Homecoming weekend for the Athletics

In the final A's home game in Philadelphia, players prepare for the bottom of the ninth on Sept. 19, 1954, at Connie Mack Stadium.
In the final A's home game in Philadelphia, players prepare for the bottom of the ninth on Sept. 19, 1954, at Connie Mack Stadium. (Courtesy of the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society)
Posted: June 22, 2011

In a few days, some well-traveled relatives will return to Philadelphia for a weekend visit - only their second "homecoming" since packing bags for the Midwest more than a half-century ago.

Family surname's still the same as during its long Pennsylvania residency.

Athletics.

The Philadelphia Athletics, born 1901. Later, they were the Kansas City Athletics (1955-67). You know the current "younger" relatives as the Oakland Athletics.

During the 54 baseball seasons (1901-54) shared here by the American League A's and their National League neighbors, the Phillies, the two clubs never met in a game that counted. The Athletics played in eight World Series during that stretch; the Phillies in two. But never in the same seasons, except spring training and "city series" exhibitions.

Major League Baseball would not institute regular-season interleague competition until 1997. Before this coming three-game Oakland vs. Philadelphia booking at Citizens Bank Park, the two former North Philadelphia neighbors previously faced each other here just once, in 2003. Two Phillies-A's interleague series transpired in California in the meantime. Oakland won both, two games to one, in 2005 and '08.

In 2003 - Veterans Stadium's final season - Oakland posted a 7-4 series-opening victory. Rain forced the Saturday match to be rescheduled as part of a Sunday doubleheader. The Phillies won both games. Oakland now leads the overall interleague series, 5-4.

Many combatants from that Vet series have retired or are with other teams. But two Phillies starters in that June 8, 2003 doubleheader are expected to play again - Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco. Second baseman Mark Ellis is the lone returning Oakland starter.

That June 6, 2003, game was the Athletics franchise's first victory in Philadelphia since Sept. 4, 1954. The '54 Philadelphia Athletics lost their final five home games before leaving Connie Mack Stadium for the last time.

The A's final Philadelphia season had 37-year-old Eddie Joost in the manager's post, following the tenures of Jimmy Dykes (1951-53) and Connie Mack (1901-50). Joost, who passed away in April at age 94, was among several Californians who were All-Star caliber producers for Philadelphia. Longtime centerfielder Sam Chapman also was from the Bay Area. Some Philadelphia region natives who have starred for Oakland in the meantime are Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson (Cheltenham High) and current relief pitching standout Andrew Bailey (Paul VI High School). Bailey, who was the 2009 AL Rookie of the Year, resides in Cherry Hill.

Because 57 seasons have elapsed since the A's represented Philadelphia, not many of the few who attended home games can report details. Total A's 1954 home attendance: 304,666, a 4,995 average per the 61 gate openings (16 home doubleheaders were played). The final Philadelphia series, three games - all won by the New York Yankees - drew just 6,596 spectators.

On Sunday, Sept. 19, 1954, only 1,715 fans attended the 2-hour, 30-minute ultimate home finale. A's pitchers Art Ditmar and reliever Charlie Bishop took a 2-0 lead into the eighth. Second baseman Pete Suder, then in his 14th Philadelphia season, had driven in the A's two fifth-inning runs, both unearned, on a single with two out.

But New York's Gil McDougald launched a three-run homer in the eighth inning off reliever Moe Burtschy. The Yankees scored again and won, 4-2. Interestingly, the New York pitcher credited with the game's "save" was a Philadelphia baseball hero who's still revered by Phillies faithful: Jim Konstanty. The National League's 1950 MVP, Konstanty left the Whiz Kids for the Yanks in mid-1954.

Ironically, on the weekend following their home finale, the A's won two of three at Yankee Stadium to officially conclude their Philadelphia history that included three glorious eras of earlier championships, but also numerous lackluster second-division summers, with only four winning records in their last 21 years in Philadelphia.

Final score for that last Philadelphia American League game ever - Sunday, Sept. 26, 1954 - A's 8, Yankees 6. Ditmar posted his first of 72 big-league career pitching triumphs. Player-manager Joost's three hits led the team that day. Among them was the Philadelphia A's very last double. (Incidentally, the Yankees, who already had lost the AL race to Cleveland despite 103 wins, played Mickey Mantle at shortstop and Moose Skowron at second base.)

Philadelphians had long been aware that their once-mighty franchise would likely move. But the club's departure for Kansas City would not be official for several weeks.

Reflecting television's mass appeal as a home-entertainment staple following World War II, and widespread family movements to the nation's West and South, baseball's landscape was dramatically changing by the early 1950s. It was generally accepted that any two-team major league city might see one franchise move away.

