19to21: April 7, 2009
Book Review -- “Philadelphia Athletics by the Numbers”
19 to 21…well, yes, those are the numbers worn by Gus Zernial and Phil Marchildon...
Every once and a while there comes a book that reminds the discerning reader/fan that baseball is a game. Admittedly, this may seem to be a rare event, what with millionaires, steroids, commercialism, television, greed, poor judgment, agents, unions and the like intruding on The National Pastime, but baseball is a game. Fortunately for those of us who love the game, there are still some authors out there who know this, and who treat the game accordingly. One of them is Henry R. “Ted” Taylor.
Taylor and this author go back a long way – to the first Philadelphia Baseball Card and Sports Memorabilia Show, held at the late, lamented Spring Garden College in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood in the fall of 1975. Over the past 30-something years, Taylor has been involved in baseball in a variety of ways. In addition to founding the Philadelphia Show along with partner Bob Schmierer, he’s been a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and Sports Collectors Digest, an expert witness in the federal anti-trust case that broke Topps’ monopoly in the baseball card market, the owner of one of the first baseball card stores, a VP for the Fleer Corp., the first president of the Eastern Pennsylvania Sports Collectors Club, the founding president of the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society, managing partner for STAT Authentic LLC, and the author of hundreds of articles (and a couple of books) on baseball card collecting. (He’s even appeared on at least one baseball card himself – I have the autographed proof.)
In fact, Taylor’s been involved with baseball a lot longer than the past 30 years… he was a pretty fair player as a kid – one of the youngsters he played with in Cheltenham, PA, grew up to be Reggie Jackson. He was also an infielder at Millersville State College in the late 50s, and he later coached the Ursinus College baseball team. Still, through it all, Taylor has never forgotten that it’s a game. And, he has been, first and foremost, a Philadelphia Athletics fan.
Maybe you think that’s rather odd – a fan of a team that hasn’t existed, except in memories, for 55 years. Ah, if that’s the case, then you don’t know Philadelphia, or Philadelphia baseball fans. We’re a loyal lot, with long memories. It’s no coincidence that the A’s Historical Society is probably the largest and most active group of its kind. So, anyone who knows Ted Taylor shouldn’t be surprised that his latest book is both a lot of fun, and about the team that carried the most fabled name in Philadelphia sports, “Athletics,” for 54 seasons. “Philadelphia Athletics by the Numbers” (Xlibris Corporation, www.xlibris.com, February 1, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-4363-9530-4) is just what it says, and more. An exhaustive study of every player who ever wore a number for the Philadelphia Athletics, and a treasure trove of interesting facts and opinions.
Having delved through A’s programs, yearbooks, media guides, newsletters, Who’s Who in Baseball, various encyclopedias and several key baseball history books, Taylor has managed to identify more than 375 men who wore numbers on the backs of their Philadelphia Athletics uniforms between 1931 (when Connie Mack first put numbers on the A’s away unis only) and 1954. However, this is more than just a reference work. Taylor organizes his data by number (there’s also an alphabetical list of all the players with their numbers, and a list of numbers with every player who wore every number), picks the top player for each number (one through 92… former Duke collegian Doyt Morris, and Taylor has no idea why he wore 92), gives a brief bio (in some cases very brief… some of these guys are players only their mothers ever heard of, and only played for the A’s in Spring Training) for each player, and throws in several sidebars along the way. Such as; the day Babe Ruth played for the A’s, Taylor’s favorite A’s players, and the time Bill Giles told him the wrong team left town in 1955. What you end up with is not only a lot of fun, but one of those books that has little surprises for the careful reader at every turn… far too many to specify thoroughly.
In case you haven’t guessed by now, Taylor and this author share a fascination with players’ numbers. (Oh, let’s see… Dick Allen wore #60 during his brief stay with the Oakland Athletics at the end of his career. Mitch Williams and So Taguchi share the Phillies’ record for the highest number – 99. Nick Strincevich wore #36 for the Phillies immediately before Robin Roberts got it. Kyle Kendrick was the first Phillie to wear #38 in the post-Schilling Era... and he might be the last, since Schilling’s number will be retired after he’s voted into the Hall of Fame. Rick White – 00 – and Al Oliver – 0 – were a couple of big zeros for the Phillies.) So much so that the temptation is to run on at great length on some of Taylor’s nuggets in A’s by the Numbers. Resisting temptation, let’s visit just a couple of the book’s more outstanding moments.
