This retiring Phillies employee has seen it all ... from racing ostriches to skywalkers
Chris Long is retiring after 48 years directing Phillies promotions.
Chris Long’s Citizens Bank Park office was cluttered with the residue of 48 years worth of Phillies promotions. The Phillies’ director of entertainment, just two days from retirement on that recent Friday, sifted through the unusual archive she’d amassed, stirring up dust and memories in the process.
One desktop pile included a Daily News back page from one of Karl Wallenda’s two Veterans Stadium skywalks. Walls were covered with photos of entertainers, ballplayers, opening-day performers. She had files on local choirs, the Phillie Phanatic’s public appearances, defunct promotions such as Cash Scramble and Instant Vacations. In a far corner, reverently arranged, was a stack of ceremonial American flags.
Hired as a Hot Pants Girl when the Vet opened in 1971, but soon added to the then-one-person promotions department, Long spent nearly a half-century planning and implementing ballpark festivities. Her resume reads like an ode to a colorful big-league era that’s all but disappeared.
She worked with Kiteman, Cannon Man, Benny the Bomb, Rocket Man, and Wallenda. She oversaw racing ducks, rampaging ostriches, high-jumping Easter Bunnies, and circus elephants that urinated in the Phillies dugout.
She supervised cow-milking, wheelbarrow-racing, and watermelon-smashing. She arranged for paratroopers, trapeze artists, and helicopter pilots to deliver first balls. She hand-washed the Phanatic’s costume, found more than 3,000 anthem singers, adopted cats that fell from the Vet’s ceilings.
Like most Phillies employees, Long worked in the background. But if fans wouldn’t recognize her name, they’d probably know her face. That was her, before every game, hustling around the diamond like an over-caffeinated Pete Rose.
“You can usually hear her, said Larry Shenk, the Phillies’ retired media-relations executive, “directing Dan Baker, bossing people around, yelling `Hurry up,’ `Let’s go,’ `No, no, over here.’ ”
Wearing headphones and clutching a clipboard, she managed nightly to fit anthem performances, lineup announcements, pregame ceremonies, and first-pitch deliveries into a tiny pregame window.
“On any given night, you might have a band, a choir, a first-ball presentation, an honorary batboy,” she said. “You need to time and script it all. You have to make sure it ends at the appropriate time so we don’t affect the baseball. Sometimes we had to scramble. But if we were tight, we’d rush things, maybe tell Dan Baker to read the lineups faster.”
The ballpark-entertainment landscape that Long, 70, left behind differed greatly from what she encountered in the early ‘70s as an assistant to then-promotions director Frank Sullivan. Before baseball grew overly concerned with liability issues, before a pot of cable-TV gold made it financially comfortable, wacky promotions were a ballpark staple. And if Bill Veeck was that genre’s progenitor, the Phillies’ Bill Giles was an ardent disciple.
Long was charged with carrying out Giles’ schemes, many of which involved animals. The most notable may have been the elephants that, while promoting the Ringling Bros. circus, relieved themselves in the Phillies dugout.
“We were expecting one elephant and [famed trainer] Gunther Gebel-Williams brought them all,” said Long. “He lined them up in front of the Phillies dugout and on cue made them stand on two legs. It was like turning on a fire hydrant. Players were flying in all directions. The dugout smelled for days.”
A duck race deteriorated when the competitors preferred to waddle aimlessly. Another time, instead of doing tricks, a performing dog fetched a ball the Phillies infielders were using to warm up.
“I yelled at the trainer to get her dog,” Long said. “She yelled back, `Nobody told me there would be a ball on the field!’ "
Broadcasters Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn, who also competed on tricycles and in battery-powered toy cars, once bailed out of their carts when the ostriches pulling them ran amok, eventually leaping into the stands.
The promotions Philadelphians recall most vividly, Long said, are those that bombed. And not even Benny the Bomb, who blew up a box he inhabited, ever bombed as dramatically as Kiteman.
One of a series of odd opening-day attractions, Kiteman made the first of four appearances in 1972. That year, instead of soaring to home plate, his 24-foot-wide wings caught an ill-timed gust and he tumbled off a lofty center-field ramp, crashing Wide World of Sports-style into a seating area.
“I was saying my prayers,” said Long. “Fortunately, we always had emergency vehicles standing by.”
