The Early Years of Philadelphia Baseball

This article was written by Rich Westcott

This article was published in The National Pastime: From Swampoodle to South Philly (Philadelphia, 2013)

The Philadelphia area is the birthplace of the United States flag as well as America’s first modern bank, zoo, electronic computer, volunteer fire company, farmers’ market, trade union, magazine, stock exchange, and professional surgery. 

It is where the Declaration of Independence was signed, it was the nation’s first capital, and is the home of the world-famous Philadelphia Orchestra, the internationally renowned Museum of Art, Fairmount Park, the largest inner-city park in the nation, and the legendary Mummer’s Parade. Soft pretzels, cheese steaks, scrapple, and carbonated water originated in the region. Andrew Wyeth, Bill Cosby, Louisa May Alcott, Mario Lanza, Betsy Ross, John Bartram, Will Smith, Ethel Barrymore, George McClellan, Marian Anderson, Bobby Rydell, Thomas Eakins, Margaret Mead, Grace Kelly, and Benjamin Rush were all born in the area.

Philadelphia also has played a major role in the history of American’s national pastime. Baseball, or an early version of the game, has thrived in the city for nearly two centuries, and has been prominent in the evolution of the sport. Indeed, Philadelphia and baseball are unequivocally linked in a relationship that is as tight as anything else in the city. And that is a statement that cannot be taken lightly.

The city that’s been around since William Penn arrived in 1682 and is often referred to as “The Cradle of Liberty,” featured horse racing in the mid-1700s. By then, rowing was also a major sport in the area. Boxing was popular as far back as the 1850s, tennis took hold in the city in the 1880s, and golf began to become fashionable in the 1890s. There was even professional auto racing on city streets in the early 1900s. 

By then, though, baseball was firmly entrenched as Philadelphia’s most popular sport. And it wasn’t just professional baseball. Hundreds of club teams were scattered throughout the area, having long replaced cricket as the preferred bat-and-ball game. Even college baseball, dating back to 1867 when the University of Pennsylvania fielded its first team, had a large following. Unquestionably, baseball was the most dominant sport in Philadelphia, and for the most part, it would hold center stage in the area right up to the present.

Although a game distantly related to a form of baseball had been played in Philadelphia as far back as the mid-1700s, and soldiers played a “game of ball,” as they called it, during the Revolutionary War, the sport that was a forerunner of today’s game really began to be taken seriously in the city in the 1820s. Called “town ball,” “cat ball,” or “rounders,” the game’s first known local team was founded in 1831 as the Philadelphia Olympic Club.

Originally comprised of players 25 years of age or older, Olympic Club members claimed it was the first baseball club in America. Because of what were then known as blue laws, a term that was used to describe a law in Pennsylvania that prevented sports and other activities from being performed on Sundays, the club was forced to play its games in Camden, New Jersey, where no such laws existed. Accordingly, a group of 15 to 20 players would board a ferry at the bottom of Market Street in Philadelphia and travel across the Delaware River to Camden to meet other club teams. 

In 1833, the Olympic Club merged with an unnamed club team made up mostly of graduates of Central High School to form the Olympic Town Ball Club of Philadelphia. A clubhouse was built at Broad and Wallace Streets, a constitution with bylaws and membership requirements was written, and within a few years as many as 100 young men had become members of the club. 

While making their own bats and balls and playing in Camden on fields where no rent or permission was necessary, the Olympics attracted crowds that grew increasingly larger as time went on. And as baseball’s popularity grew, so did the number of teams playing in the area. By the Civil War, the city’s population numbered more than 500,000, and as many as 100 club teams, many formed initially as alcohol-drinking social groups, were scattered throughout the area­—all areas of Philadelphia, but also in surrounding towns including Chester, Norristown, Ardmore, Wilmington, and Camden. They carried names such as Keystone, Mercantile, United, Winona, Minerva, and Benedict. 

In the mid-1800s, Philadelphia teams began to play a more modern form of baseball known as “the New York Game.” Unlike its predecessor, “the Massachusetts Game,” the New York Game featured an infield diamond, canvas-covered bags, rounded bats, and nine players on a side. The pitcher stood 45 feet from home plate, and a thrown ball hitting the batter did not count as an out. 

