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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Legendary Philadelphians

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Aug 28, 2013
By Thom Nickels

What’s it like to be working on a new book, entitled Legendary Philadelphians?

For me it’s been a Philadelphia history refresher course. The purpose of the book, you see, is to profile over one hundred living or dead notable Philadelphians. Legendary Philadelphians will feature people from all walks of life—artists, athletes, business, entertainers, politicians, writers, social activists, and religious leaders.

Initially, I had an option to include a chapter on infamous Philadelphians, bad men or women who disrupted the social fabric in the city in a big way. Think Ira Einhorn of Earth Day (April 1970) guru fame who was a charismatic double-dealer who hobnobbed with the city’s power elite, including gullible politicians, until he killed his girlfriend, Holly Maddux, and stuffed her body in a trunk in his Powelton Village apartment.

But thinking about Einhorn’s exploits got to me: Do I really want the pages of Legendary Philadelphians to contain ugly, violent stories?

Why should men like serial killer Gary Heidnik or 1959 Manayunk school girl murderer Elmo Smith be included in a book that also profiles sports greats like Richie Ashburn? Or world famous opera tenors, like Fishtown’s own Stephen Costello?

So I kicked the criminals to the curb and concentrated on getting a photo of Ashburn through his son, Richie, Jr., who provided me with great shots of his dad.

Ashburn, born in 1927, was one of the most beloved sports figures in Philadelphia. He was a center fielder who spent most of his 15 major league seasons with the Phillies. Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995, he was nicknamed "Putt Putt" by baseball great Ted Williams because he "ran so fast you would think he had twin motors in his pants." Somewhat superstitious, Ashburn slept with his bat because he didn’t trust league bosses to give him the same bat when the games resumed. Although the last year of his baseball career was spent with the New York Mets, he will always be remembered as a player for the Phillies. Ashburn died of a heart attack in 1997 in NY after broadcasting a Phillies-Mets game from Shea Stadium.

Another baseball great, Mike Schmidt, was the talk of the town for a good many years. Schmidt was a twelve time ALL-Star Phillies third baseman who won 10 Gold Gloves and who was named The Sporting News Player of the Decade for the 1980s. Who can forget Schmidt’s rock star’s charisma when he made his Phillies debut in 1972 at age 22? It was as if Mick Jaggar himself had donned a Phillies uniform. Screaming fans, especially girls, went into cardiac arrest over his Golden Boy good looks and athletic stamina. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995, Schmidt showed great humility and surprised many when he told the assembly that his real foundation for living was not fame or glory but Jesus Christ. And no, we’re not talking about the curse word version of that name.

Growing up, I used to hear stories from my great aunt Dorothy about her friendship with Margaret Mack, the daughter of Connie Mack (1862-1956), or Cornelius McGillicuddy, Sr. Margaret moved to the Bala Cynwyd apartment complex where my great aunt lived shortly after Connie died in her Cliveden Avenue Germantown home. Her apartment was directly across from my great aunt’s, so as a boy my great aunt sometimes took me into Margaret’s apartment. Margaret was a tall and refined lady, intensely private, and she had a lot of photos of Connie and the family arranged throughout her place. In many ways, she was as quiet and reserved as her born-to-Irish immigrant father who was always referred to as a quiet gentleman with a peaceful managerial style. Mack was a benevolent manager. He did not impose evening curfews on his players and he was generous to a fault when it came to lending or giving money to players in need. Despite the machismo of the baseball, he disapproved of the use of profanity on the field and he wanted his players to be self-disciplined in their personal lives.

Mack managed the Philadelphia Athletics beginning in 1901, retiring at age 87 after the 1950 season. He was the longest serving manager in Major League Baseball history, and the first manager to win the World Series three times. He made the cover of Time magazine in 1927. After his retirement the Athletics were sold to Kansas City, making the Phillies the only baseball team in town.

How can you do a Philly notable book without mentioning Grace Kelly? Aunt Dorothy in the 1960s loved the fact that Princess Grace, a Catholic, seemed to be getting more press than the Queen of England, a Protestant, despite the fact that English royalty thought of Monaco royalty as second rate, "thrift store royalty."

When traveling with Aunt Dorothy in her cream colored Chevrolet Impala, she’d drive up to the Kelly home in East Falls, practically slam on the breaks, and exclaim, "There’s where Grace grew up! Her father was a common brick layer! Can you imagine?" Together we’d examine the grounds of the house as if hunting for tell tale signs: a lock of Kelly’s hair or a mash note from Alfred Hitchcock on the lawn. Aunt Dorothy’s penchant for the living legend came to a head when the princess herself appeared at a special Mass at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, and happened to be standing near the cathedral doors. Aunt Dorothy, situated nearby, extended her gloved hand to the Monaco icon, apparently touching a portion of her tweed jacket. Her well meaning "Hello, dear Princess," was greeted with a cold Medusa stare. "I gathered from that," Aunt Dorothy reminded me many times after that, "that it is not permissible to touch royalty—ever!" Even, of course, royalty of the thrift store kind.

Research for the book provided some surprises, such as when a friend asked me if I knew about another Philadelphia great, Agnes Repplier. "Agnes who?" I said, thinking of Agnes of God.

Agnes Repplier (1855-1950) was an essayist and the author of a number of books, including In Our Convent Days (1905), about her days at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Eden Hall, in Philadelphia’s Torresdale’s section. As a girl she was quite mischievous. She was expelled from both Eden Hall and the Agnes Irwin School for perceived frivolities. Later, when she started to write, a Catholic priest suggested that she should stick to the essay form rather than write fiction. The formula worked. Repplier has been described as a shy Catholic version of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She knew all the big names of her day. Walt Whitman remarked that, "She strains for brilliancy, tries hard and harder and hardest until she gets her wit just where she wants it." Novelist Henry James, whom Repplier introduced to Philadelphia audiences for the first time, said that he liked Repplier, "for her bravery and (almost) brilliancy". (A little bit of a put down there, to be sure). Repplier is buried in the churchyard of Saint John the Evangelist Catholic church at 13th and Market Streets in Center City.

Philadelphia has more notables than can possibly be contained within 128 pages. The question--: who to include and who not to include—has not always been an easy question to answer.

An old 1960s edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer contains an old society column written by then Society Editor Ruth Seltzer, who chronicled the daily doings of the city’s Social Register set. The column contains a photo of a Miss Emily Bache of Center City, dressed to the nines in pearls and wearing a hat that would rival any worn by the Queen of England. Miss Bache is shown enjoying a delicious steak dinner at The Athenaeum. The photo caption reads that she is not only an Athenaeum shareholder, but the great-great-great granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin.

While it may sound like stretch to go from Richie Ashburn to Miss Emily Bache, as a famous film noir voice over once remarked, "There are eight million stories in the Naked City."