Winning teams fan the flames of city's sports mania
Philadelphia — When it comes to sports, few cities can match Philadelphia -- whether you're talking about the heritage of the past or the phenomenal success of its current professional teams.
Given the city's colonial past and the importance many of its residents still attach to ''old money'' and the social graces, it is hardly surprising that there has always been a lot of emphasis here on the so-called ''country club sports.''
Surely no golf course this side of Scotland is more steeped in tradition than nearby Merion -- where Bobby Jones completed his Grand Slam in 1930; where Ben Hogan came back after a serious automobile accident to score one of the most memorable of all US Open triumphs in 1950; where a young Jack Nicklaus showed promise of what was to come with a spectacular performance in the 1960 World Team Championships. The US Golf Association has held more championship tournaments and international matches there than at any other site.
Bill Tilden, the tennis great, grew up and got his early training in Philadelphia before going on to dominate the game throughout the world. And the city continues its emphasis on the sport as the annual site of the US Pro Indoor Championships.
Then there are the crew races on the Schuylkill (a river whose name only Philadelphians can spell and nobody can pronounce). Many Olympians and other world class oarsmen have trained here.
But the best-known Philadelphia rowing story, of course, is the saga of the Kellys. It started in 1920 when Jack Kelly Sr. won the Olympic single sculls championship but was barred from competing in the Diamond Sculls at England's famed Henley Regatta under the amateur rules of that day because he had worked as a bricklayer.
Bricklaying paid off, however, and while Jack Sr. got rich in the construction business and daughter Grace went from debutante to famous actress to princess, it fell to Jack Jr. in 1947 to redress the old slight by winning the title on the Thames that his father had been denied the chance for nearly three decades earlier.
Another ''elitist'' event in the Philadelphia area over the years has been the Devon Horse Show, always one of the nation's top equestrian events.
But Philadelphia has always been a big popular sports town, too, from the ''Golden Age'' of Connie Mack's pennant-winning Athletics, big-time college football, and boxing extravaganzas to the modern era with its elaborate multimillion-dollar sports complex, huge crowds, and last but hardly least, the consistently winning ways of its current pro teams.
Philadelphia was a hotbed of college football back in the days when that was the only game most people cared about from the end of the World Series until the beginning of spring training. Red Grange and Jim Thorpe turned in some of their greatest performances on Franklin Field against Penn. Notre Dame, the famous Blanchard-Davis Army elevens, and many other legendary individuals and teams cavorted there over the years.
Basketball also has a long tradition in the town that gave the world Wilt Chamberlain. And as for boxing, it was no accident that the movie ''Rocky'' was set here, for Philadelphia has always been a big fight town.
Gene Tunney won the heavyweight championship from Jack Dempsey here in 1926; the $2 million live gate the crowd produced still looks pretty awesome. Rocky Marciano also won the title here in 1953; and more recently Joe Frazier fought out of Philadelphia in those three epic duels with Muhammad Ali in the 1970s.
Philadelphia has a long, if not always glorious, baseball tradition, too. The old Athletics had their halcyon days before World War I and again in the late 1920s and early '30s. But then came a long drought through most of the '30s and '40s. Both they and the Phillies were so consistently inept as to contribute to the city's loser image, from which it has only recently recovered. (Sample joke: ''Philadelphia is a great town to visit. There's Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, all this culture and tradition -- and if you want to see a good ball game, New York is only 90 miles away!'')
Despite an occasional good year, from the middle of the depression until the mid-'70s, the lean times far outnumbered the good ones for the city's not-always-so-patient fans.
Not anymore, though. Early in the 1970s, the new Veterans Stadium and the Spectrum enabled all four major pro teams to move into spacious, modern quarters. And surely it was no coincidence that soon thereafter the caliber of play picked up on all fronts -- with a corresponding increase in fan interest and press coverage.
In fact, the latter too frequently verges on overkill, with every reporter seemingly bent on uncovering his own Watergate in the dugout or the locker room. The results of such intense competition aren't always pleasing to the athletes, as Phillies slugger Mike Schmidt put it in a much-quoted comment last year. ''Philadelphia is the only city,'' he said, ''where you can experience the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day.''
Actually, it was hockey's Flyers who were the first Philadelphia team to reach the top in the new era, shedding the role of expansion club weakling in the late '60s and early '70s. Their winning the Stanley Cup in 1974 sparked a citywide celebration which climaxed in a wild day-after parade drawing an estimated million spectators. The Flyers won the cup again in 1975, and have remained one of the game's top powers and leading gate attractions at home and away ever since.
Basketball's 76ers also turned around during this period. Rising from an unbelievable 9-73 record in 1972-73, they have been a perennial title contender for the past half dozen seasons.
The Eagles, who went 11 years from 1967 through 1977 without a winning season , also did an about-face and went all the way to the 1981 Super Bowl.
And the Phillies, by the early '70s a bad baseball joke once again, turned into perennial contenders with three straight division titles in 1976-77-78, then finally won their first-ever world championship in 1980.
In that sports year of 1980-81, in fact, the four Philadelphia teams did something unprecedented for any city at any time as they all reached the ultimate playoff final in their sports -- the Phillies winning the World Series, the Eagles reaching the Super Bowl, and the 76ers and Flyers both getting to their respective finals.
Winning tends to feed on itself. Good teams attract big crowds and TV ratings , which provide more money to buy better players to keep on having good teams. And right now it looks as though the erstwhile ''City of Losers,'' which certainly had a longer cycle of bad teams than any town should have been subjected to, may just keep its current ''up'' cycle going long enough to square accounts.