Like every good baseball book, A’s by the Numbers has a subtitle. In this case, it’s “Let’s Give Skeeter #2.” In point of fact, Taylor was tempted to actually title the book “Let’s Give Skeeter #2,” but he figured no one would know what he was talking about… not a good thing for sales. So… what is he talking about? Well, it’s like this… there have been six players in major league baseball history nicknamed “Skeeter.” And three of them played for the Philadelphia Athletics, and all three of them wore #2. And you thought Connie Mack didn’t have a sense of humor. It’s true. Skeeter Newsome (1938/1939), Skeeter Webb (1948) and Skeeter Kell (1952) all played, albeit somewhat briefly, for the A’s, and all wore #2. As Taylor comments, if that isn’t in the Guinness Books of World Records, it should be. (Or maybe in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.)
Speaking of Mr. Mack, the supreme irony of a book about the numbers worn by the Philadelphia Athletics is that the man who WAS the Athletics, Cornelius McGillicuddy, never wore a number, or a uniform, for that matter. Or did he? Remarkably, Taylor turned up a picture, probably from Spring Training 1950, of Connie Mack wearing an Athletics uniform, despite the fact that he had quit wearing a uniform when he was managing the Milwaukee Brewers in the old Western League before the turn of the last Century. Sadly for history, the photo does not show the back of the uniform and Taylor could not find a copy of said photo good enough to be reproduced in his book. However, given the apparent date of the photo (around Mack’s Golden Jubilee), and the fact that Mack’s youngest daughter, Ruth Mack Clark, wore an A’s replica jersey to a baseball exhibit in Philadelphia in 2008 that bore “50 Mack” on the back, Taylor speculates that 50 could/should have been the number given to the Grand Old Man of Baseball.
Then there’s the matter of how and why numbers were first assigned in baseball. Originally, the moguls were loathe to number their players, for the fear that it would hurt sales of scorecards. Or, at least, that’s a story that’s been passed around. Mack, although he put numbers on the A’s road uniforms in 1931, didn’t number their home uniforms until 1937. Taylor speculates that maybe this had something to do with Mack’s legendary thrift, in that it would have been easier to replace unnumbered uniforms than numbered ones. Or maybe Mack was afraid it would hurt his scorecard sales. Either way, when he did add numbers to the road unis in 1931, his method of numbering the uniforms was not what was at that time the common pattern.
As everyone knows, the first uniform numbers corresponded to the player’s spot in the batting order. Hence, Earl Combs was #1, Babe Ruth #3, Lou Gehrig #4 and so on. But, that’s not what Mack did. Al Simmons sure didn’t bat seventh for the 1931 Athletics, but that’s the number he first wore. However, you may recall that Simmons played left field, the #7 position when you’re scoring. And that’s how the first A’s numbers were assigned. Catcher Mickey Cochrane wore #2. The Beast at first base, Jimmie Foxx, was #3. Camera Eye Max Bishop certainly wasn’t the clean-up hitter, but he wore #4 because he played second base. Third baseman Jimmy Dykes was #5 and shortstop Joe Boley was six. Following Simmons’ seven was center field Mule Haas (aka, the Donk) with eight and right fielder Bing Miller with nine. A perfect progression, based on their positions. Except that, at least in 1931, there was no #1 (although Eddie Joost would make that number famous years later). Instead, the pitchers’ numbers started with #10, and started with the ace, Robert Moses Grove. The number two starter, big George “Moose” Earnshaw, wore 11, number three starter Rube Walberg was 12, Eddie Rommel was #14 (obviously, he didn’t want 13) and Roy Mahaffey held down #15.
As for what number we give Ted Taylor, since his nickname isn’t Skeeter, it can’t be #2, so he’ll have to share #1 with Joost, in honor of being the number one Philadelphia Athletics fan, and in helping keep the A’s alive with the most entertaining book.
Having briefly mentioned Babe Ruth in passing, it’s worth mentioning that those of you who are golf fans (and even those who aren’t) currently have the opportunity of watching Babe Ruth in action. In a very real sense, Tiger Woods is Babe Ruth. We all missed the baseball version… let’s revel in the golf version of a once-in-forever athlete.
-- John Shiffert