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A Tribute To Connie Mack Stadium

Looks better than the Vet already, don't it?

Last year, the Phillies opened a new baseball-only facility in South Philadelphia: Citizens Bank Park. Among the place's new features are some "roof-top" bleachers, placed on buildings across the "street" from the ballpark proper. This detail is meant to be a clever tribute to the Phillies long-time home, Connie Mack Stadium (formerly Shibe Park). Of course, the "street" that separates these buildings and the bleachers that sit atop them is owned and operated by the Philadlephia Phillies, Inc., and includes a variety of food stands where one can purchase a $5 cheese steak for $7.50. Nevertheless, this as close as we are likely to get in this age of ours to the look and feel of what was one of the most historic and beautiful ballparks in all of baseball from 1909-1970. Though Citizens Bank Park stands amid a sea of parking lots and at times seems eerily at home among the warehouses that surround it, located and built as it is for efficiency and cost-effectiveness rather than for aesthetics (no matter what they say), its perhaps most cynically executed detail calls to mind a ballpark that existed long before baseball was a multi-billion dollar business: a ballpark which, for good or for ill, was part of the neighborhood that built up around it, not an isolated venue designed for maximized efficiency of transaction between paying customer and corporate service provider.

Hey, it's better than Shea!

Shibe Park was originally built solely for use by the Philadelphia Athletics, in 1909, by Ben Shibe, the principle owner of the club (he was actually partners with Connie Mack, who was a minority share holder). Shibe had seen his Athletics play their first eight seasons in Columbia Park, in lower North Philadelphia at 30th and Oxford Streets (one block south of Columbia Avenue, which is today called Cecil B. Moore Avenue and is the Temple University exit of the Broad Street subway line). It was built at a cost of $35,000, and was made entirely of wood. Soon, both Shibe and Mack decided they could attract more fans than the little ballpark could hold, so they abandoned the area for 21st and Lehigh, where Shibe built his park. Thanks to technological advances (including the invention of reinforced concrete), Shibe was able to build the very first concrete-and-steel ballpark; the stadium opened on April 12, 1909 to rave reviews. American League president Ban Johnson called it "the greatest place of its character in the world," and the Evening Telegraph said it was "an enduring monument to the national past-time: baseball --- the greatest game ever intended for all classes of people, for all ages and for women as well as men" (Westcott 109-110).

Why, it almost looks like a baseball stadium!

The stadium remained the exclusive home of the Athletics for nearly thirty years, until our beloved Phillies finally moved six blocks west and one block north from their former home, Baker Bowl (located at 15th and Huntingdon, a block south of Lehigh Street), in July 1938. For the next 16 years, until 1954, the stadium stayed as the homes of both franchises, plus the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles. In 1954, the Athletics abandoned Philadelphia for Kansas City, at which time they sold the stadium to the Phillies. It then remained the Phillies home exclusively (the Eagles moved to Penn's Franklin Field and later JFK) until 1970.

The stadium itself underwent many changes in its history. The scoreboard was actually put in in the 1950s, and was originally the one in Yankee Stadium. In its later years, the stadium also featured a 40 foot tin fence in right field. One might think this was because the right field fence was too close and it was too easy to hit home runs (as was the case in Baker Bowl); actually, it was built to keep the people who lived across the street from sitting on their roofs and viewing games for free! This, of course, is what is so sinister about those "rooftop bleachers" at Citizens Bank Park; when Philadelphia had a baseball stadium that was part of a neighborhood, the team built a fence to keep people from sneaking a free peak. Now that the Phillies own all the buildings on which bleachers might be built, of course, rooftop bleachers are suddenly all the rage! Philadelphia baseball has always been first in one thing: cheapness. Anyway, for this reason, the darned thing was referred to as the "spite fence" by the locals; it did, however, give the stadium a very distinct feature (not to mention a charming, penitentiary-like quality).

Boy, that's quite a crowd they've got there...

In 1955, the stadium's name was changed to Connie Mack Stadium to honor the late, great manager and owner of the former American League Philadelphia baseball club. The stadium was the defining symbol of Philadlephia baseball, an almost inseparable part of the Phillies and their fans. It was in an odd corner of the city, not terribly close to public transportation or downtown locations. But it was a nostalgic trip back to the Whiz Kids of 1950, to the departed Athletics, even to the laughably awful Phillies teams of the 1940s. This stadium saw it all; it had seen World's Championships (for the Athletics), and a 23 game losing streak; a rising young Phillies team take the pennant in the final days of 1950, and a rising young Phillies team somehow blow a sure shot pennant in 1964. It also stood as a simultaneous monument both to the calculated exlcusion of African-Americans from baseball in Philadelphia (the color line would not be broken here until 1957, when Joe Kennedy debuted with the Phillies) and to the history of the Negro Leagues, the organization that helped to integrat baseball and also provided a place for oppressed men to demonstrate their talents. The Philadelphia Stars played occasionally in the ballpark, and parts of the Negro League World Series were held at Shibe Park in the 1940s (Kuklick 82). To Philadelphia baseball fans of every color, Shibe Park was the defining symbol of the sport.

