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Giving 'Em Fitz: As the buildings rise, the baseball falls

As the concrete foundation of the new Comcast Innovation and Technology Center was being poured last week, the Phillies continued dismantling their own less-enduring underpinnings.

The Phillies have not been able to sustain a high level of baseball. It has either been boom or bust. (Associated Press)
The Phillies have not been able to sustain a high level of baseball. It has either been boom or bust. (Associated Press)Read more

As the concrete foundation of the new Comcast Innovation and Technology Center was being poured last week, the Phillies continued dismantling their own less-enduring underpinnings.

Jimmy Rollins is going to the Dodgers. Cole Hamels is on the market. And if you phone now, Ryan Howard can be yours by Christmas.

The baseball around here figures to be hellish at least for as long it takes Comcast's second Center City tower, a 1,121-foot edifice on Arch Street, to reach the heavens.

For whatever reason, this phenomenon of simultaneous ascension and descent is more common here than you might imagine. In each year that one of Philadelphia's four baseball dynasties died, one of the city's tallest and best-known structures has been born.

It seems that in Philadelphia, to paraphrase the old jingle for Robert Hall clothiers, when the buildings go up, up, up, the baseball goes down, down, down.

This curious relationship between lofty architecture and lousy baseball has occurred with surprising consistency during our long history with both.

Back in 1915, the year Connie Mack started disassembling the powerful Athletics team that had won four of the previous five American League pennants and three world championships, the handsome Widener Building, a stately partner for adjacent City Hall, had just arisen on South Penn Square.

"Letting their old heroes [Eddie Plank and Chief Bender] go?" Mack biographer Norman Macht, employing an architectural image, wrote of the city's reaction. "Why they'd sooner part with Billy Penn's statue atop City Hall."

(Interestingly, City Hall doesn't fit the theory. Begun in 1871, the year the original Athletics won America's first professional championship, it was completed in 1901, the year the reborn A's became charter members of the American League.)

Then in 1932, just as the landmark PSFS Building, America's first modern skyscraper, debuted on East Market Street, Mack initiated another fire sale, selling off the great Athletics stars who had led his team to the previous three World Series.

Though older, the Phillies didn't really enjoy a prolonged period of excellence until the Schmidt-Carlton era, which stretched from the mid-1970s until 1983. Then in 1984, just as that aging team was disintegrating, the "gentleman's agreement" limiting the height of buildings to City Hall's 548-foot stature was broken with the proposal to build One Liberty Place, which began its climb to the sky in 1985.

This up-and-down pattern might explain why for a century or more Philadelphia's skyline was so relatively modest. After all, despite having had a major-league team here since 1883 - two for 54 seasons - prolonged baseball success was as rare as enlightened civic thinking.

There's no discernible reason, of course, why Philly's skyscrapers and baseball fortunes should be so oddly linked. Perhaps it's merely that the swift collapse of a beloved champion is so excruciating that we need a grand architectural gesture to give us a reason to look up again.

Much like the massive hole that will accommodate the 59-floor Comcast tower, the baseball depressions here tend to be deep and long.

Unlike St. Louis, New York, or a few other cities, Philadelphia seems incapable of sustaining extended runs of baseball competency. It's almost always been boom or bust, most frequently bust.

The Phillies, for example, followed the franchise's first pennant, in 1915, with 31 seasons - from 1918 through 1948 - when they didn't manage a single winning campaign. No close finishes. No heartbreaking Septembers. Just three-plus decades of dreadful baseball.

Likewise the years after the 1950 Whiz Kids reached the Series were notable only for the embarrassment they produced.

The A's, meanwhile, who departed after 1954, finished in the first division exactly twice in their final 21 years in Philadelphia - fourth in 1948 and 1952 - and in that span had the AL's worst record 11 times.

There are no gentle falls in Philadelphia baseball. Instead, the drop-offs are steep, sudden, and painful.

The 1914 Athletics won 99 games before being upset by the Miracle Braves in the Series. The very next season, their victory total plummeted to 43 and they finished 581/2 games back. Four years after Mack's '31 juggernaut lost to St. Louis in October, the A's were in last place, and they would wind up either there or next-to-last in 11 of 12 seasons.

The decline was less severe but no less discouraging when the Schmidt-Carlton Phillies faded away. Memories of some of the hapless characters who populated the non-contenders that followed - John Felske, Steve Jeltz, Don Carman - can still make Philadelphians wince.

In December of 2014, the future looks just as dreary.

In the wake of the 1931 World Series, his last hurrah, Mack was asked by a reporter if he thought baseball's popularity had peaked.

"No, 20 years ago they said the same thing," Mack replied. "Why not look ahead . . . perhaps to a time when there will be baseball fields on the top of immense skyscrapers."

The 2008 Phillies won their world championship in a ground-level setting Mack would have found familiar, even if, by then, he would not have recognized Center City.

The enhancement of a skyline is a civic blessing. So is a consistently successful baseball team. There's no reason they can't happen in tandem.

Whether we're looking into the urban sky or at the National League standings, all we really want is something to make us proud.