The seemingly endless contemplations on the nature of Philadelphia’s sports fans bring to mind that cloying holiday song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
The same tired litany of offenses is repeated ad nauseam — “Four fans a-brawling … Three drunks in Vet jail … Two batteries hurled … And a snowball in Santa’s left ear.”
As evidenced by the many references during the Eagles’ recent Christmas Day telecast to the infamous Santa-shelling of 1968, the compulsion to enumerate and reiterate Philly’s fanatical faults runs deep — both in the national media and, somewhat less explicably, in ourselves.
Yet somehow one incident worthy of inclusion at or near the top of any such list — a pitched, bloody battle between fans and Philadelphia police at one of the more memorable events in modern sports history — has disappeared from that familiar narrative.
The episode on Dec. 26, 1960, the day the Eagles won their last NFL championship, certainly wasn’t ignored at the time. It was Page 1 news in the following morning’s Inquirer, beneath a headline reading, “Roaring Crowd Hails Eagles, Wild Melee Mars Jubiliation.”
According to various contemporary accounts, the melee had its roots just before halftime, when the Eagles’ Bobby Walston booted a 15-yard field goal at Franklin Field’s east end.
Lingering snow and ice littered Franklin Field, especially in that area. The east end already had a reputation as 1960’s equivalent of the “700 level,” a place where alcohol-fueled hooliganism frequently provoked police response.
That day a crowd of 67,325 overstuffed Penn’s venerable stadium, and as spectators leapt onto the field to chase the loose football, police — several hundred were on duty, including a flock of recent academy graduates — attempted to stop them.
Fierce scuffles followed. Sgt. Martin Egan was jumped, his face slashed “from cheekbone to chin” by a jagged chunk of ice in what Police Commissioner Albert Brown termed “a deliberate, unprovoked attack from behind.”
Though that clash ended quickly, it incensed many in the crowd. Throughout the remainder of the game, they hurled snowballs and ice at officers.
During that 1960 season, jubilant mobs had punctuated all but one of the Eagles’ five home victories by tearing down the goalposts. But as Philadelphia’s 17-13 title-game triumph neared conclusion, it was clear police wouldn’t permit a repeat.
Nonetheless, when Green Bay’s Jim Taylor was stopped on the 20-yard line and the gun sounded, a mad rush toward the east end zone ensued. A gauntlet of irritated police waited there, behind a rope. Whenever on-rushers breached the barrier, they “were picked up bodily and pitched back over the rope.”
“Fans,” the Inquirer wrote, “expressed resentment at the way the bluecoats repulsed the first few attempts.” Bottles, hunks of seats, even mustard jars were added to the barrage.
The missiles struck scores of policemen. Several were taken to Philadelphia General Hospital, one with a deep facial gash, others with eye injuries.
Then, in what the newspaper described as retaliation, “flying squads of policemen invaded the lower grandstands.” A full-scale battle afoot, some fans yanked up hunks of the wooden benches, nails protruding.
One spectator, Richard Surbeck, 22, of Wynnewood, mounted a counter-charge, yelling, “Come on, help me. Let’s get these cops!” Ironically, while he and fellow fans weren’t behaving as such, Surbeck was a choirboy, literally. The ex-Episcopal Academy glee-club member would be arrested and fined $50, but not until he’d pushed one policeman down a flight of stairs and wrestled with another. That officer, Lt. William Murphy, was treated for hand and shoulder injuries, Surbeck for a scalp cut.
It all lasted 15 ugly minutes, after which the goalposts fell anyway. Brown angrily, and not surprisingly, blamed the brawl on “drinking and a growing disrespect for the law.” Two hours after the game ended, he claimed, police still were removing intoxicated fans from “under benches, under the stands, on the field.”
“If this doesn’t stop,” Brown insisted, “someone will be killed.”
It leaves you wondering why, given its bloody severity, the widespread lawlessness and our tainted sporting reputation, nearly everyone – even Philadelphians who were there – have omitted this episode from the familiar catalog of charges on our sports rap sheet.
The answer likely lies in the insidious way nostalgia so often transforms reality. At least until there’s another Eagles championship, memories of Dec. 26, 1960, will always be sepia-toned for those who experienced it.
The drunk who threw up on our shoes that afternoon, the winter chill, the overcrowded aisles, uncomfortable benches, and hellish restrooms — all that, like the melee, has been subsumed in the glow of a pleasing, distant reflection.
An article in this month’s Smithsonian magazine on the tragic overdose death of 1950s singing star Frankie Lymon addresses this same phenomenon. Like the Eagles’ championship that occurred not long after they ended, the overly sentimentalized 1950s, author Jeff MacGregor points out, were darker than remembered, much more than bobby socks and soda fountains.
“Frankie Lymon’s America, doo-wop America, was never simple, never sweet,” MacGregor writes, “but was rather an America as complex and wracked by animus as any in history. It was the same America that killed Emmett Till, after all, another angel-faced kid with apple cheeks and a wide, bright smile.”
Likewise, the sports of our youth were never really simple, never really sweet.
But maybe by recalling an Eagles championship in a crowded stadium on a golden afternoon when peace and love were as prevalent as joy, the oldest members of a title-starved fan base can forget an inconvenient truth or two.
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