The franchise that would become the modern Athletics originated in 1901 as a new franchise in the American League. The Western League had been renamed the American League in 1900 by league president Bancroft (Ban) Johnson, and declared itself the second major league in 1901.
In 1901, Johnson created new franchises in the east and eliminated some franchises in the West. Philadelphia seems to have been a new franchise created to compete with the National League’s Philadelphia Phillies. Former catcher Connie Mack was recruited to manage the club. Mack in turn persuaded Phillies minority owner Ben Shibe as well as others to invest in the team, which would be called the Philadelphia Athletics. He himself bought a 25 percent interest, while the remaining 25 percent was sold to Philadelphia sportswriters Sam Jones and Frank Hough.
The other 1901 American League teams included the newly-created Baltimore Orioles (now the New York Yankees) and Boston Americans (now Red Sox), as well as a Kansas City franchise relocated to Washington as the Senators (now the Minnesota Twins) and previous members the Chicago White Stockings (now White Sox), Cleveland Blues (now Indians), Detroit Tigers, and Milwaukee Brewers (later the St. Louis Browns and now the Baltimore Orioles).
The new league recruited many of its players from the existing National League, persuading them to “jump” to the A.L. in defiance of their N.L. contracts. One of them was second baseman Nap Lajoie, formerly of the crosstown Phillies. He won the A.L.'s first batting title with a .426 batting average, still an A.L. record. The Athletics as well as the 7 other A.L. teams received a jolt when, on April 21, 1902, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court invalidated Lajoie's contract with the Athletics, and ordered him back to the Phillies. This order, though, was only enforceable in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Lajoie was sold to Cleveland, but was kept out of road games in Philadelphia until the National Agreement was signed between the two leagues in 1903.
The First Dynasty and aftermath
In the early years, the A’s quickly established themselves as one of the dominant teams in the new league, winning the A.L. pennant six times (1902, 1905, 1910, 1911, 1913 and 1914), winning the World Series in 1910, 1911 and 1913. They won over 100 games in 1910 and 1911, and 99 games in 1914.
The team was known for its "$100,000 Infield", consisting of John "Stuffy" McInnis (first base), Eddie Collins (second base), Jack Barry (shortstop), and Frank "Home Run" Baker (third base) and as well as pitchers Eddie Plank and Charles "Chief" Bender. Rube Waddell was also a major pitching star for the A's in the early 1900s before flaming out. According to Lamont Buchanan in The World Series and Highlights of Baseball, the A's fans were fond of chanting, "If Eddie Plank doesn't make you lose / We have Waddell and Bender all ready to use!" Plank holds the club record for career victories, with 284.
In 1909, the A's moved into the majors' first concrete-and-steel ballpark, Shibe Park. This remains the last time in franchise history where a new ballpark was built specifically for the A's. Later in the decade, Mack bought the 25 percent of the team's stock owned by Jones and Hough to become a full partner with Shibe. Shibe ceded Mack full control over the baseball side while retaining control over the business side.
Business took a downturn in 1914. The heavily favored Athletics lost the 1914 World Series to the "Miracle" Boston Braves in a four-game sweep. Miracles often have two sides, and for a few years this "miracle" wrought disaster on the A's. Mack traded, sold or released most of the team's star players soon after, and the team fell into a lengthy slump. In his book "To Every Thing a Season", Bruce Kuklick points out that there were suspicions that the A's had thrown the Series, or at least "laid down", perhaps in protest of Mack's frugal ways. Mack himself alluded to that rumor years later, but also debunked it, asserting that factions within the team along with the allure of a third major league, the Federal League had distracted the team. The facts at least in part support Mack's statement.
The Federal League had been formed to begin play in 1914. As the A.L. had done 13 years before, the new league raided existing A.L. and N.L. teams for players. Several of his best players, including Bender, had already decided to jump before the World Series. Mack refused to match the offers of the F.L. teams, preferring to let the "prima donnas" go and rebuild with younger (and less expensive) players. The result was a swift and near-total collapse, a "first-to-worst" situation.
The Athletics went from a 99–53 (.651) record and a pennant in 1914 to a record of 43–109 (.283) and 8th (last) place in 1915, and then to 36–117 (.235, still a modern major-league low) in 1916. The team would finish in last place every year after that until 1922 and would not contend again until 1925. Shibe died in 1922, and his sons Tom and John took over the business side, leaving the baseball side to Mack. By this time Mack had cemented his famous image of the tall, gaunt and well-dressed man (he never wore a uniform during his managerial career, preferring a business suit, tie and fedora; a not-uncommon practice for managers in his day) waving his players into position with a scorecard (since no one is allowed on the baseball field, during a game, without a proper uniform).
