Saturday, May 29, 2010

Politics Explained

“They're all bums.”

Such was my first lesson on politics, delivered to me on many occasions by one of my grandfathers. I'll leave it to you to decide which one.

My grandfather Reilly was a Philadelphia police officer and a loyal, lifelong Republican who was very happy to share his over-the-top, politically incorrect names for President Franklin Roosevelt with anyone unfortunate enough to bring up the subject.

Grandpop Huber made his living on the outskirts of legality, tending bar and (depending on who you can believe) possibly running numbers and “finding” merchandise recently lost from the backs of trucks. He was also a Democratic Party committeeman.

Now, no one ever claimed that they were best friends, but they got along just fine. There were no turkey versus ham Thanksgiving dinner shutdowns, no Schmidts versus Ballantine beer embargoes at Fourth of July picnics and no competitive filibustering at wedding toasts (although Mr. Reilly could tell an extended tale or two).

But the days of respectful political disagreement have gone the way of the straw hat and petticoat.

Today it seems that every opinion contrary to our own is a personal affront. To disagree with us is to be an agent of evil, just plain stupid, dangerously naive or all three. And should one of those disagreeing types try to explain his or her thinking to us, we pretend to listen but are mentally putting our fingers in our ears and screaming “La-la-la-la-la....”

And I think I know what the problem is. People are treating their politics as if it were their religion.

The idea behind religion, as I understand it, is that you are right, everybody else is wrong and they should all just shut up about it. This is known as faith. Faith needs to be unwavering to be worth anything at all, so compromise of faith is a sure ticket to hell.

But politics is supposed to be different from that. In a democracy, compromise is the goal. (I would point out here that you can't spell compromise without “promise,” but I promised myself I wouldn't do that.) To steadfastly maintain one's opinion, unwilling to move from it no matter how persuasive the argument against, is a sure way to bring government to a screeching halt.

You might point out that in America's early days it was not uncommon for political rivals to shoot each other in duels. This is true, but if you look closely at that particular practice it was seldom over a political difference. Politicians shot and got shot over issues like being called a scoundrel in public, whose horse bit the postman or an ungentlemanly whisper about a flirtatious wife. Very rarely over issues like the Louisiana Purchase or the rum tax.

Come to think of it though, it was when duels were outlawed that government started getting less and less efficient. But that's probably just a coincidence, right?

Today, if you look at almost any congressional vote on almost any issue on almost any day, you may be as surprised as I am to find that every single Democrat thinks exactly the same way, and that every single Republican thinks exactly the opposite way.

What are the odds of that? Shouldn't there be the odd Democrat who is sure that the government should not be in the healthcare business? Or the strange Republican who believes that the stimulus saved the American economy?

Could it be that it's easier to label ourselves liberals or conservatives than to actually think about issues on an individual basis as they arise? Isn't it possible to be for stricter immigration laws and for the bank bailout? Or to be for banning both handguns and abortions?

(That's six questions in a row … my personal record.)

Maybe if people start developing their own informed opinions, instead of just walking in lockstep with those left- or right-leaning leaders with whom they've aligned themselves, their representatives will follow along.

Then again, politicians have given us very little reason to believe they will ever change their ways, haven't they?

Now I have to come clean about how I started this whole discussion. It was sort of trick question. Both of my grandfathers had come to the conclusion that all politicians were bums at one time or another.

And so we do have conclusive proof that agreement between diverse positions is possible!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Confessions of a Phillies Fan: Dick Allen

When I was 9 years old we moved from Southwest Philadelphia to Folcroft, and I was full of the end-of-the-world melancholy that only a 9-year-old can experience.

What was the problem? I was convinced that since I no longer lived inside the Philadelphia city limits (Folcroft is approximately one mile outside the city) I couldn't root for the Phillies. It turns out I actually could, but it took me years of rationalization and therapy to convince myself of that.

My first baseball memory is from around 1962, when the Phillies finished seventh in the 10-team National League. There was no National League East, Central or West … one team had the best regular season record in each league and went directly to the World Series.

That team was never us.

Thanks in large part to the creation of two new teams through expansion that year, the Phils did win one more game than they lost. However, the teams they beat out in the standings were the pathetic Cubs, the brand-new Houston Colt .45's and the equally new, now-famous “worst team in Major League Baseball history” New York Mets.

So it wasn't easy being red.

I had heard tales of the 1950 Whiz Kids led by Richie Ashburn. They made it to the Series … but got swept. (Every Phillies fan who was alive in 1950 was always sure to make it clear that every game was close.)

I don't think anyone had the heart to tell me that in the 60 years that the World Series had been played, my Phillies had never won it. Those terrible Chicago Cubs had. So had the Washington Senators. So had THREE teams from Boston ... the Americans, the Braves and the Red Sox.

