Those Were the A’s

by longformphilly

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Will Bunch | Philadelphia Daily News | June 2003

IT IS STILL their Fatima, a quasi-religious vision shared a half-century ago by a bunch of preteens making a Sunday pilgrimage on the No. 54 trolley or the Reading Railroad.

Ted Taylor glimpsed it in the smoggy distance when the train slowed down for the North Broad station. For Ernie Montella, it was the first sighting of the light towers as he walked west on Lehigh under the rail overpass. “That’s what really got my heart beating.”

But only after they filed past the ornate French Renaissance cupola and up the wide ramp would their divine revelation once again become known to them, only them.

“I remember seeing this vast expanse of green – green fields, green walls,” recalls David Jordan. Says Taylor: “Here in the dirty, gritty city, here was this beautiful oasis – with the smell of hot dogs.”

The year was 1954, their green cathedral was Shibe Park (just renamed Connie Mack Stadium the season before), and their team was the Philadelphia A’s – low-paid, last-place misfits, a pale reflection of Connie Mack’s once-great teams.

But visions are only revealed to the few. And so, these boys didn’t think twice about the sea of unfilled seats and the audible plink of an extra-base hit striking that high rightfield wall in a deathly silent ballpark.

And when the A’s bolted for what a new owner thought would be financially green pastures, in Kansas City, they never even got to say goodbye. The cruel death notice came in October, the Shibe turnstiles locked for autumn. Their faith was shaken to the core.

“My father had told me that the A’s weren’t going to move,” recalls Max Silberman. Suddenly, a 9-year-old boy wasn’t sure if he could trust anyone – even his own dad.

Young kids like Taylor and Jordan grew up, became dads and then granddads in a plastic era when baseball was played on something called Astroturf in lifeless concrete bowls – and yet there was a part of them that never stopped believing.

After all, it was in their blood.

“If your dad was an A’s fan, then you were an A’s fan,” Taylor says simply, explaining the deep connection. And the reason why dad chose one team over the other is deeply rooted in Philadelphia mythology. It is said that A’s backers were Republican and more patrician, while Phillies fans hailed from the Democratic rabble.

Tonight, that faith will be rewarded with a bona fide miracle when the A’s finally return to Philadelphia after 49 years, to play the Phillies at the corner of Broad and Pattison.

Of course, life is just a metaphor for baseball, and so the return of the now-Oakland A’s – made possible by the advent of interleague play – is about more than balls and strikes. The long strange road trip from 1954 to 2003 is also about how a city changed – and how some of its people didn’t.

The curse

God placed a curse on the Philadelphia Athletics. In 1934, Connie Mack finally won a long campaign against the city’s Quaker-led establishment to repeal the blue laws that barred the team from playing lucrative Sunday doubleheaders.

The city’s more prosperous American League ballclub had just been in the World Series from 1929 to 1931, winning the first two. But after Sabbath baseball, it never went to the World Series again. Instead, it finished last 10 of the next 15 years.

With the A’s on their last legs in 1954, Presbyterian minister Samuel Jeanes railed from his Philly pulpit that “this organization played no small part in breaking down the sanctity of the Lord’s day by having this city of Philadelphia legalize Sunday baseball.”

The A’s players didn’t need a prophet to tell them that the end time was near. That winter, manager Jimmy Dykes confided to shortstop Eddie Joost that he was leaving to run the new Baltimore Orioles and Joost would be named a player-manager – so that the cash-strapped Mack family wouldn’t need to add a salary.

“I knew it was the last year,” Joost, now 87, says from California. “He told me, ‘Eddie, the ballclub’s in dire financial straits, I don’t think they’re going to make it.’ ”

Catcher Joe Astroth also knew. His offseason job – most ballplayers needed one back then – was to visit local businessmen and sell advance tickets.

Astroth, 80 and still living in Chalfont, had done the same job the winter before, and many business owners were thrilled to see a big-league ballplayer. But when the catcher made his sales pitch, he recalls, the businessman would go back to his safe – and pull out a huge pile of unused A’s tickets from 1953.

