tom briggs

I was once at an old ballpark. I saw it when Three Dog Night’s haunting, rolling Momma Told Me Not to Come played in my head . The song stopped and the ballpark was demolished. But the memories have remained .

1970. A humid grey mid May Saturday morning at the Greyhound station on 44th in New York City. There’s a bus. It’s marked “Philadelphia” in white lettering along the top of the front windshield. That’s us. My younger brother Gene and I are going to the City of Brotherly Love. Not to see the Liberty bell, or any other American historical icon. Nor to learn about the Declaration of Independence. No sir. I had wanted to see ancient Connie Mack Stadium, The Lady in Red, home of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, since I was around ten years old.  They were going to tear it down in a few months. The Phillies were to move into a brand new  building called Veterans Stadium. Philadelphia was only 90 some miles away along the New Jersey Turnpike. Less than two hours.

At the Philadelphia Greyhound Station we hailed a yellow cab. I said “Connie Mack Stadium, on the double!”.  The  black driver, looking at me with quizzical  eyes and perfect white teeth, asked ” Ya’ll going to see them losers?  We passed through a decaying, crowded neighbourhood of 2 and 3 story red brick row houses. Twenty minutes later we were in North Philly, at Lehigh and 20th, Connie Mack Stadium’s  main entrance. I was mesmerized by what I saw. Up to that point, I had only known the ballpark  from black & white TV images and a magazine photo taken from a plane..

A magical  fifty foot high French Renaissance octangular tower dominated the main grandstand entrance. Fantastic friezes and cartouches with baseball motifs decorated the red brick and terra cotta walls of the exterior doubled decked grandstand, which ran on either side about 200 feet. Marble columns supported arches over windows, ran the length of the main structure.  A mansard roof, complete with gabled dormer windows, topped it all off.

An additional grandstand,  doubled decked in the 1920’s, extended another 150 feet or so on each side of the main grandstand to the outfield area. Yet another double decked grandstand extended from the left field grandstand  all the way to centerfield, a length of some 200 feet. All this gave the ballpark a wonderfully eccentric and asymmetrical  look. This was the craziest place there could ever be.

Want some whiskey in your water, Sugar in your tea. What’s all these crazy questions you asking me. This is the craziest party that could ever be. Don’t turn on the lights cause I don’t want to see. Mamma told me not to come. Mamma told me not to come.

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Time is measured differently when you are young. It’s also measured differently depending on where you live, and on how eventful a particular time period is. In Europe, a 61 year old building isn’t old at all. But here in the USA, at 23 years old, 1909 (when the ballpark was built) was a long long time go. I remember looking at the bleached out black and white photos of  early century and Depression era players who played there when it was called Shibe Park. That’s when the American League Philadelphia Athletics, who won many pennants and World Series in the 10’s and 30’s,  played there.

They were tough looking guys that hitched rides on freight trains. Chewed tobacco at ten. Pulled a mule on their daddy’s farm when they were twelve. Drank hard liquor. Rube Waddell, Eddie Plank, Lefty Grove.  Jimmie Foxx.  Legends of the game. Guys that looked  forty in the face when they were twenty five. “Say bub, can you spare a dime? “  “Say. I’d be much obliged for the rest of that cigar yer smokin”. Later, the pennant winning Phillies Wiz Kids of 1950 featuring greats like Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts. Then  the epic collapse of the Jim Bunning, Chris Short, Richie Allen 1964 Phillies. This  building had a thousand year history condesnsed into 61 years in my eyes.

Open up the window, Let some air into this room. Think I’m almost choking from the smell of stale perfume. And that cigarette your smoking bout scare me half to death. Open up the window sucker, let me catch my breath

The Phillies had moved here in 1938, when they vacated fire prone sad and shabby Baker Bowl, five blocks away. That ball park was a shipwreck of a structure, 50 years past its prime. The American League Athletics moved out of Shibe Park in 1953, relocating to  Kansas City. The National League Phillies, as sole tenants, then renamed the stadium to honor ninety year old Connie Mack ,the former and only Athletics manager for fifty years.