One of the earliest games in Philadelphia in which there were recorded results took place in 1860 when a team called Equity beat the Pennsylvanias in anything but a pitchers’ duel, 65–52. Unlike today, the scores in those days were usually high. In another game in 1866, the Athletics trounced the Alert Club, 67–25, with slugger Lipman Pike hitting six home runs, including five in a row. 

The 1860s proved to be especially important in the history of Philadelphia baseball, which by then was attracting as much interest to the game as were the teams in New York. Although there had been other fields where baseball was played—most notably at Camac Woods at 12th Avenue and Berks Street—the first real ballpark was opened in 1860. Called Recreation Park, it could hold as many as 6,500 spectators and was located in North Philadelphia on an oddly shaped block boarded by Columbia and Ridge Avenues and 24th and 25th Streets. 

The park featured strange dimensions. It was 300 feet down the left-field line, 331 feet to straightaway center, and 369 feet to right-center before the wall tapered to 247 feet down the right-field line. There were no dugouts, benches sufficed, and no locker room. In later years, when professional teams played there, visiting players dressed in the nearby hotels where they stayed and rode horse-drawn carriages to the ballpark.

Although used initially only for baseball, Recreation Park took on another dimension during the Civil War when it became an encampment for Union soldiers. During their idle moments, the soldiers played baseball on the part of the field that was not in use.

1860 was also the year that the Athletic Club began. Often described as “the first real baseball team,” it was led by Colonel Thomas Fitzgerald and played other than Sunday games at Columbia Park at 15th Street and Columbia Avenue. Eventually, the club was said to have 1,000 members.  

The Athletics attracted the best players to the team, which included raiding other area teams of their top players. The club thrived throughout the 1860s, playing not only local teams, but exchanging visits with clubs from other cities such as New York, Brooklyn, and Newark, New Jersey. In 1858, these and other teams formed the National Association, a loosely connected group of squads from New York. Within a few years, the confederation comprised 55 teams, including 40 from Philadelphia, plus others from Pittsburgh, Easton, Johnstown, and West Chester. By 1866, the NA membership totaled 201 teams.  

In 1865, Al Reach, a man whose name would become indelibly etched in the annals of Philadelphia baseball history, became one of the game’s first professional players when he signed with the Athletics for a salary of $1,000 for the season. A left-handed second baseman who was born in England, Reach had played for the Brooklyn Eckfords before becoming Philadelphia’s first pro baseball player.

Eventually, the Athletics, who by then were practicing four days a week, paid other players, too—as much as $25 a week. With teenage pitcher-shortstop Dick McBride, slugger Levi Meyerle, and Reach leading the way, the team became one of the top squads in the nation. So good were the Athletics that in one game they slaughtered the first rendition of the Nationals of Washington, 87–12. In 1865, they played a game against the Atlantics of Brooklyn with an estimated 20,000 people crammed into Columbia Park or sitting on rooftops, in trees, and on the tops of carriages. Then in 1866, the Athletics were scheduled to meet the Atlantics again in what was billed as the “true” baseball championship. With 30,000 fans storming the gates, there was such chaos that the game had to be cancelled. 

In 1866, Philadelphia became the birthplace of another landmark event when the city’s first African American team, the Excelsior Club, was formed. Later that season, another black team called the Pythian Base Ball Club, surfaced. Led by Octavius V. Catto, the club’s promoter, second baseman, and captain, the Pythians would become one of the city’s most noteworthy African American teams, and in a era of strict segregation in sports, the first black team to face an all-white squad. In 1869, the Pythians met the white Olympic Club, losing in a slugfest, 44–23, before an orderly crowd estimated to number 5,000. 

