Demographics may doom the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society

Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx, a power-hitting first baseman, is among the A's players remembered in the Hatboro museum.
Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx, a power-hitting first baseman, is among the A's players remembered in the Hatboro museum.
Posted: February 22, 2011

Not long ago, the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society had to cancel its annual fund-raising breakfasts, because most of the players who used to attend had died.

More recently, the passing of 1953 all-star Gus Zernial left the number of surviving ex-A's at either 36 or 37. No one was certain, because Max Silberman, the member tasked with keeping the count, died two years ago.

Like the last vestiges of a deep and memorable snow, those who played and rooted for Connie Mack's A's are gradually melting away. Soon, members of the historical society fear, the franchise which departed for Kansas City in 1954 after 53 years in Philadelphia and five world championships will be an increasingly obscure local memory, like Horn & Hardart's, Woodside Park, or Frank's Black Cherry Wishniak.

"And that would be a shame," Ernie Montella, the society's executive director, said Monday, "because the A's were the most successful sports franchise ever in Philadelphia."

Now, the grim demographic realities have financially stressed the society, which is down to about 700 mostly aging members. As a result, its 14,000-square-foot museum, library and gift shop on North York Road in Hatboro may soon close its doors.

Unless society officials can devise a way to raise $70,000 annually, it's possible the 13-year-old, artifacts-rich facility will either disappear or be condensed and incorporated into an existing institution, most likely at a refurbished Atwater Kent Museum in Center City.

"Obviously, we'd love to stay right here in Hatboro," Montella, 79, said Monday. "I'd hate to think about dismantling all of this."

Montella admitted some type of agreement with Atwater Kent, the South Seventh Street museum devoted to Philadelphia's history, was being considered.

That facility, closed now during a $5.3 million renovation, has hosted exhibitions of A's memorabilia in the past. And in October, Atwater Kent officials, who said Monday there had been no decision on any possible move, visited the Hatboro site.

"It would be a great fit," said Montella. "Center City would be a great location. They were a Philadelphia team, after all. But nothing's been finalized, and we'd still prefer to stay in this building."

Still, the museum - laden with books, research papers, arcane memorabilia and historical treasures related to one of baseball's earliest dynasties - won't vanish without a fight.

Recently, one of its younger members, 32-year-old Andrew Dixon, created a Facebook page, "Save the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society," for that purpose.

"I think there's been an explosion of baseball interest in this area," said Dixon, a doctoral candidate at Temple. "And I think there's a thriving desire for all things baseball. You'd like to think there's enough interest in a team as historically significant as the A's to sustain a stand-alone museum."

He's also hoping to tap into the interest generated by another related Facebook page. "Bring Your A's Game," which has about 1,000 followers, espouses the far-fetched goal of bringing the Oakland A's back to Philadelphia.

"Even though it's not something that's likely to ever happen, they've got a lot of followers, which is just another indication that there are more people aware of the A's out there than you might think," Dixon said.

For decades after the team's 1954 move, fans of the original member of the American League lamented the A's departure. Finally, in 1996, a small group of Athletics' devotees founded the society. A sizable number of area residents who remembered growing up in a two-baseball-team city quickly coalesced around it.

At its height, there were nearly 1,000 members. Interest was so great that in 1998, the society leased a storefront at 6 N. York Road and opened the museum.

While the museum rarely publicized itself and has never been swamped with visitors, there were occasions - immediately after its opening, when the Oakland A's visited Philadelphia in 2003, or whenever Mack's descendants or former stars would participate in events - when interest and attendance sparked.

"We've had visitors from 44 states and a few foreign countries," Montella said. "Just recently, a man from Cambridge, England, got off the train mistakenly in Hatboro, walked into our museum and was so impressed he became a member."

But as more A's and A's fans pass on, the buzz has waned. The once-vibrant sale - online and in-store - of Philadelphia sports books and merchandise ranging from bobbleheads to autographed bats, balls and photos began to decline.

Last year, said Montella, gift-shop revenue was at an all-time low.

Until recently, the $30 annual dues paid by members, various fund-raisers and gift-shop proceeds were enough to support the facility, publish a newsletter and provide some financial help for needy ex-A's.

In recent years, in an effort to broaden its appeal, the museum has added considerable Phillies flavor and even hosted events for former Eagles such as Steve Van Buren and Chuck Bednarik.

Because a 2000 society exhibit at the Chester County Historical Society was successful, said Montella, there was talk of a move to a minor-league stadium that West Chester businessmen and baseball enthusiasts hoped would be built there.

But those dreams faded when the borough council recently rejected a stadium proposal.

"We're trying to hold our own," Montella said. "But let's face it - there are a lot of younger people out there who never even heard of the Philadelphia A's."


Philadelphia Athletics

History: 1901-1954

Titles: Five world championships - 1910, 1911, 1914, 1929, 1930. Eight American League pennants - 1905, 1910, 1911, 1913, 1914, 1929, 1930, 1931.

Hall of Famers: Frank "Home Run" Baker; Chief Bender; Mickey Cochrane; Eddie Collins; Jimmie Foxx; Lefty Grove; Connie Mack; Eddie Plank; Al Simmons; Rube Waddell.

Managers: Mack (1901-50); Jimmy Dykes (1951-53); Eddie Joost (1954).

Ballparks: Columbia Park (1901-08); Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium (1909-54).

Mascot: White elephant.


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or at ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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