This weekend, as they visit their ancient homeland for an interleague series with the Phillies, the Oakland Athletics will enter a baseball atmosphere that has been as rare in Philadelphia as inspired civic leadership.
Once a sports afterthought in a market the Eagles came to dominate, the Phillies have become a Philadelphia phenomenon, a wildly popular amalgam of red, white, and gold.
Citizens Bank Park is sold out for the three-game series with Oakland, packed with jersey-wearing fans whose passions have been inflamed by a Phillies team that since 2007 has won four consecutive National League East titles, two pennants, and a World Series. The Phillies are No. 1 in baseball attendance, No. 2 in payroll. Their roster is loaded with all-stars. They have become huge attractions on local TV and in opponents' ballparks.
A generation of Phillies fans, many recent converts who knew little but baseball frustration, now understandably believes that this is the golden era of Philadelphia baseball.
But is it?
Though Philadelphia's 128-year history as a major-league city has been marked by much more failure than success, there have been a few - painfully few - other periods of extended success. Four, in fact - roughly one every 30-plus years.
From 1910 to 1915, Connie Mack's A's won three World Series, while a few blocks away on Lehigh Avenue the Phillies made their first appearance in one. The 1929-31 Athletics are among baseball's most talented teams ever, having captured two world championships and three consecutive pennants in their shamefully brief reign. And from 1976 to 1983, the Phillies won five division titles, two pennants, and their first World Series while reawakening this city's baseball ardor.
Was one team, one era superior to the others? It's difficult to say. Each had its merits and shortcomings. But while changes in lifestyles, economics, fitness, and technology make inter-era comparisons difficult and ultimately pointless, with the A's back in the town they once owned, it seems like an apt time to try.
Pros: In terms of on-the-field success, it's difficult to argue against this period. The Athletics won pennants in 1910, 1911, 1913, and 1914, and World Series in 1910, 1911, and 1913. Brand-new Shibe Park, built in 1909, was baseball's best facility. The Phillies, who played blocks away in the Baker Bowl, finished above .500 in four of those six seasons. The National Leaguers were 28 games above .500 in 1913 and two years later won the franchise's first pennant.
Cons: The A's and Phils never drew more than a combined 910,000 in any of these seasons. But remember, this was at a time when baseball was played exclusively during the day, at an hour when most baseball fans were working. Neither team had smart financial leadership, and the dropoff after 1915 was precipitous, particularly for the A's, who, in response to competition from the new Federal League, unloaded their stars.
Stars: Do you think Philadelphia is loaded with pitching talent now? Between the A's and Phillies, there were at least five future Hall of Fame arms: Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, and Herb Pennock on the A's, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Eppa Rixey on the Phils. The A's, managed by a young and vital Mack, also had Frank "Home Run" Baker and Eddie Collins in the infield.
Buzz: Baseball was the unchallenged king of American sports. And Philadelphia, at that time, might have been its capital. Reach Sporting Goods, which supplied big-league baseballs, bats, and gloves, was located here. So was the popular sports magazine The Sporting Life. The A's were the best team and Shibe Park among the game's best facilities. And even given the relatively primitive state of mass communications, the city's baseball stars were among its best-known citizens, regulars in the columns of a dozen daily newspapers. Parades, banquets, and vaudeville appearances by the players went on for weeks after their 1910 title.
Ranking: No. 1 in a race that goes down to the wire.
Pros: The present Phils era already has produced several franchise firsts - most notably four straight division titles (2007-10) and two consecutive World Series appearances (2008-09). This era also might be the only one of those discussed here in which a team was transformed in mid-dynasty. While at first the Phillies won with power and offense, they now are doing so with pitching and defense. Team coffers have never been so flush, and the team has shown a willingness - almost an eagerness - to spend.
Cons: Like all the other golden eras of Philadelphia baseball, this one won't last forever. And unless this core of players can produce another world championship for a fan base that's come to expect nothing less, their legacy could forever be tarnished.
