Do you like baseball the way it is played at Fenway Park, with the Green Monster looming behind every pitch? If you do, then you would have loved Philadelphia's Shibe Park some 60 years ago. There, out in rightfield, was the most controversial fence in baseball.
When Shibe Park, home of Connie Mack's world-renowned Philadelphia Athletics, opened on April 12, 1909, the distance down the rightfield foul line was 360 feet. And in that era of the dead baseball, rarely did the ball travel that far. (Pick up a bat sometime and try to hit a croquet ball that distance in the air. Then you'll have the idea.) Indeed, the coziest aspect of the Shibe Park "wall" was its height: 12 feet. It was high enough to block the view of passersby and just far enough from the plate to keep most long drives inside the ballpark. But from the second-story windows and the rooftops of the houses across North 20th Street, spectators had a perfect view of all the A's home games. Therein lies the story.
By the 1920s, Shibe's grandstands had been rebuilt and home plate relocated. The distance down the rightfield line was now 329 feet. And by then, the game of baseball had changed. The cork-centered ball was in use, trick pitches like the spitter were banned, and the big lefthanded hitters of the day—notably Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig—spent many afternoons blasting baseballs at friendly fences in Shibe and a few other parks. The results were dramatic: In 1918, the last-place A's led the league in home runs with 22. Four years later, the seventh-place A's led with 111 home runs, thanks to the 12-foot wall.
Roger (Doc) Cramer, 82, of Beach Haven, N.J., recalls the rightfield situation well. Cramer played in 2,239 American League games between 1929 and 1948, and for four years he was Mack's regular centerfielder.
"It was a bad wall to play," he says. "It had concrete sticking out and would stop you right quick if you ran into it. Worse, there were no caroms. The ball would drop straight down."
Edwin (Dib) Williams, 77, a regular infielder for Mack during the glory days, recently recalled another feature of the wall. It brought people into the game. Literally. "Kids on North 20th Street," Williams says from his home in Greenbrier, Ark., "used to shove ladders up against the other side, scale the wall and disappear into the grandstands." During games, other kids would sit on top of the wall and no one bothered them.
Some of the players also liked the wall. Mule Haas and Mickey Cochrane hit directly at it. Al Simmons and Jimmie Foxx, righthanded batters, were so strong that they could easily target an outside pitch for North 20th Street. Obviously, it was an interesting block on which to live.
"I saw Foxx hit balls into the windows across the street," Williams remembers, "and I saw Ruth hit them over the rooftops." This was powerhouse baseball. Balls would crash down in this otherwise peaceful North Philadelphia neighborhood dozens of times each week. But in the entrepreneurial spirit of the day, the frequent sound of a baseball crashing against a front porch or bedroom wall was not a nuisance; it was the sound of opportunity knocking.
"Admission to the bleachers at Shibe Park was 50 cents when I was a boy," recalls John J. Rooney, 64, now a professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia. "But at our house and on our rooftop, where we had a perfect view of the field, the price was only a quarter."
Rooney's family was one of many along North 20th Street that went into business. Anything from dining-room chairs to crates was placed on the rooftops for the paying customers. For the big games with the Yankees, when the 33,608 seats in Shibe Park were sold out, the price of admission was as much as half a dollar. The rooftop business might seem like a nickel-and-dime enterprise, but the A's played 77 home games a year and that made for a lot of change.