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SABR panel delves deep into Philly baseball history

Society for American Baseball Research discusses 1929 A's, '93 Phillies prominently

PHILADELPHIA -- Even in this room, these men had uncommon knowledge. The Society for American Baseball Research put together a scholarly group of authors Friday for an enlightening panel discussion that explored the deep roots of the game in Philadelphia and back to the 19th century.

Most baseball fans know that the roots of the game go back beyond the American League and the National League, but they probably don't know it goes all the way back before the Civil War.

And not because Abner Doubleday invented it. Richard Hershberger, an author and expert on 19th century baseball, delved deep into the origins of the game. He said that the primitive version of baseball played in Philadelphia, town ball, had several similarities and differences to today's game.

The major difference? The bases were about 20 feet apart, he said, and a complete circuit around the bases was less than the distance from home plate to first base in the modern game. Hershberger said the ball probably didn't have much life to it, but that's one rare thing we can't know for sure.

"The game that was played in Philadelphia is unusually well documented, because it was played up to the Civil War and a little bit beyond. There are box scores. There are game accounts," Hershberger said. "When I say that it's a pre-modern version of baseball, what makes it baseball is that it has bases and it has a ball, and for the purposes of this discussion, it has a bat. And it has innings. So you have a team that's out in the field and a team that's at bat. A pitcher tries to throw the ball. A batter tries to hit the ball. The fielders try to catch the ball. The fielders try to put the runner out. That's baseball."

Indeed, those are the core characteristics of baseball that anyone can recognize, but some things aren't as easy to discern. For instance, where was the first enclosed baseball stadium? That depends on whom you ask, and at a SABR conference, that can result in wildly different answers.

John Thorn, the moderator for Friday's panel, advocated for the Union Grounds in Brooklyn, N.Y., but panel member Dr. Jerry Casway insisted that a local Philadelphia venue came first. They still hadn't come to an agreement by the end of the panel, but some things were seen in great clarity.

Norman Macht, the author of a three-volume biography on Connie Mack, shared his insights with the crowd on one of baseball's most beloved figures. Macht said he met Mack once as an 18-year-old, and he said that despite knowing him for 10 minutes, Mack was the most impressive man he's ever met.

"I've been accused by people who read the first three books of having my affection for him come through," said Macht of Mack. "And I don't think it's as much an accusation as it is a tribute. Because, in fact, I did not know the man and what came through was what I learned. What came through was the love and respect for him that his players had, that the newspaper writers that knew him well had, that the fans had for him all over the country. That his friends -- who were his friends for life once they met him -- had for him. I just want to make it clear that I had no biases. I went into it with no previous idea or preconcieved attitude toward him. Everything I found was reflected in what I wrote."

Thorn, stepping back into the fray, asked Macht if he thought Mack had broken up the 1914 Philadelphia Athletics due to a rumored World Series fix. Macht said that he felt the rumor was baseless, and furthermore, he even debated whether Mack had conducted a firesale.

"Between the end of the 1914 season and the start of the 1915 season, Connie Mack sold one player," Macht said. "Eddie Collins had been approached by the Federal League. He did not intend to jump to the Federal League, but Connie Mack realized that he could never pay Collins what he was worth.

"Connie Mack said to Collins, who did not want to leave Philadelphia: 'If you go to the White Sox, you will make a lot more money than I'll ever be able to pay you. If you don't want to go to the White Sox or anywhere else, you don't have to go.' ... When Collins found out what Charles Comiskey was willing to pay, he said, 'You'd have to be crazy not to take it.' And he took it and went to the White Sox."

Mack, amazingly, first took over the Athletics in 1901 and managed all the way through 1950, when he was 87. Macht said that he undoubtedly hung on too long and that by the end, people had forgotten the good times, but that they were still sad to see the Athletics move in 1955.

Philly may no longer be a two-team city, but Mack's Athletics won nine pennants and five World Series titles over his long stewardship. And if you listen to panel member David Jordan, they may have had the greatest team of all-time. For Jordan's money, nobody has ever been better than the 1929 A's.

"The 1911 A's were a very fine ballclub. However, in my opinion, the 1929 Philadelphia Athletics were the greatest team of all-time. This doesn't go over big in New York," Jordan said. "The A's of 1929 finished 18 games ahead of the Yankees, who still had most of the players from their great 1927 team on board. This was a team with Mickey Cochrane behind the plate and Al Simmons in the outfield. Jimmie Foxx. They had Hall of Famers all over the place. They had Lefty Grove, who may have been one of the very greatest left-handed pitchers of all-time. It was a great team and I've always thought that they were the best team of all-time. ... It's tough to match them and I'd put them up against anybody."

Rich Westcott, a Philadelphia sportswriter who has authored more than 20 books, provided insight into a more recent local team -- the 1993 Phillies. Westcott, who covered the team, said that the '93 Phillies were a really fun ride, despite ultimately losing in Game 6 of the World Series to the Blue Jays.

"It was a team that was very hard working, very determined," Westcott said. "They wanted to win every game and played hard to do that. Conversely, it was also a team made up of a bunch of loose cannons, in a way. Funny guys. Comedians. Very good at such things as cursing, swearing, spitting, drinking something stronger than a lemonade. And it was a very colorful group. Darren Daulton referred to the group as a bunch of 'gypsies, tramps and thieves,' and Daulton was the acknowledged team leader.

"Daulton sat in a lounge chair inside his locker and presided over the rest of the clubhouse, surrounded by a group that consisted of [Lenny] Dykstra, [John] Kruk, [Dave] Hollins and [Pete] Incaviglia. And that section was known as Macho Row. This team had a lot of nicknames, one of which was the Broad Street Bellies. ... This was a team of some very good players, but no superstars."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for