SI Vault
William Nack
August 19, 1996
From 1929 to 1931, the Philadelphia A's were the best team in baseball, with four future Hall of Famers and a lineup that dominated Babe Ruth's legendary Yankees. So why hasn't anyone heard of them?
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August 19, 1996

Lost In History

From 1929 to 1931, the Philadelphia A's were the best team in baseball, with four future Hall of Famers and a lineup that dominated Babe Ruth's legendary Yankees. So why hasn't anyone heard of them?

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That first Athletics-Giants Series, not incidentally, had powerful social overtones. It set the tall, reserved, lace-curtain Irishman from Massachusetts, Cornelius McGillicuddy, against the scrappy shanty Irishman from New York, John McGraw. But the 1905 Series represented something broader than the class divisions among the immigrant Irish on the Eastern seaboard. It symbolized the historic struggle for primacy between the two largest and most prosperous cities in the U.S.: New York and Philadelphia.

In Colonial days Boston had been the first U.S. city in size and importance. But by the end of the 18th century Philadelphia had become ascendant, and so it remained until the mid-1800s, when New York took over as the economic and cultural mecca of the New World. In the early days of the 20th century Philadelphia was the nation's second city, and its teams' most memorable clashes on baseball diamonds—first against the Giants and later against the Yankees—expressed the city's aspiration to reclaim its place as the nation's center.

"The battle between New York and Philadelphia in baseball was symbolic of that battle for urban supremacy," says Bruce Kuklick, Nichols Professor of American History at Penn and author of To Every Thing a Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia. And at the center of the battle, always, was Mack.

It was he who pieced together the powerful A's team that whipped Chicago in the 1910 World Series, four games to one, and then twice crushed the Giants, 4-2 in 1911 and 4-1 in 1913. And it was Mack who, after selling the stars of those teams to avoid a bidding war with the emerging Federal League, ultimately retooled the A's into an even better team through a series of remarkably sage moves in 1923, the year he bought a curveball artist named Rube Walberg; in '24, the year he took rookies Simmons and Bishop to spring training; and in '25, the year he obtained Cochrane and Grove from minor league clubs and, at the urging of one of his retired sluggers, Frank (Home Run) Baker, picked up a grinning, moonfaced farm boy from the Eastern Shore of Maryland: Foxx.

Thus the A's acquired four future Hall of Famers—Simmons, Grove, Cochrane and Foxx—in two remarkable years. By 1928, still fishing, Mack had plucked Haas out of the minors and added a strapping 6'4" graduate of Swarthmore College, George Earnshaw, who threw a blazing heater and a nasty snake. By then Mack was also recycling through Shibe some of the greatest has-beens in the annals of the game, including Cobb and fellow outfielder Tris Speaker. John Rooney, Jerry's brother, recalls the day in 1928, when he was five, that his father took him to the roof of their row house at 2739 North 20th Street. Pointing to the A's outfielders, the elder Rooney said, "See those three men? I want you to remember them. They are Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Al Simmons. Three of the greatest ballplayers of all time."

The Yankees won successive World Series in 1927 and '28, but the latter year it took all they had to keep the salty, emerging A's from stealing the pennant. New York finished 2½ games in front of Philadelphia, but what hurt Athletics fans was not so much losing but losing to the Yankees. "They were terribly disliked in Philadelphia," says Allen Lewis, who in 1928 was an 11-year-old A's fan and who later would become a baseball writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and a member of the Veterans Committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame. "The papers used to write 'Noo Yawk Yankees.' It was ridiculous, but they did."

All of which made '29 the sweeter for the waiting. The A's clinched the pennant on Sept. 14. They had become the new irresistible force in baseball. And while Mack had a superb pitching rotation—Grove finished 20-6 and Earnshaw 24-8—it was he, the manager, who threw the most sweeping curve in World Series history. Two weeks before the season's end, Mack secretly decided to start the Series with Ehmke, a 35-year-old journeyman who had pitched fewer than 55 innings during the year. Mack confided his decision to Ehmke, sending him to scout the Cubs, but told no one else.

The press speculated that Earnshaw or Grove would pitch in the opening game, and not even Ehmke believed that Mack would enable him to fulfill his dream of starting in a World Series. A's the players warmed up at Wrigley Field, Mack refused to name his starter. At one point Ehmke sat down on the bench next to his manager. "Is it still me, Mr. Mack?" he asked.

"It's still you," Mack said.

Fifteen minutes before game time, Ehmke took off his jacket and started to warm up. Jaws dropped in both dugouts. Grove and Earnshaw stared at each other in disbelief. Ehmke hadn't pitched in weeks. Simmons was sitting next to Mack, and he could not restrain himself. "Are you gonna pitch him?" Simmons asked.

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