Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam calling for a 5,000-man march through its tense streets and local white residents dismayed to see themselves tarred nationally as violent racists.

Writer bio: Mark Bowden wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 20 years from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. His “Black Hawk Down” series about a rescue mission in Somalia in the 1990s earned him national recognition and a book deal. The book was optioned into a movie, which was directed by Ridley Scott.

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In France, Einhorn has Few Worries

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Daniel Rubin | Philadelphia Inquirer | December 1999

He has no passport, no driver’s license, no wallet even.

“I am the wallet,” his wife says, looking up from the lamb bourgignon she has been preparing for three hours at Moulin de Guitry, the century-old mill she bought with $100,000 from the sale of her Stockholm apartment.

His last paycheck? “Harvard,” he says. “In 1978. “

Ira Einhorn. Convicted in absentia for murdering his former girlfriend, Holly Maddux. A fugitive from Philadelphia for 16 years. A prisoner, for now, of the French countryside.

Their abundant garden between the rivers L’Argent and L’Or has helped the couple keep their expenses down to $1,100 a month – again, her contribution.

What he provides is “the brain food,” as he calls it. He devours between 300 and 500 pages a day, from as many as 10 books at once. On his night table at the moment: a Mark Helprin novel; a history of psychosomatic medicine; philosopher Henri Bergson; Nabokov in English; Proust in French.

He does most of his reading in bed, lying on his back. He needs little sleep.

His window on the rapidly changing world is the Internet. As part of negotiations with ABC for last spring’s Connie Chung interview, the network bought him a top-of-the-line Dell computer. It allows him to correspond with old allies in the battle for information about UFOs, genetic engineering, drug policies, pharmacology and the environment.

For such an information animal, there are many gaps in the Philadelphia landscaped in his mind. No skyscrapers soar past Billy Penn’s hat in the city he remembers. He is shocked to find Frank Rizzo dead, Edmund Bacon still active.

Ira Einhorn is a bull, a Taurus, charging from idea to idea, while having to stay put. Nothing turns him on more, he says, than when discussions rev up into such a state that friends are firing half sentences at each other.

“I don’t think,” he says. “I’m totally intuitive. “

Writer bio: Daniel Rubin, who teaches courses in Urban Journalism at the University of Pennsylvania, started writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1988. He served as the Inquirer’s European bureau chief, based in Berlin, Germany, from 2000 to 2003.

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The Vidocq Society: Murder on the menu

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Adam Higginbotham | The Telegraph | November 2008

Sunlight filters through the blinds of a private dining-room on the top floor of the Public Ledger Building in the centre of Philadelphia.

Lunch – a small salad, followed by chicken and spaghettini topped with cheese and peppers – concludes with lemon tart. Most of the diners gathered around the half-dozen circular tables are finishing their coffee by the time Detective Charlie Fairbairn approaches the lectern to go over the events of August 29, 1985.

A short man with close-cropped grey hair, Fairbairn has flown across three states and driven straight in from the airport to be here, hoping to find a solution to a crime committed when he was only 14, long before he was assigned to cold-case homicide in the police department in Columbus, Georgia.

His face glistens with sweat as he describes the details of the murders – of a woman and her two children, killed in the kitchen of their home, with blows from an elongated axe designed for clearing undergrowth. Fairbairn outlines the crime scene in careful technical language, as photographs are projected on a screen behind him: ‘The body of Erica Currie, a four-year-old white female, was located between the kitchen table and the side door. Several feet from Erica, a section of her upper jaw and her glasses were located…’

The images advance: a pool of blood on linoleum; an axe on orange shagpile carpet; a child’s leg protruding from beneath a table. The few dozen assembled members of the Vidocq Society stare at the screen with professional detachment; at a table near the front a big man in his early seventies bounces a toothpick in his mouth impassively.

Another photograph shows a close-up of the body of Ann Currie, eight months pregnant at the time of her death, her head propped up for the camera by a man who is out of shot. A woman in the audience gasps.

