Over, under, around was just the ticket

December 14, 1997|By JOHN STEADMAN

Nothing quite like a privileged childhood, or, put another way, to grow up within walking distance of Municipal/Memorial Stadium. Most of the neighborhood boys didn't have the price of admission, but it didn't always prevent them from attending the games. It was called "hooking in," which by the language of the times meant finding a way to gain admittance without paying for a seat.

It was either go over the fence, tunnel under it or take your chances of encountering a friendly ticket taker who looked the other way, which was a direct signal that he was inviting you to come in on a complimentary basis. If he turned his back, it was an immediate sign that he was extending an invitation so long as his bosses weren't aware of what was happening.

The game plan was to walk the perimeter of the stadium, looking for soft spots that might be exploited in the security coverage. It could get monotonous. And it took staying power. The more guards stationed at their posts, the longer it took to find a way to break inside. Tom Gorman, who was older, sophisticated and from another part of the city, would often mention his gate-crashing credo. "Don't panic until you hear the national anthem," he'd say.

Selling newspapers was an optional way to gain entrance. Distributors from the News-Post, The Evening Sun and The Sun would arrive on 33rd Street in advance of the kickoff and unload papers. Kids would surround them, begging for a chance to be hired, because if you were hawking a bundle of papers, you could get inside to sell and, of course, see the game.

The old Municipal Stadium, except for the administration building, was made entirely of wood. The planked seats were exposed to the weather the entire year. Bobby Brown, later to be a top hearing judge for the Social Security Administration, would holler, "Seats are damp and dirty. You need a newspaper."

And his friend from school would chime in, "The seats are nothing but splinters." So the latest editions were not always sold for the published lineups of the teams on the field, usually carried on Page 1, but more for protection of posteriors and to keep the women and their escorts from having their clothes soiled by the poor condition of the seats.

At the north end of the stadium was a tall row of trees, lombardy poplars, easy to climb, which afforded a free look inside while the game was in progress. As a small boy, maybe 10 or 11, we remember watching from this bird's-eye view, but weren't able to discern the difference between City College and McDonogh. Both had the same uniform colors, orange and black, so, from afar, it was difficult to determine which team was which.

During week days, Jim Gentry, whose house faced the stadium, enjoyed going over the fence with his friend and boldly venturing upon the stadium field for the purpose of kicking extra points. Vicariously, they were both trying to be "Automatic Jack" Manders. Municipal Stadium had a reputation for having the finest cover of grass of any stadium anywhere, which, to this day, we both know to be true -- a situation brought on by so few games being played there.

First, Gentry would hold for placements, with his young pal kicking. Then the roles would be reversed. Two kids in front of the goal posts, with a huge stadium of 65,000 or more empty seats, enjoying themselves to the ultimate. You might kick for 20 minutes until the stout stadium manager would venture out of his administration office and scream, "You boys, get out of here." But we'd continue to kick until he was made to walk half the length of the field.

Then it was a race up through the stands, out the exit and a climb over the fence again -- only this time we were on the way out. Kids often played their own version of football outside the stadium on a patch of grass that covered part of the dirt parking lot. One or two might have helmets but, for the most part, it was playing bareheaded, minus shoulder pads, in nothing but old clothes and thinking you were John Kimbrough, Nile Kinnick or Brud Holland.

From Waverly and the nearby area surrounding No. 51 school came a more experienced array of stadium frequenters. It was their home grounds.

Included were Jack Blair, who became a member of the Alameda Light Opera Co.; Nelson Filbert; Carvel "Loodie" Howard; Jim "Babs" Wrigley; Don Shipley; Bob "Rainbow" Bull; Bob Benson, and a man with a troika of nicknames, plain Jim Smith, otherwise known as "Limo," "Cinder Lip" or "Sweet Words."

They perfected a way to vault the fence by diligent off-season practice. They'd take a run at the fence, where the barbed wire had been pulled away, hit it in a jumping position, grasp the top pipe and throw themselves, in the fashion of a gymnast, completely over the fence. The idea then was to keep running, find a seat and sit down as though you belonged.

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