What I’m Reading: To Every Thing a Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia

Bruce Kuklick is a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and his book To Every Thing a Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia is a labor of love on his part. It’s also the kind of book I personally love–a mix of baseball and urban history, rather like Where They Ain’t, a book about the original 1890s Baltimore Orioles that I highly recommended back in 2018.

In contrast to Where They Ain’t, which focused on the personalities of the four leading members of that 1890s Baltimore team and followed them throughout the rest of their careers–particularly John McGraw, who became the manager of the New York Giants after 1900–To Every Thing a Season focuses on Shibe Park and its environs. Shibe Park was built in 1909 for the Philadelphia Athletics, the first of the classic ballparks after an era of cheaply-built and dangerous facilities (the final park built in the classic era was Yankee Stadium in 1923). At that time, the manager and half-owner of the Athletics was Connie Mack, who along with McGraw was one of the two most influential baseball managers of the first half of the twentieth century.

Under Connie Mack, the Philadelphia Athletics and Shibe Park saw two great dynasties–the first from 1910 to 1913, when the As won three out of four World Series, and the second from 1929 to 1931, when the As when two of three World Series, and lost the third to the St. Louis Cardinals. Unfortunately, after each great dynasty, Connie Mack quickly sold off all the key players to save money, so that during the in-between times, the team was one of the worst in the American League. (The co-owning Shibe family left operation of the business largely up to Mack.) Mack held the somewhat strange belief that people didn’t come out to the ballpark to see big winners, they only came out to see an up-and-coming team battle its way to the top. Actually, Mack was rather behind the times on almost all the baseball marketing innovations of his era, with the Athletics coming late to the idea of in-park concessions and radio broadcasts (although oddly, they were one of the first teams to play regular night games).

Mack may have been something of a genius at building up a losing team when he put his mind to it, but those long fallow periods when he sold off everybody the fans were interested in really eroded the Athletics fanbase. With a beautiful park in a dense working-class neighborhood with easy transit connections to the rest of the city, Shibe Park had the potential to be one of most popular and best-attended stadiums in baseball. But what should have been one of the jewels of the American League was, in fact, often its lowest-drawing facility. In 1939, when their old ballpark, Baker Bowl, became too dilapidated to play in, the Phillies moved to Shibe Park and shared the place with the As. As the Phillies had been kicked around by other National League teams for decades, routinely vying with the St. Louis Browns for last place in their division, now there were two losers at Shibe Park, neither of which helped the other very much.

Shibe Park declined throughout the 1940s and beyond, and the surrounding neighborhood of North Penn with it. What had been a tight-knit Irish working-class community lost residents to suburbanization and the closure of several nearby factories that had long provided employment in the neighborhood. The departing residents were replaced by poorer African-Americans with less secure job prospects, and North Penn gradually became crime-ridden. Fans from other parts of the city no longer felt safe traveling to see baseball games, and had little reason to since the teams were usually so bad. Attendance declined to the point that the Athletics departed for Kansas City in 1954.

That left the Phillies, who didn’t want to leave Philadelphia altogether, but had been looking to build a new ballpark practically from the moment they’d moved into Shibe Park fifteen years earlier. Riots in north Philadelphia in 1965 resulted in cuts to the already rock bottom attendance, and drove the Phillies to try desperately to move to a new site. Actually, it seems that there were several nearly consummated deals that fell through at the last minute, so that the Phillies didn’t end up moving until 1971, when they started playing at newly-built Veterans Stadium in South Philly, along with the Eagles.

Shibe Park fell into a state of disrepair and suffered a fire a couple years later. The city finally demolished it in 1976. It’s a shame the once-beautiful park had to be razed, but the physical state of both the park and the surrounding neighborhood was so far gone that there was really no hope of keeping the place, unlike other beloved classic parks like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park.

The final outcome gives the book something of an elegaic quality. As for whether I can recommend the book–well, I can certainly recommend it to myself! It’s the perfect mix of topics I’m fascinated by, and is one of my favorite books I’ve read recently. Others might find that the book lacks focus–is it about Connie Mack and the history of the Athletics franchise in Philadelphia? Or maybe Philadelphia’s baseball history more generally? Perhaps it’s really an urban history of Philadelphia? Well, none of the three, exactly. It’s sort of a biography of a ballpark, which saw changing tenants and urban conditions during its existence. I’m not sure Kuklick is entirely successful in maintaining a cohesive tone throughout the book. But if, like me, you are interested in all the themes he addresses, maybe that doesn’t matter.

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