In Philadelphia lore, few bygone structures loom larger than Veterans Stadium, where the Phillies won the 1980 World Series with Tug McGraw at the mound and an Eagles court was created to deal out swift justice to drunk fans.
Some called the multipurpose stadium and its AstroTurf field an embarrassment to the city of Philadelphia. Others called it a part of their lives.
Tom Garvey just called it home.
In his new book, The Secret Apartment: Vet Stadium, a surreal memoir, Garvey details how from 1979 to 1981 he lived in an empty concession stand inside the Vet which he secretly refurbished into an apartment in his very own “off-the-wall South Philly version of the Phantom of the Opera.”
“I was like a kid with a Willy Wonka golden ticket,” he said.
From taking hits in the empty Phillies dugout (and not the kind that require a baseball bat) to throwing halftime parties in his apartment and detailing encounters with Philly sports legends like McGraw, Dick Vermeil, and Julius Erving, Garvey’s self-published book reads like a Philly sports fan’s fever dream.
“I always knew this was bizarre but when I put it together and assembled the stories I thought ‘Holy God!’” he said.
Garvey, 78, of Ambler, never took photos of the apartment and didn’t allow visitors to either, for fear of getting caught. And given that the Vet was demolished in 2004, he can’t prove it actually existed.
But three people separately corroborated Garvey’s story for The Inquirer including Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Famer Bill Bradley; former Electric Factory general manager Michael McNally; and Garvey’s cousin, Terry Nilon, all of whom said they visited Garvey’s secret apartment.
“It was like the Vet stadium was in his living room, it really was,” Nilon said.
A Delco boy at heart (because really, who else would do this), Garvey grew up in Ridley Park and served with the U.S. Army Special Forces in the Vietnam War. During his service Garvey — a Green Beret — commanded a Special Forces camp on the Cambodian border. His first book, Many Beaucoup Magics, about that experience, took him 50 years to write.
He wrote The Secret Apartment in just six months, inspired to do so after sharing pieces of his story with friends on Facebook last year to cheer them up during the pandemic.
Keys to the stadium
When he returned from the war in 1969, Garvey purposefully kept himself too busy to think about what he experienced. He went to Widener University and worked a series of odd jobs, including as a cashier supervisor for the stadium complex parking lots in South Philly.
Garvey’s uncles, the Nilon Brothers, not only had a contract to run the concession and novelty stands at the Vet, but from 1977 to 1981 they were also contracted to run the parking lots at the complex.
Terry Nilon, Garvey’s cousin, supervised the lots, but when he opened a sports memorabilia store in Wildwood, N.J., Garvey was given the gig.
“I wouldn’t have gotten the job except for nepotism,” Garvey said.
Along with his new role came keys to his own office at the Vet and a set of keys to an obscure stadium entrance too.
When Pope John Paul came to Philly in 1979 and the city opened the complex parking lots to visitors, Garvey had to scramble a crew together to staff the lots beginning at 4 a.m.
“I had a sleepover the night before at the Vet because I couldn’t trust the crew I put together to work the pope visit to show up because they were all friends from J.C. Dobbs,” he said of his pals from the now-shuttered South Street bar. “I had to make sure my friends were sober and dressed.”
The crew slept in Garvey’s office and in an empty concession stand across the hall which he used to store boxes of parking tickets. Among those present was Michael McNally, who remembers pretending to play football on the empty field before coming back to sleep in the concession stand.
That night, McNally said to Garvey: “Oh man, could you imagine if you could just stay here all the time?”
“Once he said that I couldn’t wait till we got the people in the lot and I could get back there and start working on it,” Garvey said. “I was driven.”
‘It got weird, fast’
The concession stand was literally and figuratively out in left field, in a low-traffic area by gate D on the 200 level. Garvey estimates it was roughly 60-feet long by 30-feet wide with a sloped roof.
He arranged the space so that if someone opened the door, all they would see was a wall of cardboard boxes, but hidden at one end of the boxes was a corridor which opened up into the secret apartment.
Bill Bradley, a longtime friend of Garvey’s who played for the Eagles from 1969 to 1976 and worked in sports management in Philly until 1980, said the apartment was “fantastic.”
“You go in there and you think it’s just a root beer stand with a bunch of stocked-up boxes and then it opened up into a better apartment than I had in Center City,” Bradley said.
In his book, Garvey details how he furnished the apartment, which had a bed, sink, fridge (well-stocked with beer), stereo, coffee maker, hot plate, and seating for guests. He carpeted his pad with leftover AstroTurf from the field and hung up a Breyers Ice Cream sign and a sign that read “NO CAMERAS FRI. SAT. SUN.”
In the beginning, Garvey threw halftime parties in the secret apartment, but when “it got to be a thing” and strangers started showing up, he called it off.
“I only did that a couple times because it mushroomed,” he said. “It got weird, fast.”
But he still hosted the wives of Eagles players after games so they didn’t have to wait in the parking lot for their husbands.
“We’d put music on the stereo and have a drink,” he said. “The husbands would join their wives and have a beer, and then the lot traffic would pull out and we’d get their cars and have dinner.”
At night when he was by himself, Garvey would sometimes roller skate around the concourse.
“To roller skate around what would be the equivalent of a 10-story building and to look out and see the city was like meditation after a while,” he said.
Once, Garvey went to sleep during a Phillies doubleheader in 1980. A rain delay caused the last game to stretch well into the early-morning hours. When Garvey awoke in the middle of the night, he went out to watch it in flip flops and a bathrobe with a warm cup of coffee.
“There were less than 200 people scattered around,” he said. “They didn’t want to know why I was there in a bathrobe and flip flops, they just wanted to know where I got a hot cup of coffee because the concession stands closed hours ago.”
Hiding in plain sight
Garvey believes he got away with living at the Vet not only because working the parking lots required him to be on site after hours, but also because he made a point of getting everyone at the stadium comfortable with seeing him “almost anywhere at any time.”
“I just acted like it was the most normal thing in the world,” he said.
When his uncles’ contract to run the parking lots ended in 1981, Garvey not only left his job, but the secret apartment too. He moved with Bradley to Texas for a while, before coming back and meeting his wife, Peggy, in Wildwood in 1983.
“I grew up when I met my wife,” he said.
With his marriage to Peggy, Garvey gained five step children, and the couple share a three-legged rescue dog named Mozie. Garvey retired from a career as a real estate agent about five years ago.
When he thinks back to his days at the Vet now, what stands out most is the contrast of being at games among 60,000 fans and 48 hours later, sitting atop the 700 level of the Vet alone looking down at the field and up at the stars.
In those moments, Garvey was forced to feel what he’d put off for so long.
“I’d been so busy for so many years when I came home and this gave me the opportunity to put things in perspective,” he said. “I found it to be healing. It was a place where I went inside myself and found some peace.”