Bill Lyon: 1938-2019

Ordinarily when moments of great cultural significance occur in Philadelphia, Bill Lyon can be counted upon to provide measured reflections on them; who, then, will provide such commentary at the passing of Bill Lyon, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, November 17, 2019?

Bill Lyon’s work at its finest made clear the connections between sports and life, respecting the ardent fervor of this city’s fans while illuminating the beauty and truth in both winning and, more often in this city of occasionally benighted teams, losing. He saw the ways that sports can reveal something of the essential human condition, elevating them from mere games to morality plays with a quick style and keen insight.

One of my favorite pieces of his, from 2008, reminisced about the Spectrum in advance of its 2009 demolition:

When a Philadelphia team was playing, you could stand out in the parking lot and the crowd noise would tell you how the home team was faring—if they were winning, the passion was as raw and bone-deep as a January night, an unrelenting, urging surge of support.

And if they were losing…ah, well, then it was a mournful wail, so haunting that wolf packs a thousand miles away lifted their muzzles to the heavens and bayed at the moon in sympathetic reply.

His final columns, focusing on his struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, make for powerful reading. The city is diminished by his loss and enriched by his words.

(Image by and courtesy Kevin Burkett via a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 License.)

Bill Lyon on Ed Snider

With the passing of Philadelphia Flyers founder Ed Snider, many encomiums have flowed forth, among them one by Bill Lyon, writing, as ever, in the Inquirer, as he is wont to do during signal moments in Philadelphia sports history.

Ed Snider by Michael Allen Goldberg via a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License on Flickr

In “Snider Brought Championships to Philadelphia” (Philadelphia Inquirer, April 11, 2016), Lyon encapsulates the qualities that made Ed Snider (or, rather, Mr. Snider, his legendary honorific despite his protestations) an outstanding figure in Philadelphia and the world of ice hockey:

Ed Snider, in many ways was the model of what you want in an owner. He was a man of great passion. He poured himself into his team and more than once yielded to volatility. Incensed by what from his Nero box was perceived to be an outlandish call, he would storm out, ruddy face turning fire engine red.

Ed Snider introduced the city to hockey, taught it, and was rewarded for his efforts by a select fan base, a fiercely loyal following that achieved cult status.

Ed Snider, above all, was a fan, of hockey and of the Flyers. He wanted, above all, for the Orange and Black to win, and while the decisions he made towards that end were not universally successful, there’s no denying his passion and desire for this team. For his team, for my team, for Philadelphia’s team.

Thank you, Mr. Snider.

(Image courtesy of Michael Allen Goldberg via a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License on Flickr)

From Europe With Love: The Eurovision Song Contest

Anthony Lane, writing in the June 28, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, visits one of those peculiarly European spectacles, the kind one points to when thinking of what Europe, as an entity distinct from its individual nation states, means: The Eurovision Song Contest.

The music that Eurovision honors and enshrines is the music you still hear from one corner of Europe to the other. […] But here’s the rub: European pop sounds like Eurovision pop even when it’s not from the Eurovision Song Contest. The stuff you hear in the back of Belgian taxis, on German radio, in Sicilian bars, and in the lobbies of Danish hotels: it was all created by the great god of dreck, and Eurovision is his temple.

(Anthony Lane, “Only Mr. God Knows Why,” The New Yorker, June 28, 2010)

Yes, it is that bad, as anyone who has sat though an installment of the annual contest can attest. And yet, Eurovision remains absurdly compelling viewing and listening. It’s pop, to be sure, but it’s distinctly European pop, tinged by yet disparate from American or British pop.

Fans Inside Telenor Arena, Eurovision Song Contest 2010 by SQFreak on, via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike License.

The quality of the music isn’t the point so much, really. Eurovision is like an international musical sporting event, the Olympics of High Camp, complete with voting along regional blocs and ringers brought in from other countries to help your chances, there being no residency requirements to be a country’s entry.

Countries could certainly spend a fortune to bring in hired talent with real pop pedigrees, but they don’t. For all the pseudo-English sung at this event, there’s national pride at stake—no, not pride. National spirit, national joie de vivre. It’s infectious, and it brings the countries of Europe together in a contest that has little to no negativity or even competitiveness. Watch it once and you’ll remember it forever. Like it or not.

