The Day I Broke Into Shibe Park

“I figure I might be able to find it on a night like this when the moon turns everything silver, and the evergreen trees look like they’re covered in tinsel.”

W.P. Kinsella, The Valley of the Schmoon

 

October 1, 1970 was a sad night.

Not in a tragic, end-of-the-world sort of way, but the way you feel when selling a beloved car or moving out of your childhood home. The way it reminds you of a cherished memory, happy and sad at the same time.

You see that particular day was the final game at Connie Mack Stadium, more affectionately known to those of us who lovingly remember it as it’s original name, Shibe Park. No disrespect to Mr. Mack whatsoever.

That final game sure was a classic.

Even though for the past 15 seasons it was no longer home to our beloved Philadelphia Athletics, we still cherished any and every frame played at the old yard. We had all secretly hoped the game would last extra innings, just to drag out the inevitable end just a bit longer – and it did! When the 10th inning began, for just a second it felt like the game, and the stadium, just might last forever. Even after Oscar Gamble’s single drove in Tim McCarver to give the Phillies a 2-1 victory, the echoes from the crowd didn’t dissipate for what seemed like hours.

There was some chaos immediately following the game. Fans stormed the field. Most just wanted their own special moment at ground level where they’d followed their heroes for so many years, but others took it a few steps further. There was looting and people running out of the park with everything they could carry – seats, bricks, buckets of dirt and grass.

It struck us as funny to see someone even running off with…a toilet. An old-looking toilet with forest green paint splashed on the tank. The sight made us all chuckle.

When the four of us – myself and my childhood friends Charlie, Donnie and Slim – saw this shameless toilet thief, we shot a knowing smirk at each other and then proceeded to unbolt seats of our own, the same seats we had occupied for over 40 years, since we first started going to watch the Athletics as kids in the late 1920’s. We were all bummed when the A’s moved to Kansas City at the end of ’54 of course, but we continued to go to Shibe anyway. Not because we were huge fans of the hapless Phillies who’d moved in from the decaying Baker Bowl, but because we were in love with the ballpark itself. It’s history. It’s feeling. It’s meaning. For it truly meant something to people like us.

As the bedlam continued after that final game, it reminded me of the time we broke into Shibe Park so many years ago.

Like most neighborhood kids, we grew up loving baseball and loyally following the A’s. If you lived just a few blocks away you were probably a Phillies fan but where we lived, it was the A’s or nobody. Manager Connie Mack was a god to us, and Shibe Park was his palace of worship. No matter where we were out playing in those summers, our paths always seemed to end up the ballpark, like some magnetic force that drew us there.  None of us had attended an actual game there yet, but we would always be nearby anyway, soaking up the atmosphere. There was nothing like standing just outside the brick façade of the park, hearing the energized roar of the crowd, and inhaling the scent of cigars, hot dogs and beer – the magic dust that only a ballpark on gameday can provide.

The iconic four-story tower behind home plate at the corner of Lehigh and 21st, where we knew Mack’s office sat at the pinnacle, was the most important landmark to every eight-year old kid in the area. Sure, we would walk the few blocks over the dusty streets to the Baker Bowl to see what the Phillies were up to on occasion, but that didn’t compare to the vibe at Shibe whatsoever.

One of those summer days in ‘25, Slim earned his nickname, and we earned our Philly stripes.

The A’s were on a western road trip (really the Midwest since no team existed further west of St. Louis in those days), so the neighborhood near Shibe was quiet and largely empty. We were doing our usual thing, hanging around the park, when Slim, aka Mikey Donatelli, noticed that behind the wooden right field wall near where it joined to the first base grandstands, were some damaged boards. A gap. To the four of us, looking through that hole in the wall out at the empty seats and the vast sea of emerald green grass was like peering through a rip in the veil that separates the earth from heaven. As we noticed there were no guards nearby, and no groundskeepers working on the field, we thought that this was the perfect time to try and get inside the park. Not to mess with or take anything – of course – but just to experience it firsthand. The problem was the gap was just too small for us to fit through.

Except for little Mikey.

We hatched a brilliant plan. It involved having Mikey wiggle through the opening and run, hugging tight to the grandstand wall to minimize his profile from any eyes inside the park, to the first base side concourse and let us in one of the grandstand doors. It was almost too easy, even to our naive minds. We could only hope the door could be unlocked from the inside.

To our amazement, the nefarious scheme worked like a charm. As Mikey slid through the gate and made a beeline to the concourse, we decided his nickname was to be changed from “Teapot” to “Slim.” Nobody really knew where “Teapot” came from anyway, though it was suspected it was given to him by an Aunt after some sort of kitchen mishap.

When the door on the 21st street side opened to us, the feeling of euphoria was nearly too much to handle. Instead of doing what most kids would do in that situation – go on the field and run the bases, sit in the dugouts, venture down the tunnel to the clubhouse and secret passages under the stadium – we simply sat. We walked around and halfway up the third base line, chose four random seats in a row and just sat. And revered. And kept quiet. The four of us were mesmerized.

Before we knew it, nearly an hour had gone by and we didn’t feel too guilty or even apologetic when the good-natured security guard shooed us back out the very door we entered from. Nor were we surprised when our secret gap in the fence was repaired the very next day. But we had accomplished something, we felt, that not only elevated us to grand status among other kids in the neighborhood but cemented in us a pure love for a piece of architecture that wouldn’t fade. In fact, two years later after much begging and negotiating, all our families agreed to purchase four season tickets, in those very four specific seats.

As we were being ushered toward the door, Charlie O’Toole, the quietest of our group despite being part of a boisterous, well-off Irish-Italian family was walking several paces behind the rest of us when he spied something. The door to a small storage room at the bottom of the concourse rotunda was left open. Peeking inside, Charlie noticed among the clutter a few buckets of used baseballs in the room. Never one to miss out on a souvenir, he pocketed four of them, one for each of us, to mark the occasion. I still have mine today, and I assume the other guys do too. I often stare at it while it’s perched in its case, along with lots of other A’s memorabilia, and next to my seat that I left Shibe with on that final night.

It’s impossible to know the true story of each ball of course, but to me, I believed my ball was once in play, right there on the majestic Shibe Park field, and used by the game’s greats. It was once perhaps slugged by Babe Ruth. It was a would-be triple robbed by Tris Speaker. It could’ve been slung by Walter Johnson or gracefully fielded by Eddie Collins. I’ll always believe something of that is true when I look at the ball that Charlie confiscated for me. Along with the seat, holding on to such pieces of Shibe feels like we are helping to keep her alive even though she’s long gone.

The storage room, Charlie said, also served as a something of a bathroom. As he pocketed the baseballs, the fresh splashes of forest green paint he noticed all over the toilet wouldn’t seem significant to us for another 45 years.

 

 

 

Photo credit: https://www.ballparksofbaseball.com/ballparks/shibe-park/

 

 

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