With a soccer-specific stadium in beautiful Chester, an average attendance that the playoff-bound Sixers don’t rival even in an arena with 2,000 more seats, and a team atop the table early in the 2011 season, soccer fever is running high in Philadelphia. While most young fans think that Philly’s soccer history goes only as deep as the Zolos, they’re wrong. And while some of the older guys might think we started in the 70s with the NASL’s Philadelphia Atoms and Fury, they’re wrong too. Though it seems like we are new kids on the block when it comes to the beautiful game, Philly was playing professional soccer…err football when Grover Cleveland was in office.
Turn back the clock to 1894. The owners of six teams in the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs (better known simply as the National League) get together to do what sport franchise owners do best: figure out new ways to make money. They decide to take advantage of their stadiums, which went unused during the winter months and capitalize on a sport with a relatively small, but growing fan base: association (as opposed to gridiron) football. And so, on June 19, 1894 the American League of Professional Football was born.
While the owners were publicly confident about the ALPF, their actions made it clear that the ALPF was more about extra revenue and marketing baseball than it was about building soccer in this country. For one, there were no “soccer people” in the ownership of the ALPF. In fact, Arthur Irwin, then manager of the Phillies was named the league’s president. Secondly, all of the six teams that made up the league took the names of the baseball teams in their respective cities: the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, the Baltimore Orioles, the Boston Beaneaters, the New York Giants, the Washington Senators, and your Philadelphia Phillies. And thirdly, only Baltimore hired an actual soccer coach to manage the team, the rest used a combination of their baseball managers and front office members.
Not too surprisingly, neither the Phillies nor the league flourished. Despite charging only $0.25 per ticket (half of the cost of a baseball game at the time), the team drew about 500 fans per game at Philadelphia Base Ball Grounds (later rebuilt and re-named the Baker Bowl after a fire). In a failed attempt to attract fans, the team also had a few of the NL Phillies play for the ALPF team. One of those crossover players was Sam Thompson, a baseball Hall of Famer who hit .407 with 13 HR and 141 RBI in 99 games in the 1894 season. The schedule of the games also severely limited attendance as games were played on weekday afternoons when the immigrant working class was still at work. With that scheduling, the ALPF missed out on a large segment of the population who was actually familiar with the sport.
The Inquirer’s reporting on the Phillies doesn’t disappoint. The sport itself is described as “decidedly interesting” even though it is “robbed of the Rubgy roughness.” The Inquirer noted that “all of the players are of either English or Irish extraction, and some have been imported especially to play in the new league, except Charley Reilly the Phillies’ third baseman, who is new to the game, but who promises to become one of the best players.” I’m not too sure the Daily News would be so kind to Placido Polanco if he tried soccer on for size.
By all accounts, the ALPF Phillies were the original Broad Street Bullies. In the Phillies’ first game against New York, a “regular wrestling and slugging match ensued” after a NY player took some liberties with the Phillies’ goalkeeper. Later in a game against the Washington Senators, “Reilly and Rock were ejected from the field for wrestling.”
They may have been tough, but they weren’t very good. The Phillies finished 2-7 and only one spot ahead of the last place Senators.
The ALPF itself didn’t fare much better than the Phillies. Just 18 days into the season, the season was cancelled, most likely because it was not economically viable. And although the owners originally planned on continuing the league in 1895, that never occurred and the ALPF disappeared for good.
A league that spanned less than 3 weeks almost 117 years ago can’t be considered a success, but it was America’s first professional soccer league and Philadelphia was right in the thick of it.
Credit to The Philly Soccer Page, which contains a host of soccer related pieces. Its comprehensive two-part series on the ALPF served as a source for this article.
The Phillies are in the midst of a series with the Nationals this week. There is no city with a stranger or more confusing baseball history than Washington, D.C. It was the home of three teams called the Senators. (Though to save newspaper headline space, the latter two teams were commonly referred to as the “Nats”.) The first team known as the Senators began play in 1891. Initially named the Statesmen, they changed their name when they moved from the American Association to the National League in 1892. The team had little success, never finishing .500, and was contracted after the 1899 season.
Two years later, a new team began play in DC. Called the Senators, they had great success in the 1920s, then moved to Minnesota in 1960 and became the Twins. Immediately a new team sprang up called the Washington Senators, also unofficially known as the Nats. They stayed in town for 10 miserable years, then moved to Arlington and became the Rangers. There was a popular joke during their time in the nation’s capital. “Washington: first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” The moved to Texas in 1971, where their futility as a franchise would continue for 25 more years, finally appearing in the franchise’s first ever postseason in 1996.
