The name Billy Sharsig rings familiar to only a select number of baseball chroniclers. Nevertheless, he played a prominent role in late nineteenth-century baseball annals. He is known for founding the American Association Athletics, a team that revived Philadelphia’s historic Athletics appellation. His actions also allowed the city to fill the professional baseball vacuum that existed after the National League dismissed the Athletics’ predecessor for not going on a 1876 Western road trip.
For the next four years the remnant Athletics, in its various semipro forms, competed only when they could arrange games. It was at this juncture that a number of diehard baseball enthusiasts strove to bring back professional baseball to the country’s second largest city. The eventual vehicle for this rebirth was a maverick league that offered Sunday baseball, beer sales, and cheap ticket prices. Taking advantage of this opportunity was a mixed-matched group of baseball boosters – Billy Sharsig, Charlie Mason, and Lew Simmons. These men, from different backgrounds, were linked by their passion for the game and the lure of investment profits.
The moving spirit of this troika was Billy Sharsig. Born in Philadelphia in 1855, he was the son of refugees from Prussia who settled in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, where his father set up a successful dye factory.1 His father’s hope was for Billy to follow in his footsteps. Young Billy, however, had other aspirations. He was attracted to show business and was titillated by the sport of baseball. Through his theatrical ventures, Sharsig gained entrepreneurial experience that left him with little money for anything else. Nevertheless, he was driven by the investment potential of returning professional baseball to Philadelphia.
Until the advent of the American Association in 1882, Sharsig maintained his baseball interest through local amateur and semipro ballclubs. In the late 1870s he played right field and caught for the Eckford, Shibe, and Defiance teams of Philadelphia. Eventually, he assumed administrative roles with each ballclub. By 1880, the 25-year-old Sharsig, with the help of Horace Phillips, a former major-league manager, revitalized what was left of the defunct Athletics baseball club.2 To raise money for this project, Billy tried in vain to persuade his father to finance this venture. Legend has it that Billy’s mother rescued him with personal savings she kept in socks. Sharsig also got some preliminary backing from two sporting associates named Slater and McCartney.3
With no place to affiliate, Sharsig in 1881 set up local exhibitions and arranged for a profitable Midwest tour. By the end of the ball season, the Athletics’ fortunes began to change. First, there was renewed interest in setting up a new professional league among the cities earlier abandoned by the National League. This opportunity played into Sharsig’s two trump cards. He had a new access to money, allowing him to be the major investor in the revived Athletics, and he held the lease to the old Oakdale Park Grounds with its 11th and Huntingdon ball field. Situated among newly built residential houses south of Lehigh Avenue, the park was noted for its lake and picnic groves. The Oakdale playing field traced its grounds to the postwar National Association years.4
In anticipation of admittance to the new Association, Sharsig had the Oakdale grounds resodded and leveled. The old grandstand was replaced with three linked porched pavilions holding 2,000 spectators, and the playing field was enclosed with a new wood-slatted fence. Part of the renovations was a new main entrance on Lehigh Avenue, 2,000 outfield benched seats, a handsome dressing room, a press box, and private offices at the rear of the main pavilion.5
During the franchise’s development stage, Sharsig sought out more wizened partners. Slater and McCartney had cut their ties with the club and Sharsig came upon and welcomed Charlie Mason aboard. Mason, born in New Orleans, was two years older than Sharsig. As a youngster Mason played amateur ball in his hometown and at neighboring Williams College. By the mid-1870s, the athletically gifted Mason found himself in Philadelphia, playing for a number of semipro ball clubs. Eventually, he played right field and caught for old National Association teams in Philadelphia and Washington. When the Association folded, Mason played for independent professional teams in Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Massachusetts. This career path led to him signing up with the independent Athletics that was later subsumed to Sharsig’s 1881 pre-American Association Athletics.
Outside of baseball, Mason ran a cigar store and a local saloon. Initially his main function with Sharsig and the Athletics involved scouting and signing prospects. When necessary, he filled in as manager for the city’s new Association ballclub. The final piece to the franchise’s puzzle was a theatrical acquaintance of Sharsig, Lew Simmons.
Simmons was the oldest member of the Athletics’ governing triumvirate. He was born in New Castle in western Pennsylvania in 1838. But baseball was not Lew’s cherished pastime. He was a talented musician and minstrel entertainer. Strumming his banjo in blackface, he made quite a name for himself. He opened his own theater in Philadelphia, published a popular minstrel songbook and traveled widely with his musical routines. Despite these successes, he maintained a real passion for baseball. He played with the original Athletics after the war and helped popularize winter ice baseball. It wasn’t until Sharsig and Mason’s reconstituted Athletics materialized that Simmons turned his attention back to baseball.
