Sports

Throwback Thursday: One Last Slam for the Philadelphia A's, a Baseball Team That Died

Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's were once one of baseball's great franchises. By the time they finally left Philadelphia, they were a dark lesson in complacency.
May 26, 2016, 6:33pm
Photo by Nathan Hughes Hamilton via Wikimedia Commons

_Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments _here.__

We look at our surroundings and see permanence in things that are perishable. Anything that has a beginning also has an inevitable end, and yet we feel certain there will always be a New York Yankees and people who care deeply about what the numbers on the Yankee Stadium wall mean. No doubt the Romans felt the same way about the Forum.

This week in 1954, slugging outfielder Gus Zernial, of the Philadelphia Athletics, hit the last grand slam in franchise history. That winter, following a protracted but half-hearted battle to keep Philadelphia, then the nation's fourth largest city, a two-team town, the Connie Mack family sold out to real estate dealer and Yankees thrall Arnold Johnson, and the club moved to Kansas City, abandoning over 50 years of tradition, countless white elephant jokes, and a venerable ballpark. Zernial, for his part, followed the team West. It would seem like an inconsequential moment, this last grand slam, but the A's had been Philadelphia's leading team for so long that the Phillies becoming the town's only team should have been inconceivable. How does any business, let alone a baseball team, lose its way so badly that it no longer has a reason to exist?

Read More: Throwback Thursday: When Jose Canseco Gave Up A Home Run, Off His Head

Everywhere, though, there were signs of the team's crushing obsolescence, and of a broader impermanence. Just 4,154 fans attended that May 26, 1954, game against the Boston Red Sox at Connie Mack Stadium, formerly Shibe Park, give or take the lout who would sometimes mug sportswriters in the empty bowels of the ballpark. In addition to Zernial's last-dinosaur-gasping-for-breath slam—and as a very slow, defensively limited right-handed slugger reminiscent of Mark Trumbo, Zernial was very much in the dinosaur mold—those fans watched an A's lineup that included Vic Power, a Puerto Rican who, seven years after Jackie Robinson, was the club's first position player of color; Bob Trice, the pitcher who broke the team's color line only the previous September, was there, too, both men representing a half-hearted commitment to joining the modern world that almost passed for progressive in Philadelphia at the time—the Phillies didn't break the color line until 1957 and wouldn't have a black regular until 1960.

Look, too, at the Red Sox lineup for that day: leadoff man Harry Agganis, 25, would be dead of a pulmonary embolism in just over a year. Next up was Jimmy Piersall, whose career had been interrupted by psychological problems. The remains of Ted Williams are currently frozen in a couple of glorified jars—he's simultaneously permanent and not. The cleanup hitter, Jackie Jensen, was so unnerved by air travel that he retired early.

You could probably select any box score in history and go through this same exercise, finding ways that time, though invisible to them then, was eroding the participants even as they played. Baseball teams aren't supposed to be like that, though. If they get old or bad or boring, they just turn over the roster, pull a page off the calendar, and start fresh.

The A's, however, were more like Howard Johnson's. Beginning in 1925, the orange-roofed roadside restaurants served fried clams, square muffins, and 28 flavors of ice cream; at its peak, there were more than a thousand locations. About 999 outlets have closed since then, give or take, in part because they weren't very good, the old joke being that Howard Johnson's had 28 flavors of ice cream but only one flavor of food. The larger issue, though, was that taste and the perception of time were changing. Once McDonald's came along, a family driving down I-95 to Florida was no longer willing to stop for an hour and kibitz with a waitress. They wanted to get a burger and fries in a sack and be back on the road in five minutes. Unable or unwilling to evolve, Howard Johnson's became irrelevant to the very consumers they needed to survive.

Connie Mack in 1911, 39 years before he managed his last game. Photo by Paul Thompson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The A's were also stuck in the past, and not just over the issue of integration. All of this was symbolized by Mack, the team's ancient owner-manager who despite steadily encroaching senility was still in the dugout as late as 1950, his 87th year on Earth. Maybe he wanted to stay on—"I'd die in two weeks," he said of retirement—or maybe the three sons who stood to take over the team were brawling incompetents and so he believed he had no choice. Thus the spectacle of a glassy-eyed manager waving his trademark scorecard at players who knew better than to pay attention. As Bob Considine wrote in a 1948 profile in Life:

In his excitement these days Mister Mack sometimes makes plainly discernable mistakes in simple strategy… He is beginning to shake like a great angular twig whenever the team loses… When he signals for an obviously wrong move these days [coach] Al Simmons turns his back a bit sadly on the old man, as if he did not detect the signal, and calls for the right move. But this never fools Mister Mack. When Al comes back to the bench at the end of the inning Mister Mack usually speaks up.