If you spend any appreciable time in Europe, you can’t avoid Eurovision. Having spent several formative years in Norway during the early- to mid-1980s, I was exposed to Eurovision right at the point where my musical tastes were beginning to coalesce. Those who know me point to this as a reason for (in their sadly near-universal assessment) my terrible taste in music. They’re wrong, of course—Toto IV is, truly, one of the finest albums ever—but I owe my predilections to the very first cassette tape I ever bought.

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Explaining the Beautiful Game

A comment over on Goal, the New York Times‘ fine soccer blog (though I’ve always found it silly that newspapers insist on calling their non-printed commentary “blogs”) got me thinking about the extent to which Americans don’t understand soccer—not from a cultural standpoint, which is a separate topic entirely, but from a technical standpoint.

DSC_9982 by edtrigger on via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives license

Commenter DMacM131 writes, in response to Jeffrey Marcus’ post, “Green Faces the Music; Chaochi Repeats His Mistake”:

As a quadrennial soccer fan, I was in the dark about many actions […] I hope the US team gets a better draw next game… Not the competition, but the commentators. I wouldn’t be offended if a commentator explained some of the baseball rules during the World Series or hockey rules and strategy during the Stanley Cup.

Several other commenters chimed in on this point, arguing back and forth about whether a World Cup broadcast is truly the time and place to explain offsides or the implications of receiving a yellow card. It’s an interesting question, one that gets to the heart of soccer’s struggle to capture America’s interest as a major component of our sporting life (as opposed to being primarily a children’s sport).

Some people are “in the know,” aware of the predominant stylistic differences between the Premier League and Serie A, aware of what a 451 formation looks like and why a team might employ such a structure, and are watching all of the World Cup group games that they can. And some people tune in once every four years to watch the US National Team play on a national free-to-air television network, much as they might have tuned in to “Wide World of Sports” two decades ago to see rugby or motorcycle racing. To whom do you cater? The existing fan, or the potential fan?

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Bill Lyon on Lappy

With the NHL playoffs into their second round, Philadelphia’s Bill Lyon returns to the pages of the Inquirer to reflect upon heart, and blood, and the Flyers:

The on-rushing gunner has cranked up a warp-speed slap shot and the puck, a frozen rubber bullet, is zeroed in and dead on, with nothing but ice between it and the goal. So Ian Laperriere, a right winger whose specialty is killing off penalties, follows his instincts without a second thought: He drops and offers up his body as a sacrifice.

He blocks the puck…

…with his mouth.

Ian Lapperriere (14) in DSCF1869 by Dinur via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives License

Winning Lord Stanley’s Cup takes a special kind of dedication, a peculiar willingness (that is not so peculiar amongst the men who don NHL uniforms) to suffer and bleed for the team, for the prize, for the Cup. Bill Lyon, in one of his rare returns to print, captures this willingness in the person of Ian Laperriere, a grinder, a role player for the Flyers, who only made the playoffs on the last day of the season, in overtime.

What awaits the Flyers now? Elimination, if you believe the popular sentiment.

But do not be so quick to dismiss lightly a team that has a man willing to catch frozen rubber bullets. With his face.


Like Bill Lyon, the Flyers hold a special place in the hearts of Philadelphians, both native and expatriate like myself. It’s good to see them both working their trade in May.

(Image courtesy of Dinur via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives License.)

Bill Lyon on Harry Kalas

For as long as I’ve been alive, one man has called Philadelphia Phillies games, a voice I remember from a tinny bedside radio on summer nights visiting my grandmother in Fishtown, the play-by-play competing with the sounds from the narrow street below the rowhouse. He called every one of “Michael Jack” Schmidt’s 548 home runs. He was the voice of the Phillies for several generations of fans.

The Parade on by thewestend, via a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivatives Licence.

Harry Kalas passed away yesterday before the Phils took the field against the Washington Nationals in the Nats home opener. And, as is often the case, Bill Lyon returns to print in the Inquirer to help the city come to terms with another momentous event:

Harry the K did play-by-play, and he not only did it uncommonly well, he spared us the histrionics and the shrieking and the rudeness that pollute far too many airways these days.

Harry the K was an oasis of calm in a roiling sea of nastiness and raging negativity.

He was, of course, the property of the Phillies, but he never played the role of fawning company shill. It was the Fightin’s he wanted to win, but he credited the opponent when it was deserved.

I’m the first person to admit that I’m not much of a baseball fan and that I haven’t listened to Harry Kalas call a game in years. But even I know that Philadelphia has lost just a little bit of its soul and that Bill Lyon has helped by putting it right back.

(Image courtesy of thewestend, via a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivatives License.)