Sunday, November 23, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Fishtown's heaven for hipster baseball nerds

Before Mike Schmidt's porn stache became an icon in and of itself; before Cole Hamels teased Phillies fans by growing a caterpillar on his lip during Spring Training of 2013 and promptly shaved it off to start the season, washing the team's hopes to stave off mathematical elimination with a little mustache magic down the drain with it; before W.B. Mason adorned an outfield wall and occupied the broadcast time between each inning with awesomely bad commercials for office supplies, there was another mustachioed man who helped foster a rich baseball tradition in the city of Philadelphia. (Well, maybe not rich. But, definitely a baseball tradition.)

Fishtown's heaven for hipster baseball nerds

Image via Baseball Hall of Fame

Before Mike Schmidt's porn stache became an icon in and of itself; before Cole Hamels teased Phillies fans by growing a caterpillar on his lip during Spring Training of 2013 and promptly shaved it off to start the season, washing the team's hopes to stave off mathematical elimination with a little mustache magic down the drain with it; before W.B. Mason adorned an outfield wall and occupied the broadcast time between each inning with awesomely bad commercials for office supplies, there was another mustachioed man who helped foster a rich baseball tradition in the city of Philadelphia. (Well, maybe not rich. But, definitely A baseball tradition.)

His name was Alfred James Reach.

Back in 2012, Reach was on the Pre-Integration Committee ballot along with former Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert and other baseball greats who profoundly impacted the game before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.

Prior to the vote at baseball’s Winter Meetings in 2012, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum Library Associate Bill Francis wrote a biographical piece illuminating Reach’s contributions to America’s pastime.

The A.J. Reach Company would manufacture equipment, including the Reach ball that would eventually become the official baseball of the American League. Reach often joked in his later years that although he played baseball without a glove himself he sold them to the next generation of ballplayers.

“If ever there shone an example of the poor boy who became a millionaire by his own efforts, that example was Al Reach,” wrote W.W. Aulick in 1911. 

Though he was one of the first players to receive financial compensation for his abilities on the field, Reach is mostly remembered for his impact on the game off the field. After playing for and managing the Athletics, Reach was approached with the opportunity to start a franchise in baseball’s new National League. And so, the Phillies began their rich tradition. Tradition. Just "tradition."

Reach also started a sporting goods enterprise in Center City as he opened a modest retail location on South Eighth Street. Later, the storefront moved to a larger space at 1820 Chestnut Street. Today, a blue-and-gold Pennsylvania historical marker stands at the spot outside Boyd’s, designating the location of Reach’s store.

Though the marker is in Center City, the real guts of Reach’s operation were up in Fishtown, where he erected a factory in the early 20th century and employed hundreds of the neighborhood’s citizens, many of whom stitched laces into baseballs in their own homes. Workshop of the World has more on the history of Reach's Fishtown enterprise, including an image from Hexamer General Surveys, which details the layout of Reach's Fishtown factories back in 1893.

Although the mill building at 1709-1719 Tulip Street that housed Reach's original baseball factory does not survive, the present buildings at 1701-1707 Tulip, 1721-1731 Tulip, and 1714-1718 Memphis are related to Reach's most intense and successful era. The company had an important impact on the Fishtown community. A 1916 industrial census indicates that over 1,000 people were then employed at Reach; this figure may not include Fishtowners who sewed covers on baseballs in their homes.

 

In the twilight of Ty Cobb’s career, the polarizing great joined the Philadelphia Athletics and joined Connie Mack and Eddie Collins for a photo op at the Reach factory at Tulip and Palmer Streets in Fishtown. The Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society describes the ordeal:

The “Acme Newspictures” wire photo that accompanies this article shows Connie Mack, Eddie Collins, and Ty Cobb visiting the A.J. Reach manufacturing plant in Philadelphia, where the three men learned how baseballs are made. The photo is dated April 15, 1927 and is one of a series taken that day to chronicle the visit. The factory was built around the turn of the 20th century by baseball manufacturing entrepreneur Alfred J. Reach and his partner Benjamin F. Shibe. Located at Palmer and Tulip Streets in the city’s Frankford section, the plant produced baseballs, gloves, bats, and equipment for other types of sports.

Eighty-seven years later, Reach’s factory is being converted into 30 apartments amid the Great Fishtown Real Estate Rush of 2014. Millennial baseball nerds *raises hand* will be waiting in line to sign leases in blood for the single units that will occupy the space where Reach and his staff used to make the official baseball of the American League and produced Babe Ruth’s glove. The places will set renters back $750-1,000/month. There won’t be any dedicated parking spaces, but there will be a “bicycle garage,” because hipsters.

PlanPhilly wrote about the project last summer:

The building has been vacant since 2004, according to developer Roland Kassis, and he was unable to find a viable industrial use for the property, which is zoned I-2. Kassis said that the city in general and Fishtown in particular have seen a growing demand for small, one- and two-bedroom apartments, which is what he intends to put in the building. According to the zoning application, the developer intends to build a fifth-story addition, roof deck space, and a canopy over the first floor.

The project, designed by architects at Cecil Baker Partners, won the support of the local RCO, Fishtown Neighbors Association, by a vote of 107 to 77. A quick calculation shows that that is not a unanimous vote, and the reason seems to be parking: the planned apartment complex contains none.

Domani Developers didn't return calls for a comment on the status of the project and a representative from Cecil Baker Partners said that the manager of the project didn't respond to our media request, indicating that they weren't ready to update on the progress of the project.

Read more about the development of the former Reach Factory over at PlanPhilly. Read more about Alfred J. Reach and his contributions to the city of Philadelphia and the game of baseball, check out his page over at ExplorePAHistory.com.

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