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Philly sports writers, eyewitnesses set the record straight about the Santa snowball incident 55 years ago

Eyewitnesses and Philly sports writers say that the infamous Santa snowball barrage was misrepresented in the national media.

  • By David Matthau/WHYY
A Philadelphia Eagles' fan dressed as Santa Claus cheers during the first half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A Philadelphia Eagles' fan dressed as Santa Claus cheers during the first half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The year was 1968 — a disastrous season for the Philadelphia Eagles. The team ended  with a 2-12 record and lost its final game of the season in disappointing fashion exactly 55 years ago Friday. But the reason the contest has gone down in the history books is due to unusual half-time festivities.

Longtime Philly sports writer Glen Macnow, who co-wrote “The Great Philadelphia Fan Book,” says when the Eagles played the Minnesota Vikings December 15, 1968, the team boasted a miserable record of 2 wins and 11 losses. But even that showing was just good enough to guarantee they would not get the first pick in the college draft, a star running back called O.J. Simpson, because the Buffalo Bills had only a single victory that season.

Macnow said Eagles fans were displeased and demanding that the head coach be fired. Aggravating the situation was the cold and blustery weather from a big winter storm.

“People arrive that day at the stadium and find their seats covered with snow, so they kind of brush off the snow in front of them in order to watch a really terrible team play football,” he said.

A Christmas festival was planned for halftime, complete with Santa Claus throwing candy canes to the crowd accompanied by all of the cheerleaders dressed as elves. Macnow said that morning didn’t offer much promise for the official Santa who was scheduled to show up.

“The so-called Santa looked out his window, saw all the snow, saw the bad weather and said you know what, screw it, I’m not going, he stayed in bed, so Santa never shows up.”

As fate would have it, the team’s PR manager looked up into the crowd that day and saw someone dressed as Santa.

Philly resident Frank Olivo came to the game in costume, hoping he would get on TV.

Macnow said when Olivo, who was a skinny young man, was asked to fill in as Santa, he eagerly agreed to do so.

“He had a second-hand Santa costume that was pretty ratty, it had holes, and the Santa beard he was wearing was kind of half falling off his face,” he said.

When the Christmas show began, Santa started waving to the fans, who were now in an even more foul mood because the Eagles quarterback had just thrown a pick-six interception right before halftime.

Ray Didinger, a Hall of Fame sports columnist, was at the game, in row EE behind the end zone.

Didinger recalled when Santa began his trek around the stadium, “the fans were in no mood for it, it was the end of a terrible season, they wanted the head coach fired, they were in no mood to welcome a shabby Santa Claus throwing cheap candy canes up into the stands.”

At that point Macnow said Santa’s sleigh got stuck in a snow drift, and someone in the crowd chucked a snowball at the stand-in St. Nick.

“Everybody has a laugh, a second person throws a snowball, a third, a fourth, a couple of hundred, a couple thousand, it becomes a barrage, and poor Frank Olivo, Santa, is hiding behind his sled trying to avoid it, and everybody has a laugh,”  Didinger said. “It’s a funny thing, nobody gets hurt.”

Rich Monastra’s cousin Frankie Olivo was “like a brother to him.” He said Olivo had dressed as Santa that day because after the game he was going to go to their grandmother’s house in Southwest Philly for a family Christmas party, and he planned to play Santa for their younger cousins.

He said after the snowball assault finally stopped, Santa Frankie was happy.

“He seemed nonplussed about the whole thing, he went back to his seat, the fans cheered in his section,” said Monastra.

Didinger contends that the snowball barrage was in no way malicious.

“People were just fed up with the team, they were fed up with the coach, they were fed up with the whole situation, they were just looking to vent,” he said.

He pointed out the stadium held 60,000 people and 54,000 showed up, “which is pretty amazing, in most cities, at the end of a bad season on a bitter cold day you’d be lucky to get 10,000 people out.”

Macnow said later that evening, during his nationally televised sports wrap-up show, Howard Cosell announced he would not show highlights of the game but instead showed a video clip of Santa getting clobbered by snowballs in the City of Brotherly Love.

“All of a sudden the world sees this and sees us as these horrible people who pelted Santa, it’s like spitting on Miss America, I mean it’s just something you don’t do,” said Macnow.

He said the incident “has become the tired, incorrect cliché of Philadelphia sports fans.”

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell also attended that very game. He said it’s understandable that the fans were so gloomy and the incident has been blown out of proportion.

“No one wanted to hurt Santa, and we knew he was just a fan dressed in a Santa suit, but we wanted to register our displeasure,” he said.

“There are fans who have seriously injured people in other ballparks, and we have never done that, our fans are not particularly mean at all,” Rendell said.

Macnow said Philadelphia fans are supportive and “rich people and poor people, city and suburbs, Black and white, blue collar and white collar, we all care about the Eagles.”

He noted the Philly fanbase “really supports its team, good year and bad year, goes out, cares about it passionately.”

Sports is not a diversion in this town, sports is a religion.”

Didinger, who was 22 years old at the time, said he was at the game with his parents and grandparents, and when the snowballs started flying he almost joined in the barrage.

“I reached down and grabbed some snow and began forming a snowball, and my mother said, ‘You are not throwing that snowball,’ and I said, ‘OK’” he recalled.

Didinger believes Eagles fans are the best fans in pro football.

“They’re the most loyal, they are certainly the most passionate, and I think they’re the most knowledgeable,” he said.

Didinger said in many cities, fans will show up when the team is winning, “but when a team is bad, and believe me there were few teams that were worse than the 68’ Eagles, people just say to heck with it, it’s not worth it. But not in Philadelphia, if the Eagles are playing, you’re there, because that’s your team. ”

Monastra recalled as his cousin returned to his seat, Olivo scolded a fan who about to fire a snowball at him: “You’re not getting nothin’ for Christmas!”

Olivo, who worked as a barber, was treated like a star after the game by his customers, Monastra said.

“He’s autographing pictures for these guys in the barber shop, I mean it was crazy,” he recalled.

Monastra said Olivo, who passed away 8 years ago, always enjoyed the attention he got for playing Santa that day.

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