Let's see... two on for the other team... yeah, this is the Phillies stadium alright!

But what it was not, unfortunately, was money in the bank. Surrounded by a deteriorating neighborhood, the stadium's location was making it an unpleasant place to be, even more so than the awful team that played on the inside. Veterans Stadium was nearing its completion as the fall of 1970 approached, pushing the old stadium to the brink of obscurity with each passing game. On October 1, 1970, in the chill of an autumn evening, Connie Mack watched as the Phillies and the Expos battled to a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the tenth. With two out and a man on second, the Phillies batter nailed a single up the middle, scoring the runner from second. With that, the Phillies won their last game of the season. And their last game in Connie Mack.

While the Phillies moved to their overly spacious new surroundings, Connie Mack sat alone, dilapidating like so much of the city; fire ravaged the stadium twice, collapsing the right field bleachers. The turf, once cared for by the finest grounds team in baseball, was overgrown and unkempt.

A tree grew where second base once sat, waiting for Richie Ashburn to steal it from an opponent. Finally, after 6 years of becoming increasingly more pathetic, the city tore it down what was left in 1976, ending a long era of Philadelphia baseball.

The Phillies left Connie Mack Stadium to play on the unfeeling plastic surface of Veterans Stadium. When the Vet started to become unfashionable (i.e., when the Phillies decided the coast the clear was to jack up the city of Philadelphia for another $100M dollar "gift"), the new rage was building "retro" style ballparks. And, in 2004, that is just what happened: Citizens Bank Park was opened to mostly rave reviews, just as its predecessor had been some 95 years before to the day. Now that the new stadium is a relaity, and one that will hopefully last longer than did its immediate predecessor, Veterans Stadium, discussion is probably moot. Nevertheless, I have my standing objections:

1) One of the most brilliant things about Connie Mack Stadium was that its facade was designed to match the design of City Hall, having been completed in roughly the same era, when French Second Empire architecture was all the rage (think French Renaissance --- balance and elongated windows --- with more ornament). Why was no effort made to make Citizens Bank Park's facade have roughly the same style? This would have been a much more visible, recognizable tribute to Connie Mack Stadium than their extremely cynical "rooftop bleachers" (please). Also, it would have been better for the overall aesthetic unity of the city. Why aren't I in charge of these things!?

2) I am less than pleased with the selection of the location. South Philadelphia is a boring place for it to go ---- it is a lovely park surrounded by parking lots. What's the point? If they had put it downtown, as was done in Cleveland, Cinicinnati, and Pittsburgh, , it would include a beautiful view of center city and a sense that it belongs in the neighborhood, which is supposed to be the point of all these retro parks. This failure of imagination on the part of the Phillies and City Council has an additional, equally disturbing effect: the "quirks" of this ballpark --- the angle in left center field, most notably --- have the uncomfortable aura of calculated serendipty to them. Rather than being dictated by the shape of the neighborhood and street patterns, which is how all genuine quirks really came about, these quirks put one in mind of state-planned architecture: the charm of jury-rigging a ballpark to fit the land available is totally lost here.

Citizens Bank Park is a welcomed change from the Vet, if only for the blessed sight of grass to which the eyes are treated upon entering it, but it is hard to think of this place on a par with Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, or even PNC Park in Pittsburgh or SBC Park in San Francisco. Those parks were really wedged into spaces that were not necessarily ideal in terms of the land available, but which provided aesthetic backdrops that made the added deifficulty well worth the time and effort. Citizens Bank Park has the mark of the path of least resistance, and that will always be its most enduring characteristic. Can beauty be achieved amidst a sea of McAdam? Maybe, but it's a bit like putting the Mona Lisa in a McDonald's.

As a way of helping those of you who are thinking "My God dude, get a life," to understand why I am so curmudgeony about all of this, here is an artist's rendering of what I think perfection would have been. This is an image of the view from behind home plate of a stadium proposed to be adjacent to Thirtieth Street Station on the west bank of the Schuykill River:

West Philadelphia born and raised!

Note the truly spectacular skyline view that would have been afforded to all fans, not just the fans in the upper deck (though it is kind of nice that the upper deck fans at "The Bank" get a benefit the lower deck fans don't --- a little binary inversion for you Derrida fans out there).

And, for all you diehards out there, check out my "Remembering the Vet" page!!!

Back To My Phillies Page

Bibliographic Information:

Kuklick, Bruce. To Everything a Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia, 1909-1976. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Westcott, Richard. Philadelphia's Old Ballparks. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.