A black man dies somewhere in America, the life leaking out of him over nine minutes as a wicked cop presses a knee to his neck, and the righteous anger and appalling opportunism spread here, to Philadelphia’s neighborhoods and businesses, to a city that today seems nothing but shattered glass and wounded souls. We look for salves at a time like this, for leadership, and as strange as it might sound, we look to athletes to provide some of them. Yes, it might sound strange, but it’s not. These days, we’re as likely, if not more likely, to find those qualities among our sports stars as we are in the Oval Office, in the governor’s mansion, or at City Hall.
We read the statement from Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz last week, an extended hand of friendship and understanding. We see Sixers forward Tobias Harris, joined by teammate Matisse Thybulle, marching through Philadelphia on Saturday, peacefully protesting George Floyd’s death. It would be easy to dismiss these gestures and actions as half-measures, as cliched and tiresome and unnecessary. But if you look far enough into Philadelphia’s past, you can find a similar moment 56 years ago – a horrible outbreak of violence at a time when the sports star of the city had little choice but to stay silent about it – and you can see how much has changed, and how much has not.
The North Philadelphia riot of Aug. 28, 1964, began with a husband and wife in their car, arguing, at the corner of 23rd and Columbia. A police officer intervened, handcuffed the wife as she kicked and screamed, and put her in the back of his squad car. Witnesses reacted with fear and fury, believing the cop was harassing and abusing a black woman. That was the spark. Bricks, bottles, and rocks flew. Windows were smashed. Storefronts crumbled. Looters wrapped their arms around television sets and carried them away.
Ben Longer had owned a small grocery store at the corner of Gratz and Norris. If a customer was hungry and didn’t have money, Ben made him or her a sandwich. If a mother didn’t have milk for her child before school, Ben opened a bottle and handed her a glass.
“The people in the neighborhood just loved my dad,” Rhea Applebaum, his daughter, said in a phone interview Monday. “When the riot started, my dad was home. It was at night. He got a phone call. They said, ‘Mr. Benny, there’s a riot, and we’re going to take care of it. Don’t worry.’ They boarded up the store and stood in front of it, with their hands all linked together. They protected the store.
“There came a point where they called up my dad and said, ‘Mr. Benny, this is not from our neighborhood. It’s people from other cities who are coming in, and they’re all organized, and we’re scared to death of them. There’s nothing more we can do for you. You’re not going to be safe here anymore.’”
The chaos lasted three days. Ben Longer sold his store. Other proprietors sold their businesses, too. Social bonds frayed and snapped. Residents fled and never returned. The neighborhood was destroyed. It has never recovered.
Just a mile-and-a-quarter north of where the riot began stood Connie Mack Stadium, the Phillies’ home ballpark. That summer of 1964 was the wildest and most disappointing in the Phillies’ history – the team coming out of nowhere to lead the National League by 6 1/2 games with 12 games left, only to fall apart – and their best and most exciting player was Dick Allen. Named the National League’s Rookie of the Year, he led the team in runs scored, hits, doubles, triples, batting average, and on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He even hit .415 during that infamous 10-game losing streak that cost the Phillies the pennant. You would have expected him to be treated like a king.
He was not. Racial tension charged the city then. The riots scared fans away from Connie Mack Stadium. The Phillies’ home attendance dropped from a franchise record-setting 1.425 million in 1964 to 1.167 million in 1965, even though they remained competitive. Those who did go to the ballpark were still frustrated over the ’64 collapse, and after Allen got into a fight with a popular white player, Frank Thomas, and the Phillies released Thomas, those fans found, in Allen, an undeserving target for their bitterness.
“I remember taking the 33 bus as a kid to Connie Mack Stadium,” said Mark “Frog” Carfagno, the former Phillies groundskeeper who has campaigned for years to have Allen inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. “The blacks would be out there protesting. Frank Rizzo would be out there with the mounted police, trying to control order. The bus would go by, and you’d literally duck below the windows because stuff went flying. The bus was 95 percent white. Then you go inside Connie Mack Stadium, and who are you going to take out your frustration on? No. 15, Dick Allen. He told me that, from then on, he was better off not saying anything.”
No one would have expected Allen to speak out publicly about the riots or their aftermath. He was 22, 23, playing in a culture and city more overtly hostile to a black man than today’s, without the power and the media megaphone that athletes now possess. “I went to my locker, sat down, and fought back the tears,” he wrote in his autobiography, Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen. “I just wanted to play the game. After the Thomas fight, all I wanted to do was go home, to Wampum, where the game had been fun.”
So here we are, and just as it would have been asking too much of Allen to speak up back then, it is naïve to think now that a few tweets or Instagram posts or ESPN monologues from famous athletes will cut through the cable-news clamor, pop our ideological bubbles, and cause us to lower our guards enough to listen to each other and even disagree in good faith. But the healing has to begin sometime, somewhere, and given the power that sports and the people who inhabit its world can wield in our society, we could do worse than look to the best of them for a measure of grace.
That Wentz and Harris have been the two local athletes whose words and actions, so far, have been the most notable and effectual is not a coincidence. Both are naturally approachable and agreeable, civic-minded and willing to be generous with their celebrity, and important players on their respective teams. They have status, and they are respected.