So this is the third team called the Nationals, though the first one officially. The original Senators are considered members of the Twins franchise. Thus Walter Johnson holds most of the Twins’ pitching records, though he had been dead 15 years before there was a team known as the Twins. The second team known as the Senators are considered as part of the Rangers franchise. The Nationals are considered to be the same franchise as the Expos franchise, and thus no one on the Nats can ever wear number 8, because it was retired for Gary Carter. Like I told you, there are few cities with a stranger baseball history than DC.
Big Ed Delahanty was one of the true superstars of baseball in the 1890s, and became one of the first great power hitters in the sport. He was part of the famed 1894 Phillies outfield that claimed four .400 hitters, with Big Ed ripping them at a .407 clip. Between 1894-1899, he was unstoppable, with a .388 batting average and an average of 115 RBIs per year. He batted over .400 three times, the only player other than Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby to do so. He held the Phillies record for most consecutive games with a hit (31) until 2005, when Jimmy Rollins broke it with a hit in 35 straight. According to the Baseball Page.com, Delahanty was the 14th greatest left fielder of all time. According to Philliesnation.com, he was the 4th greatest Phillie of all time.
As I have written previously, the Phillies outfield of the 1890s was one of the greatest outfields in baseball history. The third outfielder in that great triumvirate was a man named Sam Thompson. Thompson came to the Phils from the Detroit Wolverines in 1888, and proceeded to put up monster numbers for the Phils throughout the ’90s. In 1895, he knocked in 61 RBIs in a single month, a record which still stands (and which I can’t imagine will ever be broken, though Joe DiMaggio and Hack Wilson both hit 53 in a month.) He also inspired this amazing quote, which is mentioned on his Hall of Fame page. It comes from the Spalding Guide of 1896, and rips him for not trying to produce less runs!
“Thompson belongs to that rutting class of slugging batsmen who think of nothing else when they go to the bat but that of gaining the applause of the ‘groundlings’ [fans] by the novice’s hit to the outfield of a ‘homer’, one of the least difficult hits known to batting in baseball, as it needs only muscle and not brains to make it.”
There has been quite a bit of buzz recently about Spygate. Well Spygate isn’t the first time a pro team has used technology to try to steal signals from the other side. The Phillies did something similar in the 19th century. The following is from an old Christy Mathewson book (link below).
...the report went out that the Philadelphia club was stealing signals, because the batter were popping them all on the nose, but no one was able to discover the transmitter. The coaches were closely watched and it was evident that these sentinels were not getting the signs. It was while the Washington club…was playing Philadelphia that there came a rainy morning which made the field very wet, and for a long time it was doubtful whether a game could be played that afternoon, but the Washington club insisted on it and overruled the protests of the Phillies. Arlie Latham, now the coach on the Giants, was playing third base for the Senators at the time. (Latham relays the following story).
There was a big puddle in the third base coaching box that day, said Latham. And it was in the the third inning that I noticed Cupid Childs, the Philadelphia second baseman, coaching (at third base). He stood with one foot in the puddle and never budged it, although the water came up to his shoelaces. He usually jumped around when on the lines, and this stillness surprised me.
“Better go get your rubbers if you are goin’ to keep that trilby there,” I said to him. “Charley horse and the rheumatism have no terrors for you.”
But he kept that foot planted in the puddle just the same, and the first batter cracked out a base hit.
“So that’s where you’re gettin’ the signs?” I said to him, not guessing that it really was.
Then he started to jump around and we got the next two batters out right quick, that being a big slump in the Philadelphia hitting as soon as he took his foot out of that puddle…
When the Washington players started back for the field I told Tommy Corcoran that I thought they must be getting the signs from the third base coaching box…He went over and started pawing around in the dirt and water with his spikes and fingers. Pretty soon he dug up a square chunk of wood with a buzzer on the under side of it.
“‘That ought to help their hitting a little,'” he remarked as he kept on pulling. Up came a wire, and when he started to pull on it he found that it was buried about an inch under the soil and ran across the outfield. He kept right on coiling it up and following it, like a hound on a scent…Tommy was galloping by this time across the outfield and all the time pulling up this wire. It led straight to the clubhouse, and there sitting where he could get a good view of the catchers signs with a pair of field-glasses was Morgan Murphy. The wire led right to him…The newspapers may have laughed at the incident in those days, but since that time the National Commission has intimated that if there was ever a recurrence of such tactics, the club caught using them would be subjected to a heavy fine and possibly expulsion from the league.”