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Philadelphia's Ballparks, Part I: Turning pro

Remembering the parks that Philly’s pro baseball teams have called home

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“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” – Rogers Hornsby

We scheme and dream about what kind of Phillies team the 2022 season and beyond will bring, but we also daydream about bright green manicured fields, warm sunshine, and the sounds of the game. And in Philadelphia those sights and sounds have played out at professional games in at least 14 different parks, representing the full spectrum from rocky dirt fields to one of the most beautiful and inviting parks in the game.

While Philadelphia doesn't have the trophies to show for it that many other cities do, it nevertheless has a long and proud baseball history. Most of that history took place at sites that have long since been recycled into other uses, so it's always interesting to remember that a non-descript city block, or a church, or parking lot, was once the site of the exploits of Ed Delahanty, or Richie Ashburn, or Dick Allen.

In addition, since those sites no longer exist as baseball fields, it can be difficult to keep track of which team played where and when. This is the first in a series looking at those parks that Philadelphia's professional baseball teams have called home throughout the game's long history in the city. We’ll start with the first venues known to have hosted pro games, and progress through time to the present.

In the beginning...

Baseball grew rapidly in popularity through the middle decades of the 1800s, as various versions of the game and its rules evolved. Amateur teams formed throughout the northeastern U.S. The predominant team in Philadelphia was the Olympic Club (more on the Olympics and early baseball at Our Game). Participation in the game continued to grow through the Civil War, as did its popularity as a spectator sport — many teams operated successfully despite the war, and soldiers on both sides enjoyed the game in their free time.

In 1860, James Kerns (a dancing master, and later politician and U.S. Marshal), formed the Athletic Base Ball Club, and by the end of the Civil War in 1865 it had overtaken the Olympics as the dominant team in the Philadelphia area.

Note, the team name “Athletic” or “Athletics” was a common one for early sports teams, (stemming from the name of the local “Athletic Club”), and there have been at least four professional teams called the Athletics in Philadelphia’s history. Three of those were pro teams in the 19th century, and for clarity we’ll often denote them with a roman numeral:
- Athletics I, 1860 to 1876: played in the professional National Association (the first pro league) from 1871 to 1875, and one season (1876) in the newly formed National League.
- Athletics II, 1882 to 1890 in the American Association
- Athletics III, 1890-91, with one season in the Player’s League (1890), and one in the American Association (1891)

Then came the American League team of 1901-54, which moved to Kansas City and then to Oakland, and we’ll cover them and their parks in a subsequent piece. In addition there were minor league teams with the same name in the late 1800s, and even a football team for one season*.

Without further ado, we’ll start with the earliest park known to have hosted pro baseball in the city:

Athletic Grounds (15th & Columbia)

First field in Philadelphia to be used for professional baseball

When: ~1860-1870
Team (League): Athletics I (amateur National Association)
Champions: best record in the amateur N.A.: 1866, 1867, 1868
Where: ”B” on the map at the end — Northwest corner of Cecil B. Moore Avenue (formerly Columbia Ave) and 15th street, in North Philadelphia (N 39.97893 W 75.15957)
Today: The site is now primarily commercial. It straddles the border of the campus of Temple University, which was founded in 1884.

In the 1860s, the first Athletics club was a member of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), which later came to be referred to as the “amateur association”, to distinguish it from the N.A. of Professional Base Ball Players that came along in 1871.

The amateur N.A. was the first organization to govern the game. It established standard rules and score keeping, and strove to keep the game free of gambling interests. While it professed to uphold amateurism, players were often being paid secretly, and by 1869 it bowed to trends in the game and allowed professional clubs among its hundreds of members.

More on Athletic Grounds from Fair Dealing and Clean Playing:

While still technically amateur during this period, the Athletics and other strong clubs noted the growing attendance and potentially lucrative financial aspects of the game. Enclosed playing fields, allowing admission to be charged, would be built during the 1860’s, with the Athletics field at 15th and Columbia[*] among the first in the country. As early as 1865, the Athletics had even begun to pay salaries to certain players, and in 1869 the nation’s first openly salaried team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, appeared.

[*Columbia Avenue was renamed Cecil B. Moore Avenue from Front to 33rd Streets in 1987, in honor of the late civil rights attorney.]

One of the first players to be paid openly, and possibly the very first, was second baseman Al Reach, who received a weekly payment ostensibly for his commuting expenses from Brooklyn:

In 1865, the old Philadelphia Athletics decided they wanted Reach in their lineup, and lured him from Brooklyn with a contract for $25 a week. By accepting a salary, Reach became the game’s first open professional. The floodgates of change were ready to burst.