The Second Dynasty (1927–1933)
After that, Mack began to build another winner. In 1927 and 1928, the Athletics finished second to the New York Yankees, then won pennants in 1929, 1930 and 1931, winning the World Series in 1929 and 1930. In each of the three years, the A's won over 100 games.
As it turned out, this would be the Athletics' last hurrah in Philadelphia. Mack again sold or traded his best players in order to reduce expenses. The Great Depression was well under way, and declining attendance had drastically reduced the team’s revenues. The construction of a spite fence at Shibe Park, blocking the view from nearby buildings, only served to irritate potential paying fans. However, the consequences did not become apparent for a few more years, as the team finished second in 1932 and third in 1933.
The Meager Years
The Athletics finished fifth in 1934, then last in 1935. Mack was already 68 years old when the A’s last won the pennant in 1931, and many felt the game was passing him by. Although he had every intention of building another winner, he did not have the extra money to get big stars. Unlike most other owners, Mack had no other source of income aside from the A's, so the dwindling attendance figures of the early 1930s hit him especially hard. He was also unwilling (or unable) to invest in a farm system.
As a result, the A's went into a funk that lasted for over 30 years, through three cities. Save for a fifth-place finish in 1944, they finished in last or next-to-last place every year from 1935 to 1946. In 1936, Tom Shibe died, and John took over the club. However, John resigned due to illness a few months later, leaving Mack as club president. When John died on July 11, 1937, Mack became the Athletics' sole owner. Even as bad as the club got during this time (some believe that many of his teams were major-league in name only), he had no intention of firing himself. Long after most other teams had hired a general manager, he remained essentially a one-man band, making all baseball decisions as well as leading the team on the field. To the surprise of most people in baseball, Mack managed not only to get out of the cellar in 1947, but actually finished with a winning record for the first time in 14 years. They contended for much of 1948 and 1949, only to collapse back to last place again in 1950.
The 1950 season would be the 88-year-old Mack’s 50th and last as A’s manager, a North American professional sports record that has never been threatened. He was reportedly pushed out by his sons from his first marriage, Roy and Earle. During that year, the team wore uniforms trimmed in blue and gold, in honor of the Golden Jubilee of "The Grand Old Man of Baseball".
Final years in Philadelphia
In the late 1940s, Mack split day-to-day control over the team between Roy, Earle and his son from his second marriage, Connie Mack, Jr. After pushing their father out as manager, Roy and Earle assumed control of the team though their father remained nominal owner and team president. In order to do this, the Mack brothers mortgaged the team to Connecticut General Life Insurance Company (now part of CIGNA). However, the team continued to slide (the A's finished with a winning record only once from 1951 to 1954), attendance plummeted, and revenues continued to dwindle. It soon became obvious that the team's cash flow was insufficient to service the new debt, and Roy and Earle Mack began feuding with each other.
At the same time, the Phillies, who had been the definition of baseball futility for over 30 years, began a surprisingly quick climb to respectability. Philadelphia had been an "A's town" for most of the first half of the 20th century, even though for much of the last decade the A's were as bad or worse than the Phillies. However, unlike the A's, the Phillies began spending lavishly on young prospects in the 1940s. The impact was immediate; the Phillies leaped from dead last in 1947 to the World Series in 1950. It soon became obvious that the Phillies had passed the A's as Philadelphia's number-one team.
In spite of the turmoil, some Athletics players shone on the field. In 1951, Gus Zernial led the American League with 33 home runs, 129 runs scored, 68 extra-base hits, and 17 outfield assists; in 1952 he swatted 29 homers and bagged 100 RBI, and hit 42 homers and drove in 108 runs in 1953. Also, in 1952, left-handed pitcher Bobby Shantz won 24 games and was named the league's Most Valuable Player, and Ferris Fain won AL batting championships in 1951 (with a .344 average) and 1952 (with a .320 average). His 1952 batting crown remains the last time an Athletic has led the league in hitting.
By the summer of 1954, it was obvious that the A's could not survive. Though last-minute offers were put on the table to buy the Athletics to keep them in Philadelphia, including one made by a group led by Chicago insurance tycoon Charles O. Finley, the American League owners were determined to "solve the Philadelphia problem" by moving the team elsewhere. On October 12, 1954, the owners approved the sale of the Athletics to another Chicago businessman, Arnold Johnson, who moved the team to Kansas City for the 1955 season.
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