The breakout success of the Taney Dragons that rocketed an underdog team to the final round of the Little League World Series has captured the collective imagination of a famously divided city and, increasingly, the nation as a whole. But who, or what, is a Taney? Starting with last month’s Best of Philly issue, in which Philadelphia magazine’s Liz Spikol recalled her encounters with the Taney youths of her Center City childhood, the word has bubbled to the surface of the Philadelphia lexicon. Wrapped up in the name, now splashed across ESPN chyrons nationwide, is a long and complex history that traces changing demographics and social attitudes of Philadelphia and are, in a way, embodied by the team itself.
The Dragons take their name from South Taney Street, which runs parallel to their home field at the Schuylkill Pocket Veterans Memorial Field, in Center City. Originally opened as Barnwell Street in 1863 and later renamed to reflect its alignment with North Taney Street, in Fairmount, it was a narrow cut in a fast-growing section of the city, then known as “Schuylkill.” Characterized a shanty town, Schuylkill was then inhabited by off-the-boat Irish immigrants who came to work coal piers on the river or as domestic servants for the mansions surrounding nearby Rittenhouse Square.
Although a Northern victory in the Civil War was just a year away, Taney Street was ironically named* in honor of Maryland-native Roger Brooke Taney, the fifth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, an ardent slaveowner, and an architect of the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857. The infamous ruling enshrined in law the notion that black Americans were inferior to white Americans and invalidated the so-called Missouri Compromise, determining that it was unconstitutional for emerging US territories to outlaw slavery.
*A feature in the late Philadelphia Evening Bulletin called “Why’s It Called” encouraged curious readers to ask questions of the paper, who would investigate the origins of their inquisitiveness. One such request, by an M.J. Tanney, no less, appeared in the August 27, 1976 edition of the Bulletin, confirming the Chief Justice, who’d studied at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, as the source of “Taney Street.” The City’s Department of Records’ file indicates its first use, in Fairmount, in 1858, one year after the Dred Scott ruling.
It was a draconian decision that forever stained America’s moral standing and is often regarded by historians as making a military solution to “the Slavery Question” all but unavoidable. Taney now seems like an improbable figure to honor in a former Union city like Philadelphia, much less one to name a street after. But the year the street was opened was also a year that New York City was consumed by violent draft riots, street protests against compulsory military service in the Union Army, which disproportionately impacted the working-class Irish who could rarely afford the $300 ($5,746 today) commutation fee paid by wealthy gentlemen to avoid combat. Blacks were viewed as both the cause of the war and competitors for industrial work, and were frequent targets of violence.
Although Philadelphia did not experience full-scale rioting, many in Irish wards like Schuylkill (which purportedly had the highest concentration of Irish during the time of the Civil War), were sympathetic—The New York Times reported that a street gang from the neighborhood, known as the “Schuylkill Rangers,” traveled to New York to participate in the unrest. Eventually, federal troops were brought into the city to prevent a potential uprising in Philadelphia.
Schuylkill, which garnered the nickname “Devil’s Pocket,” remained an insular anachronism of “Old Philadelphia” into the 1960s, largely retaining its working class identity even though the coal yards that brought many laborers to Taney Street and surrounding blocks had long since closed. City planners targeted a portion of the former Donaghy Coal Yard, near 26th and Pine streets, as the site for the Taney Playground, which opened in June 1960. The sliver of land would be expanded in 1963 to include a recreation building and tennis courts, and in 1979, the ballfield that is now home to the Taney Dragons. The rec center complex would eventually be renamed in honor of William “Billy” Markward, a legendary Roman Catholic High School basketball coach that drew a number of all-star protégés from the mean streets of the Schuylkill neighborhood.
But by the 1970s, with working-class Irish plying what little industry was left in the area or trickling to the suburbs, the neighborhood was in serious flux. Numerous articles from the time made sport out of alternatively describing both how little or how much the neighborhood had changed. The earliest waves of gentrification pressing in from Rittenhouse Square caused tension—the construction of a rolling park at the north end of the playground was viewed with suspicion as a magnet for wealthy types and crime. An Evening Bulletin reporter that moved to the neighborhood described being beaten up by local teens on the steps of his house.
Meanwhile, street fights between the white “Taney Gang” and black youths moving into the neighborhoods to the east and south were so common that the local Catholic school changed its hours to be out of sync with the mostly black public schools nearby. Schuylkill teens enforced de facto segregation at the public pool near 26th and South Streets.
But the Taney Playgound, if old newspaper reports are to be believed, somehow persisted as the one piece of neutral ground in a troubled pocket of the city. A 1967 report, describing racial tension at the nearby pool, notes that “oddly enough, the playground at 26th and Taney is integrated.” The Bulletin reporter that was attacked on his doorstep wrote a column in 1980 about the shiftless “kids” terrorizing his adopted neighborhood (and doorstep), wrote “Turf defines Schuylkill… [Taney Playground] is several blocks away, but the kids rarely go there. It is crowded with white folks from Center City, black folks from South Philly, business folks from nearby offices. The kids cannot control it, so they stay away.”
Today, the neighborhood is peaceful, although what remained of the working-class Irish community has been almost entirely consumed by the growing wealth of Center City. But Taney Playground is still the neutral ground. It’s a thriving hodgepodge of uses—baseball, tennis, basketball, a playground, a park for humans and another for dogs—that reflects the history of conflicting visions for the tiny neighborhood.
Over the last 20 years, primarily under the leadership of the late coach Bob Hyland, the Taney Youth Baseball Association emerged as a league where talent trumped the divisions of race and class, producing diverse teams of Dragons drawn from across Philadelphia. This is the legacy that has drawn the players almost overnight fame as they move towards the final of the Little League World Series.
Along little Taney Street, every row house sports a Taney Dragon sign on their front door. History books may remember the name as one shared by the grandfather of segregation, but words, like neighborhoods, can change. It means something else printed on rusted street sign that overlooks the ballfield or splashed across the home uniforms of star pitcher Mo’Ne Davis and her teammates. Taney is a word that has taken on its own meaning, a word that’s become a symbol of hope.