Toward the end of a June workday in 1976, after a Geppert Brothers crew had leveled most of abandoned Connie Mack Stadium, a lone sliver of the old ballpark, a main gate at 21st and Lehigh, stood in mute defiance of the wrecking ball.
Above that forsaken entrance, eerily projecting from the masonry like Marley’s ghost on Scrooge’s door, were white terracotta busts of the two men whose names graced the ballpark once hailed as a baseball palace.
Connie Mack’s angular Irish face would still have been familiar to many Philadelphians. Few in 1976, however, would have recognized the other carving, a mustachioed man with a round face and pleasant expression.
“Uncle Ben” Shibe was, for some time, the emperor of Philadelphia baseball. He was an original investor in the Phillies; owned the Athletics; built the trendsetting ballpark in which the A’s and later the Phillies played; and co-owned the sporting-goods company that revolutionized the baseball’s design and for 75 years produced every one used in the American League.
“This grand old man probably did more for the sport in this city than any other individual,” The Inquirer noted in his 1922 obituary.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the last game ever played at the historic North Philadelphia stadium that for 44 years bore his name. But in that ensuing half-century, Shibe’s legacy, like the structure he conceived, paid for and built, has been razed.
Sports fame is ephemeral. Some names, like Mack’s, linger. Others disappear. Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, when the bowler-hatted Shibe was a fixture in Philadelphia’s newspapers and a power in the sport, it would have been impossible to imagine that he might ever be forgotten, especially in his hometown.
“He has left an indelible stamp on baseball,” American League founder Ban Johnson said after the Athletics owner’s death.
But except for a few small traces that “indelible stamp” has vanished.
If history’s desertion of Shibe and his family is bittersweet, it’s also familiar: The descendants of a founding owner gradually losing interest and authority; a dominant business dissipating; squandered fortunes; divorces and deaths.
Even before Ben Shibe’s passing, his two sons, Tom and John, operated the Athletics and their ballpark. They both died in the 1930s, leaving their widows and Ben’s two grandsons in tenuous control of a fading franchise. By 1950, four years before the struggling A’s departed for Kansas City, the Shibes were completely disassociated from the team.
By 1953, when the ballpark was renamed to honor Mack, memories of what was once the first family of Philadelphia sports were fading quickly.
In 2020, perhaps the only places a Philadelphian might encounter that once-ubiquitous name are in baseball history books or at two sportswear stores in Center City and King of Prussia.
Shibe Vintage Sports, founded in 2014 by Brian Michael, a sports-history buff, sells T-shirts, hats and other merchandise, much of it emblazoned with images of Shibe Park. Michael has no connections to the family, but he believed the name “Shibe” would be a natural fit for his nostalgia-based business.
“We try to showcase our fascinating sports history through apparel,” Michael said. “Shibe Park was the epicenter of pro sports in Philly for the better part of the 20th Century. You had the Athletics and Phillies, of course, but the Negro League Stars and the Eagles also played there. It hosted many boxing matches.”
Despite that, when his customers see the Shibe Park references, they frequently are confused.
“Most people know of Connie Mack Stadium,” said Michael. “But few realize it’s the same place as Shibe Park.”
The family has scattered, its base shifting from Philadelphia to Haverford to Palm Beach. It’s in that tony Florida community where the last remnants of the Shibes' sports glory are stored.
The keeper of that memorabilia and the family history is Shibe’s great-great grandson, Benjamin Shibe Macfarland III, a 40-year-old Palm Beach socialite who operates a real-estate investment company.
His namesake father and grandfather, having visited Palm Beach often for Athletics spring trainings, relocated there in the 1960s.
“I’ve still got a lot of stuff my dad left me,” he said. “I have the trophy the A’s got for winning the 1929 pennant. I’ve got Herbert Hoover’s signature on a 1931 World Series program, from the day when he got booed out of the stadium. I’ve got stuff from when the Shibes helped pay for the All-Star team to go to Japan in 1934.”
