Connie Mack Stadium lives on, in a patch of replanted turf at Haverford College

021017 Fitz Connie Mack turf story panel 1 DaveMaialetti 1200x800
The Phillies' last game at Connie Mack Stadium in North Philadelphia was on Oct. 1, 1970, and some fans took pieces of the stadium as souvenirs. Clockwise from bottom left: Connie Mack Stadium, the cover of the Daily News, Oct. 2, 1970, and Chuck Durante. Then a student at Haverford College, Durante said recently he carried out chunks of turf and replanted the grass near this tree on the campus.

Like prized museum pieces, items removed from Connie Mack Stadium during and after its closing on Oct. 1, 1970, continue to be proudly displayed in Philadelphia-area dens and basements.

For all their emotional value, however, those bases, bricks, lockers, and wooden seats are inert relics, lifeless artifacts stripped from a carcass.

But nearly a half-century later, there remains one living, enduring remnant of the former North Philadelphia ballpark - some outfield grass replanted and thriving on Haverford College's leafy 216-acre campus.

The story of how Chuck Durante, now a Wilmington attorney, salvaged, planted, and nurtured this piece of sacred sod is a testament both to the chaos surrounding the stadium's final night and to the deep-rooted passion of Philadelphia fans.

Over the ensuing decades, Durante has returned often to his alma mater to check on his prized planting. On a rainy day earlier this week, he was there again, revealing it for a first time to a reporter and a photographer.

"The fact that it might be the last living piece of Connie Mack Stadium only occurred to me a few years ago," said Durante, 65, then a 19-year-old Haverford sophomore. "A few years ago, I told Greg Kannerstien [Haverford's late athletic director] about it. He got a kick out of the story, but it was our secret until I shared it with you."

Farewell, Connie Mack

The 1970 Phillies finished fifth in the National League East, drawing anemic crowds to their doomed and decaying ballpark at 21st and Lehigh.

But with the team set to move into Veterans Stadium in 1971, newly hired promotions director Bill Giles decided to turn an Oct. 1 season-ender with Montreal into an event.

On "Farewell to Connie Mack Stadium Night" ushers were dressed in attire reminiscent of the ballpark's early-1900s origins. Concession prices were reduced. Connie Mack Jr. delivered a pregame eulogy. And at game's end, a helicopter was scheduled to land and carry home plate to the new all-purpose stadium in South Philadelphia.

Giles' promotional push worked - to a degree. The game attracted a season-high 31,822 fans. Most, though, seemed far more interested in souvenirs than sentiment.

At first, Durante, a Haverford history major who ran cross-country, wasn't looking to bring home any ballpark mementos.

"As a lifelong Phillies fan, I just felt like it was my last chance to experience the smell and atmosphere of the place, to see the Alpo sign and the Longines clock," he said.

So after cross-country practice, he took the Paoli Local, then the Broad Street Subway, and walked the last few blocks west to Connie Mack.

He had two tickets and was supposed to meet a friend there. But when, amid the unexpectedly large crowd, he couldn't locate him, Durante sold the spare ticket.

In about the seventh inning of a 10-inning game the Phillies won, 2-1, the deconstruction began in earnest. The din of wooden seats being extracted from their concrete foundation was deafening.

"The stadium was engulfed by that sound," Durante recalled. "Everyone in my section was chopping away at their red wooden seats. It seemed like no one had anticipated this kind of thing. There was no one to stop you."

Finally, after Oscar Gamble's single scored Tim McCarver to give the Phillies their 73rd and final victory of 1970, the onslaught was on. As Giles futilely screamed, "Keep off the field! Keep off the field," Durante and thousands of other fans swarmed.

"Everyone was taking whatever souvenirs they could get," he said. "In my case, I had a piece of a seat, so I got some turf from left field."

He also got a hunk of the tarp that covered the infield during rain delays.

"People were tearing it up like it was the garment in the Good Friday tale," he said.

Just before Durante uprooted the grass, a Daily News photographer got a shot of him milling among fans on the field, some of whom were hoisting entire rows of purloined seats. The newspaper put the photo on its cover the following day, beneath the apt headline, "31,822 at Woodchopper's Brawl."

Legacy of a field

Durante carried the booty in his arms back to the Broad and Lehigh subway station, passing a neighborhood kid who was selling one of the bases for $25.

At Haverford, Durante and seven other students lived on the second floor of a College Lane Tudor. A French professor occupied the first level.

The next day, a sunny Friday morning, he located a barren piece of ground outside his dorm, just beneath one of the red oaks that line College Lane, the northern entrance to the campus.

"So I decided to replant it there," Durante said. "I had the presence of mind to water it for the next few days until it seemed to take."

Long since assimilated into the surrounding grass, the last living vestige of Connie Mack Stadium is now virtually indistinguishable from the neighboring growth.

College officials said they hoped Durante's revelation doesn't prompt curious Phillies fans to go hunting for the grassy patch and perhaps trample or remove it.

But Durante will continue to visit.

"Haverford carefully curates this campus," he said. "And one of the remarkable trees here is a descendent of an elm under which William Penn made a treaty with an Indian chief.

"My modest contribution will be the legacy of a field where Wes Covington and Del Ennis played."

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

Continue Reading