21st & Lehigh

-Stephen Pagano

For a long time, North Philadelphia has been associated with crime, drugs, and poverty; however, many people don’t know that it’s also linked to our national pastime. In fact, Philadelphia once had two baseball teams, the Phillies and the Athletics. The A’s played in Columbia and Shibe Park, and the Phillies played in the Baker Bowl.

Shibe Park was constructed in the early 20th century, and officially opened on April 12th, 1909. The stadium was named after Philadelphia Athletics’ owner Benjamin Shibe. It resided on the corners of 21st, Lehigh, and Somerset streets in North Philly. At the time, this state-of-the-art ballpark was the first with a steel and concrete design in all of Major League Baseball. It sported some 20,000 seats; a big departure from the Athletics’ former home – Columbia Park – which had limited capacity. A’s longtime manager Cornelius McGillicuddy, better known as “Connie Mack”, helped the Athletics win three World Series titles in four years at Shibe Park in its early existence.  

In 1936, Connie Mack took over as the team’s full owner after buying the majority shares off the remaining Shibe family. In doing so, he immediately made changes to the ballpark. He installed bright stadium lights, which allowed for the first night game in American League history. Connie Mack also installed the notorious “spite fence” in the outfield. This move allowed for more seating in the ballpark; however, also blocked the views of the fans sitting on the rooftops that occupied Somerset Street. Between the fence and the lighting, the neighbors were outraged. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, the Philadelphia Phillies were looking for a new residence as their stadium – the Baker Bowl – was crumbling down and inadequate.

In 1938, the Phillies left the ageing Baker Bowl and moved into Shibe Park at 21st & Lehigh Avenue. This single move may have saved the Phillies franchise as we know it. Their poor seasons and lousy attendance numbers would not have landed them a new stadium any time soon. The Phillies were a really bad team until 1950 when Richie Ashburn, Robin Roberts, and the rest of “The Whiz Kids” won the National League Pennant. The Phillies lost that World Series, but it was clear that Philly only wanted one team. In 1953, Shibe Park was renamed to Connie Mack Stadium.

The Philadelphia Athletics fans stopped filling the seats in the 1950s as the A’s were a last place team. In 1954, a Chicago businessman named Arnold Johnson proposed a deal that would move the struggling A’s to Kansas City. Just two short years after this move, legendary manager Connie Mack passed away at the age of 97. A statue of him was erected across the street from his ballpark in North Philly.

In 1964, just one year after President JFK was assassinated in Dallas, the Phillies were one of the best teams in baseball; but they’d complete the biggest collapse in modern baseball history. It became known as the “Phold of 64”, as the Phillies blew the division lead with just two weeks to play. In 2007 the New York Mets mirrored this collapse, as the Phillies overtook them within the final two weeks of the season, to win the National League East. As the late 1960s progressed, it was clear that Connie Mack Stadium was on its last legs.

On October 1st, 1970, the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Montreal Expos in the final game at the decrepit Connie Mack Stadium. Fans literally tore the place down as the game was unfolding. Seats were removed, signage was taking down, and people stormed the field afterwards. In the years that followed, the stadium was left to rot as fires and looters invaded the broken-down building.

In 1976, the eyesore that once housed both the Phillies and Athletics was finally demolished. More than 40 years later, the former ballpark site is now occupied by the Deliverance Evangelistic Church and there’s a historical marker located outside. There’s also a row of seats featured from Shibe Park – aka Connie Mack Stadium – in the Baseball Hall of Fame, located in Cooperstown, NY. The iconic Connie Mack coached the A’s for 50 years, and also owns the records for most wins, losses, and games managed. His 13-foot statue now resides at Citizens Bank Park, after being housed at Veterans Stadium for 32 years.

Over the years, I’ve had many of my older friends and family members share their experiences with me about visiting Connie Mack Stadium. Most of their stories are very similar. They all recalled, “It was a wonderful place to watch a game. The smell of cigars, roasted peanuts and hot dogs always filled the air. It was a different time; it was the good old days watching baseball at 21st & Lehigh.”

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