Yes, Virginia, They Threw Snowballs at Santa Claus
A prediction should the Phillies reach the 2010 World Series in a rematch with the Yankees. Howard Cosell reported a non-event that eventually became part of the myths surrounding Philadelphia fans.
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Yes, Virginia, They Threw Snowballs at Santa Claus
As this year’s baseball season winds down, a clearer picture of who will participate in the Fall Classic is emerging. As boring as it gets in April when prognosticators tell us that a repeat of the previous season is in store, 2010 could be just that. To get that repeat, the Phillies will have to hit with some consistency and the Yankees will have to solidify their pitching. Fulfilling both requirements is more probable than just merely possible and in the resulting match-up there will be a host of comparisons to everything from team mascots* to fan behavior.
When the New York media starts their comparison of fans, inevitably the beat writers will bring up the low-hanging-fruit of sports reporting, that Philly fans threw snowballs at Santa Claus. Would it have been worse had they thrown snowballs at Mother Theresa, at Pope John Paul II, or (gasp) Lady Gaga? The truth is that the snowball throwing would have gone unreported and would have been a very small, local incident had not that intrepid protector of all that is sports-sacred, Howard Cosell, decided to make it part of his NFL roundup the following week.
Ironically, Howard Cosell delighted in “Telling It Like It Is,” his trademark for explaining his reason for being a lawyer turned sports reporter. He annointed himself as the person who must reveal the truth, give the vital essence of a story or break down its core significance. Incidental to the circumstances surrounding the snowball incident was the larger meaning of the game that Cosell chose not to tell. Philly had taken itself out of the running for the first draft pick, O.J. Simpson who, by the end of the 1968 season, was being called the greatest running back in college football history. After the first 11 games of the pro season, Philly looked like a lock to get him with the first pick; they were 0-11. But then, the schedule took a strange twist and gave them two gift victories: the pathetic New Orleans Saints and the Detroit Lions.
There were other reasons why the fans were angry that Sunday. It was 10 days before Christmas; they were sitting through a meaningless loss to the Vikings in 20 degree weather with winds gusting to 30 miles per hour. The city had been pelted with snow the past 15 hours and at halftime the fans were probably deciding whether to stick it out or to just go home and write the year off as a complete loss.
They were angry with the Eagles’ management for gutting a once solid franchise. Their coach was inept and now they couldn’t even be consistently pathetic enough to warrant the best draft pick. To try and mollify the growing dissent, management decided to offer them a pleasant halftime surprise. Santa Claus was going to appear flanked by Eagles cheerleaders dressed as elves and parade around the stadium. There was one small problem. Santa Claus got snowed in. He never made it to Franklin Field where the Eagles played their games. Instead, they needed to quickly find a Santa Claus, any Santa Claus.
In desperation, they scoured the stands for that lone nut who likes to dress up as Santa Claus for football games. We’ve all seen these people at games. They are usually good for a laugh because they rarely look anything remotely resembling Old Saint Nick himself.
Stepping into this perfect storm of bad Philly karma was 19-year-old Frank Olivo, who had been attending Eagles games for years dressed as Santa Claus. He was standing precisely in destiny’s place when a desperate public relations man spied him and pleaded for help. Forget the fact that he was an un- jolly 170 lbs, had a laughable and obviously-fake beard and a “disheveled” and a worn Santa Claus outfit. He was more than available, he was necessary. Some accounts said he “looked drunk” others said he “looked disoriented.” But in any case, when the elves came out and “Here Comes Santa Claus” started playing, the crowd of 54,535 was a bit taken aback by this poor excuse for a Santa Claus. They started booing and grabbed the closest objects at hand, snow, and started throwing. Olivo then started giving them the one finger salute in a signature portrait right out of the Christmas Carol from Hell. This wasn’t a crowd of fans dressed in Phillies’ red lined up in Herald Square to pelt the Macy’s Santa at the end of the Thanksgiving Day Parade.
It was an almost forgotten local scene but then Howard Cosell decided to put it into his national show, the “ABC Weekly Report,” and Philly fans have been drubbed horrible fans ever since. Giants’ fans can throw dangerous ice balls at their home team during a football game and they are laughed off as a few inebriated fans. Philly throws snowballs at a pathetic stand-in for Santa Claus and it makes them the worst fans…ever. This is what you will hear at World Series time. Let’s lump them all together. These are the same fans who threw snowballs at Santa Claus 42 years ago.
To put it all into perspective, I am reminded of an incident in Will Leitch’s book, “Are We Winning?” During the 2003 season, not even a year after the tragic death by heart attack of Daryl Kile, a 20-game winner who pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals, two fans wearing Cardinal jerseys walked to their seats at Yankee Stadium. Most of the fans sitting in that section serenaded them with the sing song chant D-a-r-r-y-l K-i-l-e, D-a-r-r-y-l K-i-l-e. So what was the difference in the two incidents? I guess it’s that Howard Cosell wasn’t there to report it.
*Yankee mascot? Few people remember “Dandy” a large, furry handlebar mustachioed mascot that management had to retire because he was being abused by the fans. Unfortunately, during the season of his creation, Yankee catcher Thurman Munson died in a tragic airplane crash. Dandy originally reminded fans of Yankee pitcher Sparky Lyle but after the August 2, 1979 accident, the handlebar mustache eerily reminded fans of Munson.