Column: Grease the poles? Philadelphia fans cast their vote for this title tradition

A fan celebrates on a light pole near City Hall after the Philadelphia Phillies advanced to the World Series on Oct. 23.
A fan celebrates on a light pole on Broad Street, south of City Hall, after the Philadelphia Phillies advanced to the World Series on Oct. 23.
(Monica Herndon / TNS)
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No sooner had Bryce Harper launched the home run that vaulted the Philadelphia Phillies into the World Series than the text message arrived, one fan to another, three words packed with an explosion of joy.

“Grease the poles,” the message read.

Only in Philadelphia: a civic rallying cry inspired by Crisco. Also only in Philadelphia: fans celebrating the success of their sports teams by climbing a light pole.

“It’s just how this city is,” Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “It’s a beautiful thing, in my eyes. That means a lot of good stuff is happening in this city.”


Said outfielder Nick Castellanos: “It is kind of on par for the city of Philadelphia, right? When they get excited about something, all bets are off.”

The Phillies were no-hit Wednesday, but that still leaves the best-of-seven series against the Houston Astros tied at two games apiece. The Phillies could win the World Series this weekend, sending light poles — and their human riders — swaying across the city.

Bryant Simon, a history professor at Temple University, is the fan who received that “Grease the poles” text message. The Philadelphia Inquirer traced the roots of the pole-climbing phenomenon to a local Italian festival that dates to the 1960s. However, Simon said, what is now regarded as a ritual as native as booing Santa Claus did not surge in popularity until the Phillies’ back-to-back World Series appearances in 2008-09.

“What’s interesting about it,” said Simon, who studies pop culture, “is how quickly it has been imagined as a tradition.”

As it did, the city took creative steps to try to stop it. Climbers could slip and fall from a pole, injuring themselves and fans gathered below.

Bryce Harper and Alec Bohm helped the Philadelphia Phillies hit a World Series record-tying five home runs in a 7-0 win over the Houston Astros in Game 3.

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In the name of public safety, the city greased the poles — initially with Crisco in 2009, then with hydraulic fluid during the Eagles’ 2018 Super Bowl run and again for this year’s National League Championship Series.


“Greased poles are not to be seen as a personal challenge,” city spokesman Kevin Lessard said. “We encourage fans to celebrate responsibly.”

That might be for the best, but the Philadelphia fan does not readily yield to authority.

“Philly fans will find a way,” said Alyssa Kress, who lives in Los Angeles but flew here to catch her hometown team in the World Series. “The grease won’t work. You can’t overcome the spirit of a Philly fan who just won a championship.”

Said Maura Quint, a Phillies fan and comedy writer: “Philadelphia celebrates everything it loves with a bit of aggression, in the way that someone who really likes you slaps you too hard on the back and never thinks to see if you’re OK. Philly will tear itself apart in sheer jubilation and won’t mind the mess, because that just shows how much it cared.”

That care is nurtured from a young age. Mark Gubicza, the Angels’ television analyst and former major league pitcher, grew up here and remembered celebrating a big Eagles victory by heading outside to play football with his friends.

“Tackle football,” Gubicza said. “On the streets. Just getting crushed. Slamming into stop signs.”

The Philadelphia Phillies celebrate after winning the NLCS against the San Diego Padres.
The Philadelphia Phillies celebrate after winning the NLCS against the San Diego Padres on Oct. 23 in Philadelphia.
(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

Even the best-behaved fans here are still Philly fans. Gubicza said he could not imagine climbing a pole, and he said he cut school only one day in his life.

“That,” he said, “was the parade in 1980 for the Phillies.”

As the Phillies pursue another championship, Kress and the rest of the fans here jeered the Houston Astros, of course, but with smarts and selective hostility.

The Astros in the lineup who remained from the sign-stealing 2017 team — José Altuve, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel — were scorned with “Cheater!” chants. The Astros who were not there in 2017 were serenaded with a hearty helping of boos.

Said Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola: “It’s a madhouse out there. They love their teams. They love the city. We do too. We want to win this thing and celebrate with them.”

If the Phillies win, well, the players would not dare risk their professional livelihoods for a moment atop a light pole.

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But what if, just one time, they could make like a fan and shimmy up a pole amid civic triumph? Would they?


“That’s not me,” Castellanos said. “I’d be really excited. When my hometown teams in South Florida won, it was a celebration. But I never found my way up a light pole.”

How about Hoskins? Fun runs in the family. His wife was immortalized online after buying 50 beers for fans at Game 3 and 100 at Game 4.

Could he imagine climbing a pole someday?

“Sure,” he said. “If I’m here, yeah.”

So, after he retires, he would do it?

“OK,” he said, laughing. “We’ll go with that.”