Two years later, Catto, a former Army officer in the Civil War, a teacher at the Institute of Colored Youth (later to become Cheyney University), and a civil rights activist who fought successfully to integrate the city’s streetcars and for the passage of the 15th Amendment—which allowed black males to vote—was murdered by a white segregationist as he walked to his home in South Philadelphia. The Pythians floundered after his death. Other African American teams flourished, however, and in the mid-1880s, the first black professional squads were formed and various leagues began, including one called the National Colored Baseball League. For the rest of the nineteenth century, African American baseball proliferated in Philadelphia with dozens of teams playing throughout the city. 

Meanwhile, quickly becoming the top hitter on the Athletics, Reach was named first-team All-American by the New York Clipper in 1868. Three years later, he was still one of the top players on his team when the Athletics joined the new National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NA), a nine-team circuit that would be the sport’s first professional league. Each team paid $10 to join the league.

The Athletics played at 25th and Jefferson Streets at Jefferson Park (sometimes called Athletic Park), one of nine fields in North Philadelphia that were now used for baseball. Jefferson Park was not only the city’s first fully enclosed field, it was the home of the first team in the nation to win a championship of a professional league.

With Meyerle hitting .492 to become the first batting champion in professional baseball and tying for the league lead with four home runs, Reach recording a .353 batting average, and McBride posting an 18–5 mark on the mound, the Athletics captured the pennant in their last game of the season with a 4–1 victory over the Chicago White Stockings. The Athletics had a final record of 21–7, finishing with a one-game lead over the Boston Red Stockings.

In 1872, the Athletics added a hot young player named Adrian “Cap” Anson, who would play four seasons with the Athletic team, hitting well above .300 each year and once as high as .415. But the team did not finish higher than third in the four remaining years of the NA, while Harry Wright’s Red Stockings won four straight championships. 

Along the way, the Athletics stopped having Philadelphia to themselves. In 1873, they were joined in the league by a new team called the Philadelphia White Stockings. The White Stockings not only argued their way into using Jefferson Park, too, they raided the Athletics of some of their players. In their first year, the White Stockings finished in second place, well ahead of the fifth-place Athletics.

In 1874, in an attempt to introduce baseball to the cricket-minded British, the Athletics and Red Stockings toured England together, meeting in 14 games, seven baseball and seven cricket. The US team won every game. “Our British friends didn’t understand the game and didn’t seem to be anxious to learn it,” Anson said later. “But they fell all over themselves in their effort to make us feel at home.”

That season, the Philadelphia White Stockings changed their name to Pearls and finished fourth, one place behind the Athletics. In a move that spread attendance thinner for each team, the Athletics and Pearls were joined by a squad called the Centennials, that played its home games at Recreation Park (or Centennial Grounds, as some called it) in what had become a 13-team league. 

On July 28 that year, the Pearls’ Joe Borden, recently signed as a 21-year-old amateur and playing under the assumed name of Joe Josephs so his father wouldn’t know that he was playing professional baseball, became the first pro pitcher to hurl a no-hitter. Throwing from a spot that was then 45 feet from home plate and with the rule that a pitcher’s arm had to be below his belt when he threw, Borden blanked the White Stockings, 4–0, in what would be the only no-hitter pitched in the five years of the National Association.

Borden’s feat was easily the highlight of the season and provided one last gasp for the fading National Association. The Athletics were third and the Pearls fifth. The Centennials, plagued by dissension among the players, disbanded before the end of the season. That fall, with attendance dwindling and a new league about to begin, the NA folded. Many of its better players would jump to the new National League (NL), while the Athletics, Pearls, and Centennials continued to play as independent semipro teams. The National League started with eight teams, each paying a $100 entrance fee. The league ruled that each team had to represent a city with at least a 75,000 population. 

The first National League game took place, appropriately, in Philadelphia on April 22, 1876, at Jefferson Park during a year in which the city staged a historic Centennial celebration to commemorate the nation’s 100th birthday. Ironically, Borden, a native of Yeadon in suburban Philadelphia, who was now pitching for the Boston Red Caps, beat the Athletics, 6–5, before an estimated crowd of 3,000. Incredibly, two days later, the Athletics whipped Borden and Boston, 20–3. Before the end of the season, Borden was released. He stayed in Boston as a groundskeeper before eventually returning to Philadelphia to work in Reach’s factory. 

