Ban Johnson conceived the idea of a more gentlemanly major league because he figured baseball enthusiasts of the early 1900s would respond well to that style of play.
But even Johnson, the guiding force for the American League’s emergence in 1901, was stunned by the throng of rooters who turned out to Columbia Park when the streaking Philadelphia Athletics hosted the Cleveland Bronchos to open a three-game series on August 23, 1902. A large Saturday crowd was naturally expected, but with Cleveland stars Nap Lajoie, Elmer Flick, and Bill Bernhard forbidden to play in the game by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, not many would have expected Ben Shibe’s “White Elephant” to draw an American League record crowd.
“I knew that the methods of the American League would appeal to the well-informed base ball enthusiasts of Philadelphia, but I must say that the support we have received in this city has exceeded my anticipations,” said Johnson, who was in attendance for the second game of the series between Philadelphia and Cleveland. “President Shibe and manager Connie Mack are to be felicitated upon the magnificent appreciation that has been shown them.”1
The announced attendance of 21,086 broke the previous AL record of 18,765, which was set one week earlier when the Athletics hosted the Chicago White Sox. More fans attended the Philadelphia-Cleveland game than all of the National League games on August 23 combined,2 and while some attendees in the crowded park may have watched in discomfort, there was no disappointment by the end of the afternoon.
Philadelphia trounced Cleveland ace Earl Moore for 12 runs and 16 hits in the first four innings, snapping his streak of five straight complete-game victories and giving A’s starter Highball Wilson more than enough support. The 12-1 win was the fourth straight for the Athletics and their 14th triumph in 15 games. It moved the AL leaders three games ahead of the Boston Americans in the standings.3
Cleveland was shorthanded because of a court ruling that resulted from Lajoie and Bernhard jumping their 1901 contracts with the Philadelphia Phillies to join the new Athletics.4 Just as the 1902 season began, Pennsylvania’s supreme court had ruled that Lajoie and Bernhard could not play for any other team but the Phillies.
After Ohio courts declined to enforce Pennsylvania’s injunction, however, it became binding in Pennsylvania only. To keep the stars in the newly founded AL, they were transferred to Cleveland and did not travel with the team to games in Philadelphia.
Unlike his two teammates, Flick was not enjoined by Pennsylvania’s ruling, but he avoided the state anyway. He was excluded because he jumped his Phillies contract and joined the A’s for the 1902 season, but it was certain the legal precedent set for the 1901 contract jumpers would also apply to him if the matter were ever raised.5 The American and National Leagues came to a peace agreement after the 1902 season, which eliminated the ban on Cleveland’s players playing in Pennsylvania.
It’s debatable whether Lajoie and Flick would have made a difference in the outcome of the series opener, given how one-sided the final score was. Bernhard had pitched the day before – winning over Cy Young and the Americans – but he very well could have taken a turn in Philadelphia that might have changed the results of one of Cleveland’s two losses later in the series.6 Instead, Bernhard was the winning pitcher on August 27, when Philadelphia traveled to League Park in Cleveland to make up a game that was rained out 20 days earlier.
“Bernhard is pitching the best ball of his career,” Henry P. Edwards wrote in The Sporting News of the pitcher who hadn’t lost since July 28, “and when he is not able to take his turn in the box, it means that Cleveland loses an almost sure chance to pocket a game.”7
Even as those three former Athletics were off playing with semipro players in Lajoie’s hometown of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, on August 23, fan interest in the game was high. The A’s looked primed to capture the AL pennant, despite losing three stars in what could have been a crippling blow to a club that only finished fourth in 1901.
The bleachers were packed to “suffocation” and fans stood in rows 10 deep beyond ropes in the outfield. An eight-column photo from behind home plate showing some of the overflowing crowd was published across the top of the sports page of the Philadelphia Inquirer the next day, and it was reported that a number of ticket scalpers were arrested outside the ballpark.
“They were bent upon seeing the game no matter what physical discomfiture they might be subjected to,” the Inquirer wrote about the fans. “The aisles and promenade back of the seats were one mass of wriggling humanity, while upon the roof over 2,000 men and women witnessed the game.”8
In the second inning, the home team gave that throng something to cheer about. Socks Seybold hit a one-out single and advanced to second on an error, and Danny Murphy – Lajoie’s eventual replacement at second base – reached on another error to open a rally. Monte Cross smacked an RBI double to left to score Seybold, and Osse Schrecongost, who started the season in Cleveland, hit a fly ball to center fielder Harry Bay that brought Murphy home. Bay’s throw home got away from catcher Harry Bemis and Cross took third, then scored on Wilson’s single for a 3-0 advantage.
