Bill Giles, the longtime Phillies executive, looked 50 years ago this month at Veterans Stadium and said it felt like moving from a Model T to a Cadillac. The Phillies had spent the previous 32 seasons at Connie Mack Stadium, but the majestic ballpark in North Philadelphia had fallen into disrepair.
It was time for a new home. And The Vet — which would eventually see the same fate as its predecessor — opened as a cathedral.
“I think the fan will be amazed,” Giles said a week before opening day. “Every time we take a season-ticket holder around, they’re flabbergasted.”
The opening of The Vet on April 10, 1971, brought the city’s four pro teams to South Philadelphia. The Eagles, who played at Penn’s Franklin Field, would move to South Philly that fall. The 76ers, after four seasons in West Philly, went to South Philly in 1967 to join the expansion Flyers at The Spectrum.
Broad and Pattison — once an anonymous intersection in an outskirt of the city — was now the hub of Philadelphia’s sports scene. Those three venues — JFK Stadium, The Spectrum, and The Vet — have since been leveled but the teams never left.
For five decades, South Philadelphia has been the city’s sports destination. But it almost didn’t happen. The Phillies and the city first had plans to build The Vet elsewhere before finally settling on South Broad Street.
It was a long trip to South Philadelphia.
The Phillies first began discussing a new stadium with the city in 1953, but a project failed to gain much momentum until November of 1960 when Mayor Richardson Dilworth held a news conference at City Hall in November to announce that the Phillies would open a stadium in the Northeast.
The stadium was to be ready for the 1963 season and it would be built in Holmesburg where the Pennypack Creek flows into the Delaware River. But it wasn’t just a ball park.
The 175-acre tract — which was owned by the city — would also house a boat marina, a bird refuge, and amusement park that was described to rival DisneyLand.
The city hoped to have the Eagles and University of Pennsylvania’s football team share the stadium with the Phillies while leaving enough acres to build a sports arena that could host the Warriors and the Ramblers, then Philly’s pro basketball and hockey teams.
“The city is very enthusiastic about this,” Mayor Dilworth said at the news conference. “I feel certain the City Council will feel the same way. I don’t think we’ll have any difficulty.”
The plan would have been the original sports complex, but Dilworth’s confidence was a little premature.
The proposal was crushed by the press and civic groups for being too expensive. They questioned why it was located in what was then considered a hard-to-reach section of the city with limited public transportation.
An editorial cartoon in The Inquirer captioned “Phillies stadium in the sticks” featured William Penn using binoculars from atop City Hall, asking “What’s going on way out there!”
Dilworth remained firm with his proposal, saying the Phillies would leave town like the Athletics if they didn’t get a new ballpark. But the proposal to build the $10 million ballpark in the Northeast would be scrapped after the City Planning Commission rejected it.
30th Street Station
The Pennsylvania Railroad first suggested in 1956 to build a stadium over its tracks at 30th and Arch Streets, which the city passed on until their Northeast Philly plan went awry.
The stadium — which would be built by The Pennsylvania Railroad and Madison Square Garden — would hold 60,000 fans and host both the Phillies and the Eagles. It would also include a 10,000 seat arena, a hotel, and a shopping center.
It seemed perfect as it would be easily accessible via public transportation. But the projected required $4 million of federal funding, which was rejected in June of 1964. The plan was canceled.
The Phillies took another swing three decades later at 30th Street when they were planning Citizens Bank Park, but it fell through again.
Former Phillies owner Bob Carpenter owned 125 acres next to the Garden State Park, which helped create rumors that the team was headed to New Jersey after the Northeast Philly and 30th Street Station plans fell flat.
Maybe Dilworth was right. The team’s plan to move to Jersey in 1959 was squashed by local leaders, but the idea was revived in 1964.
This time, politicians — including the Mayor of Cherry Hill — were on board and the team’s treasurer said chances of relocating there were strong. But it never seemed to become more than a rumor, perhaps simply a ploy to apply pressure on the city to finally approve the South Philadelphia site.
Carpenter said his land in South Jersey was just an investment and he wanted to stay in Philadelphia. But New Jersey was prepared in November of 1967 to make a push at the Phillies if Philadelphia voters failed to approve another bond for the South Philadelphia stadium.
South Philly with a dome
The plan to build a stadium in South Philly — which was shot down in 1957 and 1962 — was approved by voters in November of 1964. After years of nixed proposals, the city finally found one that worked.
But then the city started discussing if the new stadium needed a roof. They reviewed two proposals in August of 1965 for a dome, which would cost $17.5 million. Houston’s Astrodome opened in April of 1965, making other cities believe that fans would no longer want to sit outdoors for sporting events as TV continued to grow in popularity.
The Mets even considered adding a dome to their already opened Shea Stadium.
A retractable roof would have been too expensive, so the city was offered a “removable roof” as a compromise to the traditional dome. The roof would have a 400-foot diameter hole in the middle which would be covered with nylon or fiberglass. The cover could be removed and folded away in 24 hours.
The dome idea met the same fate of the other proposals. It was ruled too expensive in September of 1966 and canceled. The city was exhausted by a process that started with a meeting in 1953 where representatives of the Phillies, Athletics, and Eagles complained about Connie Mack Stadium.
In 1969 the project was officially named Veterans Stadium and even that process was complicated. The Vet opened a year behind schedule after the workers went on strike. Nothing about it seemed easy.
At last the city had a new stadium. And 50 years ago, it was a marvel.