“He’d say, ‘Last year I couldn’t even give them to the janitor!’ ” Astroth says, laughing. “Nobody was coming out.”

It wasn’t always that way. Led by future Hall of Famers such as Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove and Mickey Cochrane (Mantle’s namesake), the blue-and-white-clad A’s won five World Series and relegated the National League Phillies to second-class status.

And maybe it wasn’t really a curse but the Great Depression, mediocre attendance and the high cost of maintaining Shibe Park that sent the team into its downward spiral in the mid-1930s. Mack, manager until 1950 when he was 87, sold off his best players, and his cellar-dweller teams drew shrinking crowds to the neighborhood called Swampoodle.

Then, in Mack’s retirement year of 1950, the Phillies’ “Whiz Kids” won the National League pennant and became the toast of Philadelphia.

It was really bad timing for the A’s. In the 1950s, major league baseball – with only 16 teams in 10 cities – eyed lucrative new markets. The Braves left Boston for Milwaukee in 1952, while the Browns went from St. Louis to Baltimore in 1953.

Today, the time of Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron is hailed as a golden era – but you wouldn’t know that from the attendance. Teams rarely attracted more than 1 million fans in a season.

In 1954, the Athletics drew just 308,362 – an average of about 5,100 a game. A June 4Friday game against Baltimore drew only 1,092 people.

Fans had been more optimistic back on Opening Day, when 16,331 turned out to watch the A’s most popular player, injury-plagued pitching ace Bobby Shantz.

Shantz shut down the Red Sox but blew out his fragile arm on his first pitch of the sixth inning. It was Shantz’s only win of the year, and so the A’s 1954 season essentially started and ended on the same day.

“You end up with the players that you select,” recalls Joost at the frustration of trying to beat the Yankees and the Cleveland Indians with rookies and castaways.

Joost’s No. 1 pitcher was now a rookie, Arnie Portocarrero, who would lead the league with 18 losses. From July 10 through Aug. 12, the A’s only won seven games and lost 30. Slumping slugger Gus Zernial confronted Joost in the dugout after he was benched and had to be escorted away by security guards.

In retrospect, it’s amazing the 1954 A’s drew as many fans as they did.

Fathers and sons

“I think I went to about 45 games that year,” recalls Jordan, a 68-year-old retired attorney, “and I think they lost about 41.” But Jordan, a Wyncote native, kept going because “I thought I’d better see them now, that they weren’t going to be around much longer.”

He sheepishly acknowledges he went alone to most games in 1954. Few people would go with him. “Most of my friends were Phillies fans,” Jordan said. Even his dad balked. One hot July night, with Portocarrero on the mound, he took his father to a twi-night doubleheader, and the A’s were already down by 5-0 when they took their seats. “He kept saying, ‘Can we go now?’ ”

So why did these diehards remain A’s fans to the bitter end? They struggle to explain, but a pop psychologist can see recurring themes – of youth interrupted and the mysterious father-son baseball bond that forms the inscrutable center of the Kevin Costner movie, “Field of Dreams.”

All remember vividly their very first trip to Shibe Park with their father. For a young Harry Adams, baseball united him and his dad after his mother died and his family moved from South Philly to Olney. When his dad remarried, his stepmom won him over by giving him money for the trolley to Shibe Park every Saturday afternoon.

Taylor’s dad ran a dressmaking shop nearby at 20th and Clearfield, and on Saturdays after work they’d walk together to Shibe. Like the other fathers, Taylor’s dad would tell him about the legendary days of Foxx and Grove, Cochrane and Simmons.

The trips to Shibe Park are some of Taylor’s last memories of his father, who died in 1950. “My mom picked up the slack,” says Taylor, who has worked in college athletics, for trading card companies and has written the “Collector’s Corner” column in the Daily News for several years. “She would take me to a half-dozen games a year.”