Cleveland got one run back in the third when Bay and Bill Bradley singled and Jack Thoney hit an RBI double. The Bronchos otherwise had just four additional hits against Wilson, a one-time Cleveland Spider who pushed his record to 4-2 on the way to the only winning season of his career.
Philadelphia kept the scoring going in the third after opening the frame with back-to-back singles from Harry Davis and Lave Cross. Seybold hit an RBI double and Murphy an RBI single for a 5-1 advantage. When Murphy stole second, the throw from Bemis was wild, which allowed Seybold to score and Murphy to take third. Murphy crossed the plate on a fielder’s choice by Schrecongost, giving Philadelphia a 7-1 lead.
In the fourth, Davis again led off with a single and, after stealing second, he scored on Lave Cross’s double. Cross came in to score after a sacrifice by Seybold and a fly ball by Murphy. Monte Cross, Schrecongost, and Wilson each singled and scored to chase Moore from the game and take a 12-1 lead.
Cleveland’s Jack Lundbom came on in relief, and allowed just two hits over the final four innings. All nine of Philadelphia’s starters notched a base hit, while all but the top two in the lineup – Topsy Hartsel and Dave Fultz – scored at least one run. Seven Athletics recorded at least two hits in the same game for the second time in the season.9
The final tally for the A’s gave them 12 runs in three straight games and 10 or more runs in three consecutive games for the first time in franchise history – a feat that wouldn’t be repeated until they did so in four straight games from June 23-26, 1913.
For the Bronchos, the loss put the brakes on an August rally that saw them go 13-6 before traveling to Philadelphia and getting swept. Cleveland won four of the final five games of the month to finish August at 17-10 and went 14-10 in September to finish fifth in the standings and propel them to high hopes for 1903.10
The attendance record was short-lived. On September 20 Philadelphia drew a Saturday crowd of 23,897 fans to Columbia Park for a game against Boston. The A’s were later involved the first time a venue crossed the 80,000 threshold in attendance when they traveled to Yankee Stadium for a doubleheader on September 9, 1928, in front of 85,265 fans. Cleveland holds the record for the highest-attended regular-season game, with 86,563 fans coming to see the Yankees at Municipal Stadium on September 12, 1954.
This article was fact-checked by Kevin Larkin and copy-edited by Len Levin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted the Baseball-Reference.com, Stathead.com, and Retrosheet.org websites for pertinent materials and the box scores. He also used information obtained from game coverage by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
1 “American League May Invade Other Cities Next Year,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 25, 1902: 11.
2 Total attendance for National League games on August 23 was 19,469. Crowds in Chicago (6,000), Pittsburgh (4,769), Cincinnati (4,500), and St. Louis (4,200) were a combined 1,617 fans shy of matching the Philadelphia attendance figure. Overall, the AL outdrew the NL by 14,820 fans that day.
3 During that 15-game stretch, the Athletics moved 7½ games in the standings, going from 4½ games behind before an August 10 win over Detroit to 3 games ahead after the August 23 victory against Cleveland. Philadelphia took over the league lead on August 15 and remained atop the standings the rest of the season.
5 Pitcher Bill Duggleby also left the Phillies for the A’s for the 1902 season, but unlike Flick, he returned to the Phillies. Other players who stayed with their new AL team after leaving the Phillies in 1902 included Lave Cross (Athletics), Red Donahue (St. Louis Browns), and Ed Delahanty, Al Orth, and Happy Townsend (Washington Senators). Harry Wolverton left the Phillies for Washington at the start of the season, but was re-signed by Philadelphia in July.
6 There was no game played on Sunday due to the Blue Laws of the era, so the losses came on Monday and Tuesday. The Athletics used Eddie Plank on Tuesday, while the Bronchos countered with Otto Hess, and it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for Bernhard to have been used for that game had he been available.
7 Henry P. Edwards, “In the First Four,” The Sporting News, August 30, 1902: 4.
8 “Athletics Win and Break All Records for Attendance,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 24, 1902: 11.
9 The first instance came on July 8 in a 22-9 whipping of Boston, and the Athletics repeated the feat a third time on September 4 in a 13-4 victory over the Detroit Tigers.
10 Cleveland spent most of the season’s first half in last place and had been in seventh place as late as August 3.