A Rivalry 121 Years in the Making

This weekend brings a rivalry 121 years in the making, as the Oakland A’s - originally the Philadelphia Athletics - come to town for a three-game series.

Philly phanatic
The Phillies are embroiled in a legal battle over their beloved mascot. But most care less about that and more how the team is looking in spring training. | Image: Anne & Saturnino Miranda

Baseball season officially begins in Philadelphia this weekend, but this is no ordinary opening for the Phillies. This weekend brings a rivalry 121 years in the making, as the Oakland A’s – originally the Philadelphia Athletics – come to town for a three-game series.

Don’t worry – you’re not the only one who didn’t know the A’s were from Philly. Few modern A’s fans know about their team’s Philadelphia origins, making the team’s social media tag #RootedInOakland positively laughable to anyone who knows the club’s full history. Barring their most recent visit back in 2017, the A’s haven’t been in Philadelphia since 1954 when the club was sold to Kansas City. Before then, the A’s were the dominant ball club in this city. Between winning nine pennants between 1902 and 1931, and five World Series Championships, the Philadelphia Athletics still hold the title of Philly’s Most Successful Sports Franchise, nearly 70 years after they’ve left.

Always and forever a sports city, baseball was immensely popular in Philadelphia during the dawn of the sport. The Phillies are the oldest, one-city, one-team franchise in American sports history. While this seems like an awfully specific accolade, the distinction must be made as the A’s were among the first 12 professional ball clubs, beginning in 1869. Technically, the A’s even pre-date the National League itself, which officially began in 1876. When the team refused to go on a road trip later in 1877, the A’s were expelled from the National League, and Philadelphia went without a home team until the formation of the Philadelphia, well, Philadelphians in 1883. (Newspapers quickly shortened the team name to the Quakers to fit in headlines at first, but it was the nickname Phillies that ultimately stuck.)

The first City Series between the Philadelphia A’s and the Philadelphia Phillies took place on April 14, 1883, in front of a crowd of nearly 12,000 people. The Phillies ended up having an abysmally bad season that year (17-81) while the A’s took the American Association pennant with a stellar record of 66-32. Despite their drastically different seasons, the 1883 Phillies won the City Series that year, taking five games over the A’s. Newspapers of the time like The Philadelphia Press made sure to mention the “audible criticisms” from fans of both teams as players took the field for pre-game practice. Apparently, being loud and harsh is a long-standing part of the Philly sports experience. The more things change…

The Athletics and the then-American Association crumbled after the 1891 season, making way for the formation of the National League Phillies. The American League as we know it began later in 1901, and local sporting goods retailer Ben Shibe recruited catcher Cornelius McGillicuddy, aka Connie Mack, to manage the newly reborn Athletics. All of this sounds innocent enough, but Mack had a knack for scouting talent everywhere from sandlots to the dugouts of other teams, including the Phillies. With flames fully fanned, the City Series rivalry began anew in 1903. As the reigning 1902 A.L. champs, the A’s were expected to steamroll the Phillies. But just as they did 20 years prior, the underdog Phillies surprised fans and won the series overall.

Both teams would go on to hit sporadic patches in their respective leagues from the late 1910s and early 1920s. While they were only considered exhibition games, the City Series was the only championship either team could win during that time. External influences can be attributed to these conditions, like the formation of the short-lived Federal League (1914-1915), as well as the U.S. joining World War I in 1917. Either way, the City Series remained a matter of local pride for baseball fans until the As were sold to Kansas City in 1954. The final game as intercity rivals took place on June 28, 1954, with the Phillies beating the Athletics 3-2. While the A’s may have had overall stronger seasons than their rivals, the Phillies ultimately proved to be more than a problem for their A.L. counterparts, winning 34 out of the 61 City Series games between 1929 and 1954.

Despite their long individual histories, this is only the fifth regular season series between the two teams now that the A’s call Oakland home. The Phils first hosted their former rivals in 2003, winning the series 2 games to 1. The A’s took the 2005 series 2 games to 1, but in 2011 the Phillies took the series 2-1 again, and in 2017, the A’s took the series 2-1, resulting in a frustrating total of 6-6 over the span of those four series. Philadelphia was supposed to host the A’s in 2020, but the Coronavirus outbreak truncated the season, pushing the next meeting back to this year.

In the beginning, Philadelphia was A’s country. The statistics – and any hardcore fans of baseball history – would argue that the wrong team left town. Last year, the 2021 A’s finished 3rd in the A.L. West with 86W-76L, while the Phillies completed their 2021 season in 2nd place in the N.L. East with 82W-80L. With an entirely new generation of players and audibly critical fans able to witness this weekend’s games, this pseudo-City Series has the potential to break the interleague tie. Will the A’s win the series as they did in ‘17, or will the Phillies continue to be the thorn in the Great White Elephant’s [1]foot?

 

[1] A long-standing nickname and symbol for the Athletics especially during their years in Philadelphia, stemming from a comment made to founding owner Connie Mack that he had “bought himself a real white elephant”. Mack, true to his proud and contrarian nature, adopted the moniker as a badge of pride.

 

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