Simmons knew that Sharsig and Mason were looking for another investor with baseball aspirations. Simmons not only met their criteria, but he also played a role in getting the Athletics an Association franchise.6 It was said that he got a $16,000 investment from Adam Forepaugh, who operated a popular local circus.7 He also used his outgoing and convivial manner at Association meetings to smooth the way for the Athletics’ acceptance. These successes got him invited as an Association delegate to a February 1883 conference with National League officials. This meeting resulted in an agreement about the reserve rule and the issue of the number of protected players. This success earned the Association a tacit recognition from the senior circuit.
Without deprecating Mason and Simmons, Billy Sharsig remained the central figure in the Athletics’ organization. The 1882 American Association season had seen the Athletics emerge as the only professional ballclub in Philadelphia. Now it was up to Sharsig to rekindle the city’s love of baseball. His greatest obstacle was getting the local papers to cover the Athletics because, as one newspaper said, “Billy … We have no time to talk about a dead crow.”8 But the city and its newspapers changed their attitudes after the 1882 season. The Philadelphia Item was more optimistic when it remarked how the Athletics were entering a wedge to the return of the game.9
Sharsig and his associates had assembled a respectable and competitive ballclub. George “Jumbo” Latham was the field captain and first baseman; off-field business was managed by Sharsig and Simmons. Mason oversaw the grounds and continued scouting players. Throughout most of the season, the Athletics stayed in contention and finished the year 41-34, in second place, 11½ games behind Cincinnati. Oakdale Park hosted capacity crowds as baseball in the Quaker City recovered its former luster. The Athletics’ success also convinced the National League that it should rethink its relationship with the city. By the end of 1882, Philadelphia was granted Worcester, Massachusetts’ “right to franchise.” This new National League team became the Philadelphia Phillies. The season was also a profitable one for Sharsig’s Athletics. The size of the profit was hard to determine because the team kept no books and the troika daily divided up each ballgame’s take. It was alleged that the Athletics cleared about $22,000 for the year.10
The 1883 American Association responded to the league’s popularity by adding two teams to the six-club organization. This expansion pleased Sharsig and his associates. But the new season was played at a different location. Sharsig was notified that his Oakdale lease was up and that the site would be sold to enterprising housing developers. This transaction left the ballclub with few alternatives. Sharsig, however, was fortunate to get a $1,000 lease from the city for what remained of the old National Association grounds at 27th and Jefferson. On this truncated site, the Athletics constructed “the handsomest ball grounds in the country.”11
Once the new home site was resolved, the triumvirate focused their attention on signing players and organizing the ballclub for the 1883 season. After evaluating their salaried expenses, they agreed that they needed more talented players to compete for the Association’s pennant. The Athletics were determined to sign the best available players. The Philadelphia Evening Item wrote, “The man who stops to question the cost of a thing that will benefit the club or please the public is an idiot and will soon find himself left [out].”12 As a result, only four players from the 1882 team were retained. The two most significant signees were pitcher Bobby Mathews and first baseman Harry Stovey. A number of native Philadelphians made up the other roster spots. With Lon Knight serving as field captain, Sharsig selected the effusive Simmons as the off-field manager. These changes cemented the team’s relationship with the city as the 1883 season began with great promise.
Many believed that the Athletics were “ushering in a new popular age.”13 The telling sign for Sharsig and his associates was a preseason exhibition series between the Athletics and the nascent National League Phillies. Both organizations were stunned by its success. In six games, 50,000 tickets had been sold.14 Extra security was needed for each game. The enclosed playing fields were lined six persons deep. At one point the Athletics used ladders to get late-arriving ticket-holders into the ballpark.
The Athletics began the 1883 season winning 18 of 21 games. But as the season progressed pitchers tired and injuries mounted. By the beginning of September, the Athletics held a half-game lead over St. Louis with a four-game series ahead of them and with first place at stake. With pitchers still ailing, Lew Simmons signed a 20-year-old dental student Daniel Jones for $500 a month. Jones pitched and won two games in this series. He excited the crowds by his occasional “jumping jack” pitch, whereby he would leap in the air to throw his fastball. Thanks to his signing, the Athletics took three out of four games from St. Louis to open a 2½-game lead. More than 50,000 fans attended these games. With the city’s second pennant in view, the Athletics finished the year with a 13-game road trip.