The Athletics were one of the best teams in the country in the 1860s, along with the Atlantic club of Brooklyn. The two sides faced off many times through this period — for example one account from Rich Westcott’s very informative book, Philadelphia’s Old Ballparks, about a contest in 1865:

[the Athletics] lost to the Brooklyn Atlantics, 21-15, in a widely anticipated game played before an estimated crowd of 12,000. Newspaper accounts claimed that 20,000 people actually saw the game, with an additional 8,000 who did not get onto the grounds watching it from trees, from rooftops, or through the windows of nearby buildings.

There are some great images of the park here, including this lithograph depicting a match between the Athletics and Atlantic for the baseball championship in 1866.

And another view from the same article:

Zooming in, prominent on the first base side is the Wagner Free Institute, which broke ground in 1859. By the way, a clipping from the Philadelphia Press in 1865 indicates Professor Wagner was not a happy neighbor.

Below is a box score from a game between the Athletics and Washington Nationals at a tournament in Washington, DC:

It’s interesting to see a pitcher bat at the top of the order — by the end of the century even good-hitting pitchers normally batted ninth. Al Reach, of course manning second base. First baseman Nate Burkenstock (or Berkenstock) was already in his 30s at this point, but made history years later when he was pulled out of the stands in 1871 as an emergency fill-in, becoming the earliest born professional player on record.

The approximate location of the Athletics’ field is shown on today's map below. Home plate was near the corner of 17th and Montgomery, now the site of the Philadelphia Police Department's 22nd district headquarters. To the left is the Wagner Free Institute, and to the right is The Liacouras Center on Temple's campus:

Present day maps and street views are from Google Maps.

This is the view today from 17th and Montgomery, i.e. behind where home plate used to be, looking southeast past the police building:

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Jefferson Street Grounds

Site of the first game in National League history

When: 1871-1890
Team (Lg): Athletics I (NA) 1871-1875, (NL) 1876
. . . . . . . . . .White Stockings (NA) 1873-1875
. . . . . . . . . .Athletics II (AA) 1883-90
Champions: Athletics I (NA) 1871, Athletics II (AA) 1883
Where: "E" on the map at the end -- between 25th and 27th Streets, and between Jefferson and Master Streets (N 39.9781, W 75.1762)
Today: Residential/commercial, plus Achieve Academy (formerly Daniel Boone School) and the Athletic Recreation Center and its ball fields

After 1869 professional teams became more prevalent, and in 1871 nine of them formed the first pro league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (National Association for short, or just N.A.). The first Athletics were founding members, and for that first season in 1871 they moved from the Athletic Grounds at 15th and Columbia about 10 blocks west to the Jefferson Street Grounds. Jefferson Street had capacity for 5,000 fans, and was their home field through 1876. It was one of the first enclosed parks in the country, and featured a swimming pool beyond the right field fence.

Jefferson Street Grounds was the setting for a well-known watercolor by Thomas Eakins (1875), “Baseball Players Practicing”. The batter is first baseman Wes Fisler, and the catcher, most likely, John Clapp:

Athletics I: The Athletics won the N.A.’s first pennant in 1871, with one more win than the Boston Red Stockings, before Boston went on to dominate the league’s remaining four seasons. The Athletics had the second best winning percentage over the N.A.’s five-year run, at a lofty .657.

Dick McBride was a star pitcher for them, and twenty-one year old third baseman Levi Meyerle led the league with a gaudy .492 average in 1871. Al Reach was still on the team as their oldest regular at 31 that year and hit .343 (146 wRC+). He was never so good again, but he began a business career in 1874 when he took over a tobacco shop at 4th and Chestnut. He soon expanded it to include sporting goods, and eventually added factories and turned it into one of the largest sporting goods companies in the country. He also founded the Phillies years later, and we’ll pick up his story in a subsequent piece. Future Hall of Famer Cap Anson spent his age 20-23 seasons with the Athletics (1872-1875), hitting a combined .363 with 152 wRC+ on his way to amassing over 3,400 hits.

White Stockings: The Athletics shared the park with another NA team, the White Stockings (also known as the Pearls), from 1873 to 1875. Their roster changed quite a bit from year to year with Levi Meyerle, Candy Cummings, and George Zettlein among those playing for them.

The birth of MLB: The professional National Association was hampered by a lack of a strong league management, leading to unsupervised scheduling, and an unstable roster of clubs. Led by William Hulbert of the Chicago White Stockings of 1870-89, eight teams formed the National League, with a stronger central authority and exclusive territories focused on larger cities only. Several of the N.A. teams moved to the new league, and the N.A. ceased to exist.