The Athletics team was made up of some players from the Athletics squad of the NA, including Meyerle, plus some new, younger players from the Philadelphia area and other NA teams. In a game in June, the Athletics defeated Cincinnati, 20–5, with George Hall and Ezra Sutton each hitting three triples, the only time that two players from the same team have ever done that. 

The Athletics, however, did not finish the season. Having at one point during the season taken nearly three weeks off to rest at Cape May, New Jersey, team officials decided not to send the team on its final road trip, contending that they had no money to pay for travel expenses. The team finished with a 14–45 record. That December, the Athletics were expelled from the league by a unanimous vote of the six other teams. Subsequently, much of the squad played as an independent team, facing other Philadelphia sandlot clubs. 

In 1882, a new league called the American Association of Base Ball Clubs (AA) (also called the Beer and Whiskey League because many of the team owners were involved in the booze business) was formed. A third team called the Athletics was one of six ballclubs to join the circuit. Among the new Athletics owners was Charlie Mason, an ex-player and owner of a saloon and bookie joint, and Lew Simmons, a minstrel show producer and performer. Bill Sharsig, a theatrical producer who had formed a semipro team in 1880 that he called the Athletics, was another team leader, and later in the decade also became the team’s manager. 

After starting at Oakdale Park at 11th and Cumberland Streets, the Athletics moved following their first year to Jefferson Park. The team finished second in the first year, then in 1883 won the league championship, posting a 66–32 record and edging the St. Louis Browns by one game. Among the members of that Athletics club was a 5-foot-3 second baseman named Cub Stricker. Another member of the Athletics was Harry Stovey, who won his second of five major-league home-run titles that year, and would go on to become an early superstar in the city, and one of the great hitters in early baseball. Stovey played seven seasons with the Athletics and was the first major leaguer to reach 100 career home runs while twice batting over .400.

One year later, yet another new league was formed. While competing with the two other leagues, it was called the Union Association and was considered by its backers to be a “major league.” It consisted of eight teams, including the Philadelphia Keystones, who played in what they named Keystone Park at Broad and Dauphin Streets in North Philadelphia. The site was originally the grounds of the Forepaugh Circus and would later be called Forepaugh Park. But the Keystones, lacking funds and good players, failed to finish the season, disbanding in August with a 21–46 record. At the end of the season, the whole league, losing both players and lawsuits to teams from the other leagues, folded.

By then, though, baseball in Philadelphia had taken a turn that would forever affect the city’s connection with the sport. Starting in the 1883 season, Philadelphia was back in the National League after a six-year absence. Started by Reach and playing at Recreation Park, within a few years the Phillies would become the most prominent team in Philadelphia. In 2013, 131 years after they began, the Phillies were still around, holding a spot as the city’s premier sports team and owner of the longest consecutive, one-city, one nickname franchise in baseball history.

As the 1880s progressed, baseball was played on virtually every corner of the city. Males ranging from young boys to middle-aged men played the game. And if you were a pro and couldn’t find a team in Philadelphia, you’d leave and play somewhere else. Such was the case with Ned Williamson, a Philadelphia native who played with the Chicago White Stockings. In 1884, Williamson knocked 25 home runs, many over the short right-field fence at Chicago’s Lark Front Park, setting a record that was not broken until Babe Ruth smacked 29 homers in 1919. 

Another Philadelphian was Matt Kilroy, a pitcher with the American Association’s Baltimore Orioles. In 1886, Kilroy hurled a no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. A few years later, he came home and established a bar across from the right-field corner of Shibe Park at 20th Street and Lehigh Avenue. Kilroy’s was a hugely popular venue that before, during, and after games catered to legions of fans for more than half a century (it was later called Quinn’s Tavern).

Another player of some note in that era was Athletics pitcher Frank Chapman from Newburgh, New York. His whole big-league career consisted of just one game and five innings in 1887 in which he allowed eight hits and four runs. But Chapman was just 14 years old at the time, the youngest player ever to perform as a major leaguer.