We entered on field level (lower deck) through a ramp along the first base, or right side. A beautiful sea of red seats and green grass welcomed us. We took our seats. A tiny crowd of about five  thousand was on hand in a ballpark that held over thirty thousand. I always preferred it that way! I could then really appreciate the place. I could hear the sounds of the game, the players and the ball hitting the bat. I could gaze on those magnificent red seats and observe how the second deck and roof cast dramatic dark shadows on the red seats below.

Open up the window, Let some air into this room. Think I’m almost choking from the smell of stale perfume. And that cigarette your smoking bout scare me half to death. Open up the window sucker,let me catch my breath

The Phillies were about to play the New York Mets. Hard throwing left hander Jerry Koosman for the Mets and veteran lefty Woody Fryman, a farmer from Ewing Kentucky, for the Phillies. Baseball looks real easy on TV. But if you’ve ever played the game you know how difficult it is, even at the youth level. At the major league level it’s incomprehensibly difficult, but they all made it look so easy. Just like great actors or painters make it look easy. i guess that’s what art is partly about and baseball isn’t just a game, it’s an art too.  And unlike all other sports, it has a living history. And it has theater.  It is where character is revealed.  it’s inner/outer wars being fought between batters and pitchers.

The batter gets less than half a second to decide to swing or not swing at a ball coming at him at near 95 miles an hour from a distance of 60 feet 6 inches.  And pitchers of that time and before, especially in the National League, were not averse to throwing close to a hitter, to back him away from the plate. Don’t dig in on me mister, or I’ll  knock you down in a National League minute. One mistake by a pitcher, and the batter can hit it hard.. A line double, maybe a 400 foot home run.

A mistake is when the pitcher doesn’t throw the ball precisely where he wants to throw it in the hitters zone , or more accurately, strike zone. A good major league hitter makes his money by hitting a pitchers “”mistake” (pitches that are too much in the middle of the strike zone, or pitches that are where the batter wants them). A pitcher makes his money by pitching to a hitters weakness. If a batter can’t adjust to the outside curve, curve him outside. If his weakness is the inside fastball, throw it hard on the inside.

The afternoon was turning darker, and at the end of the third inning, the enormous stadium lights, mounted on stanchions that seemed to be forever reaching for the sky, were turned on.  This gave a majestic, dramatic and scintillating effect against the darkened sky, and recast the coloring of the whole place into slightly cooler tones. Of course, it increased my anxiety a little, as I didn’t want it to rain. I wanted this game to go on forever. Well, sort of.

I played against one of the Mets players when I was around 12. His name was Ken Singleton, from my home town of Mount Vernon, New York. He went on to a stellar 15 year career. It was surreal to see him playing on the same field where so many legends had played. One of my favorite players of all time was there that day. Jim Bunning was winding down a Hall of Fame career on his second tour of duty with the Phillies. Some other players present that day included the Mets great righthander Tom Seaver, colorful reliever Tug McGraw and original Met Ed Kranepool.  Phillies players that day included  veteran catcher Tim McCarver, ageing first baseman Deron Johnson and young stars Larry Bowa at shortstop and Rick Wise, pitcher.

The game itself was anti climactic and somewhat incidental. I found myself imagining the ghosts of players from long ago being present. Maybe I could have a small talk with Lefty Grove. I took walks to as many different sections of the grandstand as I could, to take in the different vantage points. I felt the history of the place with  intensity. The place reeked of history.  I wanted to be an eternal tenant of Connie Mack Stadium. Sound a little demented? Maybe so, but it doesn’t matter.  Real sad that they were going to demolish it in a few months. Did this place have an eternal soul like the players that played there long ago?  I had hoped that it did. Then there would always be baseball played at Connie Mack Stadium. I found out later, 45 years later, that the score was 6 to nothing, Mets.

The radio was blasting, Someone’s knocking at the door I’m looking at my girlfriend, She’s passed out on the floor I’ve seen so many things I ain’t never seen before. Don’t know what it is I don’t want to see no more

The Three Dog Night record? It just went with the whole experience better than any other sound ever went with anything.

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