With the recent success of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, many baseball fans have forgotten that there was at one time two professional teams in the city; the longtime suffering and still existing Phillies and the sometimes contrasting Athletics. Of course, the latter franchise is presently located in the bay area city of Oakland, California, and at one time it could be found in Kansas City, Missouri, but yes, it did originally subside in Philly. Only dedicated hardcore baseball fans and historians probably remember or report on the history of this proud and old franchise, but it is an interesting and rather confusing story. It starts with the founding of the younger American League in its rivalry with the older NL.
In the beginning, back in the year 1900, the ambitious president of what was called the Western League, Ban Johnson, began to measure and market the possibility of going head to head in competition with the existing major league in baseball, the National League. It had been tried before a couple times, with a rather limited successful stint run by what had been called the American Association. In recent years the older league had contracted down from twelve teams to eight, leaving a hunger for professional ball to be played in some of the cities left out of the picture. When he decided to make the plunge some of these cities needed to be represented. One of these was Philadelphia, which already had a baseball team but had suffered through a miserable time trying to compete. It would be decided to keep another team there so that they could bring the city good solid baseball. The team originally was located in Indianapolis but was then moved to Philly to start the 1901 season, the banner year of the new major league.
Soon called ‘the Junior Circuit” in reference to its newness compared to the NL, the Athletics quickly became a powerhouse of the league. Taking its name from historical teams that had existed in the city previously, the Athletics earned respect and a solid following in baseball with the building up of a well-manned team. With a former catcher and manager from the Pirates at its helm, Connie Mack (Cornelius McGillicuddy), the team signed some excellent quality players from the Senior Circuit, adding to the heat that was being fueled by the raiding going on of the AL against the NL. Some of these players would push the Athletics into prominence to win titles.
Connie Mack proved to be the franchise in name and in figure. He bought and owned a large percentage of stock in the team and proceeded to manage it for fifty years. His hat and suit he wore almost every game day made him a picture of what good honest baseball was all about. He was also a businessman, knowing when to cut his losses and when not to. Although he eventually earned nine AL pennants and several World Series, he also led his team in some of the leanest and most miserable years on and off the field. The Athletics finished fourth in the first year of major league status, but the following year they won their first championship. Since there was no World Series in those early days, the pennant was the best Mack’s team could achieve. With pitchers Eddie Plank and somewhat troubled Rube Waddell, and Harry Davis leading the batting, the team led the way to reaching respectability with the older circuit. When comparing their success with the dismal results of their crosstown rivals, it is amazing that the Phillies lasted so long.
The first decade of existence was a fruitful one but competition in the AL was intense, with the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago White Sox being dominant with Philadelphia. Adding Chief Bender to the pitching staff, the Athletics stayed in the running for the next few years, finally winning another pennant in 1905 but losing their first attempt at a World Series win. Davis led the league in homeruns although the ball was somewhat dead and homeruns were minimal. It was not yet the era of the lively ball jumping out of ballparks, when Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig made hitting homeruns a fad. After a few lean years running behind Chicago and Detroit, the Athletics came into their own again in the second decade of the Twenty-first Century. They would lead the way, along with Boston.
The year was 1910 and Connie Mack’s team won its third pennant. Besides Davis, the team was led by Frank “Home Run” Baker and the still strong pitching staff. They went up against a strong Chicago Cubs team filled with Hall of Famers and defeated them in the World Series. They won again in 1911 and beat the New York Giants for their second world title in a row. After a third place finish the next year, they won two more pennants and another world championship in 1913 and 1914, only losing to the surprising Boston Braves in four straight games in that latter year. Mack then decided to dismantle this team due to rising salaries, not the only time he would do this. He would then put together a team of young and inexperienced players for the next several seasons.
The rival Phillies finally won a pennant of their own in 1915. not doing as well in the World Series that year, but giving the city’s baseball fans something to talk about. This Athletics team though ended in last place, not the only time they would do so. Still, the team had several solid players on it, including an aging Nap Lajoie and a string of young and upcoming players. His pitching staff was completely gutted and did not perform well with the newer group. His team finished in last place for seven straight seasons, finally getting out of the cellar of the AL in 1922 with a seventh place finish. He still had very little talent on the field but things would be changing soon. In the next few years Mack began to build his franchise back up again to respectability, sometimes signing old and nearly washed-up players like the great but controversial Ty Cobb, to try to bring in paying fans. The fact that the Phillies were not doing well at the same time gave Philadelphia fans not much to crow about.
The first of the new talent that would join Mack was Al Simmons who would become a mainstay in the outfield for years to come. The Athletics would make it to fifth place in 1924, and the next year they would make it to second. That year of 1925 saw the next wave of great players join the team, as Mack brought up both Jimmie Foxx and catcher Mickey Cochrane, future Hall of Famers with Simmons. Another young player was also added to the pitching staff, the fourth future Hall of Famer on the team, Lefty Grove. The problem at this time was that they had to compete with a strong Washington Senators team in those first couple years, and then battle the great New York Yankees teams of the “Murderers’ Row” generation. After two second place finishes, they finally ended the Yankees dominance in 1929, winning 104 games and leading the second-place Yanks by 18 games. Their victory over the Chicago Cubs in the World Series that year was quite satisfying and much enjoyed by Philly fans who had watched both their ball teams struggle for over a decade.
