Batter up

As a fan of the Philadelphia Athletics, I highly recommend a book I read recently,  Peter Schilling’s  “The End of Baseball.” Now, you might be thinking, “Philadelphia Athletics?” Yes, I am an A’s fan, because from their founding until 1954, the Athletics were based in my ancestral homeland, Philadelphia. They won seven penants and five World Series there and, until about 1948, Philadelphia was an American League city. (I think this accounts for the low regard in which we hold the New York Yankees, but I digress.)

The Athletics had already been in Kansas City for three years by the time I was born and they were largely forgotten when I became a Phillies fan in ill-fated 1964. When the franchise moved to Oakland in 1968 and starting winning pennants and World Series again, no one seemed to mention the Philadelphia connection. As my interest in baseball waned and my allegiance to the Philadelphia Eagles intenstififed — I’ve been a season ticket holder for 35 years — the A’s were strictly viewed as Oakland’s team, the ones with the funny uniforms. That all changed when my father, a few years before his death, started to talk about his days growing up in Philadelphia as a huge A’s fan. He matter-of-factly remarked that he had attended a game of the 1930 World Series. Later I realized the significance of that statement: my father had seen the greatest baseball team of all time. (Sorry, Murderers Row.)

And so I became a Philadelphia A’s fan, reading most everything I could about the franchise, including, most recently, Peter Schilling’s fine book, which reimagines a 1944 A’s season in which the colorful Bill Veeck buys the team from Connie Mack and, with the help of Franklin Roosevelt (via Walter Winchell), tricks the commissioner of baseball into accepting the integration of baseball. With the top players from the Negro Leagues wearing the blue and white, the Athletics embark upon on a season unlike any other in major league history.

The plot, based on a since-debunked story of Veeck’s attempt to buy the Phillies in 1943, may be far-fetched, but the book does offer an absorbing look at baseball during World War II and the character of American League cities, particularly St. Louis. However, what makes it truly fascinating is the intervweaving of lesser-known events in the history of race relations in the U.S., including the Philadelphia Transit Strike of 1944, the Detroit Race Riot and the Port Chicago Disaster. The book draws vivid portraits of the best Negro League ballplayers of the day, including Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and a young Roy Campanella.  (The artwork accompanying this post is from the book and imagines a 1944 Athletics scorecard.) It perfectly captures what is remembered of the atmosphere of Shibe Park  — I saw my first big league game there —  and its North Philadelphia neighborhood, including one of the most notorious fans in Philadelphia sports history, Pete Adelis, the Leather Lung of Shibe Park.

There are worse ways to pass the time before the All Star Break. (You could be a Marlins fan.)

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