Responding to the importance of the road trip, Sharsig and Charlie Mason took leave of their businesses and accompanied the ballclub. It was said that Mason was like “an old hen … [watching] her brood of children,” keeping them on the straight and narrow.15 The Athletics played well on the road and staked their claim by taking two out of three games from the Brown Stockings in St. Louis. Philadelphia only had to win a game in Louisville to clinch the pennant. Mason left the ballclub to look after celebrations in Philadelphia. Simmons, the off-field manager, was too unnerved by his self-imposed pressure and Sharsig was compelled to step in. After the Athletics lost the first two games in Louisville, Sharsig kept Simmons out of sight so as not to unnerve the players. When the Athletics won the last game, 7-6, Sharsig was overjoyed and telegraphed the wonderful results to Philadelphia. His telegram set off spontaneous celebrations in the Quaker City.
The train from Louisville carrying the champion Athletics was greeted at every stop by enthusiastic and celebrating fans. The closer they got to Philly, the bigger the welcoming crowds became. They arrived at the Broad Street Station in the early evening. Their greeting was unprecedented. People were “climbing on each other’s shoulders” to catch a glimpse of their heroes.16 The players followed a path cleared by the police and a marching band. The parade, viewed by an estimated 750,000, went on for more than a mile along Broad Street. The evening hour did not curtail the city’s enthusiasm. The players’ progress was illuminated by firing rockets, lighting Roman candles, and waving lanterns. Some accounts spoke about the roar of tens of thousands of applauding shouts and chants. The Philadelphia Press said, “[T]he bands played, hundreds of flags fluttered in the breeze. … [T]he enthusiasm could not have been more real.”17 It was said that the parade took an hour and 10 minutes to pass the reviewing stand. By 11 P.M. the players escaped to Mercantile Hall for a grand celebratory banquet. Gold badges and performance gifts were awarded to the weary players. Billy Sharsig and his partners could not have been more thrilled by the city’s reception. They were also pleased by their profit margin for the championship season. It was said to be about $78,320.18
Over the next four years, the ballclub and the Association faced many challenges, such as the emergence in 1884 of a rival league, the Union Association. Nevertheless, Sharsig and the Athletics persisted with profitable seasons despite fourth- to sixth-place finishes. During these seasons the ballclub benefited from the batting of Harry Stovey, Ted Larkin, and Denny Lyons. But aging pitchers and poor fielding negated their offensive advantages. The Association also labored under many rule changes and game practices. For Sharsig, the greatest problems were organizational. In 1884 and 1886 he split his managerial responsibilities with Charlie Mason and Lew Simmons. Sharsig still remained as the senior partner and in 1886 served as the club’s president. A year later, he became the Athletics’ managing secretary and made a critical decision for the sake of the franchise’s unity when he bought out Mason and Simmons. After this transaction, he sold the surviving shares to local businessmen H.C. Pennypacker and William Whittaker.19 He hoped this sale would stabilize the franchise, but it only compounded his problems. Neither man proved to be a good choice; they were neither frugal nor baseball-savvy. Sharsig needed all the support he could mobilize from his investors because of the challenging labor disputes that were on the professional baseball horizon.
The next two years, 1888 and 1889, laid the groundwork for the players’ strike season of 1890. These years, with Billy Sharsig at the helm, saw the Athletics finish in third place with positive profit margins. These pre-strife years would have been an ideal time for Sharsig to liquidate his vulnerable Athletics stock. Unable, or perhaps unwilling, to transact such a sale, Sharsig held on to his franchise shares in the face of the threatening labor storm that hung over the Association.
Many of the Association’s teams were ill-prepared for the pending economic labor struggle between the three professional baseball leagues. Ballplayers would abandon their teams, lured by excessive Players’ League contracts. Sharsig’s Athletics were shaken by these raids. Four major players signed elsewhere – Stovey, Larkin, Lave Cross, and Lou Bierbauer. Sharsig had little choice but to reconstruct his ballclub with young players and well-worn veterans. He compounded his player problems when he refused to sign any contract-jumping players. He said they could not be trusted or depended upon.20
Remarkably, by mid-July Sharsig had his ballclub in first place. This success was fleeting. The Athletics finished in seventh place, 33½ games behind the Louisville Colonels. Sharsig’s Athletics concluded the season by losing 22 straight games. The club, thanks to the profligate spending of William Whittaker, was more than $17,000 in debt. This condition resulted in a threatened players’ strike if they were not paid. There was little Sharsig could do. Whitaker reacted by releasing all the players.21 Sharsig did what he could by recruiting replacements of questionable skill.