These A’s (as they were sometimes being called) then won 102 games in 1930 and repeated their championship of a year before by beating the St. Louis Cardinals in the fall classic, four games to two. Led by the future Hall of Famers, Mack’s team looked practically unbeatable, with Grove pitchng his way to 28 wins and Al Simmons leading the league in hitting. The steady play on the field was only topped by the excitement of the homerun hitting by Simmons and Foxx. There was little to dampen the pleasure the fans in Philadelphia must have felt while rooting for this team. How much more could this team do?
The year 1931 saw the third straight pennant won by these ballplayers, with a record for the franchise at that time being the 107 wins. Grove topped his career best by winning 31 games and Simmons won his second straight battking title, with a career best .390. Although the homeruns dropped off a bit there was still plenty of power to watch for the season. There was little doubt in the ability of the Athletics winning their third world championship in a row since they had destroyed the AL throughout the season. They would play the same team they had beaten the previous year, the Cardinals.
This time, however, the team did not play as expected and they fell to the Cards, four games to three. Connie Mack kept his great collection of players together for one more year, ending up in second place. Then he did what he had done before; he began dismantling this great team and selling off his stars. Definitely economics made him take action again, but it was also the beginning years of the Great Depression, and attendance began to slack off considerably with fans not being able to spend the money they had available to them in previous years. The sad truth was that Philadelphia had seen its last great A’s team and the era of Connie Mack’s fame was about over. He would continue to own and manage the team, but he would see no more championships.
Through the thirties and forties Athletics fans had no cause for optimism. The franchise ended Mack’s reign with ten last-places in sixteen years before he was forced by his sons to retire. His sons fought over the team’s rights and, after the 1954 campaign, sold the franchise to an outside businessman who moved it to Kansas City.
The A’s never rediscovered their greatness in Kansas City but did so to some degree when they were moved to Oakland after the 1967 season. Few people cried for the fans in Missouri since they would be granted a more viable franchise in 1969 with the Royals expansion team. Few remembered the glory of Connie Mack and his great teams. It is even suggested that the A’s of that 1929-31 period was perhaps one of the greatest teams of all time. Even the earlier teams were laced with rich talent and kept baseball fans screaming for more. Foxx, Cochrane, Grove and Simmons ended up in the Hall and played on other great teams. Foxx and Grove played on some excellent Red Sox teams, and Mickey Cochrane played and eventuall managed the Detroit Tigers, a team that won two pennants and a World Series of their own. His career was prematurely ended when he was beaned in the skull by a pitched ball. He still was selected to the Hall of Fame based on his great years as one of the premier catchers in baseball.
Mack died in 1956, having managed the A’s for fifty years and having been a manager in baseball for a full 53 years. He has been relatively ignored in recent years by those evaluating the greatest managers of all time, but he must be placed in that discussion because of what he achieved when the economics of the game were sound enough. It can be argued that his last teams were up against the depression of the thirties and that his age caught up with him, but no doubt he fielded some of the greatest teams in history. Few managers won more pennants than he did, and he won them in his first 31 years. Only John McGraw, Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel won the same if not more. True, he did see more last place finishes than any of the other “greats”, but many of them were near the end of his career.
The legacy of the Philadelphia Athletics is largely one of irrelevance since the Phillies have caught the attention of most of the city’s more recent fans. Still, to think of what those same Phillies fans endured for so many seasons while watching the A’s play better ball across town, and sometimes in the same ballpark with the Phillies, is an exraordinary point to ponder. What Mack’s players did was to go out and provide Philly with something to enjoy, something to look forward to. So many Hall of Famers played there for Mack that you could field an all-time great team just with those players and make an argument that they would even up against any other franchise, including the Yankees. It adds food to the conversation on the off-season and makes for fascinating discussion and argument.
The Phillies look as if they could be a strong team for years to come, with somewhat young players and a retooling of the pitching staff periodically. It is wondered how they would stack up against those A’s teams of the past, when Connie Mack roamed the benches with his famous hat and “Home Run” Baker was rounding the bases, or when Lefty Grove was firing up his arm and his temper to put the opposing side out. It is something to imagine. We can’t forget that at one time there was another baseball team in Philadelphia, and they were a mainstay in the American League for a half century. Long gone but hopefully not forgotten, it is important to remember such things in baseball lore. It’s what keeps it fresh as the “American Pasttime” that we mostly love.
sources: Okrent, Lewine; The Ultimate Baseball Book, (1988), The Hilltown Press, Inc., Houghton-Mifflin, New York.
The Baseball Encyclopedia, The Complete and Official Record of Major League Baseball; (1990), The MacMillan Publishing Company, Inc., New York.