But, being a forensic anthropologist from the New Jersey State Police, she is simply horrified at her colleagues’ lack of procedural rigour:

‘No gloves,’ she hisses at her dining companion, a world authority on ritual murder.

Writer bio: Adam Higginbotham is not one of us, but wrote well about one of our groups. The England-born narrative non-fiction and feature writer has published work in national magazines such as GQWired and The New Yorker. He is the author of “A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite,” published by The Atavist in 2014 and optioned as a film by Warner Brothers.

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Who is the Boy in the Box?

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Sabrina Rubin Erdely | Philadelphia Magazine | November 2003

An old man sits on an aqua couch in a pink room. Soon he will visit a little boy’s grave. But first he leafs through the white binder in his lap, turning its plastic pages with a patient hand. Here is the typewritten autopsy report, dated February the 25th, 1957. Here are fading aerial photographs of the farms and woodlands surrounding the crime scene, taken with his own Speedgraphic camera. Here are photos of the battered boy laid out on a metal gurney, nude but for a white handkerchief draped over his groin for modesty’s sake. Here are copies of newspaper clippings from the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and so forth, the past bleeding into the present. And here are snapshots of the old man himself, and of his police department colleagues, through the years. Black-and-white pictures of them in the ’50s, young and purposeful and efficient-looking in high-waisted pants and short ties. Color four-by-sixes of them today, in white slacks and baseball hats, thicker around the middle and a little worse for wear but still alive and kicking. Still searching for that thing—that one thing. It’s the thing they have yet to resolve, the one thing they still haven’t made right. It’s the one thing the old man needs to take care of before it’s too late.

The little boy would be 50, 51 years old if he were alive today, but in Bill Kelly’s mind he is still a child. Time has stood still for the boy, but not for the man. He has circulation problems now, and age spots on his skin, and white hair he combs neatly back each morning, and a plastic pillbox of medicines he takes daily, some with food, some on an empty stomach. He’s been living on God’s green earth for 75 years. He’s seen a lot during that time—some of which he’d rather forget, frankly—and yet Kelly remains singularly haunted by this case, by this one little boy, who has been on his mind for the better part of 46 years. It’s the one case he couldn’t close, the one mystery he couldn’t solve. Kelly knows time is running out. He leans in to study a close-up of the boy’s face for the umpteenth time. Who are you? he wants to ask. What is your name?

Time to go.

Writer bio: Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, served as a senior writer and writer-at-large at Philadelphia Magazine for a combined 13 years. She has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award twice. She is currently a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.

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Those Were the A’s

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Will Bunch | Philadelphia Daily News | June 2003

IT IS STILL their Fatima, a quasi-religious vision shared a half-century ago by a bunch of preteens making a Sunday pilgrimage on the No. 54 trolley or the Reading Railroad.

Ted Taylor glimpsed it in the smoggy distance when the train slowed down for the North Broad station. For Ernie Montella, it was the first sighting of the light towers as he walked west on Lehigh under the rail overpass. “That’s what really got my heart beating.”

But only after they filed past the ornate French Renaissance cupola and up the wide ramp would their divine revelation once again become known to them, only them.

“I remember seeing this vast expanse of green – green fields, green walls,” recalls David Jordan. Says Taylor: “Here in the dirty, gritty city, here was this beautiful oasis – with the smell of hot dogs.”

The year was 1954, their green cathedral was Shibe Park (just renamed Connie Mack Stadium the season before), and their team was the Philadelphia A’s – low-paid, last-place misfits, a pale reflection of Connie Mack’s once-great teams.

But visions are only revealed to the few. And so, these boys didn’t think twice about the sea of unfilled seats and the audible plink of an extra-base hit striking that high rightfield wall in a deathly silent ballpark.

And when the A’s bolted for what a new owner thought would be financially green pastures, in Kansas City, they never even got to say goodbye. The cruel death notice came in October, the Shibe turnstiles locked for autumn. Their faith was shaken to the core.

