As I watched Chicago’s big and orderly Cubs parade Friday, I couldn’t help but think of the 1980 Phillies and Mike Swilley.
Sure, the Cubs’ justly ballyhooed triumph ended a title-less streak of 108 years. But it wasn’t their first World Series victory. Through all their famously barren years, two world championship banners waved in Wrigley Field’s ephemeral breezes.
By contrast, when the Phillies finally won it all in 1980, it was uncharted territory, the first time the team founded in 1883 had been the last one standing.
It probably feels different because the Phillies never possessed the Cubs’ lovable-loser charm. But our 97-year wait, though far less remarked upon, was far more painful. And the civic outburst it provoked, though far less chronicled, was far more spontaneous and heartfelt.
Watching those Windy City throngs gather in Grant Park Friday, I was reminded of what, then and now, seemed the quintessential moment of Philly’s 1980 celebration, and of Swilley, the 23-year-old fan who was at its center.
The Phillies’ long-delayed triumph and their fans’ historic frustrations ended just before 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 21, 1980, when the Royals’ Willie Wilson struck out for the 12th time in six games.
As police dogs formed a ring around Veterans Stadium’s field, joyous Philadelphians, their civic inferiority complex at last relieved, instantly poured into the streets. An estimated 5,000 of them clustered at what then was the most Philadelphian of Philadelphia intersections, K&A in Kensington.
There they tore down the signs identifying both Kensington and Allegheny avenues. They smashed a few windows. They sprayed each other – and the police – with Schmidt’s and Ortlieb’s beer. One fan wearing only sweatpants was relieved of them.
And high above this carnival of chaos, dangling from the lofty girders of the Frankford El like a T-shirt-clad trapeze artist, was Swilley. Over his back he’d slung a crudely made effigy of George Brett, the Royals batting star whose ill-timed hemorrhoids had made him the butt of Series jokes.
After inching slowly to the spot he’d selected for his iron gallows, Swilley gestured to the crowd theatrically, then hung the dummy from a rafter.
“Brett swung briefly above the crowd,” the Daily News reported, “then went the way of all stuffing – he was lit up by the hemorrhoids.”
It must have been an exhilarating, maybe even life-defining, moment for Swilley. He’d briefly raised himself above the crowd, his daring and sense of humor rewarded by the mob’s delight. Wondering if he ever climbed so high again, I searched for him.
Swilley, it turned out, died at 44 in 2001. But his younger brother Joe, 57, is living in Spring Hill, Fla.
“Mike got shot and killed during a robbery in Tennessee,” Joe Swilley said Friday. “He didn’t have a gun or nothing. But when he was running away from the store, the owner shot him in the back. I remember that night in 1980. It was crazy. Mike loved crazy adventures.
“It was a shame. He was a smart guy, but he got into drugs and went down the wrong path.”
Though not as memorably as Kensington, countless other Philadelphia neighborhoods erupted that night. It was as if a tightly packed core of Phillies fans had exploded, and huge packs had scattered throughout the city. Police officials reported that crowds of 5,000 or more congregated in at least 25 different locations.
It was in many ways a valedictory celebration for a rapidly changing city. By the time the Phillies prompted another civic outburst, in 2008, Philadelphia was a much different place.
Ugly Veterans Stadium and its garish artificial turf were gone, though they’d live forever in any list of Philadelphia mistakes. Among the 65,839 fans packed into the Vet that chilly fall night were some in jackets and ties, dresses and furs. Some waved pennants on sticks like 1920s’ Yalies. Almost no one wore team merchandise.
Homemade signs, which along with players’ wives reactions, drew lots of TV time then, have practically disappeared from ballparks. Those visible in that Game 6 crowd seem astonishingly innocent now, especially for a fan base that even then was regarded as one of the sports world’s most cynical: “Mike Schmidt for President.” “Nobody Beats Carlton.” “We Love Tug.”
Many of the whiskey bars and steak-and-potato restaurants, as well as the frills-free hotels that hosted players and celebrities that October – the Philadium, Frankie Bradley’s, Jimmy’s Milan, the Franklin Plaza, the Fairmont – are either gone or have been reinvented.
The old Philadelphia businesses that proudly ran congratulatory ads in the next day’s papers – Girard Bank, Strawbridge & Clothier’s, Wanamaker’s, Atlantic-Richfield – disappeared too.
As if to emphasize the event’s unlikely significance, on that same day in Vatican City, Catholic officials announced that the Church had decided, after 347 years, to review its excommunication of Galileo. Now that the Phillies had won a World Series, it seemed, it was no longer so difficult to believe that the earth revolved around the sun.
That 1980 championship, won by baseball’s losingest franchise, a team that for one 31-year stretch in an era of 154-game schedules averaged nearly 95 losses a season, still seems far more liberating than the 2016 Cubs’ victory.
Later on Oct. 22, a parade every bit as massive as Chicago’s moved through Center City. Swilley was there, too.
“It was great. But down near the stadium, we got arrested,” said Joe Swilley. “Mike and another guy were fighting. I was just breaking it up.”
If there was blood in the air that day, it was overshadowed by the love.
Some spectators tossed rose petals at the floats carrying players and club officials, saluting them the way ancient Romans sometimes greeted returning legions. A few petals stuck to general manager Paul Owens’ face. They were held their by tears.
“No one who lived through it all,” Phillies catcher Bob Boone said of 1980 a quarter-century later, “will ever forget.”
Not even when the Chicago River turns Cubs-blue.
Published at Sun, 06 Nov 2016 14:03:24 +0000