An Interview with Shibe Park Historian Bruce Kuklick, Part 1

If you enjoy reading this site, I heartily recommend that you buy the book To Every Thing a Season by Bruce Kuklick (pronounced Cook-lick). This is the quite simply the best book I have read yet about Philadelphia sports. The book is about Shibe Park, and it covers not only the games that took place there, but the way it helped to shape the surrounding neighborhood over the nearly 70 years it stood at 20th and Lehigh. A truly terrific read that is not only filled with a ton of fascinating facts about the old Phillies and A’s ball clubs, but also a terrific look at the city itself between 1909 and 1976.

I sat down to an interview with Kuklick, and the affable and excitable UPenn History professor talked about Connie Mack’s legacy, why people back in the day decided whether to root for the Phillies or the Athletics (since they played 6 blocks away from each other), and which team is better, the 2011 Phils or the 1929 A’s. There’s so much good stuff in this interview that I’m going to split it into three parts. This is part one.¬†Enjoy! -Johnny Goodtimes

JGT: What inspired you to write this book?

KUKLICK: I’m a long time baseball fan, but up until the point of writing this book, I had kind of fallen away from the game. It was partly the Phillies. They were so lousy in the 60s that I didn’t pay any attention to them. And then my daughter started going to public school in Philly and started getting involved with the Phillies, and she and I started going to games regularly again. I looked around, it was then the Vet, and I said, “How did we get to this wretched, horrible ballpark?” Which I really hated. “What happened to take us away from that old ballpark, Connie Mack Stadium, Shibe Park?” And I’m a historian, and I think, “I can figure this out.” So I started doing the research in old newspapers at the Temple Urban Archives…and then I was hooked. I spent more time up there at Temple than I care to tell you about. For 5 years I was up there every Thursday and Friday.

JGT: One thing a lot of people have asked me about and I haven’t been able to find a good answer for yet is this: the Athletics and the Phillies played extremely close to each other. The two ballparks (Shibe and Baker Bowl) were 6 blocks away. How did fans decide which team they were going to be a fan of?

KUKLICK: It wasn’t much of a choice. The A’s were the team of choice. I mean, you’re a loser if you’re a Phillies fan. If you look at statistics on attendance, the Phillies get nobody. I suspect, though I can’t prove it, that it was a very, very local crowd. If you lived 2 blocks from the Phillies and 4 blocks from the A’s, maybe you’d go there. But they had nobody. They had lousy players. Whenever they had a good player they would sell them to make ends meet (ed. note: sound familiar, Pittsburgh Pirate fans?) There were a couple of scandals around them in the early 1940s, about gambling and stuff. So it’s not really much of a choice. The A’s are the premiere team. People go and see the A’s play. The Phillies are kind of a minor 2nd thought, kind of an embarrassment to the National League. Of course, a lot of the National League teams are happy to have the Phillies around.

JGT: They’ve got someone to beat up on every couple of weeks.

KUKLICK: That’s right. That’s right. That’s why I like your site. Finally somebody says, “Sure the Phillies are great. Sure Chase Utley is great. But is he the greatest 2nd baseman that’s ever played here? Absolutely not. He doesn’t even come close.” People don’t realize that the 1929, 1930, and 1931 A’s are better than even this team today, which I think is the best team this franchise has had.

JGT: Sports Illustrated called that the team time forgot. People forget that those A’s smoked Ruth, Gehrig, and the Yankees in the standings.

KUKLICK: I know that.

JGT: Well, it’s a great trivia question. What Philadelphia pro team has won the most championships?That team is the one that moved away from here 57 years ago.

KUKLICK: And it’s not only that. They were only here for 54 years too. The Phillies have had a lot more years to put it together.

JGT: You had two stadiums, Shibe Park and the Baker Bowl. Was Shibe Park superior to the Baker Bowl?

KUKLICK: Oh yeah. In fact the Phillies moved to Shibe in 1938. They had a couple of fires in the Baker Bowl, part of the stands collapsed, a repeated number of disasters.

JGT: Now Shibe was built in 1908 and 1909. When it was built, was it considered revolutionary?

KUKLICK: It was the first concrete and steel stadium. What that means is that it’s concrete that they stick steels rods in to make it almost indestructible. In fact, I bet you if you dig up under that church (there’s now a church on the old Shibe Park grounds) you’ll find bits of Shibe Park under the ground. I was told that it was so difficult to knock this place down that they finally just dug a huge hole at 21st and Lehigh and just put all the stuff in there and covered it over.

It’s the first stadium in the United States that uses this new technology, and it’s rapidly followed by a lot of similar stadiums. The two most important ones now are Fenway and Wrigley.

JGT: So did that sort of kick off a boom the way that Camden Yards in the 90s did?

KUKLICK: Oh yeah. Yeah. It’s the first one.

To read part 2 of this interview, click here. Then, as part of our Beer Week coverage, we’ll post Part 3, where he talks about how Connie Mack fought for decades to get booze into the ballpark, and how Pennsylvania’s blue laws and bars near the ballpark prevented him from doing so.


2 Comments on “An Interview with Shibe Park Historian Bruce Kuklick, Part 1”

  1. Tom G says:

    I’d like to think that if I was around back then, I’d be a fan of both A’s and Phillies, but after reading this, I’m wondering if that would have been the case….

    Great stuff though, looking forward to the rest of the interview.

  2. Curt Bader says:

    My mothers great Uncle was Ben Shibe. Her father was Casper. She doesnt remember much more than Unclce Ben. They lived on Miller St. in Fishtown.(2 doors down from my father) I know my maternal grandmother worked in Shibes baseball factory down Montgomery. Looking for help to tie it all together.


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