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 sad in a truly horrible, end-of-the-world sort of way, but in 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 yet tragic at the same time.

You see, that day was the final game at Connie Mack Stadium, better known as Shibe Park to those of us who grew up nearby lovingly remember it.

Boy, that final game sure was a classic. Even though for the past 15 seasons it was no longer our beloved Athletics on the field, we still cherished every inning played at the ‘ol 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, might last forever. Even after Oscar Gamble’s single drove in Tim McCarver to give the Phillies a 2-1 victory, the echoes didn’t dissipate for what seemed like hours. The looting afterward was not surprising, and even with all that chaos and people running out of the park with everything they could carry – seats, bricks, buckets of dirt and grass, it was still a bit funny to us to see someone running off with…a toilet.

A beat up old toilet with green paint splashed on the tank.

Image result for Old Toilet

When the four of us – myself and my childhood friends Charlie, Donnie and Slim – saw this shameless toilet thief, none of us said a word. We just shot a 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 Philadelphia 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, but we continued to go to Shibe anyway. Not because we were huge fans of the hapless Phillies who’d moved in by then, but we were in love with the ballpark itself. It’s history. It’s feeling. It’s meaning. For it meant something to us, it truly did. That final night reminded me of the first time we visited, or rather broke into, Shibe.

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. Connie Mack was a God and Shibe Park was his Church. No matter where we were out playing in those summers, our paths always seemed to lead us to the ballpark, like an unseen magnetic force. None of us had attended a real game there yet, but we would always be nearby anyway, soaking up the atmosphere. 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 traipse the few blocks over to the Baker Bowl to see what the Phillies were up to on rare occasion, but it didn’t compare to the vibe at Shibe whatsoever.

One of those summer days in ‘25, Slim earned his nickname, and we earned our 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 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 security guards nearby, we desperately wanted to get inside the park. Not to mess with or take anything – of course not – but just to experience it firsthand. The problem was, the gap was just too small for us to fit through. Except of course, for Mikey.

We hatched a brilliant plan for him to wiggle through the opening and sprint, hugging the grandstands to minimize his profile, to the first base side concourse and let us in one of the locked grandstand doors. It was almost too easy, even to our youthful minds.

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. But that’s not important right now. 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 halfway up the third base line, picked four random seats and just sat. And revered. And kept quiet. We 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 in the neighborhood but cemented in us a pure love for a piece of architecture that wouldn’t dissipate. 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. Good thing we did, then, because times got pretty tough a couple years later.

As we were being ushered toward the door, Charlie O’Toole, the quietest of our group despite being part of a boisterous 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 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 the seat I left Shibe with that night. It’s impossible to know the true story of each ball of course, but I think it’s better that way. 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 more than once, slugged by Babe Ruth. It was a would-be triple robbed by Tris Speaker. It was slung by Walter Johnson and gracefully fielded by Eddie Collins. I’ll always believe all the above are true when I look at the ball that Charlie confiscated for me. Along with the seat, holding on to pieces of Shibe allow her to exist even though she’s gone.

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

 

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