They grew up with the team. Silberman, a former teacher from Overbrook High School, says his parents let him take the No. 54 trolley from Wynnefield, solo, in 1954 when he was only 9. “My dad would say, ‘He can speak English. If he gets lost, he’ll just ask somebody.’ ”

One Saturday in 1950, a 16-year-old Montella rode the train up from Chester to see his favorite player, neighbor Mickey Vernon, of the Washington Senators. He struck up a conversation with a pretty girl in the seat next to him, and when the game ended they boarded the same railcar home. They tied the knot 5 years later, and are still married after 48 years.

That wasn’t his only favor from Vernon. In that empty grandstand 1954 season, he snagged a Vernon foul ball. In Marcus Hook that night, he saw the seven-time All-Star on his street corner, visiting boyhood buddies – and so Montella got his ball autographed.

It’s a cliche, but 1954 really was a simpler time, when major league ballplayers walked among the mere mortals and worked during the offseason. (Vernon worked offseasons at the Sun refinery.)

The losing streaks didn’t faze true believers like Montella and Silberman, who would get to Shibe Park an hour or two early just to watch the big-leaguers take batting practice on their lush green North Philly oasis. The game was almost an afterthought.

And they never saw the end coming.

The move

In early July 1954, the debt-plagued Mack family – sons Roy and Earle had taken over after a contentious family feud – told Philadelphia Mayor Joe Clark that the team would probably move at the end of the season.

Clark came up with a novel idea for his time, copied dozens of times since. He called together some 75 business leaders and announced the creation of a “Committee to Keep the A’s in Philadelphia.”

But the committee’s ideas – other than businesses buying more tickets, which never really happened – reflect the helplessness. Concerned that TV was keeping fans home, Clark made the bizarre suggestion of soliciting $10 apiece from people watching on the tube.

But there were more cosmic reasons why saving the A’s proved an impossible dream. Just take a look at a few of the long-since-departed companies represented on Clark’s committee: the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Sunday Bulletin, Lits, Wanamakers, Reading Railroad, Penn Fruit, Snellenburgs, Gimbels, Curtis Publishing.

The Save the A’s Committee should have been busy saving itself. But no one foresaw the steady flow of factory jobs to the South and later overseas, or that a wave of mergers would doom Philadelphia as a corporate headquarters. Postwar America was a place of boundless optimism, and Philadelphia was not immune.

On the week of the Athletics’ final homestand, the Inquirer Sunday magazine boasted that “Never Have the Valley’s Children Had It So Good,” with enrollment at city and Catholic schools growing and Philadelphia spending more per pupil than the national average.

Clark himself, a reform-minded Democrat who wrested control from a deeply entrenched Republican machine, was a symbol of a city undergoing change – some good, much bad. While Clark rooted out entrenched corruption in City Hall, his failure to keep the A’s in Philly was an early warning that government would be powerless against the tidal wave of urban decline.

Never again would Philadelphia have more people – more than 2.2 million – than it did in the early 1950s. The automobile, which along with VA loans was fueling the growth of the city’s suburbs, was a particular problem at Connie Mack Stadium, with just one small parking lot across the street.

And there were hints of deeper trouble. On the morning of the A’s final home game, the Inquirer reported that “special squads of police armed with sawed-off shotguns patrolled city streets throughout Saturday night and early yesterday, halting, temporarily at least, the mounting wave of crime.” A story out of Milford, Del., was headlined: “Schools Closed by Racial Issue.”

Ironically, the A’s had finally integrated Philadelphia baseball in late 1953, with pitcher Bob Trice and then first baseman Vic Power. But little effort was made to bring out North Philadelphia’s growing black population.

The endgame – a series of machinations involving the Mack family, Kansas City franchise-seeker Arnold Johnson and the manipulative Yankees – played out through late October. Local suitors such as Oldsmobile dealer John Crisconi and drug executive Harry Sylk seemed on the brink of saving the team, only to have proposed deals shot down by the Yankees.

