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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US
Bleachers in the Bedroom
By John J. Rooney
Seventy-one years ago, the Philadelphia A's played the World Series at Shibe Park. If you lived across the street from Shibe, as the author did, it seemed like a chance for easy money.
The year before I started school, my father took me up the ladder in our bathroom, through the skylight and onto the flat roof. "There, Jack," he pointed down at the baseball diamond across the street, "for the rest of your life you can always say you saw Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Al Simmons, three of the greatest players of all time, playing in the same outfield."
That was in 1928. Our house was in the neighborhood called Swampoodle on 20th Street above Lehigh, right across from Shibe Park, home of the Philadelphia Athletics, sometimes known as Connie Mack's Bull Elephants, but most often called the A's.
It was an exciting time at Shibe. The park housed everything from political speeches to championship fights. Best of all, it was host to the A's, about to supplant the New York Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig as the best team in the game. In 1928, after many seasons of languishing in the second division, Connie Mack was buying up talent and making a run for the pennant.
The crowds grew. All the games were played in the afternoon, and as the first pitch approached, people would spill out of the 54 trolley that clanged along Lehigh Avenue, or would parade the six blocks from Broad Street, where the Pennsy and Reading railroads and the subway had stops. For a Saturday doubleheader with the Yankees (there was no Sunday baseball), cars would ride up and down the streets hunting for parking; some juvenile entrepreneur would always jump on the running board, stick his head in the window, and convince the driver that he could find a space for him and earn a tip. I had an easier way. I would simply sit out on my front step well before game time and wait for a car to park in my territory. I laid claim to the spaces in front of our house: Busch's (our next-door neighbor up the street), and Hall's and Tamminy's (the two nearest neighbors down the street). Other kids had their own spaces carefully monitored. The routine was the same: wave the driver into the parking space, then ask, "Want me to mind your car, Mister?" loud and clear. Usually I'd get a nickel or dime when the game was over, when I said, "I watched your car, Mister." Of course, I'd done nothing of the kind.
I was also on the lookout to snag a ball that came over the low right field fence during batting practice. Competition was keen for baseballs: teenagers and even some older men patrolled the street, fighting for a ball to sell or to use for free admission to the game.
One of our neighbors, a man in his twenties, married and without a job, stood on the pavement, glove in hand, leaning against his porch railing, scanning the skies like an aircraft spotter, waiting for a missile to hurl over the fence. It was especially tough to spot that ball ahead of time, during batting practice, without the roar of the crowd to alert you that one might be coming. Typically, I'd be sitting on my porch steps, studying the antics of the Katzenjammer Kids in the comics or absorbed in a dog-eared Big Little Book when I'd be jerked back to the present by a sudden "clunk" of horsehide on the concrete sidewalk or the loud "clang" of a ball against the porch roof. We'd all spring into action like firefighters awakened by the alarm. After that, it was mostly a question of luck. A kid had almost as much chance as anyone when the ball ricocheted crazily off the porch railings or slanted facades of the house.
If you got a ball hit by Al Simmons, you could always get him to autograph it if you caught him on the street. He had a room during the season with the Conwells, an older couple who lived three doors from us.
Mrs. Conwell was reluctant to enter the star outfielder's bedroom to wake him up in the morning, so the job was delegated to my kid brother. Jerry waited eagerly for her signal and then scooted up to rouse him.
"Hey, Al, it's time to get up for practice. C'mon Al, you got to get your batting practice if you're gonna win the batting title."
"Oh, hi, kid. Yeah, I guess it is time for some breakfast."
He'd roll out of bed and get dressed, exchanging small talk with this neighborhood small fry who had become a combination of alarm clock and good luck charm. A short while later, Al would saunter down the street toward the park, well before our customers began arriving for the game.
Shibe Park and nearby Baker Bowl, where the Phillies played, provided many challenges. Sneaking into the ball game, for example. Thousands of kids lived in the row houses of North Philadelphia that were within a home run blast of the parks. Day after day we watched with resentment as buses of kids were driven in from outlying towns and suburbs for a free day at the game. The tougher kids looked for a way to get even and found a satisfying one. They'd simply stand nonchalantly near the buses as the out-of-towners got off and watch for an opportune opening. As some unsuspecting tyke stood gaping at the stadium roof or at the hot dog vendor across the street, one of the locals would slip up beside him, snatch his admission badge from his shirt (and perhaps swipe his lunch, too), and dash into the ballpark with the crowd.
