May 31, 2011
A few days ago, I posted Part 1 of my interview with local history professor and author Bruce Kuklick, who wrote the incredible book To Every Thing a Season about Shibe Park and how it affected the surrounding neighborhood through the decades. If you are a fan of Philadelphia sports history, this book is simply a must read.
In Part 2 of our interview, he talks about the reputation of Connie Mack (left) in the city, whether or not there was an uproar in Philly when the Athletics moved away, and what were the best and worst things about Shibe Park. Next week, he’ll talk about how hard it was to sell booze at Shibe, how rowdy the fans were, and compare it to Citizen’s Bank Park.
JGT: The book deals a lot with Connie Mack. Obviously, since he ran the team for 50 years. Was he seen as a local hero or as a local goat, or a little bit of both depending?
KUKLICK: I’d say in the 1920s, when he’s in his 60s, he looks like he’s over the hill, and then he has this one last hurrah where he creates this 1929-1931 dynasty and he is a Philadelphia hero. In fact he gets, in ’29, the Bok Award, which is usually given to like the governor or some political or social big wig. And that it went to a baseball guy is really extraordinary at that time. In the ’20s, as he built that team up, he is more than a local hero. He is a national sports statesman. Then, when the team tanks in the ’30s and Mack is in his 70s, he goes downhill pretty fast.
In the ’50s, everybody thinks, “This guy is over the hill. Let’s get rid of him.” It’s sad, because no one will say it. Some people say that the last year he managed he was kind of like Reagan at the end of the Reagan years, just completely out of it. So I think he went through all these kinds of permutations, but at his height he was, you know…
JGT: King of the city?
JGT: When the Phillies won a couple of years ago, the city went nuts, with a party on Broad Street and a parade afterwards. Did they used to do that back then when the A’s won?
KUKLICK: Yeah. In ’29 is the first World Series win, that’s the big one. Then they do it again in ’30. And after that Mack says, “The Philadelphia fans don’t appreciate a winner. They don’t care about it anymore.” And his argument that he sold off the team was that in ’31 there wasn’t much fan support. And what he wanted to do was not to ensure that they would win, but get them to play .600 ball instead of .680 ball.
JGT: So there would be a pennant chase in September and people would want to come out to the ballpark.
KUKLICK: Right. But he miscalculated how hard it is to do these things.
JGT: It’s hard enough to build a winner, much less a team that wins exactly 60% of their ballgames.
JGT: So getting back to the earlier question, do you know if they had a parade or people running wild in the streets? (after the A’s won the Series in the late 20s-early 30s)
KUKLICK: I know that there was a lot of cheering in the streets. Not necessarily down Broad Street. But all over North Philly, you would know that this had happened, that this was big news.
JGT: Now, I don’t know if you know this, but the Oakland A’s are probably going to move in the next couple of years.
KUKLICK: I did not know that.
JGT: They’ll probably stay on the West Coast, but there is a small but vocal local minority that wants them to come back to Philadelphia. Could this area support two baseball teams?
KUKLICK: That would be my dream come true. I don’t know. I don’t know.
JGT: Well, let’s rewind a little bit. When they did move to Kansas City initially, was there any local outrage?
KUKLICK: No. The leaving of the Dodgers and the Giants, is really…I mean, I know people who still won’t forgive the owners who left, Stoneham and O’Malley. Who hate them. Who still hate them. You won’t find that in Philly. The A’s from 1950-54 were really bad, and the Phillies looked so good all of a sudden, people got suckered into thinking they had something with the Phillies. There was a group, Save the A’s, that put together a feeble little attempt of guys with very little money to try to keep the franchise in the city. But they got forgotten (snaps fingers) like that once they left.
JGT: Getting back to Shibe. What were the best things about Shibe Park and what were the worst things?
KUKLICK: I used to go there as a kid. That’s how I learned my baseball. My dad used to take me. By the end, it was really a dump. When the A’s left the city, Bob Carpenter, who was the Phillies owner, had no alternative but to buy the park. He didn’t want it, he wasn’t interested in ballparks. And he really let it get run down. Because from the very start he was trying to figure out some way to have a new facility. He thought this was a white elephant. For the last 10 years, from about 1960 to 1970, the place doesn’t get maintained at all. That’s the worst part. Also the neighborhood was really decaying. There was no place to park. It really wasn’t a pleasant experience.
What was really spectacular about that place for me and this might be silly but really it is heartfelt. That ballpark is right in the middle of the city. And you are in the middle of an urban area. And you walk into this park, and it’s dark and there’s concrete around, and then you come up to one of the entrances to the field, and you see this green diamond. There’s just something there that’s just incredible. And I talked to a lot of people who said, “Here I was some little kid from South Philly or West Philly and had never really seen the countryside and all of a sudden inside a building there’s this green grass and it’s like the country.”