June 02, 2003

The Oakland A's of Major League Baseball are returning to their original home this week for an inter-league series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Marking the occasion is a fascinating article in the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, "Off the A-list," by Frank Fitzpatrick.

The Philadelphia Athletics played their last season in Philadelphia in 1954. Within months after the season ended the A's were on their way to Kansas City, Mo.

Fitzpatrick writes:

The slow and pathetic disintegration of the Philadelphia Athletics began at the exact moment second-baseman Max Bishop's pop-up ended a ninth-inning, Game 7 rally and gave the St. Louis Cardinals the 1931 World Series.

Never again able to assemble a contender, owner/manager Connie Mack aged badly. Future Hall of Famers were dispersed in continuous fire sales. Mack's successors, a pair of ineffectual sons, squabbled. Little was spent on scouting or the farm system. Stadium concession rights were surrendered to raise capital. Ballpark maintenance was neglected....

Trapped by debt, lack of interest, and the maneuverings of the powerful New York Yankees, the Macks had sold the A's in November [1954] for $3.5 million to Arnold Johnson, a Chicago insurance executive....

[T]wo months later, only a few sportswriters and photographers stood outside what had once been baseball's grandest showplace to witness the sad end of a team that had once been baseball's grandest franchise.

Fitzpatrick makes the poignant, and apt, connection between the loss of the A's franchise and the recent history of Philadelphia:

[T]he flight of the A's was, in some ways, a watershed event in the city's history.

When Philadelphia became a one-team town, it marked an official surrender, an acknowledgment that the nation's first great city could no longer compete with bustling two-team towns such as Chicago and New York.

"Mayor [Joseph] Clark just never got it," says Bruce Kuklick, a University of Pennsylvania history professor who has written a history of Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium, To Every Thing a Season. "He had no understanding of what having two baseball teams could mean to a city. Look at the rivalry between the Cubs fans on the North Side of Chicago and White Sox fans from the South Side, and everything that entails. Look at how much having teams in both leagues adds to the atmosphere in New York.

"Philadelphia lost all that when the A's left and, in many way, it's never gotten it back."

In the days after the move, very few prominent Philadelphians recognized that the loss of the Athletics, in terms of the city's image, was no less devastating than the ongoing loss of factories and jobs to a place that once prided itself as "the nation's workplace."...

"I think it was a great mistake to let the Athletics get away," John B. Kelly, the wealthy and politically active patriarch of one of Philadelphia's most famous families, said at the time. "Philadelphia has been subject to a lot of criticism around the country for being slow and now we've proven [sic] it. Instead of being a third-class city, now we're a sixth-class city. Not having two big-league baseball clubs will mean a definite letdown."

To those folks, and many other Philadelphians, the A's abandonment permanently scarred the city. They had come to believe that, somehow, Connie Mack's Athletics had been a bulwark against a city's decline. When that finger was removed from the dike, the depressing deluge began.

It's not such a far-fetched notion. The city's population peaked around this time at 2.1 million (it's now around 1.5 million). Coincidence? Yes, in the strictest sense of the term, but yes, also, in a way that raises at least a few questions, particularly in a city with a perpetual inferiority complex.

Fitzpatrick also notes the Yankees played a nefarious role in the demise of the Philadelphia A's:

So when it became clear that the Yankees, unhappy with the share of ticket receipts they pocketed on visits to Philadelphia and eager to see the ballpark they happened to own in Kansas City put to profitable use, were going to push league owners to support an Athletics' relocation, their doom was certain.

In the middle of the 1954 season, as rumors of a pending sale leaked out, Philadelphia-area businessmen began scrambling to find the money to keep the A's here. But the Yankees, whose owners, Del Webb and Dan Topping, wielded considerable league influence, were adamant.

On Oct. 28, American League owners turned down an offer from a consortium of local merchants. A week later, Johnson's bid was approved.

Figures. It's not enough to push one of Philadelphia's baseball teams to the middle of nowhere, they had to bring a whole city down too.

Losing the A's not only hurt Philadelphia, it took a life, that of Howard "Yits" Crompton, the longtime equipment manager for the A's. Fitzpatrick explains how in a heartbreaking end to an already sad story.


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