PURE AS THE DRIVEN SNOW
Book Review: A Snowball’s Chance: Philly Fires Back against the National Media
By Dan Falcone
The writers of Philly2Philly.com have developed an extremely interesting piece of local sport’s history in, A Snowball’s Chance: Philly Fires Back against the National Media. ASC, (I will call it) was written by Joe Vallee, Dennis Bakay, Matthew J. Goldberg, Ryan Downs, and Billy Vargus. In ASC, the authors set out to counter the litany (or the constant and tedious recital and repetitive series) of misconceptions about the Philadelphia fan base. The title essentially boils down to a triple entendre.
First, the amount of success the teams have experienced is disproportionate to the market size and overall enthusiasm. Second, the national media’s actual knowledge of the Philadelphia sports culture is significantly disproportionate to the lore that encompasses it. Third is the reality that the shorthand “booing” does not help to explain the longhand or the reasoning behind the “boos.” When you add together all three, being a Philadelphia fan (4/4) becomes esoteric indeed. Like a snowball’s chance in hell, there is little or no likelihood of occurrence for success, or for the snowball to be understood.
The book opens with a pivotal moment for Vallee. He recalls the infamous Philly internet headline: “Philadelphia Flyers Fans Boo during Anti-Cancer PSA;” which is a “true” and “correct” headline. What the headline fails to mention is that it was merely the booing of Sidney Crosby making an announcement. The Philadelphia fans have a difficult time getting ahead of the propaganda, for that is what propaganda is designed to do. Mark Twain once remarked that, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”
The book’s first chapter opens with the explanation of the most famous Philly fan incident of all-time. To be clear, Philadelphia fans did in fact boo Santa Claus, but with further context, the story gets more complicated and interesting while failing to warrant the litany. Of December 15, 1968’s booing and snowball pelting of Father Christmas, Vallee writes, “And in the beginning . . . . Philly fans threw snowballs at Santa Claus.”
This is obviously a very clever literary reference to Genesis in the Bible. In other words, the setting and origins for Philadelphia fan’s and their original sin was set and frozen in time at this moment. All future superstitions, tropes, truths, half-truths, myths and actions by a vast minority of fans brings us back to a Genesis like fable and the “forbidden fruit.” Vallee researches how Frank Olivo was a fill-in for the real Santa that day and how he was a participant in the all-encompassing fanfare of the game. Vallee explains the Olivo perspective of how the real protest was in disgust to the extraordinarily poor performance of the team, and the unprecedented contract extension for Coach Joe Kuharich.
Since the Olivo history is of course too long for a headline, a simple and unexplained headline is what entered the memory and discourse. Luckily, the writing of Vallee is insightful and tells us the history of the day as opposed to its surviving memory. In Mystics Chords of Memory, Cornell Historian Michael Kammen says “what people believe about their past is greater than determining their behavior in response to the truth.” I am reminded of the Iraq War in 2003 when the Saddam Hussein statue was toppled in Firdos Square. The American media had the site surrounded by various Western media. The American military utilized close-ups to film the celebrations around the statue of what appeared to be jubilant Iraqis. The truth of the matter was that if you panned the cameras away, you could immediately notice that this was a very small event, a staged event, and with very few people involved. This is what the national media does to the Philadelphia sports fan. It zooms in to a select few and tries to create a narrative without zooming out and gaining a picture of the whole. The author wants you to know this.
The second chapter of ASC is by Billy Vargus, as he completely dismantles the national media’s notion that Andy Reid’s job as Eagles head coach should have been secured, and that the fan base was irrational to think otherwise. In one of the more rational pieces ever written about the Eagles, Vargus is honest and pragmatic. He fully admits that Andy Reid was a good coach and did a good job for the team while simply adding, when it’s time, it’s time. Vargas used empirical data and the slapdash remarks by the national media to show that the fans were correct to be skeptical of Reid’s ultimate prospects for success as head coach. It is Vargus’s contention that Reid lost the team in theory and practice and he shows that the team philosophy was no longer the appropriate brand and fit for the personnel or the city.
ASC has a section called, “The 1st Intermission: The J.D. Drew Incident by legendary public address announcer Dan Baker. Baker tries to recall the battery throwing (two) incident and explains how the incident, and his handling of it required genuine empathy. Baker was able to read the social psychology of the fans and actually diffused the situation while preventing it from escalating. Furthermore, Baker, who has a signature way of announcing players, indicates that the national media misinterpreted how he introduced Drew. Baker was accused of inciting a riot through his typical (and not atypical in the case of Drew) measured diction. In any event, the situation created yet another example of how the national media tied past perceptions to elevate the magnitude of what seemed to be an extremely isolated, senseless act.
