Fifty years ago


You can call it the year that changed my life. All of us have a milestone year, but 1964 was a doozy for me. Got married to the love of my life. Began writing for the South Philly Review, which turned out to be the second great love of my life. When you think about it, that’s a helluva parlay.

Frances Scroccarelli should have been way out of my league. Hey, when the guys at the local Sons of Italy Lodge vote you Miss Abbruzzese, that has to tell you something. And you didn’t need the fingers on both hands to count the girls I had dated, which also tells you something. To get a church wedding in May at Stella Maris back then, one had to book the date a year in advance. Thus it was that we booked our wedding date of May 9, ’64 before we were even engaged.

When we married on May 9, ’64, the Democratic Party was already entrenched in Philadelphia. The reform days of Joseph Clark and Richardson Dilworth were long gone, replaced by Mayor James H. J. Tate, a mediocre politician. Philadelphia seemed a dying city. Industry was fleeing the city faster than the Beatles were producing hits. A good-sized chunk of the population followed, looking for a safe haven in the suburbs.

That year, President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty as part of his Great Society. He signed the Civil Rights Act. But ’64 also was the year that race riots exploded across the nation. Our city was in the center of the storm. In the heat of August, violence ripped through Columbia Avenue. My father was a cop back then, a good cop, but a self-confessed hot-headed cop. He was kept as far from the riots as possible.

We honeymooned in Bermuda. I managed to get both my arms severely burned during an alfresco lunch. The Beatles sang “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” but I just wanted to move my arms. “Hello Dolly” opened in New York. A brash Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight Title. I watched on closed circuit TV in Convention Hall. Either Sonny had aged 20 years before my eyes or he had tanked unceremoniously. Clay soon afterward joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and as they say, the rest was history. They nailed Jimmy Hoffa for eight years for jury tampering. The Ford Mustang was introduced.

We settled into married life in a duplex apartment on the same small street where my in-laws lived. In South Philadelphia, families lived within blocks of one another back then. Your best friends were your cousins. Your idols were your aunts and uncles.

Reality hit me. Radio jobs were few and far between and didn’t pay enough for us to order the chopped sirloin at the Pub in town. I was a bored civil servant when my wife pointed out that maybe the weekly newspaper down the street from our apartment might be interested in hiring me as a writer. You might call it fate. I call it good advice from the former Miss Abbruzzese. It was August ’64, and the Phillies were heading toward their first pennant in 14 years, at least we thought so. Then a little known player — Chico Ruiz — came along and stole the heart of a desperate city.

Full disclosure. I was a Dodgers fan. My summer had been made when I saw Sandy Koufax throw a no-hitter at the Phillies in the aging park at 21st and Lehigh Avenue. Once Shibe Park, it had been renamed Connie Mack Stadium in honor of the great owner-manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. Mack wound up as a charter member of this city’s villains when he sold off members of his championship teams in the ’30s. The decline of the A’s followed as inevitably as my wife follows sales. The A’s eventually moved to Kansas City.

Along with several friends, we had mailed the Phillies our applications for ’64 World Series tickets. The Phils had opened what looked like an insurmountable lead. Our application was rejected, causing me to curse the team — ”I hope they don’t win another game.” I carry that guilt. My cry had conjured up from the depths of hell, the obscure Ruiz.

The Phillies had a six-and-a-half-game lead with 12 games left to play that fateful afternoon at their stadium. They were playing the Cincinnati Reds. There were two outs and two strikes on Frank Robinson. Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. Right-handed-hitting Frank Robinson. The baseball gods tell us that you don’t try to steal home with two strikes and a right-handed hitter at the plate, especially one who is named Frank Robinson. But that’s just what Ruiz did. “Safe” called the umpire. The math didn’t say so, but the Phillies died that afternoon and along with them an entire city looking for hope.

It is 50 years later. Race relations in Philadelphia aren’t perfect, but they are better than in ’64. We’re still singing Beatles songs. I became a Phillies fan sometime after the Dodgers left Brooklyn. Two world championships have dulled the pain of Ruiz. Frances Scroccarelli is still my date. I am still privileged to write this column.

It’s been a helluva ride. Thanks for taking it with me. 

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