It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
You know what that means in Philadelphia: Santa and snowballs and a time of month that cursed Philly fans for almost six decades with a reputation that they are the most belligerent, boorish ones in all of sports.
You’ve surely heard the annual Christmas tale before, of how fans near the end of one of the worst seasons in Eagles history dipped their fingers into snow at Franklin Field on a frigid December afternoon, cupped their hands and pelted poor ol’ Santa Claus with snowballs — long before anyone was beaten at Dodgers Stadium, or a Kansas City Royals coach was assaulted on the infield, or the “Malice at the Palace” occurred, or any of the other countless incidents of abominable behavior that surely would stain any other team’s fanbase — except they weren’t from Philly.
The Eagles, only six years removed from an NFL championship, started 0-8 in 1968 under coach Joe Kuharich and seem poised to finish with the worst record in the league and earn the No. 1 draft pick in the draft. That meant a chance at selecting USC running back O. J. Simpson.
Only once the Eagles won two straight games — hadn’t anyone heard of Tankadelphia? — essentially surrendering the top spot to Buffalo, disillusioned fans were fed up headed into the finale. And when the Eagles needed a pinch-hit Santa to fill in for the real-deal halftime act either stranded elsewhere in a snowstorm or simply no-showing because of one, they plucked a fan out of the stands who happened to dress as Saint Nick to toss candy canes into the crowd.
As instructed, 20-year-old Frank Olivo ran downfield past a row of elf-costumed “Eaglettes” and the team’s 50-person brass band playing “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Only fans turned on him in his disheveled outfit, angry over another lost Eagles season, and cold, tired and feeling a bit churlish, they booed and chucked snowballs at the woeful Santa impostor.
“Certainly,” said Eagles fan Ray Didinger, sitting at the Snowball Game in Row 24, “no one was trying to hurt Santa Claus.”
Yet, here they are, 55 years later, still atop the naughty list for sports fans everywhere.
The Eagles themselves sure don’t hate Christmas — they sing all the holiday classics instead. Led by Lane Johnson, Jason Kelce and Jordan Mailata, the Eagles have released Christmas albums in consecutive seasons.
The snowball story, though, stuck to Philly, so when the Eagles host the New York Giants on Monday, the incident surely will be recycled on the TV broadcast, or on local news, or on national sports highlights — Hey! The city that hates Santa played on Christmas!
“It’s never going to go away,” said Didinger, a journalist who went on to cover the Eagles for 53 years. “Just don’t let it bother you anymore. If you don’t think the Philadelphia fans are like that, and I don’t, then just sort of say, ‘oh well.’ It’s not me. It’s not the way I approach things.”
Imagine a 2023 world following the Dec. 15, 1968, game.
Fans among the 54,535 listed at Franklin Field would shoot video of the snowball hurlers, social media haters would take off like Rudolph in the sky and local newspapers and websites would blast tabloid headlines like “Rough Sledding” with a photo of Santa taking one on the chin.
Only in 1968, the incident was barely a footnote in the Eagles’ 24-17 loss to Minnesota.
Buried deep in the Philadelphia Inquirer game story was a note that “fans amused themselves by pelting both benches with snowballs.” On Dec. 17, 1968, Ray W. Kelly, of The Camden Courier Post, wrote: “The man who was pelted by the fans was a Philly rooter who thought he’d go to the game dressed as Santa just for the fun of it. He went onto the field only as a favor. Another good samaritan bites the dust.” The Dec. 27 Standard-Speaker (of Hazleton, Pennsylvania) noted: “Eagles fans took out their season-long frustrations on Santa Claus a week ago Sunday when they fired snowballs at the old gent at Franklin Field.” And a TV columnist for the Minneapolis Star wrote fans throwing snowballs at Santa was only “understandable in January when the Christmas bills come in.”
“There was no sidebar about it. The columnists didn’t write about it,” Didinger said. “It was no big deal. If you look at the Monday papers, it was proof it was no big deal.”
But much like any urban legend, how Olivo’s plight snowballed into a national story is a bit of a mystery. He’s not named in any stories in the immediate aftermath. There’s a theory the story exploded when Olivo’s antics, rather than game highlights, were beamed around the country on Howard Cosell’s national sports show, though no footage exists (or of any snowball throwing).
“When I hit the end zone, and the snowballs started, I was waving my finger at the crowd, saying ‘You’re not getting anything for Christmas,’” Olivo told The Associated Press for a 2005 story. “It became a thing that Philadelphia sports fans became famous for doing, and it will never die, I guess. Look how many years it’s been.”
Olivo died at 66 from heart disease in 2015, his unwitting role in making “Santa & Snowballs” shorthand for unruly behavior forever etched in Philly cultural lore.
“We probably are the only fanbase that threw snowballs at Santa Claus,” Didinger said. “That’s probably true enough. But if that’s all people know of Philadelphia fans, they’re getting a very distorted picture of things.”