I was just nine years old when a then ultra-modern sports cathedral known as Veteran’s Memorial Stadium, aka Veterans Stadium or more simply “The Vet” opened virtually at my backyard in South Philly.
And it was the 1971 Phillies team, the first to play on a new Astroturf surface, that became the very first Phillies team I ever followed.
My friends and I were fans of The Vet even before the place officially opened. We would ride our bikes to the stadium on the nice March days prior to its opening, and continued to do so on many days even after it did open. We would ride our bikes around the concourse, picking up steam, and then would hit the long, sloping pedestrian access ramps at full speed. The effect would be like putting our bikes on turbo-powered boosters.
My dad took my brother, Mike, and I to a Phillies formal “Opening Day” dedication event for The Vet. This was not an actual game but took place a few days prior to that first game. Our seats where somewhere in the upper deck, probably around what was the 600 level. The view felt glorious.
I clearly remember being in awe of the place. Everything was shiny and new at that point. The gleaming white concrete outer pillars. The surreal-looking green Astroturf artificial playing surface. The brown dirt of the base cutouts.
There were dancing fountains of green water in center field. A giant, 13-star colonial era flag unfurling above them. Revolutionary War characters Phil and Phyllis shooting off a cannon along the outfield walls. And what seemed like a massive, computerized scoreboard.
I had never been to old Connie Mack Stadium, something that I still jokingly hold against my dad in our conversations. According to him, the neighborhood of that old ballpark around 21st and Lehigh had become so dilapidated by the late-1960’s, when I was a little kid but old enough that I would have appreciated a trip there, that my dad just felt it was too unsafe to take us. And besides, he was not a big baseball fan back then. Golf and basketball were his sports.
But here we were at The Vet for this special Opening Day, because it was new, and it was an event that was close to our home. For that nine-year-old me, it was love at first sight. I was in love with the place but had still never seen a ‘live’ baseball game. That would become a love that would last to this very day.
The Phillies began playing at the stadium just days later, and the 1971 Philadelphia Phillies team would become the very first that I would follow in my lifetime.
In the true Opening Game, on April 10th, 1971, the Master of Ceremonies for pre-game festivities and introductions was a new broadcaster in town by the name of Harry Kalas. The Phillies defeated the expansion Montreal Expos by a 4-1 score, with future Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning earning the win and all-time Phillies player/coach icon Larry Bowa registering the first hit at The Vet.
The 25-year-old Bowa would eventually grow to become one of my favorite players. But that first year my actual favorite players were a little second baseman named Denny Doyle and, as my dad referred to him, a “hot dog” of a center fielder named Willie Montanez.
Doyle was a scrappy 26-year-old playing his second season in the big-leagues and as Bowa’s double play partner. Montanez was an exciting 23-year-old who hit 30 home runs and finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting that season.
The manager of those Phillies was named Frank Lucchesi, a little olive-skinned Italian who fit right in with our South Philly neighbors. Unfortunately, the second-year skipper would only last until halfway through the following season.
In that first year at The Vet, Lucchesi had a mixture of veterans and kids to call upon in both his lineup and on his pitching staff. His lineup was led by 32-year-old veteran first baseman Deron Johnson, who would bang out 34 home runs and register 95 RBIs, and 29-year-old catcher Tim McCarver, who would later become a famed broadcaster.
Otherwise, this was a young ball club. Besides Bowa, Doyle, and Montanez there was 23-year-old third baseman John Vukovich, 21-year-old left fielder Oscar Gamble, and 25-year-old right fielder Roger Freed.
The Phillies bench was also fairly young, with only 35-year-old fan favorite infielder Tony Taylor having much experience. Taylor had been with the club since before I was born, but I had no memory of those Phillies of the 1960’s. The bench group also included 24-year-old infielder Don Money, who actually split third base with Vukovich and who blasted the very first home run in Veterans Stadium history.
Others who left an impression on me included infielder Terry Harmon (27), outfielder Ron Stone (28), catcher Mike Ryan (29), outfielder Larry Hisle (24), and outfielder Mike Anderson (20). And then came a September call-up from the minors. A powerful 20-year-old slugger named Greg Luzinski.
The pitching rotation was led by Bunning, then 39-years-old and in the final year of his Hall of Fame career. Bunning would make just 16 starts in that 1971 season. The last of those was a horrible appearance at the Astrodome in mid-July in which he would yield four earned runs on seven hits in just a single inning. Bunning also made 13 relief appearances and it would be as a reliever that Bunning wrapped up his career with a two-inning stint at The Vet on September 3rd against the New York Mets.
Another veteran in that rotation was lefty Chris Short. A decade earlier, Bunning and Short had nearly helped lead the Phillies to an NL Pennant. Thankfully, I was just two years old and have no memory of that 1964 collapse. Now both Bunning and Short were aging (in baseball years) with their careers in decline. Short was 33-years old and would go 7-14 across 26 starts in what would be his final year as a regular big-league starting pitcher.
Also in the rotation for the 1971 Phillies was their up-and-coming stud on the mound, a 25-year-old named Rick Wise. The right-hander would win 17 games for a team that won just 65 and tossed a no-hitter in which he also blasted two homers. Despite all that, Wise would be traded just prior to the following season for a left-hander named Steve Carlton.
Filling out the rotation were Barry Lersch and Ken Reynolds, both of whom were back-end starters by today’s lingo. Veteran Woodie Fryman was strong as a swingman who both started and relieved. Joe Hoerner was an effective lefty closer. The bullpen also had a quintet of good-looking hurlers in their 20’s in Bill Champion, Dick Selma, Bill Wilson, and Wayne Twitchell.
Those were my first Phillies. I watched them as much as I could on what was still a black-and-white television in our living room in those days, though not many games were broadcast other than on Sunday afternoons. More often, I listened that summer for the first time to the excellent work being done from the radio booth by the team of By Saam, former player Richie Ashburn, and the newbie Kalas.