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Athletics History

A's Baseball: Surviving Depression and War

By Dick Dobbins / Special to

On Oct. 24, 1929, the New York stock market crashed. This was the first blow that sent America careening into the most devastating depression of the twentieth century.

Ten days earlier, the Philadelphia Athletics had won the World Series, defeating the Chicago Cubs. This victory had shown the baseball world there were other great teams besides the New York Yankees.

The Athletics repeated their World Series conquest in 1930, defeating the St. Louis Cardinals, and although heavily favored to win their third consecutive Series in 1931, the Gas House Gang exacted their revenge in an exciting seven-game series.

Still, Connie Mack's Athletics had broken the Yankees' stranglehold over the American league, and had earned Philadelphia recognition, alongside the 1910-14 Athletics teams, as one of the finest aggregations of all time.

Anchored by four future Hall of Famers-Lefty Grove, Mickey Cochranee, Jimmie Foxx and Al Simmons-the Athletics were far and away the pride of the league.

While the nucleus of these great teams was still young, the prospect of Philadelphia's continued domination was great. But what the Yankees and the rest of the American League couldn't do, the Depression could.

Between 1925 and 1928, Mack built a young team that challenged the Washington Senators and the Yankees for American League supremacy. But the Yankees of Ruth, Gehrig and company were still too strong. Most baseball historians regard the 1927 Yankees as baseball's best team of all time.

In 1928 the Athletics finished only two-and-one-half games out of first place. Yankees pitching was aging while the Athletics were maturing.

Sensing potential greatness in their team, close to 850,000 Athletics fans paid to enter Shibe Park in 1929, an increase of 150,000 from the previous season.

As the Depression deepened, the product on the field remained solid, but human misery was keeping fans away from the park in droves. Although they continued to win, Athletics attendance dropped slightly over 100,000 in 1930, and another 100,000 in 1931, both championship years.

The frugal Mack became more concerned with the state of the economy and saw a few options for himself.

Mack held his team together for the 1932 season, but a decline in the effectiveness of the pitching staff, plus a resurgence by the Yankees, pushed the Mackmen down to second place.

Curiously, monster seasons by Foxx, with 58 homers, Simmons and Cochrane dethroned the Yankees as home run champions that year, but it wasn't enough.

As he had done during the panic of 1914, Mack started dismantling his great team.

Not at all different from today, the major leagues had their high-revenue cities and their lower-revenue cities, Philadelphia included in the latter. After the 1932 season, Mack peddled third baseman Jimmy Dykes and outfielders Simmons and Mule Haas to the Chicago White Sox, as Chicago was a high-revenue city.

This effectively removed the Athletics from any pennant contention in 1933, and the Athletics slipped to third place and dropped another 100,000 fans at the turnstiles.

But Mack wasn't finished. The following winter, Cochrane was peddled to Detroit, where he became player manager and led the Tigers to the World Series, and Grove, pitcher Rube Walberg and second baseman Max Bishop were sold to the Boston Red Sox.

This left only Jimmie Foxx, who had hit .334 in 1934. Mack sold Foxx to the Red Sox early in the 1935 season, thus cleaning his cupboard bare of the stars who had dominated the league just three years earlier.

Through the remainder of the depression Mack shamelessly peddled any player who showed any prospect of a good financial return. Over the next nine years the Athletics did manage to climb into seventh place-twice. Their victim was the doormat St. Louis Browns.

Midway through the 1930's, Mack started showing interest in stocking his team with youngsters nurtured in the Bay Area. At the conclusion of the 1937 season, Mack purchased the contract of infielder Dario Lodigiani from the Oakland Oaks, and he signed football All-American Sam Chapman off the University of California campus. Both 22-year-old rookies were inserted into the Athletics starting lineup the following season.

The next winter he purchased pitcher Bob Joyce from the Oaks and infielder Bill Lillard from the San Francisco Seals. It was apparent that Mack was once again attempting to rebuild a team with youth, but war clouds on the horizon would thwart his plan.

When America abruptly entered World War II in December 1941, there was universal concern as to whether there would be baseball in 1942. Commissioner Kennesaw M. Landis wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt for direction.

Roosevelt was steadfast in his conviction that the game should proceed. "I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going," Roosevelt responded. "There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before."

Roosevelt suggested the expansion in the number of night game to allow workers to get to the ballpark after work, and while he acknowledged that the quality of play might suffer, it would still be competitive and would help the morale of the country.

The coming of the War presented a different series of problems for organized baseball. As young men were called into active duty, each team was hard-pressed to find players who could play.

Some clubs even advertised for players in the newspapers, and all teams encouraged retired players to return to the game for "one more year." Rosters were filled by older players or those who had failed the military physical, or by youngsters who hoped to get in a year of two of play before they were drafted into the service.

When the total loss of players to the war effort was calculated, the Athletics had contributed more personnel, 36, that any other team in baseball.

But the Athletics had finished last in 1941, before the war. The couldn't blame military inductions for their poor showing. Throughout the war, with the exception of an aberrational fifth-place finish in 1944, the American League cellar remained in the sole possession of the Athletics.

And of course, 1944 was also the year the St. Louis Browns turned the baseball world on its ear by winning the American League Pennant!

As the players returned from the war, there were massive roster changes throughout the league. For the Athletics the 1946 season meant another cellar finish, but things were looking better. In 1947, the Athletics produced their first winning season in 15 years, gaining a fifth-place finish.

Two Bay Area acquisitions were instrumental in the improvement. Shortstop Eddie Joost came over from the Boston Braves, and Oakland product Ferris Fain was drafted from the Seals. With Sam Chapman in the lineup, one-third of the Athletics starting squad was from the Bay Area.

One of the more emotional stories of a returning war veteran was that of Lou Brisse. Brisse had been badly injured in battle, necessitating over two dozen operations to repair both of his legs. After extensive rehabilitation, the lefty made it to Philadelphia at the end of the 1947 season, then won 14 and 16 games in the next two seasons, respectively, before switching to the bullpen.

In 1948, the Athletics improved to fourth place before slipping back into the cellar in 1949 and 1950. Upon completion of the 1950 season, Mack just shy of his eighty-eighth birthday relinquished the managerial reins while retaining the presidency of the team.

Mack, already a member of Baseball's Hall of Fame, retired as the game's leader in both wins and losses while setting a longevity record for managing that is safer that Joe DiMaggio's consecutive-game hitting streak.

When Connie Mack's Athletics were good, they were very good; but when they were bad... In later years, Mack had some excellent players, but never enough at any one time to make a serious difference.

Deserving of special mention are diminutive pitcher Bobby Shantz, who was normally the staff leader among some fairly good starters; outfielder Gus Zernial, drafted from the Hollywood Stars to become one of the true power hitters of his day; Fain, who won two American League batting titles; George Kell, who also won a batting title on the way to the Hall of Fame and potential Hall of Famer Nelson Fox. Sadly, none of the players finished their careers in Philadelphia.

Four seasons after Mack retired as manager, the family sold the ball club to interests who moved it to Kansas City.

Like many of its players, the team didn't finish in Philadelphia either.

Dick Dobbins is a noted Bay Area historian who has recently authored NUGGETS ON THE DIAMOND: Professional Baseball in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present.