No one says no to Santa Claus — unless you live in Philadelphia, where they throw snowballs at him.
[Ottawa Sun, 2002]
Philadelphia is a tough, nasty city where fans have been known to throw snowballs at Santa.
Philadelphia sports fans are notoriously hard to please and irascible. Some are just plain crazy. This is, after all, where fans once booed and hurled snowballs at Santa Claus.
Origins: Philadelphia's nickname may be "The City of Brotherly Love," but sports fans in that metropolis are notorious for a lack of fraternal affection: According to reputation, Philadelphia fans love a winner (who doesn't?) but will mercilessly turn on any players or team that don't live up to expectations, no matter how brilliant their past performances. No single image sums up that reputation more succinctly than the claim (as expressed in the examples cited above) that fans in Philadelphia once booed and pelted with snowballs that most inoffensive, beloved, and benevolent of figures, Santa Claus himself. The claim is true, although the potentially mitigating circumstances under which the incident occurred typically go unmentioned.
The infamous "booing Santa Claus" episode took place at old Franklin Field (then the home field of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles franchise) on
Adding to the disenchanting game environment that Sunday afternoon was the weather: It had been snowing in Philadelphia since the night before, and by game time the temperature was in the low 20s, with a wind chill factor abetted by wind gusts of up to
The Eagles claimed an early
Even before it had barely begun, however, the halftime show started to go as awry as the Eagles' season. A day's worth of snow and the pounding cleats of large football players had turned much of the field to muck, and the float quickly got stuck in the mud, meaning Santa would have to abandon his traditional means of conveyance and parade around on foot instead. But Santa was nowhere to be found, the person hired to portray him (depending upon which report one believes) having been prevented from making it to Franklin Field due to either an excess of inclement weather or an excess of alcoholic refreshments. In a panic, the Eagles' entertainment director, Bill Mullen, approached a fan sitting in the stands, 20-year-old Frank Olivo, to fill in for the absent Santa Claus. Olivo, who had worn a red corduroy Santa suit and a fake beard to the game, was given a large sack and tapped to weave down the field between two columns of Eaglettes, waving to the crowd as the brass band played "Here Comes Santa Claus." Years later, Olivo recalled what happened next:
When Olivo finished his run down Santa Claus Lane, he got into range. A fan in the upper deck threw the first snowball. As Santa hit the south end zone, one turned into ten, then into 100.
"When I hit the end zone, and the snowballs started, I was waving my finger at the crowd, saying 'You're not getting anything for Christmas,'" Olivo recalled.
"Oh, I got pelted," Olivo says. He remembers being hit by several dozen snowballs, which suggests that many of the upper-deck denizens were more accurate passers than [the Eagles' quarterback]. "I didn't mind," he says. "I started kibitzing with some of the people throwing the snowballs."
Still, he had his limits. "When I finished, Mr. Mullen asked if I wanted to do it again the next year," Olivo says. "I told him, 'No way. If it doesn't snow, they'll probably throw beer bottles."
Others opine that Santa was just a stand-in for the real (and out-of-reach) targets of the Philadelphia fans' frustration, the ownership and coaching that had transformed a championship football franchise into one of the league's worst teams (and that the booing was initially directed at the Eagles players as they headed for the locker room at halftime). One spectator present that day, himself later an NFL player and team president, explained the fans' temperament:
"But it was different in that era," he adds. "Very passionate. Franklin Field was a crazy place. People took their football seriously. Hell, they'd run on the field to get at the players and coaches."
Millen is now president of the Detroit Lions. How would he feel if fans threw snowballs at his stadium? "Well, we play in a dome," he says. "So I guess they'd have to smuggle them in."
The [Philadelphia] Bulletin's Ray Kelly wrote, "The fans even threw snowballs at Santa when he paraded around the field at halftime."
The entire incident might have been forgotten if late Sunday night the local news had not been followed by the "ABC Weekend Report," a national news show featuring Howard Cosell with a weekly package of NFL highlights. When the whip-around got to Franklin Field, Cosell showed no football. Instead, he aired the pelting of Santa, accompanied by his polysyllabic verbiage shaming the Philadelphia faithful.
Dixon, Oscar. "Philly Makes Amends with Santa, Sort Of." USA Today. 23 December 2003. Levitt, Ed. "Santa's Bad Day." Oakland Tribune. 18 December 1969 (p. 37). Macnow, Glen and Anthony L. Gargano. The Great Philadelphia Fan Book. Moorestown, NJ: Middle Atlantic Press, 2003. ISBN 0-9705804-4-4 (pp. 34-38). Mihoces, Gary. "Santa Snowball Incident Shrouded in Myth." USA Today. 27 November 2003. Associated Press. "Philadelphia's Boos Still Ringing for Santa." The New York Times. 30 January 2005.