Ray's Replies: Story behind Santa incident


It is December and Eagles fans are angry. The team is losing, a disappointing season is winding down and the fans are calling for the coach to be fired.

No, we are not talking about today.

The year was 1968, the Eagles were playing at Franklin Field and their coach was Joe Kuharich. The name lent itself so well to chanting.

Joe Must Go rolled easily off the tongue. Three words, nice and short, just right for the angry staccato chorus.

That season culminated with one of the most storied events in the citys sports history: the fans throwing snow balls at Santa Claus. There are many versions of what actually happened that day. John Pierron, a former Channel 3 newsman, covered the story and detailed it in a letter to Comcast SportsNet.

Since we are approaching the anniversary of that memorable day, we thought we would share Pierrons letter with you. It is interesting to see how much TV news has changed in 40 years. According to Pierron, who still lives in the area, the Santa incident almost went unreported.

Here is Pierrons letter:

It was Sunday, December 15, 1968. It was the last Eagles home game of a dismal season. I was working as substitute Sunday night newscaster for KYW-TV. The highly popular weekend anchor Harry K. Smith, had retired and given me as his legacy a large Sunday night audience. It was my job to handle the last four months of the year and not mess things up until a replacement for Harry was free of his contract in Atlanta.The Eagles were not popular in our newsroom that year. The assignment editor, Bill Dean, would give me a 100-foot film can each Friday when the Eagles had a home game. He would instruct me: Give this to the cameraman and tell him to just shoot the touchdowns. Everybody would laugh. But the mission statement was clear: Dont waste film on the Eagles.One can of film, 100 feet, was less than three minutes of running time, but we just needed a good 20 seconds for the 11 p.m. news. And not very much was expected of the Eagles that year. That was the final year of Joe Kuharich as coach. That summer over the Jersey beaches the small plane streamers proclaimed: Joe Must Go.In those days, it was normal to hire a freelancer for the weekends. The cameraman would work eight hours Saturday and eight hours Sunday and you would hope there would be some news worth airing. It was silent film only, no sound.In the late afternoon that Sunday, I went to the editing room with the film editor to review the film shot that day. When it came to the Eagles 100 feet of film, we did a double-take. We saw Santa Claus walking down the track at Franklin Field waving to the fans. He could not have expected what (came next) made possible by a snowstorm the day before.This was film of yesteryear -- black and white, not colorbut the scene was unmistakable. Those were snowballs flying past Santa Claus. There werent that many but Santa went into a double trot and quickly finished his on-field seasons greetings.In those days, the newscast at 11 p.m. ran a half-hour. I was alone in the newsroom all evening except for the copy boy who would check the news wires. Sundays are slow news days generally. We relied on national and international news and the newsmakers from "Meet the Press." We covered the weather in not more than two minutes.When the NBC-TV show ended at 10:59, I came on and gave a few headlines as was routine and ended with: And today, some Eagles fans threw snowballs at Santa Claus. Details with film coming up next.When it came time for the sports, I gave the Eagles story straight but then went to the snowballs film. I could tell from the reaction of the studio crew that this was a grabber. It was a rather bizarre incident and when you saw Santa vigorously waving and then being forced to duck, you immediately had sympathy for Old St. Nick.The next day at the station, especially in the newsroom, snowballs and Santa Claus were about the only discussion. Vince Leonard, the weekday anchor, made sure the Santa film was rerun during the Monday newscast. And later in the week, Jim Leaming, the sports director, ran it twice as a rueful analysis of the Eagles' sorry season.When you do an unusual news story, it is common to check other media outlets to see how they handled it (if they did). We knew Monday that nobody but KYW-TV had film of the snowballs and Santa. I was a bit puzzled to read only one mention of the incident in the Monday newspapers. Frank Dolson of the Inquirer made reference to it in the seventh paragraph of his sad treatise on the final home game.I really thought we had a bit of an odd scoop especially with the film. I believe my fellow news people in the Channel 3 news room agreed based on their replays of the yarn during the week. For the most part, the incident otherwise was viewed as a non-story.
People who were not here in 1968 or were too young to remember may have trouble grasping just how bad things were. Kuharich was in his fifth season as Eagles coach and the fans wanted him gone in the worst way. The team was awful and Kuharich alienated the public with a personality that was equal parts arrogance and paranoia.

Eagles fans had suffered through losing seasons before, but this was arguably the worst ever. The team lost its first 11 games. Initially, the fans were frustrated, then they saw it as a great opportunity. If the Eagles finished with the worst record, they would get first pick in the draft which meant they could have O.J. Simpson, the great running back from Southern Cal.

Just as the fans became excited by the prospect of drafting the most celebrated player in college football, the Eagles did the one thing the fans didnt want: they started winning. They beat Detroit on Thanksgiving Day, 12-0, and followed it up with a win over New Orleans, 29-17, the following week. With those two meaningless wins, the Eagles blew their shot at O.J. and actually fell to third in the draft behind Buffalo and Atlanta. It was more than the fans could stand.

So the fans who turned out for the final gameand 54,530 trudged through the snow to Franklin Fieldwere in a foul mood. Many wore buttons that read Joe Must Go. Some creative types paid for a plane to circle the stadium trailing a Joe Must Go banner. The atmosphere could only be described as surreal. I was there sitting in Section EE and I still remember it. The anger in the stands was palpable.

At halftime, the Eagles were losing badly to Minnesota. That was when Santa walked onto the Franklin Field track and as I recall began tossing candy canes into the crowd. The public address announcer said something about the Eagles wishing all their fans a happy holiday season and I guess that was the tipping point because thats when some people in the lower deck started throwing snowballs at Santa. Other people saw it and joined in and pretty soon the snowballs were really flying.

As Pierron points out, it wasnt a big story that day because the Eagles themselves werent a big story. Forty years ago, there was no Comcast SportsNet, no ESPN and no sports talk radio so the incident hardly made a ripple until the video aired that night. Of course, the legend grew over time and now it is stamped on our city forever.

But thank you, John, for the inside story on how it all went down.

E-mail Ray Didinger at viewfromthehall@comcast.net.

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