A Southwest Philadelphia native who was working for the Navy when she heard about the Hot Pants Patrol opening in 1971, Long had a Phillies career that spanned three ballparks. She applied at Connie Mack Stadium, worked 33 years at the Vet, and moved to CBP in 2004.
As Sullivan’s aide, she quickly made an impact.
“They complemented each other,” said David Raymond, the original Phanatic who first worked as a promotions intern. “Frank had great ideas but no organizational skills. That’s where Chrissy came in.”
She earned her wings in 1976, the year the Phillies hosted the All-Star Game, made the postseason for the first time in 26 years, and conducted numerous bicentennial-related activities.
“That was probably my craziest year,” she said. “We had a relatively young staff and most of us were learning as we went.”
At the Vet, her cramped office, which she shared with another employee, was so small the two had to sit back-to-back.
“I loved the Vet,” said Long. “You hear all these horror stories about it, but I think I only saw one rat. Cats, yes. We had a lot of cats. They would fall through the ceiling and Frank Sullivan would box them up and bring them to my office. I had more Vet cats than I knew what to do with.”
Long, who lives in Woolwich Township with her husband of nearly 23 years, has shepherded the Phillies’ pregame events through 3,500-plus regular-season games, 14 playoff series, five World Series, two All-Star Games. That’s a lot of anthems and first-pitches.
“Most people throwing out the first ball have common sense,” she said. “They move in a little. But some think they’re Steve Carlton and usually either bounce it or throw it so hard and high it hits the screen.”
For the anthem singers, meanwhile, the enemy is stage fright. One operatic performer practiced perfectly in a concourse. On the field, however, after “Oh, say can you …” she paused before blurting, on mic, “Oh, Lordy, I forgot the words.”
Then there was the Channel 6 cameraman who for years had pleaded with Long to let him perform.
“He had a lovely voice,” said Long. “He got out there, started singing and I said to myself, `I guess I’ve never heard the anthem’s second verse.’ Then I realized he had no idea what he was singing. He wasn’t singing one word correctly. He was too far gone to stop, so we turned down the sound and the crowd started singing. At the end, he got booed. He left the field, walked up the ramp behind home plate, and left the ballpark. I never saw him again.”
When the Phanatic debuted in 1977, Long became the mascot’s handler, even though she originally advised Raymond to turn down the job.
“She was trying to protect me,” said Raymond, the man inside the mascot from 1977 to 1993. “Chrissy was like my mother when I was young and stupid. She was somebody who knew so much about life. She saved my ass on numerous occasions.”
Long booked his public appearances, supplied the props he needed, even cleaned his unwieldy costume, sometimes taking the shag carpet-like outfit home and drying it on her clothesline. When Raymond accidentally backed over it with his car, shattering the Phanatic’s prominent nose, Long had it repaired. When he missed appointments, she covered for him.
“She was such a supporting, guiding light,” said Raymond. “I honestly think the Phanatic would not have been as successful without her stewardship and care and commitment.”
Asked about the most memorable event in her long career, Long didn’t hesitate -- Wallenda’s two skywalks.
In 1972 and 1976, the aged aerialist carefully traversed a wire that stretched 647 feet across the Vet. Aided only by a balance pole, and without a net, Wallenda, who would die in a 1978 fall at age 73, tottered 168 feet above the stadium’s notorious surface.
“The first time we had like 40 security guys holding the guide wires to keep the wire taut,” Long recalled. “But the problem was they began watching him and not paying attention to what they were doing. Wallenda literally sat down in the middle of the wire and signaled for them to pull it tighter.
“When he finished and came down, I met him and he said, `I need a phone.’ He got on and said, `Mama, I’m OK. I made it.’ “
After the Phillies moved to their new ballpark, Long said, Wallenda’s grandson contacted the club and asked if he could reprise his grandfather’s feat.
“I asked David Montgomery, but he said, `I just can’t,’ ” said Long.
Most of the time, Long labored in anonymity. But occasionally she got feedback, like the night a Vet fireworks show was delayed by an extra-inning game.
“By the time the game ended, it was 1:30 and nobody had left,” she said. “So we shot the fireworks. Next day I got a call from a woman in New Jersey. She said your fireworks were so loud they woke my 2-year-old. He thought it was time to get up. He never went back to sleep and I was up all night.”
As the end neared, Long hadn’t yet decided which memorabilia she’d discard, which she’d leave in the Phillies care and which she’d bring home.
“It’s a lot of stuff,” she said, “a lot of good memories. My husband and I are going to have to negotiate.”