“My father had told me that the A’s weren’t going to move,” recalls Max Silberman. Suddenly, a 9-year-old boy wasn’t sure if he could trust anyone – even his own dad.

Young kids like Taylor and Jordan grew up, became dads and then granddads in a plastic era when baseball was played on something called Astroturf in lifeless concrete bowls – and yet there was a part of them that never stopped believing.

After all, it was in their blood.

“If your dad was an A’s fan, then you were an A’s fan,” Taylor says simply, explaining the deep connection. And the reason why dad chose one team over the other is deeply rooted in Philadelphia mythology. It is said that A’s backers were Republican and more patrician, while Phillies fans hailed from the Democratic rabble.

Tonight, that faith will be rewarded with a bona fide miracle when the A’s finally return to Philadelphia after 49 years, to play the Phillies at the corner of Broad and Pattison.

Of course, life is just a metaphor for baseball, and so the return of the now-Oakland A’s – made possible by the advent of interleague play – is about more than balls and strikes. The long strange road trip from 1954 to 2003 is also about how a city changed – and how some of its people didn’t.

The curse

God placed a curse on the Philadelphia Athletics. In 1934, Connie Mack finally won a long campaign against the city’s Quaker-led establishment to repeal the blue laws that barred the team from playing lucrative Sunday doubleheaders.

The city’s more prosperous American League ballclub had just been in the World Series from 1929 to 1931, winning the first two. But after Sabbath baseball, it never went to the World Series again. Instead, it finished last 10 of the next 15 years.

With the A’s on their last legs in 1954, Presbyterian minister Samuel Jeanes railed from his Philly pulpit that “this organization played no small part in breaking down the sanctity of the Lord’s day by having this city of Philadelphia legalize Sunday baseball.”

The A’s players didn’t need a prophet to tell them that the end time was near. That winter, manager Jimmy Dykes confided to shortstop Eddie Joost that he was leaving to run the new Baltimore Orioles and Joost would be named a player-manager – so that the cash-strapped Mack family wouldn’t need to add a salary.

“I knew it was the last year,” Joost, now 87, says from California. “He told me, ‘Eddie, the ballclub’s in dire financial straits, I don’t think they’re going to make it.’ ”

Catcher Joe Astroth also knew. His offseason job – most ballplayers needed one back then – was to visit local businessmen and sell advance tickets.

Astroth, 80 and still living in Chalfont, had done the same job the winter before, and many business owners were thrilled to see a big-league ballplayer. But when the catcher made his sales pitch, he recalls, the businessman would go back to his safe – and pull out a huge pile of unused A’s tickets from 1953.

“He’d say, ‘Last year I couldn’t even give them to the janitor!’ ” Astroth says, laughing. “Nobody was coming out.”

It wasn’t always that way. Led by future Hall of Famers such as Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove and Mickey Cochrane (Mantle’s namesake), the blue-and-white-clad A’s won five World Series and relegated the National League Phillies to second-class status.

And maybe it wasn’t really a curse but the Great Depression, mediocre attendance and the high cost of maintaining Shibe Park that sent the team into its downward spiral in the mid-1930s. Mack, manager until 1950 when he was 87, sold off his best players, and his cellar-dweller teams drew shrinking crowds to the neighborhood called Swampoodle.

Then, in Mack’s retirement year of 1950, the Phillies’ “Whiz Kids” won the National League pennant and became the toast of Philadelphia.

It was really bad timing for the A’s. In the 1950s, major league baseball – with only 16 teams in 10 cities – eyed lucrative new markets. The Braves left Boston for Milwaukee in 1952, while the Browns went from St. Louis to Baltimore in 1953.

Today, the time of Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron is hailed as a golden era – but you wouldn’t know that from the attendance. Teams rarely attracted more than 1 million fans in a season.

In 1954, the Athletics drew just 308,362 – an average of about 5,100 a game. A June 4Friday game against Baltimore drew only 1,092 people.

