The Original Athletics

1871 Athletic of Philadelphia team

1871 Athletic of Philadelphia team

If you follow baseball at all, you know there’s a team in Oakland called the A’s. If you’re a big fan you know A’s is short for Athletics. If you’re a true fan you know that the Athletics played in both Kansas City and Oakland prior to moving to Oakland. What you may not know is that “Athletic” has a long history of use for the Philadelphia baseball team.

The original Athletic (it was originally written in the singular) were formed in Philadelphia in 1860. By 1863 the team joined the National Association of Base Ball Players, becoming the dominant Philadelphia team. In 1868, with a 50 game record of 47-3, they were crowned Association champs. They dropped back to third in both 1869 and 1870. The next year they joined the fledgling National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (note the addition of the word “professional”). The league lasted through 1875 with the Athletic being one of its most prominent franchises.

In 1871, the Athletic went 21-7 to capture the first Association crown. They defeated Chicago on the final day of the season to finish two games up on the White Stockings, but didn’t possess the pennant for another month. There were questions about which games counted in the standings and what to do with ties. Additionally, Boston played 30 games to Philly’s 28. Depending on what the league did with the disputed games and the ties, Boston could claim the championship by virtue of more wins (wins counted over winning percentage in 1871). Ultimately the Association awarded the title to Philadelphia.

They won with hitting. As an offensive team, they put up some of the great numbers in baseball history (but remember it’s a 28 game season). Third baseman Levi Mayerle hit .492 to lead the Association. He also picked up the OBP, Slugging, OPS, and total base titles. He tied for the home run crown with four. Second baseman Al Reach (who later ran the Phillies and a sporting goods empire) hit .353, Catcher Fergy Malone hit .343, and center fielder John “Count” Sensenderfer hit .323. Pitcher Dick McBride had an ERA over 4.50 and the team fielding percentage was good for the era despite Mayerle’s awful .646 at third.

It was the only Athletic championship. Boston absolutely dominated the remaining years of the Association with Philly finishing fourth in 1872, fifth in 1873, third in 1874, and second in 1875. The Association folded after 1875 and Philadelphia was one of the teams choosing to play in the newly formed National League. They did poorly, winning 11 and losing 45. Toward the end of the season they decided to skip the last away swing through the west. They were hemorrhaging money and felt that another road trip would bankrupt the team. This earned the ire of Chicago owner and NL founder William Hulbert. If Philly would lose money by not playing the Western swing, Chicago would lose money if the Athletics didn’t. At season’s end he managed to have Philadelphia (and New York who also refused to make their last Western swing) tossed out of the league.

It was the end for the first Association champions. They disbanded. A few years later a new team began operation in Philadelphia. It eventually entered the American Association, winning the 1883 title, but the original A’s were gone. The name was revived in 1901 for the new Philadelphia team in the American League. That team is the one still existing in Oakland.

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One Response to “The Original Athletics”

  1. William Miller Says:

    “Count” Sensenderfer. What a great name. Hard to believe no one has yet made a movie of all the great characters of 19th-century baseball (other than Ken Burns.) So many interesting characters and great stories.
    Interesting post,
    Bill

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