Inevitable transferring began when the Braves left Boston for Milwaukee in 1953. The St. Louis Browns went to Baltimore a year later. Then - no surprise - the Athletics to Kansas City for 1955. The Phillies, vastly more popular here since Whiz Kid successes, were now the only game in town.

Even though the Athletics generally fared poorly as a team during their final half-dozen years here, there were many outstanding individual performances. Ferris Fain won AL batting titles in 1951 and '52; Bobby Shantz went 24-7 en route to the 1952 AL MVP award. Gus Zernial won the RBI and home-run titles in 1951; pitcher Harry Byrd was the 1952 Rookie of the Year. And 1954 featured the promising rookie seasons of third baseman Jim Finigan, second baseman Spook Jacobs, outfielder Vic Power and pitchers Arnie Portocarrero and Ditmar.

After the season ended, the Athletics were sold by the Mack family to businessman Arnold M. Johnson, who predicted that Kansas City would continue as the Midwest baseball hotbed it had been during many minor league and Negro League successes. However, what Johnson introduced to KC in 1955 was sadly similar to Philadelphia's 1954 performance, when it finished 51-103, 60 games out of first.

Johnson and his controversial successor Charles O. Finley failed to build a solid Kansas City fan base. After 13 drab seasons with five cellar finishes, Finley took his ragtag club to California in 1968.

With Reggie Jackson on board, the again-transplanted A's suddenly met with significant improvement.

The 1968 Athletics posted an 82-80 record, the franchise's first winning mark since the 1952 fourth-place finish in Philadelphia.

But owner Finley's penchant for hiring-firing-hiring managers and players stirred controversy. Despite that, the on-field section of the organization rapidly materialized into a championship caliber combine.

By only their second year in Oakland, 1969, the Athletics finished second in the AL West. Same result in 1970. Then, in 1971, the division-winning A's logged the franchise's first 100-win season since its 1931 pennant-winning Philadelphia forefathers.

Similarities with their Philadelphia ancestors continued to abound. Among them:

American League championships: Philadelphia, nine (in 54 years); Oakland, six (43 years).

World Series titles: Philadelphia five (1910, '11, '13, '29, '30); Oakland four (1972, '73, '74, '89)

The Athletics Family can be justifiably proud of this special accomplishment relating to championships:

Over the 1901-54 seasons, the Yankees won 20 AL pennants, far surpassing all competitors. But the Philadelphia A's eight titles ranked second.

Through the most recent 43 seasons, as the Yankees won 11 American League crowns, it was the Athletics again - this time in Oakland - ranking next best, with six.

A sense of 21st-century realism will surely pervade South Philadelphia this weekend. Most local fans have only a passing, long-distance acquaintance with the visiting team. Quite naturally, they'll be soundly behind their first-place Phillies.

One of the still-spunky Philadelphia A's is Shantz, who is 85. The agile southpaw will deliver the ceremonial first ball before the series finale on Sunday. That's one of several sidelight attractions choreographed by Kurt Funk, Phillies director of marketing programs and events, and by Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society leaders Ernie Montella, Dick Rosen, David Jordan and Bob Warrington. Examples of A's memorabilia and historical material will be displayed near Mitchell & Ness in Ashburn Alley.

Aside from toasting the A's historic franchise, the weekend's major highlight for players and fans alike remains simply . . . three big-league baseball games.

When the umpire shouts "Play ball" Friday evening, the 2011 Athletics Family Reunion, hosted by their old friends the Phillies, officially begins.

1954 ATHLETICS

(Philadelphia Athletics rostered personnel during 1954 season):

Position Players

Catchers: Joe Astroth, Jim Robertson, Billy Shantz

First Base: Don Bollweg, Lou Limmer

Third Base: Jim Finigan

Shortstop, Second Base: Joe DeMaestri, Forrest (Spook) Jacobs, Eddie Joost (player/manager), Jack Littrell, Pete Suder

Outfield: Ed McGhee, Vic Power (OF, 1B), Bill Renna, Joe Taylor, Elmer Valo, Bill Wilson, Gus Zernial

Pitchers: Charlie Bishop, Moe Burtschy, Art Ditmar, Sonny Dixon, Marion Fricano, John Gray, Alex Kellner, Morrie Martin, Bill Oster, Arnold Portocarrero, Hal Raether, Dutch Romberger, Dick Rozek, Carl Scheib, Bobby Shantz, Al Sima, Bob Trice, Bill Upton, Ozzie Van Brabant

Manager: Eddie Joost

Coaches: Augie Galan, Rollie Hemsley, Les McCrabb, Wally Moses

Oldest players at season's start: Pete Suder 38; Eddie Joost 37

Youngest players at season's start: Bill Oster 21; Arnie Portocarrero 23

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