With One More Title, the Eagles Would Finally Match the A’s
Bobby Shantz moved into his home in Ambler, Pa., in 1954, the same year the Philadelphia Athletics moved away. Shantz is still there now, at 97 years old, a little left-hander in winter, eager to watch his hometown Eagles in the Super Bowl this Sunday.
“Oh, yeah, I root for the Eagles,” Shantz said by phone this week. “They’re getting so cocky, I’m almost ready to root for Kansas City, though. I always liked their coach. I don’t care who wins, to tell you the truth, but I can’t wait till the game starts because I love to watch football.”
If the Eagles beat their former coach, Andy Reid, and the Chiefs on Sunday, Shantz’s old franchise will have company — at long, long last — atop the Philadelphia sports empire. It would be the Eagles’ fifth title, after N.F.L. crowns in 1948, 1949 and 1960, and a Super Bowl victory in 2018, matching the A’s for most championships in the history of a sports-mad city.
The A’s packed up for Kansas City, Mo. — on their way to Oakland, Calif., as it turned out — with five World Series titles. Given nearly seven decades to equal the feats of Connie Mack’s teams, the city’s other franchises in M.L.B., the N.F.L., N.B.A. and N.H.L. have still not quite done it.
The Phillies, 76ers and Flyers have won two championships apiece. (The Philadelphia Warriors also won two before moving to San Francisco in 1962.) Seventeen cities or regions have at least one current pro franchise with five titles; New England alone has four such teams. But in Philadelphia, the A’s still reign.
“That’s amazing, because when I followed the A’s, they were just kind of a middle-of-the-road team,” said Jim Kaat, the Hall of Fame pitcher, whose father, John, raised him in Michigan to love the A’s. “But I remember my dad talking about them, and looking them up in the history books — I had every baseball guide from 1900, because my dad collected them, and I could look up those old championship teams they had.”
Kaat, 84, would listen to A’s games on the radio when the team traveled to Chicago, close enough to get a signal across Lake Michigan. He especially admired Shantz, a 5-foot-6 wonder who went 24-7 to win the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 1952. That was the last winning season for a team that won championships in 1910, 1911, 1913, 1929 and 1930.
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‘I still get letters in the mail from people, and they ask me what the difference was between Connie Mack and Casey Stengel. I say, “One never said anything and the other never shut up!”’
Bobby Shantz, who signed an autograph for Mack during his magical 1952 season.
The first winning era featured stars like Eddie Collins, Eddie Plank, Chief Bender and Home Run Baker (career high in homers: 12). The second was the prime of Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Cochrane, Al Simmons and Lefty Grove, who so inspired John Kaat that he drove to Cooperstown, N.Y., for Grove’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1947. Kaat even made a pilgrimage to Grove’s bowling alley in Lonaconing, Md.
“When I went through the Hall and saw where my plaque was going to be,” said Kaat, who was inducted last summer, “I had my picture taken touching Lefty Grove’s plaque.”
Shantz could not make it to the ceremony, but his health is still good and his memory is sharp — though he is a bit too young to remember the last Philadelphia A’s title, in 1930, when he was five years old. Shantz, who grew up in Pottstown, Pa., joined the A’s in 1949 and knew Bender, Simmons and Bing Miller — who doubled home Simmons to win the 1929 World Series over the Chicago Cubs — as coaches on Mack’s staff. Bender was Shantz’s first major league pitching coach — a very nice man, he said, though he did not share the secrets of his slider, a pitch he pioneered.
“No, he didn’t try to teach me — he didn’t figure I was worth teaching, I guess,” Shantz said, laughing. “He always kept telling me, ‘Keep the ball down, keep the ball down, try to keep it around the knees.’ So I tried to keep the ball as low as I could and try to get a strike.”
Shantz, who later played for three Yankees’ pennant winners in a 16-year career, is the last surviving player to have played for Mack — officially, that is. Mack, who also owned the team, was 87 years old when he managed his final season in 1950.
“Connie had a son Earle, and he ended up doing most of the managing, because Connie was very quiet; he never said a heck of a lot,” Shantz said. “I still get letters in the mail from people, and they ask me what the difference was between Connie Mack and Casey Stengel. I say, ‘One never said anything and the other never shut up!’”
Mack managed a record 53 seasons (18 more than Tony La Russa, who is second), with bursts of glory and epochs of misery. In that way, his Philadelphia A’s mirror their descendants in Oakland, who succeed for a while, then sell off their stars, always flirting with relocation.
The Oakland Athletics (1972-74) are the only team besides the Yankees to win three consecutive World Series. The Philadelphia version came within one victory in 1931 of doing the same, with a group that John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, believes was even better than the fabled Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
“They were better until they weren’t — and then they had a long drought,” Thorn said. “And the drought may have been self-induced because Mack didn’t have the money to develop his farm system or to acquire talent at the highest level as he had in the ’20s.”
The Phillies provided little comfort for local fans. In nine of Mack’s 17 last-place seasons with the A’s, the Phillies also had the worst record in the National League. In 1980, they became the last of the original 16 franchises to win a World Series, and added a second championship in 2008.
“The A’s and the Phillies were both last-place teams for so long, in tandem, that there’s hardly a soul alive who recalls the last great A’s team,” Thorn said. “But the A’s were competitive in the early 1950s, after Mack was gone.”
That limited success (fourth place in 1952) was due mostly to Shantz, whose miracle season ended in late September when a pitch from Washington’s Walt Masterson shattered his left wrist. He slumped to 5-9 in 1953.
“The following year I was lucky to get anybody out,” Shantz said. “I don’t think I won too many ballgames, and none of our pitchers seemed to be able to get anybody out. That’s when everybody thought we were going to leave town. They had to do something, and in 1954, we didn’t draw anything and we moved out of there.”
Only 1,715 fans attended the final A’s game in Philadelphia, a 4-2 loss to the Yankees on Sept. 19, 1954, at Connie Mack Stadium. A week later, the Eagles opened their season there to much greater fanfare; a crowd of 26,546 saw them beat the Cleveland Browns.
Six years later, the Eagles would win their third championship, 17-13, over the Green Bay Packers in Vince Lombardi’s only career postseason loss. Lombardi’s name adorns the trophy the Eagles hope to grasp on Sunday, when they can finally join their long-ago neighbors in Philadelphia sporting supremacy.