Fifty-seven years later, A's are in same predicament as their Philadelphia ancestors

Longtime Philadelphia A's manager/owner Connie Mack greeting President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938. Mack's A's fell on hard times, and the team was sold and moved to Kansas City in '54.
Longtime Philadelphia A's manager/owner Connie Mack greeting President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938. Mack's A's fell on hard times, and the team was sold and moved to Kansas City in '54.
Posted: June 24, 2011

On Sept. 19, the Philadelphia Athletics, a onetime baseball dynasty whose popularity had been so great that spectators often filled adjacent rooftops, concluded their 1954 home schedule in front of 1,715 fans at wet and dreary Connie Mack Stadium.

The 4-2 loss to the Yankees was the A's 99th of the season. They were 59 games behind league-leading Cleveland, with six meaningless road contests left. Their final home attendance totaled 305,362, an embarrassing number that nonetheless surpassed their payroll.

As the beaten A's trudged off the muddy field that afternoon, they didn't yet know that after 54 seasons, nine pennants, and five world championships, they had played their final game in Philadelphia.

Now, nearly 57 years later, when the A's return to the city of their birth for an interleague series with the Phillies, they will find themselves in the same troubled state as their flannel-uniformed ancestors.

Like the '54 A's, the 2011 Athletics are dogged by a lack of financial resources, an outmoded stadium, an apathetic fan base, the rise of the National League team that shares their market, and persistent speculation that they could move or even fold.

"The Athletics' current difficulties are in some respects eerily reminiscent of those that affected the club during its last years in Philadelphia," said Bob Warrington, vice president of the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society.

These Oakland A's are in last place and near the bottom in attendance (27th of 30). They play in obsolete Oakland-Alameda County Stadium, where their lease will expire in 2013. An apathetic city government won't get involved. And they can't move to nearby San Jose, a boomtown that wants them badly, because baseball considers that Giants territory.

"What is the alternative for this franchise if baseball does not allow us to move to San Jose?" A's president Mike Crowley said recently. "I don't know. I don't know that we have any options. I don't think it can work here in Alameda County."

Desperate as the trading deadline approaches, the A's, at $66 million already in the bottom third of payrolls, are widely expected to jettison salary, action that would link them even more closely to the '54 Athletics.

"If Oakland moves Josh Willingham, as has been suggested, to dump his salary and pick up lower-cost prospects in return," Warrington said, "it will be the same strategy Connie Mack pursued in the 1950s to keep his A's on life-support financially."

By 1954, Mack was, by most accounts, slipping into senility. His feuding children couldn't agree on what to do with a ball club that was just as sick.

Twenty-three years removed from their last pennant, the original American League members had been eclipsed here by the Phillies, whose new owner, DuPont heir Bob Carpenter, was spending money.

As Mack's role diminished, the sons from his first marriage, Earle and Roy, squared off with Connie Jr., his son from a second wife. Simply put, Connie Jr. wanted to spend money, and Earle and Roy did not. Eventually, the frustrated younger son sold his share of the team.

As attendance dipped and the A's options shrank, payroll was cut, minor-league teams were sold, and their North Philadelphia stadium was neglected. As Roy and Earle also grew apart, a crisis loomed.

Smelling blood, Arnold Johnson, a Chicago businessman who had the backing of the all-powerful Yankees, bid to buy the club and move it to Kansas City.

Stories of the A's troubles became sports-page fixtures in the city's newspapers. The resulting negativity, coupled with the popularity of the young, promising Phillies, smothered interest in the Athletics.

Nine times on their final two homestands, the A's drew fewer than 2,200 fans. Players were sold, traded, released. To reduce travel costs, Philadelphia sent nine players home before the final road trip.

On the day of that final home game, nearly twice as many fans turned out to see a Roman Catholic-West Catholic high school football game than paid to watch the Yankees and A's eight blocks away.

At a New York meeting Oct. 12, 10 days after the underdog Giants' World Series sweep of the Indians, AL owners unanimously approved Johnson's $3.5 million purchase and, by a 6-2 vote, allowed the move to Kansas City. The Philadelphia A's were dead. Less than three years later, at age 93, Mack was, too.

On another rainy day, Philadelphians flocked to Oliver Bair's Chestnut Street funeral home to say goodbye. When the doors finally closed, it was noted that 3,400 people had paid their respects.

"If Mr. Mack could have gotten that many people to come see his team," one policeman noted, "the A's might still be in Philadelphia."


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

or @philafitz on Twitter.

Read his blog, "Giving 'em Fitz,"

at www.philly.com/fitz

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