Santa deserved it: A Philadelphian’s defense of that infamous snowball incident
You’re going to hear a lot in the next two weeks, as we gear up for the Patriots-Eagles Super Bowl matchup, about how Philadelphia fans are so terrible that they — no, we — threw snowballs at Santa Claus.
Yes, we. I’m a born and raised Philadelphian who has somehow found himself living in Boston. And I’m here to tell you: Santa deserved it.
The first few years after I left Philly in 2005, I’d offer up the simplest rebuttal. Look, that happened in 1968, and if that’s the best trash talk you’ve got about my city, you can kiss my Rocky Balboa.
That didn’t seem to satisfy anyone, though. And to be honest, I didn’t know a ton about the infamous snowballing, which happened 15 years before I was born in the greatest city in the world. It never came up in history class as I made my way through Philadelphia’s Catholic and public school systems.
So I started doing research.
It turns out that the 54,000 Eagles fans at Franklin Field had a lot of reasons to be angry on that snowy Dec. 15, 1968. They arrived to find their seats buried in snow. The team was getting ready to hold its annual halftime holiday show marking the end of the regular season.
And what a season it was. The team was 2-12, its worst record in a decade that also included a 3-10 season (1962) and a 2-10 season (1963). Even worse, as Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stan Hochman recalled a while back: “the two games they’d won [in 1968] after losing the first 11 would cost them the chance to draft O.J. Simpson.”
Philadelphia fans put up with a lot, but even we have limits.
So here it is, a miserable day in a miserable season in a miserable city, and the miserable Eagles are getting ready for their miserable halftime show, complete with cheerleaders and a brass band.
There’s just one problem. There’s no Santa. He was stuck somewhere in New Jersey, trapped by the snowstorm. (What kind of Santa gets stuck in snow?)
Well, no problem. A team staff member saw a man dressed as Santa in the crowd: Frank Olivo, 19 years old and about to take on the role that would be the first line of his obituary (no, seriously). “Frankie,” as he was known, was plucked from the stands and asked to fill in.
And so the loudspeakers blared “Here Comes Santa Claus.” And boy, did he, a skinny, scruffy kid with not a sack of presents but an equipment bag filled with damp towels, according to Hochman.
Here comes Santa Claus. Here come the boos. Here come the snowballs.
“Then I started getting hit with them,” Olivo told ESPN in an interview a few years before he died in 2015. “I remember watching a fellow make a snowball and throw it at me. I just walked up to him at the bottom of the wall, and I said, ‘You’re not getting anything for Christmas!’ ”
Of course, it wasn’t really about Santa. It was about a terrible team with a terrible owner and a terrible coach, and a city that had had enough.
As Hochman put it: “The fans pelted Santa Claus with snowballs, because the 1968 Eagles stank like the sewers of Manayunk” — hey wait, that’s my old neighborhood — “because an incompetent coach named Joe Kuharich, who couldn’t win at Notre Dame, had been given a 15-year contract by the owner, Jerry Wolman. . . . The fans pelted Santa Claus with snowballs because they would have needed a bazooka to reach the owner’s box.”
Even if it wasn’t about Santa, he deserved what he got, if only as a symbol of everything Philadelphia hadn’t gotten from its football team.
Even Olivo, who went on to work in casinos, car sales, and the mortgage business, understood.
“You hear the booing,” Olivo told ESPN. “You hear it. I said, ‘Well, you know, I understand what’s going on here. They’re not booing me. They’re not just booing Santa Claus; they’re booing everything.’ ”
They’re booing everything. Now there’s something a Philadelphian can be proud of.