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Remembering Karl Wallenda's tightrope walk across Veterans Stadium, 40 years later

The day the Great Wallenda walked across Veterans Stadium on a tightrope and other Phillies feats.

Remembering Karl Wallenda's tightrope walk across Veterans Stadium, 40 years later

(Bill Ingraham/AP file photo)
(Bill Ingraham/AP file photo)

The following article by Frank Fitzpatrick was originally published on April 17, 2003, as part of an Inquirer series commemorating the final year of Veterans Stadium.

This coming Friday, August 13, the Phillies will honor the 40th anniversary of Karl Wallenda's tightrope walk across Veterans Stadium. Karl's grandson, Nik Wallenda - who has continued the family tradition of daredevil stunts - will be on hand for the celebration.

In advance of the festivities, here's a look back at what went into one of the most famous days in the Vet's storied history.

For those who witnessed what happened between the 16-ounce beer Karl Wallenda drank early on the sultry afternoon of Aug. 13, 1972, and the eight stiff martinis he consumed a few hours later, the old man's appetite for alcohol seemed downright reasonable.

After all, as he sat in the Veterans Stadium press room that day, gulping gin and recounting the 17 minutes of work that had earned him $3,000, the aging aerialist was certainly entitled to a transfusion of artificial courage.

Two weeks after his son-in-law had died in one high-wire mishap and a decade after the deaths of several family members in another, the 67-year-old Wallenda had just completed a 640-foot walk on a dangerously swaying, 3/8-inch steel cable, 168 feet above Veterans Stadium's rock-hard surface. Without a net.

"He called it the most difficult walk he ever made," said Bill Giles, the Phillies' chairman who was then their promotions director. "I was scared to death watching him."

Thanks to Giles' imagination and the changing nature of the business, baseball at the Vet was more than a game throughout its 32-year history. The sport was packaged with promotional gimmicks such as the Great Wallenda and Kiteman, with Sunday afternoon giveaways of anything that could be imprinted with a team logo, and, of course, with the irreverence of the Phillie Phanatic.

Now, as the facility's history nears a close, Kiteman's falls, the Phanatic's antics and Wallenda's breath-sapping walks - he made a second in 1976 - figure to be recalled as readily as the stadium's bad turf and great ball games.

When the Phillies planned the move to Veterans Stadium, they realized they would be moving into a new era. That's why they hired Giles, who had made a reputation for himself as the man behind the Houston Astrodome's revolutionary scoreboard.

Until then, the promotions at gimmick-free Connie Mack Stadium had consisted of Ladies Night and maybe Bat and Ball Days.

"I asked the Phillies what they normally did on opening day," Giles recalled this week. "They said, 'We get the Salvation Army Band and have some local politician throw out the first ball.'

" 'Well, guys,' " Giles told them, " 'that's not too exciting.' . . . We wanted to create fun and entertainment for the fans that wasn't dependent on the game."

By the time the Vet opened on April 10, 1971, Giles had more in mind. Before that game, a circling helicopter dropped the first ball to catcher Mike Ryan.

"We got so much publicity from that, I knew we had to do something great next year," he said.

With that, one of the most memorable - and cursed - of Giles' brainchildren was born. For eight years, a variety of Kitemen endured crashes, hard landings and weather-related difficulties.

It all sprang from a Sports Illustrated article on a man who wore a kite-like device on his back and dove safely off cliffs. The Phillies executive asked if he could leap off the top of the stadium and deliver the first ball.

No, he said, but if a ski-jump-type ramp were built in the center-field bleachers, he'd give it a shot on skis.

"He took a practice run and made it," Giles said. "But the start of the 1972 season was delayed by a baseball strike, and we had to push back the opener. He called and said he couldn't make it because he had to teach the president of Mexico to water-ski."

The day was saved when a Paoli hardware store owner told Giles he had seen a man perform a similar stunt on water skis at Florida's Cypress Gardens.

For $1,500 and without any practice, a nervous Dick Johnson, who was used to lifting off the ground as he trailed a speeding boat, agreed to become Kiteman.

"Just before our [April 17, 1972] game with the Cardinals, I took the microphone and announced, 'Here's Kiteman!' " Giles said. "Nothing."

A second announcement produced more inaction from atop that 120-foot-long center-field ramp. Thinking that perhaps Kiteman couldn't hear him, Giles picked up a walkie-talkie and asked an employee stationed there if Johnson was getting the message.

"Yeah, he hears you," came the reply. "He just doesn't want to go."

By then, the impatient Philadelphia fans were booing loudly.

Watching from the dugout, Phillies outfielder Greg Luzinski, who already had developed the fatalistic view of a native Philadelphian, predicted disaster.

"He'll probably go through the air OK," Luzinski said. "But when he lands, the skis will break and go through him."

Johnson finally began his descent. His 24-foot-wide kite caught a gust of wind and sent him crashing into the 600 level.

"I thought he was dead," Giles said. "Even though he didn't make it, we got so much publicity that we decided to bring him back."

Kiteman recovered only to fail again a year later. Others assumed the role and endured several delays and missed landings until, before the 1980 opener, the mission was completed.

Buoyed by Kiteman's popularity, if not his success, Giles sought an even more dramatic promotion for late in a dismal 1972 season. He called the agent for several circus acts.

"The guy said, 'How about Wallenda?' "

The German-born aerialist, who had performed in the United States since 1926, had walked across high wires spanning the 700-foot-high Tallulah Gorge in Georgia, the River Thames in London, and two tall Miami Beach hotels.

When Wallenda arrived at Veterans Stadium that morning in 1972, he almost canceled. The wire was nowhere taut enough. Forty Phillies employees had to hold the ends of the cable in an effort to maintain proper tension.

Then, midway through his skywalk, as 31,000 fans sat in rapt silence, Wallenda, carrying a huge pole for balance and wearing tiny ballet slippers for traction, sat down.

"It was swaying so much," Wallenda said, "I thought I might have to give up."

He not only didn't give up, but over second base, he did a headstand.

The feat successfully completed, Wallenda returned for another jaunt - and more martinis - in 1976.

Two years later, as the 73-year-old attempted to walk across a wire spanning two Puerto Rican hotels, he fell to his death.

Seeking a safer, more lasting attraction, one that might draw youngsters and families to the ballpark, Giles wanted a Phillies mascot. He envisioned a combination of the irreverent San Diego Chicken and Sesame Street's lovable Big Bird.

To portray the Phillie Phanatic in its April 25, 1978, debut, Giles selected a wisecracking Phillies office worker, 23-year-old Dave Raymond. He was paid $25 a game.

"David had the right sense of humor," Giles said. "And since I knew that his mother was deaf, I figured he could get across an idea with physical movement."

The Phanatic was an instant success. A few weeks later, Giles got the costume bill. He could pay either $2,900 for the green suit or $5,000 for the outfit and its copyright. "I paid the $2,900," Giles said.

Seven years later, with the Phanatic by then a baseball sensation, the Phillies bought the copyright.

For $250,000.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
About this blog
Reporter Frank Fitzpatrick, a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is covering his eighth Olympic Games and has yet to win a medal in anything except caffeine consumption. He has also been the beat writer for the Phillies, Eagles and Penn State football.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
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