ERIC: As we count down to the May release of You Stink! Major League Baseball’s Terrible Teams and Pathetic Players and to acknowledge today as being Opening Day of the 2012 Major League Baseball season, I couldn’t resist taking a moment to celebrate the upcoming 40th anniversary of one of my favorite childhood memories.
In 1971, the City of Philadelphia dedicated its glistening new multi-purpose facility, Veterans Stadium. Despite their new surroundings, the Phightin’s finished dead last in the National League Eastern Division with a 67-95 record. Even the expansion Montreal Expos, in only their third season, finished ahead of the Phillies.
Despite the off-season acquisition of future Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton, things did not look much better for the upcoming 1972 season.
Bill Giles is the son of former National League president Warren Giles. He has spent his entire adult life in Major League Baseball, and today, is one of the owners of the Phillies. In 1972, he was 38 years, and was working as the Phillies’ Vice President of Business Operations, and it was his job to put butts in the 56,000+ seats in the Vet. With a terrible team, that was no small task. So, Giles, taking a cue from the Bill Veeck playbook, decided on a stunt.
Here is that stunt, in his own words.
For me, the opening day of a baseball season was the third most important day of the year, falling behind only Thanksgiving and Christmas. Ever since we dropped a ball from a helicopter to our backup catcher to open Veterans Stadium in 1971, I knew we had to deliver each season’s first ball in Philadelphia in some unique manner.
So how to top that in ’72? I had read an article in Sports Illustrated about a man who jumped off cliffs with a kite on his back and sailed through the air. I envisioned him jumping off the roof of Veterans Stadium and sailing into home plate with the first ball. I contacted him and asked him to fly from his home in Seattle to Philadelphia.
Kiteman took a look at my idea and said he could only do it if we built an 80-foot ramp on top of the seats in right field. He would water-ski down the ramp to get enough draft under his kite. I decided to give it a try. A month before opening day, I spent $5,000 to build a ramp on top of the right-field seats.
You know what they say about best-laid plans. The players ended up going on strike, which delayed the start of the season by a week. I received a call from my Kiteman friend.
“Bill, I can’t come a week later.”
“I have to go to Mexico and teach the president of Mexico how to water-ski.”
I was stuck. We had advertised heavily: “Come See the Kiteman!”
I looked in the Yellow Pages, but there was no Kiteman to be found. A man who owned a local hardware store in Paoli read that I was stuck with no Kiteman. He called to tell me that he had a friend, Richard Johnson, who flew kites in shows in Cypress Gardens, Fla., and that he could probably be the new Kiteman.
I flew Mr. Johnson up to Philly to look at our ramp. He said that he could not do the ramp, but that if I got him some roller skates and pulled him behind a car down the street in front of the Vet, he could sail up and over the roof and glide down to home plate.
That sounded pretty cool.
I called Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo and explained the plan. He rejected it because it would “mess up traffic.”
I really needed the Kiteman show to go on, so I went back to Mr. Johnson and offered him $1,500 instead of the original $1,000.
“OK, I’ll give it a try.”
“Great!” I responded. “Would you like to practice?”
“Mr. Giles,” he said, “if I’m going to kill myself, I want someone other than just you watching me.”
Kiteman’s big moment came on a cool, windy night before 38,000 fans as the Phillies opened the 1972 home season at the Vet against St. Louis. I had asked one of my sales guys, Paul Callahan, to accompany Kiteman to the upper deck, where his ramp had been built. I went into the public announcer’s booth to orchestrate the Kiteman show.
Dan Baker was our P.A. man. Before Baker came to the Phillies, he’d worked the “thrill circuit” up in New England, announcing Evel Knievel and others, so he knew how to sell it.
“Never before seen in a major-league stadium,” Baker said, his voice booming out across the Vet, “the world-renowned Kiteman will fly high above the stadium to deliver the first ball of the 1972 season.” He had worked out a 30-second introduction that built to a peak of emotion to get the fans revved up, closing with: “Here’s the Kiteman!”
The organist did a drumroll.
The fans stared anxiously at the ramp in right field.
The Kiteman did not move.
I turned to Baker and said, “He must not be able to hear us. Introduce him again.”
Baker said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Kiteman is summoning up the courage to take on this death-defying stunt.” He went through yet another intro that built to yet another peak, then finally said, “Here’s the Kiteman!”
The organist did yet another drumroll.
The Kiteman still did not move.
You have to understand Phillies fans. They are not the most patient people in the world. They were already booing.
I got on the walkie-talkie with Callahan and asked, “Does he hear the P.A.?”
“Yes, he hears it.”
“Well, then, what’s the problem?”
“The problem? The problem is that he’s scared to death. He’s frozen.”
In a touching display of sensitivity and sympathy, I told Callahan, “Give him a little push.”
But Callahan couldn’t give him a push because he was down in the front row of the upper deck in the 500 Level, having been given explicit orders by Kiteman to catch him if he wasn’t airborne by then. Little did Kiteman know that Callahan had already figured out that if you grab someone skiing down a ramp right before he goes over an upper-deck railing, you’re going over with him. Kiteman had only 48 rows of seats to get airborne or he’d be falling into the lower level – Callahan or no Callahan.
Kiteman finally started down the ramp on his water skis. Halfway down the 600 Level, a gust of wind knocked him sideways off the ramp. He crashed through row after row of seats and into the railing of the upper deck.
I thought he was dead.
The fans were booing lustily.
Callahan, having figured that Kiteman had at least two broken legs and possibly a broken back, rushed over to him. Someone had to throw out the first ball, you understand, and it was taped to the kite.
“Give me the ball,” Callahan said.
“That’s my job,” Kiteman replied.
Miraculously, Kiteman got to his feet and heaved the ball – as if he thought it would sail to the pitcher’s mound from the 500 Level. It ended up in the Phillies’ bullpen, behind the outfield fence.
The fans booed even louder.
As for me, I was just relieved that he was alive. Generally speaking, a dead body is not a good omen for the start of a baseball season.
I was 11 years old, and I remember this debacle. Giles was, of course, right that a dead body is not a good omen for the start of a baseball season. The 1972 Phillies – profiled in You Stink! – finished dead last again, with a 59-97 record. Kiteman’s disastrous escapade foreshadowed yet another long, unpleasant, losing season for the Phillies, which crashed as badly as the Kiteman did.