It is the stuff of legend. You hear it during games, on sports talk radio, in the national media: The Philly boo-bird is so heartless, so hard to please, we once even booed Santa. Pelted him with snowballs.
Well…it’s true. But, as is so often the case, there was more to the story. Thanks to Anthony Gargano and Glen Macnow, we now know the details and the context. In a display of Woodward and Bernstein-like shoe-leather investigative reporting (if Woodward and Bernstein had been reporting on something that didn’t really matter), the two former WIP sports radio hosts tracked down the Santa in question. In their 2003 book, The Great Philadelphia Fan Book, they take us back to that fateful day.
On December 15, 1968, the last-place Eagles, with a record of 2-11, were facing the Minnesota Vikings at Franklin Field before 54,535 fans in a gusting snowstorm with 30 mile per hour winds. Even though both teams were terrible, the stakes were actually high: Had the Eagles won, they would have “earned” the top pick in the draft and used it to select O.J. Simpson, who, long before committing a double homicide, could actually run really fast.
Anyway, the fans were in a foul mood. There were three inches of slush on their wooden seats and they were seeing their chances of drafting Simpson slipping away. Mid-game, one fan came onto the field and ran up to coach Joe Kuharich to give him a piece of his mind. Another ran out carrying a giant effigy of team owner Jerry Wolman.
At halftime, Santa was supposed to ride out on a float, surrounded by cheerleaders—Santa’s elves. Only there was no Santa to be found. He was either late due to the weather, or too drunk to go on. But sitting in the end zone seats was 20-year-old Frank Olivo, who wore a Santa suit and fake beard to the game—hoping to get some TV time. Eagles brass had found a 5’6”, 170-pound replacement Santa.
As Gargano and Macnow tell it, the brass band cued up Here Comes Santa Claus and Olivo came running out from the end zone between a 100-yard column of dancing cheerleader elves. “He was the worst looking Santa I’ve ever seen,” Eagles PR director at the time Jim Gallagher told Gargano and Macnow. “Bad suit, scraggly beard. I’m not sure whether he was drunk, but he appeared to be.”
The boos started raining down on Santa/Olivo. “At first I was scared, it was so loud,” Olivo told Gargano and Macnow in his Ocean City, NJ, home. “But then I figured, Hey, it was just a good-natured teasing. I’m a Philadelphia fan. I know what was what. I thought it was funny.”
As Olivo continued his wobbly run on the field, the snowballs started to come. By the time he made it to the south end zone, he was hit by several dozen launched from the stadium’s upper deck. “Oh, I got pelted,” Olivo recalled, who didn’t seem to mind the assault. Which begs the question: If Santa himself wasn’t outraged by the fans’ attack, maybe it’s time to stop using it it as proof of just how anti-social Philly fans are?
After all, Gargano and Macnow found a silver lining to the whole episode. Noting that Eagles’ quarterback Norm Snead led the league in throwing interceptions, they concluded that “many of these upper-deck [snowball throwing] denizens were more accurate passers than Snead.”
To see a hilarious ESPN recounting of the incident, including an interview with Olivo himself, click here.