Fans had been more optimistic back on Opening Day, when 16,331 turned out to watch the A’s most popular player, injury-plagued pitching ace Bobby Shantz.

Shantz shut down the Red Sox but blew out his fragile arm on his first pitch of the sixth inning. It was Shantz’s only win of the year, and so the A’s 1954 season essentially started and ended on the same day.

“You end up with the players that you select,” recalls Joost at the frustration of trying to beat the Yankees and the Cleveland Indians with rookies and castaways.

Joost’s No. 1 pitcher was now a rookie, Arnie Portocarrero, who would lead the league with 18 losses. From July 10 through Aug. 12, the A’s only won seven games and lost 30. Slumping slugger Gus Zernial confronted Joost in the dugout after he was benched and had to be escorted away by security guards.

In retrospect, it’s amazing the 1954 A’s drew as many fans as they did.

Fathers and sons

“I think I went to about 45 games that year,” recalls Jordan, a 68-year-old retired attorney, “and I think they lost about 41.” But Jordan, a Wyncote native, kept going because “I thought I’d better see them now, that they weren’t going to be around much longer.”

He sheepishly acknowledges he went alone to most games in 1954. Few people would go with him. “Most of my friends were Phillies fans,” Jordan said. Even his dad balked. One hot July night, with Portocarrero on the mound, he took his father to a twi-night doubleheader, and the A’s were already down by 5-0 when they took their seats. “He kept saying, ‘Can we go now?’ ”

So why did these diehards remain A’s fans to the bitter end? They struggle to explain, but a pop psychologist can see recurring themes – of youth interrupted and the mysterious father-son baseball bond that forms the inscrutable center of the Kevin Costner movie, “Field of Dreams.”

All remember vividly their very first trip to Shibe Park with their father. For a young Harry Adams, baseball united him and his dad after his mother died and his family moved from South Philly to Olney. When his dad remarried, his stepmom won him over by giving him money for the trolley to Shibe Park every Saturday afternoon.

Taylor’s dad ran a dressmaking shop nearby at 20th and Clearfield, and on Saturdays after work they’d walk together to Shibe. Like the other fathers, Taylor’s dad would tell him about the legendary days of Foxx and Grove, Cochrane and Simmons.

The trips to Shibe Park are some of Taylor’s last memories of his father, who died in 1950. “My mom picked up the slack,” says Taylor, who has worked in college athletics, for trading card companies and has written the “Collector’s Corner” column in the Daily News for several years. “She would take me to a half-dozen games a year.”

They grew up with the team. Silberman, a former teacher from Overbrook High School, says his parents let him take the No. 54 trolley from Wynnefield, solo, in 1954 when he was only 9. “My dad would say, ‘He can speak English. If he gets lost, he’ll just ask somebody.’ ”

One Saturday in 1950, a 16-year-old Montella rode the train up from Chester to see his favorite player, neighbor Mickey Vernon, of the Washington Senators. He struck up a conversation with a pretty girl in the seat next to him, and when the game ended they boarded the same railcar home. They tied the knot 5 years later, and are still married after 48 years.

That wasn’t his only favor from Vernon. In that empty grandstand 1954 season, he snagged a Vernon foul ball. In Marcus Hook that night, he saw the seven-time All-Star on his street corner, visiting boyhood buddies – and so Montella got his ball autographed.

It’s a cliche, but 1954 really was a simpler time, when major league ballplayers walked among the mere mortals and worked during the offseason. (Vernon worked offseasons at the Sun refinery.)

The losing streaks didn’t faze true believers like Montella and Silberman, who would get to Shibe Park an hour or two early just to watch the big-leaguers take batting practice on their lush green North Philly oasis. The game was almost an afterthought.

And they never saw the end coming.

The move

In early July 1954, the debt-plagued Mack family – sons Roy and Earle had taken over after a contentious family feud – told Philadelphia Mayor Joe Clark that the team would probably move at the end of the season.

