Shibe Park, renamed Connie Mack Stadium in '53, home to the Athletics and Phillies, Lehigh Avenue at 22nd Street, North Philadelphia
Connie Mack Stadium in the '60s
When, in the late '60s, the City of Philadelphia razed old Shibe Park-then-Connie Mack Stadium in favor of the new Veterans Memorial Stadium in deep South Philadelphia, my hometown signaled its near-absolute abandonment of predominantly African-American North Philadelphia. I am convinced that absent Temple University's choice to stay there and grow and contribute to its neighborhood (along with the courageous persistence of many unsung neighborhood organizations) North Philadelphia would almost certainly have become a thoroughgoing wasteland with City Hall's blessing.
* * * *
It was time.
All we needed was a gossamer-thin plausible excuse to pose as Reason, and Donny, Richie, and I, never having ditched school, never having taken the forbidden Broad Street # 55 bus south into the city alone, let alone deep into North Philadelphia, never having walked the eight blocks to the ballpark from the stop at Broad and Lehigh...never ever having dreamed of doing anything like this...
...our Phils were playing the Pirates and It was Time.
We Were Twelve.
That was our Reason. We were twelve-year-old boys.
Spring, and our '63 Phillies, hot off an era-worst (if not defining) '62 season in which the team had at one stretch lost twenty-three straight, had a molasses-legged catcher thrown out at first by a step on a triple-relay from deep left after his screaming liner had rattled around the wall...and had a right fielder dislocate his shoulder crashing into the wall on what turned out to be a rather feeble squibber that had squirted under an opponent's first baseman's mitt...
...we were ready for Something Good. It sure was Time.
We cleverly snuck off on a very warm late May morning at the time we'd have, on any other weekday, begun our walk to school down Forest Avenue's steep hill toward Church Road. Instead of turning left at Church and marching half a long block further to Shoemaker Elementary, we turned right where Forest and Church met Old York Road. Old York Road was the initial suburban extension of Philadelphia's Broad Street, the city's main north-south artery.
We ran joyously right, toward the bus stop, our recently neats foot overly-oiled mitts already sweating up our left hands. Waiting for the bus we hoped nervously that Mr. Diamond, opening his small market behind us, wouldn't see us. He'd surely have reported us to our parents. I twisted my neck numbers of times to sneak a peek at the old man. He didn't spot us.
We chattered like madmen about our clever courage, Phils' woeful stats, and our favorite players, pitchers Ray Culp, Dallas Green, and Chris Short, and hitters Dick (Richie) Allen, Tony Taylor, Tony Gonzalez, and Johnny Calllison.
The bus arrived; we scrambled up and aboard as if throwing ourselves over a juvenile prison wall.
Most of all, though, we were hot to see Bill Mazeroski whose solo shot had won Game 7 of the Series against the Evil Yanks nearly three years before, and, of course, we were burning to see the already legendary Roberto Clemente. We spoke of seeing that man as if, when we'd watch him stand in at the plate and, gazelle-like, cover right field...we spoke of seeing him in a way that made it seem as if we might come close to knowing how and precisely why God Invented Baseball.
As the #55 rolled across the Philadelphia city line, Donny, always good with math, asked, innocently, "The game starts around 1:00. I think. We'll get there at about 9 o'clock. What should we do 'til?"
Richie or I asked, "I dunno. Whattaya wanna do?"
Donny said, "I mean, we left real early, like we leave for school. We'll have to do something."
"Walk around. I guess."
The bus passed into, then through, the Oak Lane and Olney sections and on into Logan. After that, North Broad started to look distressingly real to me, parts of it decrepit, parts of it blessed with store-front churches and massive stone ones. I noticed for the first time in my life just how unevenly nurtured the area looked: empty, scrabbled lots, boarded up small businesses and row houses next to occupied homes with small, porch flower pots.
It struck me just how many people were moving or just standing on the sidewalks, sitting on stoops, crossing the wide street. The neighborhoods we passed through seemed in increasing disrepair and increasingly patrolled by cop cars as the #55 made its way deeper into North Philadelphia. It looked now so different from how it looked from the snug back seat of my parents' silver and white-finned Chevy wagon on those drives we'd sometimes make down Broad to center city Philadelphia.
"Whaddya wanna do?" There was a whiff of panic in Donny's voice. Maybe it was Richie's. They had seen what I'd seen. Whoever said it, it mirrored my own discomfort; it began to gnaw my guts.
The #55 rolled on, depositing and collecting. The well-known triangular building on the crest at Broad and Lehigh loomed. People were all over the street. It was a dizzying idea, one our twelve-year-old minds hadn't anticipated, hopping off this bus, three white pre-teens in a very different world, the world, of course, from which came, every day on this bus, the skilled, kind women who helped our moms tend our homes, the world back to which those women returned every night, a world we were now committed not just to traverse on foot but to stand and wait a long time in for a suddenly less than electric major league baseball game.
"I don't want to get out."
"I want to see Clemente. I don't want to get out either. I gotta see Clemente."
"I'm not getting out. Here."
The #55 rolled on past the North Philadelphia train station and past the triangular building up at the Broad and Lehigh crest and we on it. As it rolled I looked back north and west in the stadium's direction. Just row houses and shops, some open, many boarded. We were as small and glum as three twelve-year-old bravado-boys can become in half an hour.
As the bus pulled to a stop at Montgomery Avenue, at Temple University, a tall, robustly built Black man with a briefcase stood to get off. He saw us and hitched up. He addressed us. "You boys are certainly out of your element." We said nothing. Then I nodded, forlorn. He saw our mitts. "Off to some game?" We nodded. "It's early for a...well, well, well! Off from school today?" he asked with a broad grin. He rubbed his bearded chin.
"Aha! I see! Well, gentlemen, this is my stop. I teach here." He stepped toward the exit and turned back. He pointed. "Gentlemen. Over there -- look -- this is where I teach. Would, ah, would you like to keep me company in that coffee shop over there until your game begins? I don't have a class until the afternoon and you boys look like lost lambs who could use some shepherding."
We brightened. "We're playing the Pirates today!" Richie exclaimed.
The Temple teacher took us to a diner where he was greeted by staff and customers variously as 'Prof' and 'Doc' . He asked us our names and introduced us about. His name he must have told us but what I recall only is 'Prof', 'Professor'. We stayed there with him as his guests for sodas and fries for several hours while he read through and marked up papers from his briefcase.
He walked us out and across North Broad Street to our stop, the #55 now heading north back toward Lehigh Avenue. "Have a great game, boys!"
When the #55 stopped again we were invigorated and believed we could handle anything, even an eight-block sweaty jog up Lehigh to the stadium at 22nd. We bounded off that bus, running. We would not have known the three boys who, hours before, had been frightened to their cores to step out onto those streets. We hustled west.
At around 18th Street, Richie, always more keen to his environment than were either Donny or I, asked between broken breaths, "Where are the people? I mean, where are the people going to the game?" He looked at his watch. Half an hour or so to game-time.
We slowed to trots.
"I don't hear anyone cheering." Walking now.
We ran again. "Well, the game hasn't started." Slower now.
In the distance we saw Connie Mack, ran hard and smack up to an abandoned and shuttered green metal ticket gate awning.
No people. No noise save for some teenagers talking and laughing on the street. We stood still, breathing hard. Stupefied.
Looking jerkily all about, then at my two best pals, I was panting. I asked shakily and in a high-pitched plaint, in a pre-teen's lamentation and in a voice that felt in that moment destined never to become an adult's
"The game today...here or Pittsburgh?"