Saving a museum for a forgotten team

Some good news for sports museums, which were challenged for visitors and revenues even before the recession: The Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society has been saved from likely closure.

The small museum devoted to a largely unsuccessful team that left that town nearly 60 years ago moved into trophy company space as part of the reconstituted Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame at the end of April.

After operating since 1998 in suburban Hatboro, the A’s museum fell upon hard financial times (and some claim mismanagement), and earlier this year appeared to be on the brink of shutting down.

Much of the musuem’s memorabilia — at least what wasn’t auctioned to prepare for the move – is devoted to the glory years of the A’s in Philadelphia, from 1929 to 1931, when they won two World Series and rivaled the best team the game had to offer, Babe Ruth’s “Murderer’s Row” New York Yankees.

simply the best(The essential magazine read is William Nack’s Sports Illustrated cover story in 1996; the most recent book treatment is Brett Topel’s 2011 self-published title, “Simply the Best.”)

Connie Mack’s best teams featured eventual Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Al Simmons and Mickey Cochrane, all of whom he economically acquired to build a powerhouse club. But days after the A’s won the World Series over the Cubs, the stock market crashed, and the Depression took a toll at baseball ticket booths. Notororiously parsimonious by nature, Mack had sold the cornerstone pieces of his club over the next three years.

The Philadelphia A’s not only never reached another World Series, they were among the consistently worst teams in baseball before moving to Kansas City in 1954. Mack died a year later.

But the memories — and the stories — resonate deeply with those who recall them, or who wish to preserve them for future generations. Lou Brissie, one of Mack’s late-era journeyman pitchers (and the subject of a 2009 book by Ira Berkow, “The Corporal Was a Pitcher”), told a suburban Philadelphia newspaper last month that Mack wrote to him and other baseball-playing veterans on World II duty, offering to give him a chance in the game after he suffered serious wounds in Italy.

Brissie, who’s now 88, got his chance while wearing a leg brace, pitching for the A’s from 1947 to 1950, and he still maintains ties to the historical society.

Now the last official connection to the Philadelphia A’s has moved back into town, closer to the now-demolished Shibe Park (later Connie Mack Stadium) where the team played. I’ve always felt being close to hallowed ground makes the work of preservation easier, and I’m hoping this is the case with the relocated A’s shrine.

It’s been 20 years since University of Pennsylvania historian Bruce Kuklick published “To Every Thing a Season,” his history of Shibe Park and its impact on a community of north Philadelphia that’s as much an afterthought to locals as the A’s. to every thing a season

In a 2011 interview with Philly Sports History, as the Phillies were three years removed from a World Series title, Kuklick couldn’t help but place that achievement in a larger historical perspective:

Finally somebody says, “Sure the Phillies are great. Sure Chase Utley is great. But is he the greatest 2nd baseman that’s ever played here? Absolutely not. He doesn’t even come close.” People don’t realize that the 1929, 1930, and 1931 A’s are better than even this team today, which I think is the best team this franchise has had.

Here are parts two and three of the Kuklick interview. A snippet:

That ballpark is right in the middle of the city. And you are in the middle of an urban area. And you walk into this park, and it’s dark and there’s concrete around, and then you come up to one of the entrances to the field, and you see this green diamond. There’s just something there that’s just incredible.

And another one:

My wife and I went on vacation one time to Club Med, and we were talking to some people, and we said, “Where are you from?” and this guy said “Wrigleyville.” He didn’t say Chicago. And we knew exactly where he was talking about. That ballpark is known all over the Western World. And every once in a while, I think, “Gee if they had only had the foresight.” But basically that area went through a really terrible period. It’s now come up considerably on its own. It’s a lot less nasty and dangerous than it was.

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