Whether scaling the wall, razzing the players, or heckling one another, the fans often provided as much entertainment as the game.
One fan's voice stood out as the loudest of the loud. This was a produce peddler we called the Huckster. He never seemed to be shouting, but his deep, powerful voice, coming from the lower grandstands behind third base, rattled our windows and could be heard by people in the block behind us. Day after day, weekday or weekend, he was at the game. Some people said he was admitted freewith the stipulation that he go easy on the A's, easy on Jimmy Dykes in particular. That roly-poly free spirit of the team was said to be turning into a nervous wreck at third base from the heckling that poured out from the adjacent grandstand.
The Huckster was relentless against opposing pitchers. A merciless needler, he would test out his target with a variety of barbs, searching for a vulnerable spot. Most of the major league pitchers learned to ignore this, but if one showed a reaction or if a rally got started, he'd step up his pace and volume, and the rest of the crowd would soon join in. No game was ever out of reach with the combination of the A's booming bats and the Huckster's booming voice.
Against the Yankees, however, it seemed like nothing could prevail. Their sluggers belted out homers at an unheard-of pace. At Shibe Park, the low right field fence was a left-handed power-hitter's delight, and the Yankees' Babe Ruth was the ultimate left-handed power-hitter. Many of his homers cleared the fence by such a margin that they landed on the rooftops. One behemoth blast may have been the longest ball every hit. It sailed high over our roofs, over our backyard, over the roofs of our Opal Street neighbors, and smashed the upstairs window of Russell Frain's house on the far side of Opal Street.
Jimmie Foxx hit one that might rival it. The papers said it cleared the high roof of the left field stands by a wide margin and then crossed Somerset Street, sailing over the houses and the parking lot in back before dropping down into the lot to be retrieved by a Somerset Street urchin. That's when I learned what my father meant when he said not to believe everything you read in the newspapers. I was one of the Somerset Street urchins and I knew it hadn't dropped suddenly; it had hit high on the side of the building beyond the parking lot and bounced back.
We stood with the ball outside the stands trying to get a response from one of the fans by the open screen in the upper deck. "Hey Mister, who hit it? Hey, Mister, who hit it?" After we hollered this over and over, a man finally gave in and shouted in a disgusted voice, "Jimmie Foxx." We just looked at one another and nodded knowingly, "Who else?"
At our house, of course, we had a special perspective on the A's. We didn't even have to go up to the roof to see the action. Because of Shibe's low right field fence, you could see the field from our front bedroom, and we equipped it with a set of portable bleachers. The benches in the front were close to the floor and each set was a foot or so higher as you moved back, until people sitting in the back row had their heads up near the ceiling. To permit a better view, all four of the windows were completely removed and stored in the basement. Most of our neighbors had similar arrangements.
The bedroom bleachers were a necessity because only a few people were permitted on each roof. The maximum number involved some controversy with the Department of Licenses and Inspections and the Fire Marshal. Both offices, Dad felt, were paid by the Shibe interests to harass us for going into the baseball business for ourselves. We had charged people fifty cents to see the game from our house. On the rooftop, some fans sat in assorted chairs; the rest stood throughout the game. Folding wooden chairs, canvas beach chairs, straight-back kitchen chairs, and even a few stepladders were pressed into service. Black umbrellas and colorful parasols popped up here and there.
About an hour before game time, Mom would remind my brother and me to go to the bathroom before the crowds started coming in. This was not mere maternal concern. The ladder from the bathroom reached up through the skylight, which provided access to the roof. It was possible to use the bathroom with the ladder in there during the game, but it was inconvenient, and privacy was never assured. One of my father's pet projects was trying to convince the neighbors to band together and finance a set of bleachers on our roofs, to extend the length of the entire block. Included in these plans was a sturdy flight of steps from the backyard to the roof, to eliminate the need to go through the bathroom.
Such was America in the late 1920s. A young country with limitless opportunities for people who heard opportunity knock, whether she knocked on the front door or on the skylight; people who were willing to put up with a few inconveniences and put in a little extra work to get ahead. Bootblacks could become millionaires if they had ambition; janitors with ingenuity could become company executives. For us, success beckoned in the form of the Great American Spectacle right in front of us. Particularly, Dad emphasized, if we would get those bleachers on the roofs.
To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Summer 2000 issue.
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