He took this team on its last Western road trip of 1890 with only $245 in hand for expenses. The Athletic players were to be paid per diem from the gate receipts. Having survived this trek, Sharsig and the team returned to Philadelphia to discover that their home field, the Jefferson Street Grounds, had been sold out from under them in a sheriff’s sale. To pay back rent and other outstanding expenditures, the team sold the seats, stands, and all furnishings. They raised only $600, well short of what they owed.22 Sharsig was powerless to offset what Whittaker and Pennypacker had spent on inflated salaries and personal expenses. But Sharsig was so well regarded that many of his former players proposed to play a benefit game on his behalf at Forepaugh Park.23
In the wake of the strike season, Billy Sharsig found himself to be a casualty and pawn in the settlement negotiations. To resolve the season’s turmoil, the leaders of the three professional leagues gathered to reconcile their differences and settle their 1891 rosters. The Players’ League Quakers of Philadelphia, run by two local meat wholesalers, Earle and George Wagner, brokered their cooperation by exchanging their franchise for the expired American Association Athletics.24 Sharsig opposed this transaction, but he had very little leverage in these dealings. His capital assets were lacking and he had little choice but to sell his remaining stock and sign a contract to be the Athletics manager in 1891.
Sharsig’s ballclub, however, was lacking two of its principal players, Harry Stovey and Lou Bierbauer. They were lost to the Athletics because of the inattention to player reserve contracts by the defunct Association and the negligence of the Wagner brothers.25
Sharsig’s 1891 Athletics, playing at Forepaugh Park, the former home field of the Players’ League Quakers, began the season 6-11. This disappointing start provided J. Earle Wagner a justification for terminating Sharsig’s contract. George Wood, an outfielder from the Quakers ballclub, became the new manager.26 Sharsig, who had little trust or affection for the Wagner brothers, countered that he had not signed a conditional player contract with an arbitrary release clause.27 As a result, he sued the brothers for breach of contract. But the Wagners, with Sharsig out of the picture, ran the franchise as they pleased. After a fifth-place finish, the Wagners abandoned the Athletics and the American Association. They held on to their investment and with it finagled the purchase of the Washington American Association franchise before it was transferred to the newly expanded 12-team National League.28
Under Sharsig’s direction the American Association Athletics’ record was 244-218 (.528). He sacrificed his money and reputation to salvage his franchise and received little in return. Neither the Association nor the Wagners ever acknowledged their indebtedness to him.29 This disregard was neither deserved nor warranted. After being cashiered, Sharsig had only his sterling reputation to show for his Association years. Nevertheless, he was still well regarded by his peers, and this steeled his determination to carve out a niche for himself in the reorganized world of professional baseball. The next decade proved this esteem true.
In 1892 Sharsig was hired to manage the Indianapolis team in the Western League. The following year the York team in the Pennsylvania State League took him on as manager. In 1894 he was re-engaged to manage Indianapolis. The next season Sharsig returned to the Pennsylvania State League to manage Hazelton. He not only won the pennant, but he also opened negotiations to resettle the franchise in Philadelphia. He hoped to gain access to the Phillies’ ballpark when the Phils were on the road. For the next two years, Sharsig’s Athletics represented Philadelphia in the Atlantic League. They did not draw well and were compelled to drop out of the league. They were replaced by an Allentown franchise that kept Sharsig at the helm for the next two years, 1896 and 1897.30
It was hoped that Sharsig’s Allentown club could help keep the floundering Atlantic League solvent. Meetings were held and Sharsig again was fated to endure more disappointing setbacks.31 Nevertheless, he was still recognized as a knowledgeable baseball contributor. In spite of having no ties to the National League, Sharsig was included in the National League’s meetings that determined the new 60-foot-6-inch pitching distance.
Sharsig, despite his ballclub’s demise, was not forgotten by his sporting associates. Ben Shibe, the owner of the American League’s Athletics, had been affiliated with him during the American Association days. Ban Johnson, the president of the new American League, and Connie Mack, the Athletics’ new manager, knew Sharsig from Western League and Atlantic League seasons. The input of these men certainly helped get him a position with the new American League Athletics.