ASC continues on its creative trajectory when Joe Vallee breaks down the nuances of the “boo.” In breaking down: the sarcastic boo, the despised player boo, the less than regarded local player boo, poor performance booing, booing a bad call, booing a team that defeats yours - in high stakes, booing failure at crucial moments, and a wonderful, textured, variety of additional descriptions of the ancient Greek inspired tradition. (Where “common jeering” was in order to “show displeasure”) Ryan Downs provides a logical and coherent response to the “pro-cancer” Flyer fans – a truly intellectually lazy and dishonest enterprise in relation to the Crosby announcement.
The book even attempts to provide a balanced analysis and contains a section delineating how, at times, Philadelphia fans crossed the line in “incidents that even we can’t defend.” I personally think that in some small part, each incident from J.D. Drew to Michael Irvin and others also belong in this section in spirit – with the necessary qualifications of course. But the Philly fan, it seems is damned if he boo, damned if she don’t. Most of this self-actualized part involves insinuations to destruction, drunkenness, violence, or outright examples of crime. (Judge Seamus McCaffery’s Veterans Stadium Courtroom) Also, there is a section where the national media agrees with the perceived groupthink. Even here, where the story starts to get subjective and even jingoistic perhaps, the authors try to credit the national media for acknowledging Philly’s grit and nostalgia and appreciate it. The authors suggest, for it is possible, that even a disillusioned national media can, at times, simply see the fan as endearing in light of the subtle condescension.
ASC continues with a portion dedicated to the perceived “class” of the fan base in Philadelphia. Matt Goldberg and Vallee make interesting arguments and observations on the customs and regional approaches to fandom in Philadelphia. They give a cultural topography of the fans in relation to other media markets and franchise locations as well. It is an interesting section of the book and placed intelligently and strategically. Understanding a Philadelphia sports fan is not just a psychological exercise, and being one is an intellectual exercise. How is it that being a true sports fan gives you the ability to demean and elevate something or someone at the same time? (Interesting concept)
In a lengthy interview section, ASC covers a multitude of athletes and how fond they were to play in/for the city. I especially enjoyed reading interviews seldom seen such as the legendary World B. Free and the four - echelon Philly hoopster, Sixer Aaron McKie; perhaps the only such figure in Philadelphia sports history to play high school, college, pro, and then coach pro in same city. (Aaron McKie of Simon Gratz, Temple, 76ers player, 76ers coach). ASC winds down with another lengthy interview section calling on sportscasters to weigh in. This section is highly informative and one has to imagine how many games combined and hours spent of sports coverage these individuals have put into their careers. The wisdom found in Hall of Famer Ray Didinger and the worldliness of Mike Missanelli, are just two highlights of this section. Howard Eskin’s realist and honest perspectives were also quite compelling. He should still be considered relevant in the local sports discourse. (After all, he saved the Eagles from moving, it could be argued.) Matt Cord, Tom McGinnis, and Marc Zumoff are also personal favorites of mine, since I am a biased basketball fan. The book, as I said, is very clever, useful, interesting and insightful. It even “closes” with a conclusion by Brad Lidge. The timing and structure of Lidge in the book is just as pronounced and noteworthy as in 2008.
The book sets out to do what it was supposed to do; and consistently aims in addressing its thesis: addressing the national media stereotypes and comparing them with the realistic portrayals on the ground. Michael Wilbon, etc. may have an okay time seeing Philadelphia from 30,000 feet while Mike Missanelli has a skilled perspective. This is worth understanding and contextualizing.
ASC is not without limitations. What book isn’t? At times, it seems to undercut the offensive nature of Philadelphia sports fans, even in light of the critical section. It is possible for the national media to be correct but for the wrong reasons. Furthermore, we should not underestimate the fanaticism aspect of being a fan. We can’t expect fans to be technical experts in the sports they love but we should not conflate individual knowledge with respective passion for entertainment either.
Lastly, as it relates to sports and fandom, the issues and opposing viewpoints concerning the sociological topics and impacts of: ramped alcohol use, the madness of crowds, social class divisions, racialized antagonism, homophobia, and, gender coding are further possibilities in fan analysis for any northeastern large city. These areas undoubtedly influence fan behavior and thinking in every American city and have throughout the ages. At times they are the potential sources of the undercurrents and controversies coinciding with the contents ASC so magnificently discusses.
Vallee, Bakay, Goldberg, Downs and Vargus did an outstanding job. It is not easy to produce something. A lot of work goes into something like this, a highly entertaining and well-researched docu-fan-tasy on paper.
I proudly own A Snowball’s Chance, (a gift from my sister), and so should all Philly fans.
Dan Falcone is an educator and basketball coach with more than ten years of experience in both the public and private setting. He has a Masters in Modern American History from LaSalle University in Philadelphia and currently teaches in secondary education near Washington, D.C.
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