Giles' life on a tightrope

Karl Wallenda helps the Phillies celebrate the nation's bicentennial by skywalking across the Vet between games of a doubleheader on May 31, 1976.
Karl Wallenda helps the Phillies celebrate the nation's bicentennial by skywalking across the Vet between games of a doubleheader on May 31, 1976. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: August 15, 2012

FOR KARL WALLENDA, it was just another day at the office. For the 30,207 fans in the friendly confines of Veterans Stadium on Aug. 13, 1972, for a doubleheader between the Phillies and the Montreal Expos, it was a day they never would forget.

Wallenda's office was several hundred feet off the ground and five-eighths of an inch wide. His workday lasted just 17 minutes. But when he punched out at the end of the day, having just performed a death-defying stunt never before seen in a major league stadium, Wallenda had both literally and figuratively taken baseball promotions to new heights.

The first skywalk in major league history, which celebrated its 40th anniversary on Monday, was just one of the many ways that current Phillies chairman and part-owner Bill Giles helped change the in-game ballpark experience. Signing on with the Phillies as vice president of business operations in 1969 after a stint with the Houston Astros, Giles was always somewhat of a marketing whiz, and sought to raise the bar on major league baseball promotional events.

Not only did Giles raise the bar, it was a lot higher than just a few hundred feet.

"The Phillies had not been drawing very well historically. It was my job to try to enlarge the fan base by doing a lot of crazy things, like the Wallenda walk," Giles said. "The hope was by doing these promotions we would get some new fans and they would like the ballpark and like the experience and come back for regular games. That was my whole philosophy of marketing."

The decision to hire the 67-year-old "Great Wallenda," as he was called, was made in January 1972. The Phillies were struggling to fill the cavernous, 65,000-seat Vet, which was just entering its second season. Little did the team know at the time that it was also about to enter one of the worst seasons in the team's history.

The 1972 season will live in infamy as the year the Phillies won just 59 games, despite a Herculean 27-win season from Steve Carlton. As the dog days of summer rolled along and attendance continued to dwindle, the team knew the Great Wallenda's walk would be one of the pivotal points in their season. The Phillies had to give their fans a show so spectacular that they would forget about the abysmal product on the field.

For a stunt so intricate and dangerous, Giles' greatest obstacle would be getting the 1,000-pound wire cable onto the roof of the Vet. For this, Giles relied on Bill Hall, of Bill Hall Entertainment & Events, who served as a private contractor for events, and was making his first of many booking with Giles.

Wallenda's price? Three thousand dollars.

"Karl came in to see the stadium for the first time in April," Hall said. "He walked right out into the stadium and he looked at the place and said, 'Oh, this will be spectacular. I will go from there to there' and he points from foul pole to foul pole. We went up on the roof and tried to find the strongest spots to tie the cable down, and as it would turn out the strongest tie-off points were from foul pole to foul pole."

Thanks to a team of 38 people, the wire was secured taut and was safe enough for Wallenda to wow the crowd.

Or as safe as it could be without a net below.

When the big day finally arrived, Carlton led the Phillies to a 2-1 victory in the first game of the doubleheader, pitching a complete game and allowing just three hits for his 19th win. As the game drew to a close, attention turned to the skies overhead.

As Wallenda - a man who previously had lost family members in similar acts and who himself fell to his death during a windy day in Puerto Rico in 1978 - took his first step across the nearly 640-foot wire, the fans fell silent.

"You could have heard a pin drop," Giles said. "I remember the Montreal players were in the dugout and our players were watching and everyone was very quiet and very nervous."

As was Giles.

"I was very, very scared," Giles said, saying it was the most nervous he had ever been about a ballpark promotion.

At one point, Wallenda sat on the cable so the ground crew could tighten it.

Wallenda completed his 600-plus-foot walk to a raucous standing ovation. Not only did the skywalk generate tremendous publicity and media attention for the Phillies, it also created a new phase of both Hall's and Wallenda's careers.

"Giles came up to me after the walk and told me, 'That was great. You've got an assignment for Opening Day next year.' That began my career with the Phillies," said Hall, who went on to work as an events consultant with the team.

For the Great Wallenda, the Vet skywalk would mark the opening of a nationwide tour, as he performed at major league ballparks across the country. Within 24 hours of the walk, Wallenda was booked to make a skywalk at the Atlanta Braves' Fulton County Stadium just a few weeks later. He would make appearances at Seattle's Kingdome, San Francisco's Candlestick Park, the Brewers' Milwaukee County Stadium, the Houston Astrodome and Shea Stadium, to name a few.

Wallenda made his return to the Vet on May 31, 1976, when he repeated his skywalk in front of a huge house of 51,211 to ring in the summer of America's bicentennial between games of a doubleheader with the Chicago Cubs.

After watching Wallenda cross the Vet the first time, Giles walked away from the ballpark with a new challenge. He had created the most spectacular event ever put on at a major league stadium; now he had to top it. He was up for the challenge.

Opening Day was always a spectacle for Giles and the Phillies' marketing team. Giles tried everything from having someone (Kiteman) on a hang glider fly the first ball down a ramp to home plate, to shooting people out of cannons. He even tried replicating Paul Revere's midnight ride, a rider with a baseball on horseback from Boston's Old North Church, a trip that spanned 13 days.

"We loved to have the first ball of the year brought in in some unusual way. It was my signature, of sorts, in my marketing career," Giles said. "I always wanted to do something different on Opening Day because it was always met with such anticipation and excitement."

Some of Giles' outlandish promotions included cash scrambles, mattress stacking and ostrich races, but some of his other ploys created lasting impressions in the game.

Two of Giles' proudest accomplishments are now staples in ballparks around the country. He was one of the first to incorporate postgame fireworks shows. Famously blowing through $30,000 worth of fireworks in 18 minutes during his very first show, Giles didn't just want to create a diversion for the fans, he wanted a spectacle.

The other piece of Giles' lasting legacy was the creation of the Phillie Phanatic, which made its debut in 1978 and was one of the first mascots in baseball. The Phanatic continues to be one of the most recognizable figures in all of sports.

" 'The Chicken' in San Diego was one of the first mascots that became famous, so we decided we should have one, too. Many people, myself included, thought mascots belonged in high school and college but had no place in professional baseball," Giles said. "But my [marketing] team kept pushing me and eventually I caved. So I met with the design team and I told them I wanted something green and fat with a big nose. I liked to see people smile and have fun, and that was my whole philosophy."

Now in his fifth decade of work with the Phillies, Giles has not been involved in business operations since the late 1990s. As chairman and a part owner, he is still involved with the franchise, and gets to watch his old marketing schemes played out across the major leagues as a part of day-to-day operations. Every time he sees fireworks after a Phillies home run or watches the Phanatic in its usual antics, he remembers an idea he had that was just crazy enough to work.

And it all started the most dramatic way possible. As the Great Wallenda took his first step into the Philadelphia sky, Giles began walking his own figurative tightrope in the world of baseball marketing.

Now 40 years removed from that courageous first step, he has stepped off the other side and can admire his greatest feat - changing the game of baseball.


Contact Daniel Carp at carpd@phillynews.com

|
|
|
|
|