The city of Philadelphia figures prominently in two extremely readable and entirely different new baseball books. On a Clear Day They Could See Seventh Place—Baseball's Worst Teams (Dell, $8.95) is not ostensibly about Philadelphia baseball, but the city cannot help but occupy an important place in any such compendium, considering its less than distinguished history in the game. What authors George Robinson and Charles Salzberg have done here is describe in winning detail the 10 most dreadful teams, one per decade, from the 1899 Cleveland Spiders of the old National League, who finished 84 games out of first place, to the 1988 Baltimore Orioles, who lost their first 21 games of the season. In between these bookends, we discover some legendary losers. Consider, for example, the 1935 Boston Braves, who, despite the brief presence in their lineup of future Hall of Famers Babe Ruth and Rabbit Maranville, won only 13 games on the road all year and claimed the major leagues' last 25-game losing pitcher, Ben Cantwell (4-25). And certainly no history of this sort would be complete without mention of Casey Stengel's 1962 Amazin' Mets, who, led by such revered incompetents as Marvelous Marv Throneberry and Choo Choo Coleman, lost 120 of 160 games.
But it is the Philadelphia teams that dominate these pages. Three of the 10 worst teams hail from the City of Brotherly Love—the 1916 Athletics and the 1928 and '42 Phillies. At that, the authors may have been charitable when the record for the first half of the century is taken into account. After Connie Mack's Athletics won the pennant in 1914, they finished last for seven years in succession, losing 100 or more games in five of those years. Mack and the Athletics enjoyed a revival in the late 1920s and early 1930s, winning three pennants in a row, but then, from 1934 to '54, they finished last 11 times.
Still, the A's did have their moments. Not so the Phillies, save for pennants in 1915 and 1950. In the 27 seasons from 1919 to 1945, they finished either last or in seventh place 23 times. And from 1919 until the Athletics moved on to Kansas City in 1955, the two teams shared the cellar in their respective leagues nine times, a record not likely to be matched by any other two-team community. The authors, therefore, have done a remarkable job of sifting the truly disreputable wheat from the merely mediocre chaff in choosing just three Philadelphia entries.
A much more serious treatise on the city's baseball past is found in To Every Thing a Season (Princeton University Press, $19.95), a history of Shibe Park—later, Connie Mack Stadium—in North Philadelphia, or North Penn, as the working-class neighborhood was known to its denizens. Shibe, which opened in 1909, was the prototype of the modern steel and concrete stadium and was for many seasons considered state of the art. For a time, from 1938, when the Phillies abandoned their cracker-box Baker Bowl, to 1955, Shibe was home to both teams. But author Bruce Kuklick, Mellon Professor of the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, writes not just of the ballpark itself but also of the neighborhood it dominated and enriched for many of its 67 years. In the end, the old deserted ballpark, gutted by fire, became a monument to urban blight. The park and its environs declined apace until at last there was not much left of either. Baseball and the small businesses that had flourished there fled to more congenial surroundings, leaving the ghetto in their wake.
April 14, 1991
But Shibe had had its day, particularly when the Athletics were briefly on top in the late '20s and early '30s. As Kuklick tells us, "When the team was home, hordes of fans walked up Lehigh, the street alive with the hum of baseball talk. Other rooters rushed out of packed streetcars at the corner of Twenty-first and Lehigh.... At the entrance to the stadium the clanging bells of the streetcars blended with the ooo-gahs of automobile horns, the blasts of police whistles, and the cries of vendors. The ballplayers would thread their way through the crowds to the clubhouse while the fans poured through the turnstiles of the main entrance."
Kuklick's is a sad and familiar story of inner-city decline. At the same time, he shows what a ballpark can mean to a neighborhood: "Shibe Park was a place where uncommon deeds gave people a sense of commonality. In this, its special beauty, the game at Shibe Park rose above the flaws of its businessmen, its players, and its fans."