Stars: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins might not end up as Hall of Famers, but each will be recalled as the best Phillie ever at his position. Curiously for a team that began this run as big boppers, it might be the pitching staff that produces its Hall of Famers. Roy Halladay seems a lock at this point, and Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels could each follow him to Cooperstown.
Buzz: This is where this era has a big edge. Phillies caps and jerseys are ubiquitous. The team's fan base has expanded to include far more women and young adults than ever. Neither Mack nor Bill Giles could have anticipated 200 sellouts in a row, which is something this team soon will accomplish. Of course, technology has given the current era a huge advantage in marketing and promotions. The Cleveland Indians, 30th in 2010 attendance with a little more than 1.3 million, would have been No. 1 in any of the other periods noted. Every Phillies game is televised, on radio, and streamed live online.
Ranking: A close No. 2 for reasons that go beyond the field.
Pros: While the post-1915 Phillies took several decades to recover, Mack rebuilt the Athletics in 15 years. The result may be the single-best Philadelphia team ever. Those A's won 313 games in three seasons. They dominated the American League despite the enormous presence of the Murderers Row Yankees, with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, et al. They went 104-46 in '29, finishing an astonishing 18 games ahead of the Yanks. In '30, they were 102-52 and 16 games in front of third-place New York. In '31, they had an even better regular season, going 107-45 and winding up 131/2 games better than the Yankees.
Cons: Their reign was shorter than it needed to be. Mack, as always, needed capital, and to get it he prematurely tore apart his second and last dynasty. If that team had stayed together for a few more seasons, it could have become the best in history. Mack's punishment was never being able to recapture the magic. The Philadelphia A's did not win another pennant.
Stars: Some of baseball's all-time greats populated those A's teams. In fact, the Society of American Baseball Research's list of the top 100 players of all-time includes four - first-baseman Jimmie Foxx (14), pitcher Lefty Grove (33), catcher Mickey Cochrane (50), and outfielder Al Simmons (66). The MLB Network recently named Grove the best lefthanded pitcher of all time.
Buzz: Two World Series wins in three straight appearances is just one step shy of perfection, so this team generated plenty of hype - hometown and national - in its own era and for the future. Most of those photos you see of crowds lining the rooftops of homes surrounding Shibe Park were from this period. The A's were fifth in baseball attendance each of those three seasons, and the World Series games here were massive civic events.
Ranking: No. 3. In terms of pure baseball talent, the best era, but its brief run cost it.
Pros: The long baseball sleep that Philadelphia fell into in 1932 - a snooze broken only briefly by 1950's Whiz Kids - ended in this era of artificial turf, hair perms, and powder-blue road uniforms. These Phils finally reaped the rewards of Carpenter's investment, reaching postseason play in 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, and 1983. They won a franchise-record 101 games twice - in '76 and '77. More important, they captured the franchise's first World Series (1980) and helped a city forget about the traumas of 1964 and 1977.
Cons: This team should have won more than one World Series. The Phillies captured their division titles by besting an outstanding Pittsburgh Pirates team, but faltered annually in the NL Championship Series, losing painfully to Cincinnati and, in consecutive years, the Los Angeles Dodgers. The breakup came in 1982 - though the '83 Wheeze Kids squeezed out one last pennant - and probably could have been done more gradually.
Stars: Future Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton anchored the lineup and rotation, respectively. Straddling the dawn of free agency, this club stayed together for a lengthy period. Homegrown talents such as Schmidt, Bob Boone, Larry Bowa, and Greg Luzinski were supplemented by Carlton, Paul Owens acquisitions Garry Maddox, Bake McBride, and Tug McGraw, and finally by free agent Pete Rose.
Buzz: This era's Phillies had a more complex relationship with the city and its fans than the other teams noted here. Playing on the cusp of a seismic shift in sports coverage, it still garnered considerable interest and fervor - averaging more than 30,000 fans a game - and its TV and radio following exploded. But these Phils weren't particularly lovable. They feuded with the media, the fans, and themselves. All was forgotten, however, in the explosion of civic joy that followed their '80 championship.
Ranking: No. 4, primarily because it won just one championship.
Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, firstname.lastname@example.org,
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