The Giants had Willie Mays in centerfield and Willie McCovey at first base. We had Don Demeter and Roy Sievers. We all loved Johnny Callison, but in our hearts we knew he was no Roberto Clemente. When the Dodgers threw Sandy Koufax at us or the Cardinals brought out Bob Gibson, we answered with Cal McLish or John Boozer. (To be fair, Art Mahaffey did win 19 games in 1962.)

It had always been like that for Phillies fans. The Braves had all-star catcher and third baseman Joe Torre. We had his brother Frank. There have been two great DiMaggio brothers in Major League Baseball history. We got the third DiMaggio brother. Through some major scouting miscalculation we never did get Hank Aaron's light-hitting brother Tommy, though. That might have been more frustration than one city could be expected bear.

If you get the feeling that the Philadelphia baseball public suffered from superstar envy, I think you're not far off the mark.

Then 1964 and Richie Allen happened. (He had always preferred to be called Dick Allen but we didn't know that then.)

The rookie. Number 15. The 40-ounce bat. The black-rimmed glasses. The calm, steady batting stance. The tug on his sleeve. The flick of the wrist and the lightning that jumped off his bat. Our superstar had arrived. The great Mays recently was quoted as saying that “no one ever hit a baseball harder than Dick Allen.” He would go on to win the Rookie of the Year award in a landslide over Jim Ray Hart and Rico Carty.

In the process he seemed to strap the Phillies on his back (with a lot of help from the likes of Callison, Jim Bunning, Chris Short, Wes Covington and Tony Gonzalez) and they forgot they weren't supposed to beat the teams with all those stars.

Bunning (who had seven kids at the time) pitched the first National League perfect game of the 20th century on Fathers Day. Just 17 days before that, Koufax would have beaten Bunning to the punch, except that Allen drew a walk in the Dodgers lefthander's no-hitter against the Phils.

Everything was falling into place. Callison even won the All Star game for the NL with an extra innings home run.

But it was not to be.

I won't go into the excruciating, historic details of the collapse out of the National League pennant that year, except to say that Allen hit .438 with 5 doubles, 2 triples, 3 home runs and 11 RBI in the infamous last twelve games.

Seasons following that magical 1964 would bring trouble. The Phillies organization, the fans, the sportswriters and Allen himself seemed at odds for reasons that a kid could never understand. For awhile it seemed like “The Controversial” was some sort of title he'd been bequeathed, like King or Prince.

The team never again rose to the heights with their slugger, and he was traded to the Cardinals before the 1970 season, with Jerry Johnson and Cookie Rojas, for Tim McCarver, Byron Browne, Joe Hoerner, and Curt Flood. Of course that trade started a whole new controversy, ironically not involving Allen at all, when Flood refused to report to the Phillies and the first seeds of free agency in baseball were sown.

It would be 16 years until we actually made it to the Series. The world of a 25-year-old looks mighty different from that of a 9-year-old. The bitter pills you swallow when you're young seem to go down harder for some reason. The thrill of seeing my Phillies proclaimed as baseball's best team in 1980 was almost as great as my disappointment all those years earlier. But not quite.

Phillies fans would see more home-grown stars. Great players with names like Schmidt, Luzinski, Rollins, Utley and Howard, but to me it all started with a 9-year-old's first home team superstar, Dick Allen.

What a player!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Having a Ball at the MacDade Mall

Rumor has it that funeral services for the MacDade Mall may be premature.

I hope that's true, because that mall was my ringside seat to watch the wild and wonderful 70s fly by.

I can remember walking into the brand new MacDade Mall for the first time and having the same reaction as when I stepped into the runway at Connie Mack Stadium and saw the Phillies play live … the colors were startling! There were the individual activities of over 30 stores as well as some sort of special mall-wide activity every weekend.

One week it was a baseball card show with Johnny Callison and Tony Taylor signing autographs … the next, a bridal show (okay, they weren't ALL winners) … the next, a yoyo master demonstration by a man who seemed very cool at the time but who I now suspect lived a lonely, lonely life.

So I'd stop by for no apparent reason with no particular shopping to do and no time limit in which to do it. My generation pioneered “going to the mall” as an accepted activity in itself. We had a great time doing nothing long before Seinfeld's show about nothing. Parents would ask what we were shopping for, but they didn't get it. I always ran into someone I knew and we'd take a few laps around, finding adventure, drama or comedy at every stop.

There would be a substantially built woman arguing that the sizes were all marked wrong at the dress shop. About six units down the aisle, as the ticket-taker at the movie theater was trying to decide if the peachfuzz-faced patron standing before him was old enough to see Hitchcock's R-rated “Frenzy,” four 12-year-olds snuck by him. There was a store right near the main entrance that sold beads and mod-style vests and posters where I could pretend to be a hippy, even though my parents never actually allowed me to be one.