Drawing on Sharsig’s financial and administrative baseball experiences, the club hired him as its business manager. He also worked with Connie Mack on the development of the Athletics’ playing field and the actual structure of Columbia Park.32 But Sharsig was not a well man. He suffered from lower bowel and digestive problems, possibly colon cancer, that gave him great pain and constant discomfort.33 On February 1, 1902, a year after he was hired by the Athletics, he died.34 He was buried in Mt. Vernon Cemetery at 34th and Lehigh, 13 blocks from the Athletics’ future home, Shibe Park. His funeral was attended by many baseball dignitaries. The coffin was covered by large floral wreaths from admirers and associates.35 Billy Sharsig was only 47 when he died. His obituary in the Inquirer summed up his career, “that no man will ever hold the place he held in the estimation of the base ball going people of this good old town [Philadelphia].”36
1 A Sporting News obituary said Sharsig was born in Gloucester, New Jersey. All other references, including his death certificate, say Philadelphia.
2 John Shiffert, Base Ball in Philadelphia (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2006), 97-9, 246-7; New York Clipper, May 19, 1883; The Sporting News, September 28, 1895, November 21, 1896, February 8, 1902; Spalding Scrapbook, Hall of Fame, VI, 103.
3 The Sporting News, February 8, 1902; Sporting Life, February 8, 1902; Shiffert, 247; Edward Achorn, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey (New York: Public Affairs, 2013), 43.
4 Achorn, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey 41, 45; David Nemec, The Beer and Whiskey League (New York: The Lyons Press, 1994), 46; Sporting Life, February 8, 1902; New York Clipper, May 19, 1883; The Sporting News, February 8, 1902; Philadelphia Press, March 31, 1867; Sunday Mercury, November 4, 1866.
5 Sunday Item, March 26, 1882; Philadelphia Public Record, March 11, 1882.
6 Achorn, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey, 37-51; New York Clipper in Spalding Scrapbook, 1882: 682; Nemec, Beer and Whiskey, 45-6.
7 Ted Vincent, Mudville’s Revenge, The Rise and Fall of American Sports (Lincoln, Nebraska: Bison Books, 1994), 164.
8 Edward Achorn, “Philly Teams for All Seasons,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 28, 2013; Achorn, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey, 43; The Sporting News, December 10, 1887.
9 Philadelphia Item, June 21, 1881.
10 It was reported that the triumvirate actually acted as ticket collectors, trusting no one to handle their gate receipts. Achorn, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey, 43.
11 Sunday Item, April 5, 1882.
12 Philadelphia Evening Item, June 24, 1883.
13 New York Clipper, April 7, 1883.
14 Achorn, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey, 51.
15 Police Gazette, December 23, 1883.
16 Philadelphia Press, October 2, 1883.
17 Philadelphia Press, October 2, 1883.
18 Philadelphia Press, October 20, 1883.
19 Nemec, The Beer and Whiskey League, 192; Shiffert, 248; J. Casway, “The Jefferson Street Ball Parks (1864-91),” The National Pastime, 2013: 16.
20 Sharsig file, National Baseball Hall of Fame, January 15, 1890.
21 Philadelphia Inquirer, September 13, 1890; Shiffert, 139.
22 Casway, 16; Sporting Life, October 18, 1890, November 28, 1891, and December 12, 1891; The Sporting News, October 18, 1890; Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 15, 1890.
23 Sporting Life, October 11, 1890.
24 For a good summary of these transactions, see Shiffert, 153-4, and Nemec, The Beer and Whiskey League, 220-1. In Sharsig’s obituary, it was said that “[n]o man was harder hit by the Brotherhood Movement.” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 3, 1902.
25 An analysis of this neglect and complicity is summarized in Shiffert, 153-4.
26 Shiffert, 155.
27 Philadelphia Bulletin, May 11, 1891.
28 Harold and Dorothy Seymour, Baseball, The Early Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 260-1; Shiffert, 157, 248.
29 Sporting Life, October 11, 1890; Sharsig file, Hall of Fame, December 6, 1890.
30 The Sporting News, September 28, 1895; November 21, 1896; January 16, 1897; February 8, 1902. Spalding Scrapbook, Hall of Fame, VI:, 103.
31 The Sporting News, February 15, 1902.
32 Norman Macht, Connie Mack and the Early Years of Base Ball (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 194-5, 204-5.
33 The Sporting News, February 8, 1902.
34 Death Certificate, #3179, City of Philadelphia.
35 The Sporting News, February 8, 1902, and February 15, 1902. Sharsig’s widow continued to work at the Athletics’ ballpark, and their son enlisted in the Navy. Sporting Life, August 16, 1902.
36 Philadelphia Inquirer, February 3, 1902.