A Starry-Eyed Kid At Philadelphia's Shibe Park
FOR boys growing up in the 1930s and '40s, life centered around baseball in a way that even the most avid young fan today would find hard to comprehend. There wasn't much competition for leisure time in those simpler, quieter days: no TV, no video games, no rival sports of consequence (pro football was strictly a minor attraction; the National Basketball Association didn't exist). So we played, talked, read about, and listened to baseball. And the ultimate thrill was to go to an actual major-league game . In my case that meant the Phillies and the A's in Philadelphia's old Shibe Park, where I spent thousands of enjoyable hours - many of them still firmly implanted in memory. Imagine, then, my happy surprise upon encountering a book about that ballpark and those days.
"To Everything a Season" is Bruce Kuklick's appropriate title for a work that chronicles the history of "Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia, 1909-1976" (Princeton University Press). Kuklick is not a sportswriter, but an academician: the Mellon Professor of Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. His book is not only a story of the baseball played in Shibe Park, but a "biography" of the entire community - an urban history dealing with all the usual issues (class, race, deterioration, renewal) and th e
people involved, including not just owners and ballplayers, but employees, fans, neighborhood residents, real-estate speculators, politicians, and many others.
The book thus transcends its geography and special subject matter to become a valuable study for anyone interested in cultural and urban history. But of course it has added appeal for baseball fans who remember those days - and most of all for those who grew up there. It recalls the opening of the park as the first concrete and steel baseball facility in 1909; its renaming as Connie Mack Stadium in 1953; its abandonment (first by the A's, who left town after the 1954 season, then by the Phillies, who mo v
ed to the new Veterans Stadium in 1971); and finally its decay and eventual demolition in 1976.
"There used to be a ball park at Twenty-first and Lehigh," writes Kuklick in his epilogue, "but Shibe Park had its time, and then its time was over."
My part of that time began during World War II - already well past the park's greatest days of glory. The A's teams I watched in those days were bare shadows of the powerhouses Connie Mack had put together in earlier decades, while the Phillies were simply a continuation of that franchise's long history of futility.
As a starry-eyed 10-year-old, though, I hardly recognized that fact - nor would I have cared about it anyway. These were my teams; names few people today have heard of, like Jimmy Wasdell and Elmer Valo, were my heroes; this was my park, and nothing could beat the excitement of going to a big-league baseball game. Of course, reading Kuklick's engrossing account reawakened those memories.
Who can forget his first major-league game - in my case a contest between the Phillies and the old New York Giants, with the home team scoring a rare victory? And the subsequent parade of thrills during those wartime years and early postwar years: Babe Ruth, even in retirement the biggest attraction of all, making an appearance and actually speaking to me (so what if the words were, "Hey, kid, this pen don't write"?); collecting other autographs by the hundreds - all for fun in those days, with never a h
int of the sorry commercialism that has taken over this pastime today; the amazing sight of Pete Gray playing for the old St. Louis Browns with one arm; and of course DiMaggio, Williams, Feller, Musial, Aaron, and all the other greats who came through.
I was there on the momentous day when Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Philadelphia, just as he did in park after park throughout the spring of 1947, and four years later when the 20-year-old Mays made his major-league debut. I sat in awe of all those New York Yankee and Brooklyn Dodger powerhouses through the years, but cheered most of all, of course, for our own Whiz Kids of the early 1950s. This just scratches the surface of all the great games, great stars, and great moments I enjoyed.
It ended for me in 1966. By then I was living in Maine with a 13-year-old son who had never imagined the ballpark of my own youth. The Dodgers, by then in Los Angeles, of course, were playing the Phillies on the final day of the season with first place at stake (only for the Dodgers, of course). So we drove all the way to Philadelphia - and were rewarded by great drama as Sandy Koufax pitched what turned out to be his last regular-season game and won it to clinch the pennant.
Thus ended my 23-year odyssey at 21st and Lehigh, and a few years later the whole story was over. It is a story worth telling and preserving, though, and we are fortunate that Kuklick has done so in his most welcome book.