Still playing Hardball

A labor of love: Northeast native Chris Matthews, who was inducted into the Northeast Philadelphia Hall of Fame in 2014, hosts Hardball every weeknight at 7 on MSNBC.

Chris Matthews lived near 15th Street and Hunting Park Avenue in Nicetown back when it was a largely Irish and Polish neighborhood. Then, when he was 5, his family moved to the Far Northeast.

“My dad (Herb) and mom (Mary Teresa) moved in ’50 to Somerton,” he recalled. “There were cows out back. There were five barns in each direction. We were in farm country in the post-war period. It was a town of itself. Living on Southampton Road, there was nobody around. Growing up in the 1950s, Northeast Philly was really quiet.”

Somerton has come a long way since then, and so has Chris Matthews. Matthews, a television personality on MSNBC, recently spoke of his fond recollections of Northeast Philadelphia during a conference call from his Washington, D.C. office. Joining in on the conversation were Pam Henshall, president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, and Don Brennan, the Chamber’s head of media relations.

Home for the Matthews family — Chris, his parents and four brothers — was 1242 Southampton Road. For first and second grade, Matthews attended Maternity BVM Grammar School in Bustleton, which he said “used to be a quiet little town.” Hungry kids could buy 10 soft pretzels for 10 cents, and enrollment was high, with nuns keeping the peace.

“There were a hundred kids in the first-grade class in the auditorium,” he said. “It was packed.”

Matthews finished his elementary school years at St. Christopher, once it was built on Proctor Road.

“We were among the first 25 families that formed St. Christopher’s,” he said.

At St. Christopher, Matthews served as an altar boy.

“Part of the parish was Byberry,” he said of the former Philadelphia State Hospital, where he accompanied priests who served Holy Communion to the patients and heard penance from them.

Matthews remembers a simpler time, when most women did not work outside the home. Many did not have driver’s licenses or cars, and they were home for deliveries of diapers, soda, milk and Charles Chips potato chips and pretzels. And, like many young boys in that day, Matthews delivered the Evening Bulletin.

“I had the largest paper route, I think, in the city.”

For recreation, the Matthews family swam at Somerton Springs for what Chris remembers was a very affordable rate.

“It was $80 for the whole family for the whole summer,” he said.

Television was in its infancy.

“We didn’t have a TV,” Matthews said, adding that he would go to the O’Leary house to watch Superman on Mondays at 7 p.m.

Matthews got the political bug at an early age. He went to a movie in Center City back when films were preceded by newsreels, and saw a shot of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.

“Is that the president?” he asked.

“No,” his dad replied, “but he will be.”

Matthews attended La Salle High School, and remembers all the sports rivals in the Catholic League such as Father Judge, North Catholic, Roman Catholic, West Catholic, Bishop Neumann and St. Thomas More.

He went on to graduate from Holy Cross College, and served in the Peace Corps in Swaziland, Africa.

By 1974, the child who had seen Ike at the movie theater was now on the ballot himself. Matthews decided to challenge U.S. Rep. Josh Eilberg in the Democratic primary. In that campaign, he enlisted the help of 400 high school students and a band. A former investigative reporter for consumer activist Ralph Nader, he railed against money and deal-making in politics.

“I was running against the organization. I wanted to take on the system. I wanted to win, but I didn’t have any money,” he said.

In the end, Eilberg won with 76 percent of the vote.

Later, he worked as a congressional staffer, was a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and served as a top aide to House Speaker Tip O’Neill. When Reagan was shot early in his presidency, O’Neill visited him in the hospital, kissing him on the forehead and holding his hand. They also enjoyed attending St. Patrick’s Day parties together. Reagan often topped O’Neill on legislation with the help of conservative Southern Democratic congressmen. They don’t exist anymore.

“Today, the Democratic Party is liberal and progressive,” Matthews said.

Reagan and O’Neill worked together on issues such as reforms to Social Security and illegal immigration.

In 2013, Matthews penned Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, his seventh book. The pair had a professional relationship, though a lot of people wrongly remember them as two Irish guys who liked to drink together.

“They were adversaries,” Matthews said. “But they were both Americans.”

At present, Matthews is working on a book on Robert F. Kennedy. Writing is a passion, as he served as Washington, D.C. bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner from 1987 to 2000.

But broadcasting has made him famous among political junkies and led to his induction in 2014 into the Northeast Philadelphia Hall of Fame. He hosts Hardball every weeknight at 7 on the liberal cable channel MSNBC. The show has been on the air since 1997, and Matthews’ Philadelphia accent is pretty obvious to viewers.

Matthews, 70, lives in Maryland. He has three children. His wife, Kathleen, ran for a congressional seat this year, but finished third in a crowded Democratic primary.

One member of the Matthews family did find success on the ballot. Jim Matthews, brother of Chris and a Republican, served three terms as a Montgomery County commissioner. He also ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2006 on a ticket headed by Lynn Swann.

In 2010, Chris Matthews considered a return to Pennsylvania to run for the U.S. Senate when Arlen Specter was still a Republican. In the end, he didn’t want to be bothered with issues like a sewer bill in Erie. He’d much rather give intellectual speeches like former New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

So, he stayed with Hardball, and is glad he did.

“I’m doing exactly what I like,” he said. ••

Note: This story was originally published in the fall issue of inBusiness, the quarterly magazine of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.