Philadelphia, which had experienced the presence of three professional teams once before, did it again in 1890 when a group of players, who had formed a union because of their dissatisfaction with the league’s $2,500 salary cap, jumped from the NL and AA and formed an eight-team Players (or Brotherhood) League. A number of key players, including Ed Delahanty, left the Phillies and the Athletics to join the new league. The Philadelphia team was called the Quakers, and it also played at Forepaugh Park. 

With the Phillies now playing at Philadelphia Base Ball Park (or Huntington Grounds) at Broad Street and Lehigh Avenue, and the Athletics taking the field for one more year at Jefferson Park, all three teams played home games within about one mile of each other in North Philadelphia. Although each team had its own set of fans, the competition for the spectators’ dollars was fierce. Those dollars didn’t just fly around at the entrance gate, either. Betting in the stands was extremely popular among fans, who would wager not only on final scores, but sometimes on runs scored in an inning or even whether the pitch would be a ball or a strike.

The Players League folded and the AA and the Athletics were in trouble, too. Never again serious contenders for the title after their 1883 crown, the Athletics stayed at Forepaugh Park in 1891. At the end of the season, the whole AA disbanded and four of its teams joined the NL. The Athletics merged with the Phillies, with outstanding A’s Gus Weyhing, Lave Cross, and Bill Hallman playing for the Phils. 

For the rest of the century, the Phillies were Philadelphia’s only major-league team. As the twentieth century approached, though, major changes were in the works. One happened in 1894 in Pittsburgh when the Pirates moved their catcher into the manager’s job late in the season. It was the start of a 57-year managerial career for Cornelius McGillicuddy, later to be called Connie Mack. In 1897, Mack became manager of Milwaukee in the Western League. A few years later, he moved to Philadelphia.

Shortly afterward, the reason for the move became obvious. Western League owners desiring a major league to compete with the National League, hired Byron “Ban” Johnson as president and changed its name to the American League in 1900. Naturally, he wanted to place a team in Philadelphia, and Mack was his personal choice to make that happen.

Mack’s job was to put together a team and find a place for it to play. He recruited Reach’s business partner, Ben Shibe, to become majority owner of the team (Mack wound up owning 25 percent and—incredibly by today’s standards—local sportswriters Sam “Butch” Jones of the Associated Press and Frank Hough of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who had helped Mack form the team, would each own 12.5 percent). Mack also signed players and had a ballpark built at 29th Street and Columbia Avenue in North Philadelphia. Also called Columbia Park, the ballpark was built at a cost of $35,000 and had a seating capacity of 9,500.    

The American League played its first season as a major league in 1901. A sixth Philadelphia team called the Athletics was one of its inaugural members. Mack would go on to serve as the team’s manager for 50 years. The last rendition of the Athletics remained in the city through 1954, along the way winning nine pennants and five World Series. The Athletics, whose presence guaranteed that there would always be a big-league game going on in the city, were the dominant team in Philadelphia until the Phillies won the National League pennant in 1950. 

Long before then, however, Philadelphia’s rich baseball history had been indelibly established. Whether it was the Phillies, the Athletics, notable Negro League teams such as the Philadelphia Giants, the Hilldale Daisies, and the Philadelphia Stars. Or whether it was great players, managers, and executives, or the many other clubs that dotted the city’s landscape, Philadelphia holds a special place at the top of the baseball kingdom. 

Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, who spent nearly 14 years with the Phillies, profoundly summarized that view. “I loved playing in Philadelphia,” he once said. “Playing in Philly always meant something very special to me.”

RICH WESTCOTT is a former newspaper and magazine editor and writer, and is the author of 23 books, including the recently published “Philadelphia’s Top 50 Baseball Players.” Considered the leading authority on Phillies and Philadelphia baseball history, his books include eight on the Phillies, three on Philadelphia’s old ballparks, and a history of Philadelphia sports in the twentieth century. Among his other books are collections of interviews with former baseball players, plus books on no-hitters, 300-game winners, home run hitters, Mickey Vernon, and Eddie Gottlieb. He is the immediate past president of the Philadelphia Sports Writers’ Association.



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