He’s also got a family Bible that dates back to 1768. The first name inside is Casper Shibe, who was born in Philadelphia to German immigrants late in the 18th Century.
Casper’s great-grandson, Ben Shibe, was born in 1838 and grew up on Girard Avenue in Fishtown. As a boy, he loved the new sport of baseball but a childhood leg injury prevented him from playing.
The ambitious Shibe drove a streetcar but eventually partnered with relatives in a business that produced baseballs. Its best customer was Al Reach, a former baseball star who sold sporting goods in Center City. Shibe and Reach soon formed their own enterprise, the A.J. Reach Co. By 1883, according to SABR, it employed 1,000 at its Fishtown factory and was manufacturing 1.3 million baseballs and 100,000 bats annually.
While Reach became an original Phillies owner, Shibe operated a semi-pro team and invested in the Athletics of the American Association.
In 1901, the new American League awarded Mack a Philadelphia franchise and the search for financing led him to Shibe. Initially, the businessman was hesitant to associate with a league competing with his partner’s ballclub, but Shibe yielded after the American League awarded him exclusive rights to produce its balls.
With Mack managing and Shibe running the business, the A’s prospered, capturing three pennants and two World Series in their first 11 years. By 1907, demand for tickets at 9,500-seat Columbia Park was so strong that Shibe decided a bigger ballpark was essential.
Constructed for $315,000, Shibe Park was baseball’s first steel-and-concrete structure, inspiring a generation of imitators. At its April 12, 1909, debut, the Inquirer described it accurately as “the largest and most perfectly appointed baseball grounds in the world.”
Still, Shibe devoted most of his efforts to his sporting-goods business. Machinery developed by his company produced two revolutionary baseballs, the first cork-centered ball in 1911, and the even more lively “rabbit ball” in 1928. Those developments altered Shibe’s bottom line as thoroughly as the game’s power numbers.
In August 1920, his chauffeured car was struck by another vehicle on Ashbourne Pike in Elkins Park. Shibe, 82, who suffered a fractured skull and several broken bones, was never the same. He died two years later and was buried in Lot 440 at West Laurel Hill Cemetery.
His four children – Tom, John, Elfrida and Mary – assumed financial control of the A’s. Elfrida had married a successful Philadelphia physician, Dr. Franklin Macfarland. Mary wed Al Reach’s nephew, George.
The two sons worked for the Athletics. While Mack ruled baseball operations, Tom gradually assumed many of his father’s duties as club president and John, team secretary, ran the day-to-day business.
It was John who expanded Shibe Park and built its infamous spite fence to prevent rooftop viewers on 20th Street from freeloading. He was also an avid speedboater, spending a fortune on the sport. When he died in 1937, a year after Tom, several of his boats were stored beneath Shibe Park’s bleachers.
After Ben Shibe’s original shares passed to his sons' widows and to his grandchildren, it didn’t take long for Mack and his sons to move. In 1940, when Tom’s widow sold her shares, the Macks were majority owners.
“After Tom and John died, there really wasn’t a generation to take over,” said Macfarland. “So it fell into Connie Mack’s kids' hands and they sort of ran it into the ground. The more deeply they got involved, the more things started to unravel.”
The complex, internecine battles among Mack’s sons – he had boys from two different marriages and they took opposite sides in the dispute – intensified as the team’s fortunes worsened throughout the 1940s. Finally, in 1950, Mack and sons Earle and Roy bought out the last of the Shibes' shares and fired the grandsons, Ben and Frank, who had been acting as traveling secretary and assistant treasurer.
By then, the family was also out of the baseball-producing business. A.J. Reach Co. had been swallowed up by Spalding. In 1954, the last of its once-bustling Fishtown factories closed.
When Shibe’s ballpark disappeared in 1976, an Inquirer reporter interviewed the worker operating the wrecking ball. Bill Neas had come to Shibe Park often, often enough that even in its absence he could hear the echoes from when the A’s ruled the American League and the Shibes ruled the A’s.
“Lean back and close your eyes,” Neas said wistfully. “You can almost hear the crowd hollering.”