The stats of the National Association in 1871-75 are included among the MLB records at sites like baseball-reference.com, and fangraphs.com, but officially it is not considered a major league. Major League Baseball officially began with the start of the National League in 1876.

The Athletics I were a founding member of the National League for the 1876 season, and so when they opened their season at home, Jefferson Street Grounds made history:

The inaugural National League game was played there, on Saturday, April 22, 1876, between the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Red Caps; Boston won 6-5. By a quirk of fate, it was the only NL game played that day, all others being rained out. This game is often pointed to as the beginning of Major League Baseball.

Late in that first 1876 season, both the Athletics and New York Mutuals were in financial trouble and refused to make their scheduled western road trips. In a show of force by Hulbert, both teams were expelled after the season, demonstrating that even teams from the two largest cities would not be permitted to flout league rules.

Athletics II: The second incarnation of the Athletics was one of the founding members of the American Association when it formed in 1882. They played their first season at Oakdale Park in West Kensington, which we’ll cover in another piece, before moving to Jefferson Street for the 1883 season. More from outfielder Jud Birchall’s SABR biography:

The 1883 season marked the Athletics’ return to the newly renovated Jefferson Street Grounds, which the New York Times hailed as the prettiest ballpark in America. It was reported that landscape gardeners made the playing field as “level as a billiard table”. The Athletics’ return to Jefferson Street Grounds posed a unique challenge to Birchall and the other Athletic outfielders. The ballpark, formerly known as Athletics Park, featured tight narrow corners in left and right fields and a deep power alleys that met a cavernous 500 feet away in dead center field. In any event, the ballpark was in great shape and the city of Philadelphia was ready to usher in one of the greatest baseball seasons the city would ever experience.

Not only did Philadelphia have the “finest ballpark in America” in 1883 in Jefferson Street Grounds, the city also had a second major league team. The Phillies were in their first season of play in the National League just a few blocks away at Recreation Park, which we’ll cover in a separate piece.

The Athletics won the AA pennant in 1883, and while they never repeated that, they still wound up their nine-year run with a respectable .529 winning percentage. Notable players for the Athletics II included catcher and future Hall of Fame manager Wilbert Robinson, and pitcher Al Atkinson, one of first to throw multiple no-hitters. However their best player was outfielder/first baseman Harry Stovey, who led the AA in home runs three times with the Athletics, and while Babe Ruth broke Roger Connor’s career home run mark of 138, before Connor the record belonged to Stovey, with 122.

Competition for fans from the Phillies was already hurting the Athletics at the gate, and then things got worse:

The last straw for the AA Athletics, and several other American Association teams, was the creation of the Players’ League in 1890. The established leagues lost players to the upstart league, player salaries soared (by the standards of the day), and there simply were not enough fans to support three baseball leagues.

Though the Players’ League folded after a single season, it had taken its toll. In September 1890, the Athletics released or sold their players and finished the season with a pick-up team, losing the final 21 games.

The Jefferson Street site is often treated as a single ballpark, but the 1870s diamond was located in the opposite corner from the diamond used by the Athletics of the 1880’s. In the years after the first incarnation of the Athletics were expelled from the National League following the 1876 season, 26th street was cut through and the eastern half was developed. The Athletics then used the diamond in the northwest corner. Below is the site as it appears on maps today, from 27th Street to 25th, and from Jefferson down to Master:

The Achieve Academy school is now in the upper right area of the rectangle, and this is looking back west across 26th from Achieve Academy, towards the 1880s home plate:

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Another view today — 26th Street splits the rectangle in two, and this is looking west from 26th towards the field that’s behind the building:

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Summary Timeline and Map

Since we’re going park by park, team timelines will fill in as all their parks are included.

Look for Part II: The Phillies begin play

While we’re most concerned with fields used by professional teams here, another prime spot for baseball in its amateur heyday of the 1850s and ‘60s was Camac Woods. This site was located in what is now the heart of the Temple University campus: 12th Street, between Berks and Montgomery Avenue.

More on that here: Camac Woods: Camac Woods and Early Philadelphia Baseball.
Also here: Baseball and Brotherly Love
And finally here, where it’s determined to likely be the first enclosed field in the game’s history: July 24, 1860: The first enclosed ballpark (enclosing the field, and so being able to charge admission, was a key development for professional baseball)

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Further reading:

Philadelphia’s Old Ballparks - Rich Westcott
There Used to Be a Ballpark Right Here - Athletics Park - Tom Shieber
The Jefferson Street Ball Parks (1864–91) - Jerrold Casway
Know Your History! A.J. Reach, His Influence on Fishtown and Major League Baseball - Spencer Homan
Fair Dealing and Clean Playing - Neil Lanctot

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