Yo-Yo remains a legendary Palestra character

Posted: January 17, 2014

THE CEMETERY in Southwest Philadelphia is an abandoned, tumbledown ruin, overgrown in many places, gravestones knocked on their sides. To attempt to find a grave there, amid tens of thousands of graves, would have been impossible without the help of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, a volunteer group working to preserve and restore the property.

The email was answered within a day or so. Harry Shifren's grave is in Section K, Range 29, Lot 41. With a map, it took only a few minutes to find.

If a Big 5 doubleheader at the Palestra is the most Philadelphia thing ever, then the most Philadelphia thing about the most Philadelphia thing is Shifren, the homeless man who was the Big 5's unofficial mascot.

Nobody called him Harry, though. Some people called him Bernie, for some unknown reason.

Everybody just knew him as Yo-Yo.

In many ways, it is hard to understand how he became a public figure. Honestly, what he did wasn't much. You would be at the Palestra, and it would get to be halftime, and the pep bands would play a couple of songs and then there would be nothing but the hum of conversation. Nobody was trying to sell you anything over the public-address system, and there was no video board to distract you. People just talked.

And then Yo-Yo came out. He would arrive from one of the corners, at the bottom of those ramps that lead to the concourse. He would toddle out onto the floor, his dance best described as the bastard child of an Irish jig and a Mummers strut.

"I like to think of it as improvisational dancing," said John Nash, the longtime NBA general manager who was the Big 5's executive secretary from 1975-81.

One of the pep bands, as often as not, would begin to accompany Yo-Yo's stylings. Most nights, one of the cops in the arena, or an usher, or somebody, would give him a basketball - at which point, Yo-Yo would kind of push his hat back on his head and bend his knees and attempt an underhanded free throw. If he ever made one, nobody can remember.

And that was it. People loved it. Thus was a legend born.

The man himself said he was born in Russia in 1908. The U.S. Census from 1920 lists a 12-year-old Harry Shifren in Manhattan, the son of Isaac and Gussie Shifren, one of five children. It is hard to know whether that was him, or what happened after that. His obituary said that he occasionally mentioned a sister in Brooklyn, but that there never was any family in Philadelphia. How he got here was another mystery.

"He was a boyhood friend of my uncle," said Tom Gamba, who is now a dentist in Center City. "Uncle Lou [Naimoli] was a barber. Yo-Yo would be at the barbershop almost every day. Grandmom would give him something to eat. Uncle Lou would cut his hair or give him a shave, and then he'd give him a couple of bucks. That's the way it was."

Another place Yo-Yo would visit on his rounds was a bakery at 4th and McKean. There he would greet the owner's son with the same line, a line that Mitch Lipkin now repeats with a wonderful but indescribable impression: "Hey Mitch, do you got a cig-a-reeee-to?"

"He was like a lost soul, but he wasn't a lost soul," said Lipkin, who now owns a bakery on Castor Avenue in the Northeast. "He was just a nice guy.

"Here's what would happen. He'd come into the bakery and my father would say, 'Yo-Yo, put some of those bagels in a bag for me.' He made a little job for him, just to make him feel good. When he was done, my father would go across the street to Moishe's deli and get him a sandwich - the corned-beef special - and a soda and maybe some cigarettes.

"Sometimes he would sleep in the bakery - on the racks, on the shelf. Everybody knew him and everybody liked him - it was amazing, the effect he had on people. I sometimes thought he was a little bit off, but he was always upbeat, never depressed. He was just a character."

Both Gamba and Lipkin were under the impression that Yo-Yo generally did have a place to stay. But in his obituary, others said that he slept outdoors on the benches near 5th and Porter in the warmer months, wearing his wristwatch on his ankle, covered by a sock, to deter thieves. Gamba, among many, was often asked by Yo-Yo whether he could sleep in the back seat of his car.

How he got to the Palestra and became entwined with the Big 5 is another mystery. As Al Shrier said - and Shrier has worked in Temple's athletic department since the early 1950s - "He was just always there. There are a lot of characters in the world, and he was ours."

People saw him at other sporting events, too - Nash remembers seeing him at a St. Joseph's Prep game when his brother was in high school, and there was a mention in an obituary of Yo-Yo attending SPHA's games at the Broadwood Hotel, which would have been in the '30s and '40s - but the Big 5 was where most people remembered him. Still, when asked whether they ever really talked to Yo-Yo, both Shrier and Nash acknowledged that they never got much past hello.

"That's why it always surprised me that he knew things about me," Nash said. "Like, he knew that I liked horse racing. I don't remember ever talking to him about it, but one day he came up to me and said, 'I might have one for you at Aqueduct,' except he pronounced it 'Ack-a-duck.' Another one was Rutgers. He'd say, 'I'll see you up at Rut-a-gers.' I don't know if I ever saw him up there, though. But he did get places. People must have given him rides."

Tom Gamba tells the story of being at the 1971 NCAA East Regional final between Penn and Villanova, the famous/infamous 90-47 win by the Wildcats against a Penn team that was No. 2 in the nation. The game was at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C.

"I drove down with my brother-in-law," Gamba said. "We walk into Reynolds Coliseum and the first person I see is Yo-Yo. I couldn't believe it. I asked him how he got there and he said, 'I got here on a Bulletin truck.' That was his answer. I don't really know how he got there."

And while people generally laughed when they saw Yo-Yo, and liked having him around - Lipkin said he remembers seeing Yo-Yo sitting near the end of the Temple bench, and that legendary coach Harry Litwack used to give him cigars - Nash said that at least one Big 5 athletic director wanted to bar him from the building.

"You have to remember the times," Nash said. "The Big 5 was kind of struggling [in the 1970s]. Philadelphia players were going away to school more and more. And at one of the poorly attended doubleheaders, the Daily News put a picture of Yo-Yo on the back page. He happened to be asleep in the picture.

"Well, the athletic director was saying things like, 'Do we really need this? Is this what we want our image to be?' I had to fight to let him keep coming to games. I just always thought that he was harmless and charming and people liked him."

In 1971, Yo-Yo added another venue when Veterans Stadium was built. He would sneak in, or just be allowed to enter, and this is what happened: When stadium organist Paul Richardson played a rendition of "Hava Nagila," Yo-Yo would offer another example of his improvisational dancing down one of the stadium aisles.

The fans enjoyed it; remember, this was pre-Phanatic. Television caught his act a few times, and Yo-Yo became better known. The Phillies' Bill Giles, then running promotions for the team, arranged to give Yo-Yo a lifetime pass to games during a ceremony on the field. Fans received giveaway yo-yos. Yo-Yo had one request: He wanted to sing a song. They let him sing three bars of "Hava Nagila."

When he died in 1979, Yo-Yo was at the Camac Baths, another place where he was allowed to get cleaned up on occasion.

"He had my Uncle Lou's phone number in the pocket of his clothes, so they called him," Tom Gamba said. Lou Naimoli was prepared to pay for the services and the burial until Gamba, who has done some consulting for the Phillies, called Giles and explained the situation. As a result, the Phillies paid for everything. Yo-Yo was buried wearing the lapel pin that was to be given to media and VIPs if the Phillies had made it to the 1978 World Series.

This is what the gravestone says:

BELOVED FRIEND

HARRY YO YO SHIFREN

PHILLIES NUMBER ONE FAN

DEC. 10, 1908

MAY 26, 1979

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