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“I warned them,” Joan Rosney said at the end of that fateful night, October 1, 1970 — 50 years ago this Thursday. “I begged them not to give out that wood.” Rosney was the 65-year-old nurse who ran a first-aid station underneath Connie Mack Stadium, the iconic former North Philadelphia home of the Phillies, and before that — under its original name, Shibe Park — the American League’s A and the championship Eagles teams of the 1940s.
The wood that Rosney was recounting to then-Inquirer sports columnist Frank Dolson were actual slats from seats at the old ballpark at 21st and Lehigh, marked with a ceremonial sticker, that the Phillies gave to fans as souvenirs for the final home game before the team would move into the Vet in 1971.
In the hands of 31,822 fans who came out to Connie Mack to apparently do anything but watch the National League East’s two worst teams, the Phillies and the Montreal Expos, the slats were near-deadly weapons. “Heads were slashed open...It was truly horrible,” Rosney said. The nurse treated about 25 people, nine of whom were sent to the hospital, as the din of people ripping out whole rows of seats, or toilets from the decrepit men’s rooms — or anything that wasn’t or even was nailed down — grew louder and louder.
What happened that autumn night in a neighborhood known as Swampoodle was an utterly insane riot, and yet in a weird way you can also make the case it was a pivot point in how the nation would see Philadelphia — no longer either the place of history-class field trips or boring Quaker blue laws but now the U.S. capital of blue-collar attytood, with sports fans who were in your face, with a wooden slat if someone was dumb enough to hand them one.
With the benefit of a half-century’s hindsight, the mayhem had been years in the making. The blocks around Connie Mack Stadium were Ground Zero for the city’s deindustrialization, decay and flight of the 1950s and ’60s. Conflicts big and small happened a stone’s throw away (nearby Columbia Avenue was the epicenter of a 1964 riot), across the street (as aggressive youths demanded money to “watch the cars” of fans) and even inside the green cathedral, where fans booed Black superstar Dick Allen. This was the “broken windows” theory of baseball (made even worse by some awful Phillies' teams) and fans were ready to erupt.
I was always jealous of my friend and former Daily News colleague Don Russell (you might know him as Joe Sixpack, Philly’s top beer connoisseur) who sat in the upper deck that night as a nearly-15-year-old and can remember the faded sights and smells of the rundown stadium. “There was nothing charming about it,” he said.
So fans ripped it apart. “A guy in row in front of us had a black toilet seat hung around his neck, like a garland of roses,” Russell recalled. “He was wearing a neon-orange windbreaker. I remember that because an inning later we saw him in that bright jacket running onto the field to shake Don Money’s hand at third base.”
After the public-address announcer warned that the Phillies might forfeit, folks stopped going on the field — but only for a while. In the 9th inning a stray fan actually grabbed left fielder Ron Stone during a play and allowed the Expos to tie the game. But the Phillies won it (and avoided last place) on Oscar Gamble’s 10th inning single at 10:31 p.m., as thousands of slat-wielding fans raced onto the field even before the winning run scored — tearing up what was left of the turf, thwarted only by home plate which was embedded in concrete.
It all seems so crazy now, but it made sense in 1970 because America was falling apart. That night came less than five months after Nixon’s tin soldiers mowed down four kids at Kent State, and exactly one month after “law and order” police commissioner and soon-to-be-mayor Frank Rizzo raided and humiliated leaders of the Black Panthers by stripping them naked, and so a cool night at Connie Mack suddenly felt like “The Purge.” In 2020, America is falling apart again, and this time we’ll be lucky if it’s only wooden slats.
The October Surprise of the 2020 fall campaign actually came in September. It’s a cliché to call something “a bombshell report,” but what other term describes the New York Times obtaining the holy grail of President Trump’s tax returns for 15 years — 10 of which he paid $0, and just $750 both in 2016 when he ran for president and in 2017 as he entered the White House? The disclosures raised serious questions about Trump’s business acumen, his big loans and unseemly ties to large banks and foreign dictators, his questionable accounting tactics, and the honesty and credibility that he already lost many years ago.
But here’s one more question: Could Congress have exposed some of Trump’s tax shenanigans more than a year ago, rather than now, with 2020 voting already underway in some states? Overshadowed — and for the most part ignored — in the time of Trump’s impeachment in the high-stakes Ukraine matter was a second whistleblower, a career Internal Revenue Service employee who alleged political interference in the ongoing audit of the president’s income taxes.
Democrats in Capitol Hill described the allegations as “serious and urgent concerns,” yet — unlike in the complicated Ukraine matter, which ultimately led to Trump’s acquittal and never seemed to resonate with swing voters — the whistleblower’s report was never released and the matter was never seriously pursued, nor was a half-hearted effort by the House to legally obtain the president’s returns. That seems like a big goof, since a) interfering with an audit may have been a clear-cut crime and b) Trump’s ability to hide his returns has kept voters from knowing how his finances have influenced his official actions. The flub is one more reason why all future presidential candidates must be required, by law, to make their taxes public.