Giving 'Em Fitz: A piece of Philadelphia's baseball history still stands
Surrounded by Fishtown's redbrick sea, Palmer Cemetery is an eerie urban island. Neighbors of the 250-year-old burial grounds insist spirits of the Revolutionary and Civil War veterans interred there sometimes prowl its weathered headstones and foreboding maples.
Surrounded by Fishtown's redbrick sea, Palmer Cemetery is an eerie urban island.
Neighbors of the 250-year-old burial grounds insist spirits of the Revolutionary and Civil War veterans interred there sometimes prowl its weathered headstones and foreboding maples.
Meanwhile, just a block away, another more tangible neighborhood ghost is stirring to life.
At the cramped corner of Tulip and Palmer Streets, a long-abandoned Industrial Age building that, in terms of its baseball pedigree, may now be the most significant structure in Philadelphia is being converted into 30 apartments.
The masonry letters identifying the old factory as A.J. Reach & Co. have been removed. Its windows and fire escape have been replaced. Its vast interior has been subdivided, its ancient brick walls carefully sandblasted.
After reading about the transformation on New Year's Eve morning, I was drawn there, in search of what, I wasn't quite sure.
Circling the building, I picked up a fallen hunk of brick. The wallet-size fragment felt unusually hefty, as if somehow it had absorbed all the history it had encased for more than a century.
Not long from now, the former factory will be occupied by more of the young hipsters busily gentrifying this quirky neighborhood just a few El stops from Center City. Since there's no historical marker, few are likely to realize that by doing so they've helped save a monument to Philadelphia's sporting past.
Unlike many of the locals who worked for his namesake company, Al Reach isn't buried in Palmer Cemetery. Given the wealth his factory created, it's not surprising that he chose the tonier West Laurel Hill as his final resting place.
Reach was one of baseball's earliest stars. A .353-hitting infielder on the 1871 Philadelphia Athletics team that won America's first pro championship, in 1883 he became the initial owner of the Phillies.
He teamed up with a local inventor named Ben Shibe to form the successful sporting-goods company bearing Reach's more familiar name. When the American League was founded in 1901, Shibe became the Philadelphia A's principal investor and Reach the league's ball-supplier.
Their Fishtown facility opened in 1907, a sprawling multibuilding sports mill in the city's industrial heart. While gloves and bats were also made there, baseballs were its signature product.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, every American League ball came from Reach. Workers on its fourth floor hand-stitched all those that Babe Ruth so famously slugged, that Ty Cobb slapped, and Walter Johnson slung.
The offensive revolution that transformed baseball in the 1920s was born within its walls, the explosive result of Reach's patented cork-centered balls.
Cobb toured the plant in 1927. Connie Mack and other A's Hall of Famers, Eddie Collins and Lefty Grove among them, visited often, for publicity photos or simply to inspect the equipment they would one day use.
At its peak, Reach sated America's addiction for its pastime. The Fishtown mill was the world's preeminent baseball manufacturer, turning out 24,000 a day and employing 1,000 Philadelphians.
Then in the 1950s, like so many others in the city's once-vibrant manufacturing corridor, the factory shut down. Briefly resurrected as a warehouse, when it closed for good in 2004 the historic structure's demise seemed imminent.
Ultimately, it was saved by the ongoing migration of suburban-raised youngsters into Philadelphia. To capitalize on that trend, Domani Developers last year revealed plans for the Reach building's salvation.
I'd brought along a photo from the 1920s. The facade was little changed. A worker from Reach's heyday would have little trouble recognizing the place or, for that matter, the surrounding neighborhood.
A metal gate that still shielded a Palmer Street entrance looked as if it had been there since 1907. If so, thousands of Fishtown workers had passed through it, including the men and women trained by the prosperous firm to hand-stitch baseballs.
In what was indicative of that age's attitudes on gender, women sewed the cheaper baseballs together while their male counterparts worked on those destined for ballparks in New York, Detroit, Chicago, and elsewhere, including the A's stadium at 21st and Lehigh.
Reach's baseball business was successful in large part because of Shibe's ingenuity. The machinery there, which Shibe developed and patented, could rapidly wind stocking yarn around a rubber core.
The morning I visited was bright and brisk. Though Reach's three sister structures had disappeared long ago, Fishtown's industrial past shone through as brightly as the sun.
Old factories - some rehabbed, others empty shells - were everywhere. Just north of the Reach facility on Tulip Street, an enormous warehouse had become a trendy apartment complex dubbed Memphis Flats.
Atop the Reach factory, a rooftop tower that must have served some lofty purpose had been retained and would be the centerpiece of a planned penthouse garden.
A short distance away, amid the church spires that loomed over Frankford Avenue, a faded advertisement for "R. Siemon & Sons Barrels" was visible on a building side.
Baseballs and barrels, Stetson hats and Philco radios, you could once find them all on a short walk through Fishtown, Port Richmond, Kensington.
The places that made those products have disappeared. So have most of those who worked for Reach, some of whom are buried at Palmer Cemetery.
Much of our sports history has proved equally mortal.
Think of all Philadelphia's vanished ball fields and boxing arenas, its long-gone racetracks and velodromes, playgrounds and parish gyms.
In such a transitory world, it's reassuring to know that on a narrow street dead-ending at a cemetery older than America, a baseball factory stands.