For twenty agonizing years Billy Penn stood atop City Hall, glaring down upon the peons of Philadelphia with that bad-ass colonial duster and self-righteous presence of his, as if to say “Hear ye, hear ye! You topith me, I fuckith you!” And for twenty years, ‘fuckith’ us he did. He reigned his vengeance down upon Philadelphia sports teams the way Joe Carter rained that moon shot over the left field wall at the Skydome in ‘93, the way the Lakers rained down three’s in the 2001 NBA Finals, the way Donovan McNabb rained three interceptions into the arms of the New England Patriots during Superbowl XXXIX. It was a gentleman’s agreement that kept Billy at the peak of the city’s skyline for nearly a century and for a man whose life was plagued with backstabbers and disappointments, One Liberty Place was the final thorn in the backside of his knickers.
To understand the psyche of a vengeful, twenty-seven ton bronze statue you must first know that at the time of its construction, Willie P’s canonization was intended to stand tall atop the largest building in the world. However, by the time City Hall was actually completed, it had already been surpassed by the Washington Monument and the Eiffel Tower. You should also know that in life, Penn was a devout Quaker who wanted to create the Illadelph (not called the Illadelph at the time according to Wikipedia) as a utopian city which provided freedom and opportunities for all of its settlers. Unfortunately, in his absence Pennsylvanians took the colony in a different direction. They trashed his constitution, implemented their own, and wedged a gap between the haves and the have-nots. In an effort to right these wrongs, Penn sent his crack head son to care for the affairs of PA. As we know however, throughout history, crack heads have proven themselves unreliable (not called crack heads at the time, also according to Wikipedia); and Penn’s utopian dream inevitably slipped away. Penn would be slighted yet again when his financial advisor, Philip Ford, embezzled much of his wealth, leaving William penniless and ultimately in debtor’s prison. In 1712, William Penn died of a stroke…and you think you had a bad day, huh?
So in June of 2007, as the ironworkers of Local Union 401 began to raise the final beam of the Comcast Center, a figurine of William Penn was attached to it and once more Billy was getting his just due. That spring however, the Phillies came into the season on a down note with the passing of John Vukovich. John was the longest tenured Phillie at the time of his passing and he was publically memorialized during the 2007 season. The letters “VUK” were sprayed into the coach’s box along the third base line, his jersey hung in the dugout, and black memorial patches were sewn into the Phillies jerseys that year. He would be missed, but the Phils would continue to play above average ball as spring turned into summer. J-Roll was working very hard to convince a somewhat skeptical city that the Phillies were “the team to beat.” And his skeptics were all eyes on July 15th when we mockingly celebrated our 10,000th loss; what a milestone it was. The Phils were the first team in MLB history to reach the not-so flattering benchmark. But by mid-September the radio waves were buzzing a little bit as our Phillies were pushing towards ninety wins. When they made the playoffs we were ecstatic, but just as quickly as our hopes went up, they fell from grace. The Fightins’ dropped three straight to the Rockies in the NLDS and winter came early for the Phillies Faithful.
Now we all know that 2008 in Philadelphia were high times; no deaths, no laundry hanging in the dugout, no black patches, and a whole lot of ass-whooping. The Phillies battled for the top spot in the National League East, and when they finally captured the flag in September, there was no looking back; and winter seemed just a little bit warmer as 2008 gave way to 2009; why wouldn’t it? We had Harry’s “World Champions of Baseball” call to saturate the radio waves and insulate the frozen off-season. Those were certainly the pinnacle of our glory days.
On Apri 13, 2009 Harry Kalas passed away in Washington, D.C., just hours before he was scheduled to sit behind the broadcast microphone and visit our homes once again, as he had done everyday for nearly forty years. When the stadium gates opened for Harry’s viewing on the morning of April 19th, there wasn’t a dry eye in Philadelphia. Grown men and women wept like children as they said “Goodbye” to a man who had never met a stranger, raised two generations of baseball fans, and had provided so many fond memories of summer living in the Delaware Valley. The Phillies organization did a beautiful job of preserving Harry’s legacy, and the players made sure that Harry was with them throughout the 2009 season as well. As had been done in the memory of John Vukovich, every Phillies uniform was branded with a black HK patch, and Harry’s signature baby blue jacket and white loafers could be seen in the Phillies dugout, whether the team was home or way.
The Phillies were favorites to repeat as National League champions in 2009, and they did not disappoint. They finished the regular season with ninety-three wins and took the N.L. crown in just nine games. But waiting in the wings of the American League was the Evil Empire, New York Yankees. The Yanks took the World Series in six games, and most Phillies fans couldn’t even stomach the idea of waking up and going to work the following morning, let alone talk about game six.
When Robin Roberts passed away in 2010, it was news, but it wasn’t as devastating as Harry’s passing. Roberts died of natural causes, and he wasn’t around enough for most of us to remember and connect with. Nonetheless, he was memorialized throughout the season in the same manner as Vukovich and Kalas. Again, Phillies jersey’s displayed a small black patch with the number “36” inscribed, and Robin’s jersey could always be seen hanging on a hook in the Phillies dugout. That year, the Phils won ninety-seven games and Doc Halladay threw the second post season no-hitter in MLB history. Philadelphians had their eyes fixed on the World Series before the division series was even over, and right along with Ryan Howard, we were blindsided by the San Francisco Giants; low and away.
There is a point being made in this not-so brief lesson in U.S./Phillies history. And it’s that the canonization of William Penn is never to be topped; not by buildings, not by patches, and not by laundry. When Mr. Penn made it to the apex of the Comcast Center, he was willing to forgive, forget, and allow his town to celebrate once again; but when we overstep our bounds and canonize our late sports stars, we must be punished with heart break. Ian Fleming once wrote that “once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, and three times is an enemy action.” William Penn is probably not our enemy, but it’s fairly safe to say that he’s trying to tell us something…or maybe we should at least consider the idea that he’s trying to tell us something.
Most Philadelphians would probably agree that the City of Brotherly Love has plenty of vertical concrete in its skyline; and there’s no need for city planner’s to overshadow William Penn’s ‘mini-me.’ Similarly, most Phillies fans would agree that sacrificing one world title for one season-long memorial of Harry Kalas was well worth the price of admission (I will step out of my invisible writer’s cloak for a moment to tell you that my eyes still water up when I think about that man). However, if the Phils decide to hang Jim Buck’s ‘lucky underwear’ from a coat hanger this season, they just might be sorry that they did.
SW – Kevin Anderson