Of course there was pizza by the slice, pretzels and a more formal restaurant (which may or may not have had a bar, since I was too young to know or care).

At the record store in the mall I made a discovery that influences my music tastes to this day. I had heard a song on the radio (WMMR-FM, with the late, great DJ Ed Sciaky) that I really liked, and I tried to remember the name of it while browsing in the store. I knew it was by some guy named Bruce, but that was it. At the time, there were two albums out by this Bruce Springsteen fellow, so I got them both just to be sure.

It turns out that the song I liked was actually “Wondering Where the Lions Are” by Bruce Cockburn, but I fell in love with the two albums I bought by mistake. Just weeks later I saw Springsteen in a concert at Widener College that is still legendary among Delaware Countians of a certain age.

So you see I have a lot of history tied into the MacDade Mall. But I'm not alone. I'll bet that most people over 30 from this area have their own set of stories about that particular piece of real estate on MacDade and South.

Let's hope it comes back at full strength so there will be fun stories for today's kids in 30 years or so.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Naming Your Hometown, The Final Chapter

Here we have the much-anticipated, long-threatened last of the fictional origins of Delaware County's 27 boroughs. Think of this as history for people who thought they hated history. But please remember that any of these explanations that may at first seem very near the truth ... are not.


You may know the work of Millbourne's founder without really knowing it. If you're over 40 or have been captured by a medieval cult you have probably seen a “Punch & Judy” puppet show. These shows date back before Shakespeare's time, and center around the very angry Punch, who continually hits all the characters he meets with a large stick. This was like reality TV in the 16th century since people were generally on the very edge of rage at all times. (Life was hard then. Home pizza delivery and indoor plumbing were still centuries away.) Into this atmosphere of anger stepped Joshua Millbourne, a young writer who thought he saw a way to understand and explain Punch's fury. With this goal in mind he invented an entire back story of dashed hopes and heartbreaking betrayals that served to explain Punch's need to inflict those terrible stick beatings. People began to see the hurt little boy living inside the detestable, obnoxious, ungodly, revolting Punch. England's Queen Elizabeth saw this undertaking as marginally beneficial to society, and awarded Millbourne the smallest plot of land ever bequeathed by Britain in the New World. Four hundred years later, Millbourne's true contribution to modern society came to the forefront, as his back story was re-worked as Paul & Judy and premiered as a serial on NBC radio. Thus he became known as “The Father of the Modern Soap Opera.”


There has been a rumor for decades that Glenolden was named in an effort to compete with Nantucket for placement within limericks, as in “There once was a man from Glenolden....” However, when you think it through that doesn't really work. It would mean that the next line would have to end with “embolden” (or possibly “beholdin'”). That's obviously way too limiting, so the limerick theory is just plain wrong. The actual untrue story is much simpler. Glenolden got its name from the man who invented five-cheese lasagna, Guiseppe Oldapinni, who “Americanized” his name to Glenn Olden and who resided in that borough in the last years of his life. During those years he was working on the addition of a sixth cheese (allegedly Munster) which he never perfected, and which eludes lasagna scientists to this day.

East Lansdowne

Believe it or not, the fact that East Lansdowne lies directly east of Lansdowne is purely coincidence. At one time the borough of Lansdowne encompassed both areas, but in the late 1930s a blood feud erupted, reputedly over a pair of red pantaloons hanging on someone's clothesline. Other than that simple fact, details of the original incident have been lost to history. Residents on each side of the conflict were driven to acts they would later regret, not the least of which was the kidnapping of Petey the Parakeet, the official bird of Lansdowne and living embodiment of all that was precious to the people living there. It was while holding Petey that his captors resolved to go all the way and secede from the borough. In an effort to show the world their extreme revulsion for their former town they took the name “Least Lansdowne,” indicating that no place on Earth could be less Lansdowne than they were. But it was the pure heart and sweet love of Petey that ended the troubles. He talked constantly and his philosophy was later compared to the gentle renderings of Cat Stevens. Soon he melted the hearts of the “Leasts” and they forgot what started the conflict (of course we remember it was the pantaloon thing). Least became East and East Lansdowne was born.


