Phillies can thank Yanks for famous Ballantine scoreboard

The Ballantine Beer scoreboard in right-centerfield was a Connie Mack Stadium landmark.
The Ballantine Beer scoreboard in right-centerfield was a Connie Mack Stadium landmark.
Posted: October 28, 2009

WHATEVER YOU think about the hated New York Yankees, you can thank them for one of the most fortunate transactions in Philadelphia baseball history. And, no, I'm not talking about taking Bobby Abreu off our hands.

In 1955 - 5 years after the Bronx Bombers swept the Phils in their only other World Series matchup - the Yankees sold us their giant scoreboard.

That's right, the Ballantine Beer scoreboard - the famous 50-foot-tall behemoth that towered in right-centerfield at Connie Mack Stadium at 21st & Lehigh. For any fan of the red pinstripes in the '50s and '60s, it is perhaps the defining image of the Phillies, as much of a memory as Tony Taylor crossing himself at the plate or Dick Allen etching messages into the first-base dirt.

It was there until the last game at Connie Mack in 1970, and finally demolished in 1976.

But before its run here, the scoreboard stood in centerfield at Yankee Stadium for at least 15 seasons, registering the biggest hits of DiMaggio, Mantle and Berra while advertising what was then the third-largest brewery in America.

Brewed just across the Hudson in Newark, N.J., Ballantine was the Yankees' primary sponsor in the 1950s.

It was announcer Mel Allen who made it part of baseball vernacular, describing each of the Yankees' all-too-frequent homers as a "Ballantine blast."

The scoreboard was in perfectly good shape when the Yankees decided to modernize in 1955. They sold it to the Phillies for $175,000 and trucked it 85 miles south.

"Perhaps," wrote Robert Gordon and Tom Burgoyne in "Moving on Up," "the Yankees felt the Phillies could extend its life by giving the scoreboard far less of a workout than the '50s Yankees dynasty gave it."

The used scoreboard was an upgrade for the Phillies' home field (which had changed its name from Shibe Park in 1953 in honor of longtime A's manager Connie Mack). It was the ballpark's first electronic scoreboard; before that, scores were registered by hand.

Unlike the comprehensive digital boards in most stadiums today, the Ballantine scoreboard simply listed the game's line score, balls and strikes, and out-of-town scores. No animations or replays, no pitch speeds or even batters' names.

Nonetheless, for a young Joe Sixpack watching his first Phillies game in the summer of '64, the scoreboard was transfixing.

Its three golden rings beckoned with the promise of "Purity, Body, Flavor." Though it would be another 10 years till I got a taste, I imagined the ale was some fantastic elixir, spilling into the cups poured by hawking beer vendors.

My baseball-crazy aunt, who took me to the games of my youth, could attest to the power of the beer company's advertisement. One afternoon, she looked at us in amazement as my cousins and I, upon witnessing Johnny Callison hit two home runs in a single game, broke into the chorus from the Ballantine jingle: "Hey friend - do it again."

But more than a mere promo, the scoreboard was part of the field. Balls that struck its face were still in play, a stadium quirk that turned what would easily be a home run today at Citizens Bank Park into a long single.

Hitting a ball over the scoreboard for a home run was practically unheard of, a feat of legendary strength.

I got letters from readers after I erroneously reported several years ago that Allen was the only one to do it. Some recall Wes Covington knocking one - he did, but it was during batting practice when he played for the Milwaukee Braves, on the day the scoreboard was unveiled, on May 15, 1956. Others were there the day the Braves' righthanded slugger Joe Adcock did it during a game, going opposite field.

Recently I unearthed a 1962 report from former Daily News sports editor Larry Merchant about Ed Roebuck, a relief pitcher for the Dodgers, hitting batting practice fungoes over the Longines clock that sat 25 feet above the scoreboard.

"The ball is a speck as it disappears," Roebuck said. "It's beautiful."

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joesixpack@phillynews.com

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