Philly fans' rogue image got boost when Santa booed in 1968

Updated: January 31, 2005, 11:48 PM ET
Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- Those famously churlish Philly fans can't hide behind the urban legends. The truth is out there: They simply booed Santa Claus.

Frank Olivo -- the erstwhile Santa in question -- wasn't drunk, nor was his red suit in tatters that December day in 1968 when he walked onto the field for the halftime show, only to be met by a chorus of jeers and a snowball fusillade from Eagles fans.

But by all accounts, they had cause for an ugly mood.

"The fans carried on like that because the Eagles were horrible," Olivo said.

The antics at halftime of the Eagles' final regular-season game, beamed around the country on Howard Cosell's national sports show, helped cement Philadelphia's reputation for having rogue, rowdy sports fans.

"There's nothing that sounds worse than throwing snowballs at Santa," said sports radio host Glen Macnow of WIP-AM in Philadelphia. "It's like spitting on Miss America."

While the vibe in Philadelphia is decidedly more brotherly this year with the Eagles headed to the Super Bowl, the 1968 team, at 2-12, was truly bad. Quarterback Norm Snead threw for 11 touchdowns and 21 interceptions that season. Coach Joe Kuharich led the team to an 0-11 start, and fans flocked to old Franklin Field wearing "Joe Must Go" buttons.

One Sunday, the throng cheered as a plane flew overhead, towing a banner suggesting the coach leave more than just The City of Brotherly Love.

Of course, the Eagles were just good enough to give Buffalo the top pick in the next NFL draft -- running back O.J. Simpson.

Olivo, whose family held Eagles season tickets from 1958 to 1985, revels in his unlikely place in franchise history. The booed Santa affair merits an entire chapter in "The Great Philadelphia Fan Book," which Macnow co-wrote in 2003.

"I'll be dead and that book will still be at the bookstore or on somebody's shelf. That means something to me," said Olivo, 56, of suburban Media, who toiled as a barber, craps dealer and car salesman before health problems forced him to retire.

Still, he wants people to get the story right.

"They say, 'He was drunk. He had a rotten outfit.' They don't even remember. A lot of them weren't even here," Olivo said.

Gov. Ed Rendell, a longtime Eagles season ticketholder who attended the 1968 game, agrees that fans were venting their frustration not at the sad-sack Santa, but at the Eagles -- even though they had played to a first-half tie with Minnesota.

"Most of the time, they're not really as tough as they seem," said Rendell, who moonlights as an Eagles commentator for a local cable channel. "They boo players who don't make an effort."

The buildup to the bombardment of Olivo probably began four years earlier, when Kuharich took over and Sonny Jurgensen, who became a Hall of Fame quarterback, was traded for journeyman Snead.

By 1968, Olivo, then a skinny 20-year-old kid, had been wearing a Santa suit and fake white beard to the last Eagles home game for several years. As halftime approached in the game Dec. 15 against the Vikings, the Eagles' entertainment director asked him to replace a hired Santa stranded by the snowstorm.

As instructed, Olivo ran downfield past a row of elf-costumed "Eaglettes" and the team's 50-person brass band playing "Here Comes Santa Claus."

Thunderous boos erupted from a crowd of 54,535.

"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.

He was startled at first, but later laughed it off. Local sports writers made scant mention of the episode until the Cosell broadcast.

"It became a thing that Philadelphia sports fans became famous for doing, and it will never die, I guess," Olivo said. "Look how many years it's been."

Kuharich, whose team lost 24-17 in what proved to be his last game with the Eagles, had been pelted with snowballs at halftime.

It's a tough town.

Philadelphia fans famously booed native Kobe Bryant when he came to town for the 2002 NBA All-Star Game.

Former Phillies slugger Richie Allen often thrilled fans with tape-measure homers at rickety old Connie Mack Stadium. Then he would strike out and be booed all the way back to the dugout.

Even the now-beloved Donovan McNabb, who has quarterbacked Philadelphia to four straight NFC championship games and this year's Super Bowl, was showered with derision in his infancy as an Eagle.

In 1989, even Rendell played a role in the misbehavior when he bet fellow fans in the rambunctious 700 level of Veterans Stadium that they couldn't reach the field with snowballs.

He lost, in more ways than one.

Rendell, then the city's district attorney, made good on a $20 bet, but later apologized when the story inspired bad press.

"I assume they used my $20 to buy beer," he said.

Macnow says fans everywhere have committed sins. The crowd in Cleveland -- infamous for raucous deportment in the "Dog Pound" -- once reduced its own quarterback to tears. And a visiting equipment manager was injured when disgusted fans at Giants Stadium threw frozen projectiles.

But the "Booing Santa in Philly" legend -- in all its forms -- lives on.

"It's become one of these great urban tales, handed down in sports from generation to generation," Macnow said.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

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