Clark came up with a novel idea for his time, copied dozens of times since. He called together some 75 business leaders and announced the creation of a “Committee to Keep the A’s in Philadelphia.”

But the committee’s ideas – other than businesses buying more tickets, which never really happened – reflect the helplessness. Concerned that TV was keeping fans home, Clark made the bizarre suggestion of soliciting $10 apiece from people watching on the tube.

But there were more cosmic reasons why saving the A’s proved an impossible dream. Just take a look at a few of the long-since-departed companies represented on Clark’s committee: the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Sunday Bulletin, Lits, Wanamakers, Reading Railroad, Penn Fruit, Snellenburgs, Gimbels, Curtis Publishing.

The Save the A’s Committee should have been busy saving itself. But no one foresaw the steady flow of factory jobs to the South and later overseas, or that a wave of mergers would doom Philadelphia as a corporate headquarters. Postwar America was a place of boundless optimism, and Philadelphia was not immune.

On the week of the Athletics’ final homestand, the Inquirer Sunday magazine boasted that “Never Have the Valley’s Children Had It So Good,” with enrollment at city and Catholic schools growing and Philadelphia spending more per pupil than the national average.

Clark himself, a reform-minded Democrat who wrested control from a deeply entrenched Republican machine, was a symbol of a city undergoing change – some good, much bad. While Clark rooted out entrenched corruption in City Hall, his failure to keep the A’s in Philly was an early warning that government would be powerless against the tidal wave of urban decline.

Never again would Philadelphia have more people – more than 2.2 million – than it did in the early 1950s. The automobile, which along with VA loans was fueling the growth of the city’s suburbs, was a particular problem at Connie Mack Stadium, with just one small parking lot across the street.

And there were hints of deeper trouble. On the morning of the A’s final home game, the Inquirer reported that “special squads of police armed with sawed-off shotguns patrolled city streets throughout Saturday night and early yesterday, halting, temporarily at least, the mounting wave of crime.” A story out of Milford, Del., was headlined: “Schools Closed by Racial Issue.”

Ironically, the A’s had finally integrated Philadelphia baseball in late 1953, with pitcher Bob Trice and then first baseman Vic Power. But little effort was made to bring out North Philadelphia’s growing black population.

The endgame – a series of machinations involving the Mack family, Kansas City franchise-seeker Arnold Johnson and the manipulative Yankees – played out through late October. Local suitors such as Oldsmobile dealer John Crisconi and drug executive Harry Sylk seemed on the brink of saving the team, only to have proposed deals shot down by the Yankees.

And so nobody knew that Sunday, Sept. 19, 1954, would be the final home game. The A’s blew a two-run lead to the Yankees in the eighth inning, and lost. Only 1,715 people bothered to come.

The Phillies bought Connie Mack Stadium and played there through 1970. It was demolished in 1976, and in 1992 Deliverance Evangelistic Church built a large chapel on the site. The altar was placed on the exact location of home plate. God had finally exacted full revenge for Sunday baseball.

Yet a half-century later, the A’s true believers still think about the what-ifs. Taylor notes that legendary off-the-wall owner Bill Veeck wanted to buy the Phillies back in 1943 and move them to Milwaukee, and then maybe the wealthy Carpenters would have bought the A’s instead of the Phils, “and then we’d have a different history.”

Instead, word that the A’s were Kansas City-bound also marked a premature end to their youth. Harry Adams still remembers hearing the news in Olney.

“I had lost my mother, and now I was losing my baseball team,” he said. He and his dad stared at their radio, and cried.

Seeing blue and white

But baseball, and life, went on. Some drove up to Yankee Stadium or down to Baltimore to see the Kansas City A’s in 1955, but within a couple of years most had drifted to the Phillies – or away from the ballpark.

“I was devastated,” Montella says. He boycotted Connie Mack Stadium for a decade, until the 1964 Phillies and their infamous collapse. “I never went back there again,” he says. “Every time I went I got my heart broken.”