"You used better judgment than I did, Al," he will say quietly, and then go about his timeless task of wagging his scorecard at his fielders.

This was a man who won nine pennants and four World Series; it shouldn't have been allowed to come to that. And yet, once he did step down and became more of a ceremonial figure, things really did fall apart. His two older sons, unable to cooperate with their younger half-brother, conspired to buy out his share of ownership. To do so, they leveraged the team's every asset, putting a fatal amount of debt on the club. Coincidentally or not, whereas Connie's 1947-49 teams had been entertaining and competitive early in the season, the post-retirement/pre-move teams ranged from mediocre to strictly awful.

The A's suffered from other problems, as well, most inescapably a once state-of-the-art ballpark that was dying due to old age and long-deferred maintenance. Located in North Philadelphia, the 1909 building was situated without any consideration for automobile access, which makes sense—the Model T Ford hadn't even hit the market when construction began. A working-class neighborhood formed around the park, hemming it in. The streets were not designed for high traffic. Parking facilities were always inadequate, and fans parking on the streets would have to pay protection money to local toughs to "watch" their cars. Public transit couldn't make up the difference, especially as car culture took over the country and buses, trolleys, and trains were denigrated or discontinued.

Things were different at Shibe Park in 1913. For instance there were fans, and they had hats. Photo via Library of Congress

Still, inaccessibility didn't kill the Phillies, who also played at Connie Mack. Philadelphia would shrink in coming years, but in the 1950s the city was still going strong, and the center of a growing metropolitan area. With the exception of Los Angeles, the cities to which baseball teams were moving—including San Francisco, Minnesota-St. Paul, Milwaukee, and Kansas City—were far smaller. It wasn't that the Philly market couldn't support both the A's and the Phillies. It was that it didn't want to.

The structural problems with the A's coincided with the rise of the "Whiz Kids" Phillies in 1950, and A's fans were not unlike all those disaffected Blackberry loyalists who are now carrying Androids and iPhones. They switched their loyalties easily, painlessly, because while the A's offered Zernial, who popped up to 42 home runs in a season for them and won homer and RBI titles, and Ferris Fain, who picked up a couple of batting titles, and Bobby Shantz, a diminutive local lefty who won 24 games and the American League MVP award in 1952, the Phillies offered winning. Because they were the Phillies, they offered that only for a moment, but they at least seemed to be trying, and that made all the difference.

The histories of the two franchises up to that moment were not in the least comparable. Mack had those nine pennants, but the last of them came in 1931 and things had been mostly depressing ever since, with the A's losing between 90 and 105 games in 11 of 12 seasons between 1935 and 1946. The Phillies, though, had been losing 90 to 100 games a year going back to the 1910s and had barely functioned even as a glorified farm team for the rest of the National League. Prior to, say, 1949, no one would have predicted that if Philadelphia were to lose a baseball team, it would be the Phillies who remained.

You can actually see the fans' loyalty shift in the attendance figures. Ticket sales boomed across baseball in the immediate aftermath of the war, and the A's benefitted. Their Depression-era 1931 champions drew 839,000 fans; their fourth-place 1948 team drew at least 100,000 more than that. But by 1950, when the Phillies broke out, A's attendance had dropped to about 310,000 and never recovered. Meanwhile, the Phillies hit 1.2 million the year they won the pennant and passed the 900,000 mark five more times over the remainder of the decade, though by then they were the only game in town. American League owners, who had seen their road trips to Philly become unprofitable, were ready for the Mack family to step down and helped force the sale. Connie Mack, who had been the bedrock of the junior circuit, was now just an impediment to be cleared.

Those A's are barely a memory now, despite all those titles, despite Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, or, going further back, Home Run Baker and Rube Waddell. Fans loved those long-dead Hall of Famers just as much as they did Derek Jeter or they do Manny Machado. But the Philadelphia A's legacy is vanished; if it exists at all, it's as a team that so failed to adjust to changing circumstances that it died for its complacency. All things must pass, and though a team in Oakland calls itself the A's and wears white elephant patches on its uniforms, Connie Mack's team is very much dead. Ask yourself: Which of the current 30 will one day share that fate?