Horse racing was king in 1920s America and Delaware County was a hotbed of (mostly illegal) activity in connection with “The Sport of Kings.” Off-track betting was forbidden but, just the same, throughout the county it was as common as straw hats. Year after year, efforts to legalize off-track wagering had been shut down by county officials who believed that if they allowed this sort of activity to take hold it might one day snowball into state-run lotteries and a gambling casino on the Delaware River in Chester. In the face of this absurd exaggeration, a small group of men and women settled in a particular area of the county and attempted to legalize off-track betting in that small area only. Now, in horse racing terminology, “hands down” means winning easily. It refers to a situation where a horse is so far ahead that his jockey can lower his grip on the reins. Fervent supporters of this position wanted to name their area Hands Down, Pennsylvania, but it was determined that would show over confidence to those on the fence on the off-track issue. So the borough was named Lansdowne to disguise their intentions, but wager-crazy residents knew very well what the name really meant. This decision proved to be a wise one when the gambling movement failed, and Hands Down would have seemed as absurd as Bird-in-Hand and a few other of other Pennsylvania's oddly monikered towns.


Some town names just come very easily. In 1895, just outside of Folcroft, there lived a “fine and upstanding” family with the “fine and upstanding” name of Norwood. (Note: The 19th century term “fine and upstanding” is most closely translated to “cool” in modern-day lingo.) Everyone loved them and decided to show their love by naming their community after them. In 1970, an atrocity of a movie called Norwood, co-starring Joe Namath, was unleashed on the public, but the loyalty of residents was so strong that even that did not move them to change the borough's name.


You have probably heard the term “bedroom community,” which, oddly enough, does not mean a community made up entirely of motels as some of us always thought it did. (That's not a strange conclusion to draw when you think of it, right? Right?) Well, apparently, is refers to a town where most workers commute to a larger city. In the early years of the 20th century workers commuted to work in the city of Chester by horse or by the newly invented automobile. Those modes of transportation needed to be separated since the cars spooked the horses, and so an entire area was established to “park” the cars a reasonable distance from the steeds. That area grew over the years and was informally called the “park side of Chester.” Soon people realized that living there would be smarter than driving there, parking lots were replaced by beautiful homes and Parkside was born.

Marcus Hook

Dr. Marcus Hook was instrumental in finding the cure for a disease that ravaged the East Coast of the United States during the late 18th century. Although it was non-fatal (and thus didn't get flashy front page headlines like the publicity hungry flu) it was still quite annoying to those who suffered it. Known as Stencholococcus, it was characterized by a constant and overpowering sense of stink. It was more than annoying, really, since an acute sense of smell was vital in maneuvering one's way through the streets of the day, filled with horse-drawn conveyances as they were. Dr. Hook (who also ran a successful medicine show) solved the mystery. It seems that “bad snuff” was coming out of Cuba and infecting the nasal passages of users. He created an additive that neutralized the effect. In the euphoria of the cure, Commonwealth officials handed over the land to the good doctor, who proceeded to name it after himself. (You know how doctors are.)


There was a time when newspapers, radio and television were considered a valuable resource to the American public and an indispensable part of a working democracy. In those simpler days it seemed like a great idea to name a town in tribute to the media that keeps this country informed and free. Of course that all seems silly today, doesn't it?

Rose Valley

The story of Rose Valli is a cautionary tale for those who would use their gifts to shortcut their way to success in this world. She was a certified genius, and proficient in art, literature, history and virtually everything she attempted. Everything but math, it would appear. Rose used her remarkable artistic talent to create the plates that resulted in perfect counterfeit U.S. currency. Now, her thinking was that the Treasury Department is always looking for fake large bills, so she counterfeited one dollar bills. And her logic proved correct, as not one of her fake dollar bills was ever detected. The problem was that each bill cost approximately $1.27 to produce. Of course she couldn't sustain her “business” with that kind of loss, and so decided to turn herself in. Why a town would be named after Rose is a question that's been asked over and over, but we suspect that her brother Garnet, a former Pennsylvania bigwig, had something to do with that.

Ridley Park

Riddle me this: What Delaware County borough gets its name from a question? I suppose the heading on this paragraph is kind of a giveaway … but what question? The year was 1850 and the man was Stu Mauch, a slightly less successful promoter than his idol P.T. Barnum (but not for lack of trying). Having purchased a small plot of land in Delaware County, he set about running a contest to name it. The idea was to ask people to submit their answer to a riddle he had made up himself. The winner could pick the name. At a cost of ten cents per entry, he figured to make history and profit at the same time. Sadly, the riddle was successfully answered by 72 percent of the people who entered, Mauch was ruined and no one could decide who won the naming rights. The dilemma went as high as the U.S. Supreme Court and they simply settled on “Ridley Park.” Even though it was later determined the Court had no naming authority, that title stuck. And what was the question in question? Here you go: I run all day and never walk. I tell you something, but I do not talk. What am I? See the answer below.

That ends the fictional portion of your online newspaper experience for the day. We now return you to the factual areas. Thanks for visiting!

Answer to the riddle: A clock.