But Montella became an avid baseball-card hobbyist – assuming that no one else carried a torch for the long-lost A’s. Then, in 1990, he attended a local card show, where the guest of honor was Joost, the 1954 player-manager.

Fans lined up just like the headlights in the final, “If you build it, they will come” scene in “Field of Dreams.” Joost had to stay an extra 3 hours. On long lines, the faithful shared their vision of Shibe Park and their love for the A’s.

Montella organized a successful campaign to get Joost into the sports halls of fame here in Philly and Joost’s native Bay area. That grew into an annual A’s reunion breakfast, which grew into a Philadelphia A’s Historical Society that now has 900 members and its own museum and memorabilia store in Hatboro.

Along the way, they made an amazing discovery – that the only thing that vacated 21st and Lehigh in 1954 was an American League franchise. The Philadelphia A’s were people – its players and its fans – and they had never left town.

Now, Montella, Jordan and the others are close friends with many of the ballplayers who had seemed so much larger than life from up in the wooden seats.

Silberman and many of his young neighbors in Wynnefield had worshiped the A’s only Jewish player, first baseman Lou Limmer – “Our Jackie Robinson, our Babe Ruth.”

Five decades later, the 78-year-old Limmer is one of Silberman’s best friends. “We speak on the phone every week,” Silberman said.

And God can move in mysterious ways, especially when baseball is involved. In 1997, seeking to juice fan interest, Major League Baseball finally launched interleague play between American and National League teams. It would take a few more years, but tonight, the A’s are finally coming back to Philadelphia, in a brand-new millennium.

Everyone will be there – not just the guys from the Historical Society, but Joost, Shantz, Limmer, Zernial, Al Brancata, Spook Jacobs and Astroth, who will catch the ceremonial first ball. Connie Mack’s daughter Ruth and grandson Connie III will join 70 or so other Mack kin, in Connie-style straw hats, for a family reunion.

For 3 time-locked days, it will be another mass vision. No one will notice that the A’s uniforms are green and say “Oakland,” or that the stadium is round, or that the grass is fake, or that the calendar reads 2003.

“We’re going to be rooting for Oakland, and for this one little weekend we aren’t in the present – it’s 1951 or 1952,” Montella says. “The colors may be different, but we’re only going to see blue and white when they get on the field.”

Writer bio: Will Bunch is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and author of “Tear Down This Myth” and “The Backlash.” He shared the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Reporting with a group of New York Newsday reporters who covered a deadly Manhattan subway derailment in 1991.

The Path of the Righteous Man

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Mike Newall | Philadelphia City Paper | September 2005

Rick Santorum is taking a piss. He’d been tapping his foot and fidgeting with his suit jacket throughout the awards ceremony, and after draping the last medal around the last neck, he waved to the crowd and quickly disappeared offstage, power-walking the long hallway and curving flight of stairs leading to the men’s room here in the lobby of the National Constitution Center. A trio of the senator’s aides and I struggled to keep up. Now we putter outside the lavatory, waiting.

I’d been promised some time with the senator once thisceremony honoring local students’ public service achievements had ended. But things have changed. Santorum has been summoned back to Washington for an unexpected Senate vote. There is a train to catch. I’m to ask my questions on the eight-minute ride to 30th Street Station.

Earlier this summer, the senator was all over the airwaves defending his new book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good, a 449-page tome in which he methodically lays out his provocative views on gay marriage, abortion, parenting and the role of religion in public life. Released on the eve of his re-election effort against Democrat Bob Casey, the book’s timing confounded pundits. A November win would likely land Santorum the second-ranking leadership position in the U.S. Senate and help pave the way for a possible future run at the White House. But polls already had Santorum trailing Casey by 11 points, and here he was expounding on the very beliefs that were hurting him in the first place.

What the heck was he thinking?

Writer bio: Mike Newall, a native New Yorker (forgive him), covers cops for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He wrote for the two alt-weeklies, as well as Philadelphia Magazine, for six years before joining the Inquirer’s South Jersey desk in 2010.

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