And so nobody knew that Sunday, Sept. 19, 1954, would be the final home game. The A’s blew a two-run lead to the Yankees in the eighth inning, and lost. Only 1,715 people bothered to come.

The Phillies bought Connie Mack Stadium and played there through 1970. It was demolished in 1976, and in 1992 Deliverance Evangelistic Church built a large chapel on the site. The altar was placed on the exact location of home plate. God had finally exacted full revenge for Sunday baseball.

Yet a half-century later, the A’s true believers still think about the what-ifs. Taylor notes that legendary off-the-wall owner Bill Veeck wanted to buy the Phillies back in 1943 and move them to Milwaukee, and then maybe the wealthy Carpenters would have bought the A’s instead of the Phils, “and then we’d have a different history.”

Instead, word that the A’s were Kansas City-bound also marked a premature end to their youth. Harry Adams still remembers hearing the news in Olney.

“I had lost my mother, and now I was losing my baseball team,” he said. He and his dad stared at their radio, and cried.

Seeing blue and white

But baseball, and life, went on. Some drove up to Yankee Stadium or down to Baltimore to see the Kansas City A’s in 1955, but within a couple of years most had drifted to the Phillies – or away from the ballpark.

“I was devastated,” Montella says. He boycotted Connie Mack Stadium for a decade, until the 1964 Phillies and their infamous collapse. “I never went back there again,” he says. “Every time I went I got my heart broken.”

But Montella became an avid baseball-card hobbyist – assuming that no one else carried a torch for the long-lost A’s. Then, in 1990, he attended a local card show, where the guest of honor was Joost, the 1954 player-manager.

Fans lined up just like the headlights in the final, “If you build it, they will come” scene in “Field of Dreams.” Joost had to stay an extra 3 hours. On long lines, the faithful shared their vision of Shibe Park and their love for the A’s.

Montella organized a successful campaign to get Joost into the sports halls of fame here in Philly and Joost’s native Bay area. That grew into an annual A’s reunion breakfast, which grew into a Philadelphia A’s Historical Society that now has 900 members and its own museum and memorabilia store in Hatboro.

Along the way, they made an amazing discovery – that the only thing that vacated 21st and Lehigh in 1954 was an American League franchise. The Philadelphia A’s were people – its players and its fans – and they had never left town.

Now, Montella, Jordan and the others are close friends with many of the ballplayers who had seemed so much larger than life from up in the wooden seats.

Silberman and many of his young neighbors in Wynnefield had worshiped the A’s only Jewish player, first baseman Lou Limmer – “Our Jackie Robinson, our Babe Ruth.”

Five decades later, the 78-year-old Limmer is one of Silberman’s best friends. “We speak on the phone every week,” Silberman said.

And God can move in mysterious ways, especially when baseball is involved. In 1997, seeking to juice fan interest, Major League Baseball finally launched interleague play between American and National League teams. It would take a few more years, but tonight, the A’s are finally coming back to Philadelphia, in a brand-new millennium.

Everyone will be there – not just the guys from the Historical Society, but Joost, Shantz, Limmer, Zernial, Al Brancata, Spook Jacobs and Astroth, who will catch the ceremonial first ball. Connie Mack’s daughter Ruth and grandson Connie III will join 70 or so other Mack kin, in Connie-style straw hats, for a family reunion.

For 3 time-locked days, it will be another mass vision. No one will notice that the A’s uniforms are green and say “Oakland,” or that the stadium is round, or that the grass is fake, or that the calendar reads 2003.

“We’re going to be rooting for Oakland, and for this one little weekend we aren’t in the present – it’s 1951 or 1952,” Montella says. “The colors may be different, but we’re only going to see blue and white when they get on the field.”

Writer bio: Will Bunch is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and author of “Tear Down This Myth” and “The Backlash.” He shared the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Reporting with a group of New York Newsday reporters who covered a deadly Manhattan subway derailment in 1991.

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