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Baseball Articles

John Shibe PhotoJohn Shibe – A Biographic Sketch

By Bob Warrington

 

When the American League (AL) was created in 1900, Charles W. Somers, a Cleveland industrialist, fronted the money to support the formation of franchises in several cities. Under AL President Ban Johnson’s scheme developed in concert with Somers, as told by Bruce Kuklick in his book, “To Every Thing A Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia, 1909-1976,” as clubs in the new league became established in their respective cities, local interests would buy out Somers to avoid the stigma of syndicate ball (i.e., an individual owning or having a financial interest in more than one franchise).

 

This arrangement was used to establish the Philadelphia Athletics. As Kuklick writes, Somers initially paid more than $30,000 for a three-quarters interest in the club. Connie Mack received the remaining one-quarter of stock in return for an investment valued between $5,000 and $10,000, and his commitment to manage the team. To transfer the Athletics’ ownership to local interests, Mack approached Benjamin F. Shibe in December 1900 about investing in the club. Shibe, a partner in the A. J. Reach & Company—a manufacturer of baseball equipment and other sporting goods—had a long association with sports and readily understood the marketing potential a second major league would offer in selling the Reach Company’s products. The deal was made all the sweeter for Shibe by Mack’s offer to make the A. J. Reach baseball the official ball of the American League.

 

Shibe took his time in agreeing to the proposition, but in 1901 purchased 50 percent of Athletics’ stock from Somers. The remaining one-quarter of Somers’ interest in the club was sold in an even split to Philadelphia sportswriters Sam Jones and Frank Hough. For his investment, Ben Shibe was named president of the Philadelphia Athletics.

 

Thomas and John Shibe

 

Ben Shibe’s two sons—Thomas (Tom) and John—were working with their father at the A. J. Reach & Company when he bought a majority interest in the Athletics. (Tom and John purchased stock in the Athletics along with their father, bringing the Shibe family’s investment in the club to 50 percent of its stock.) Both sons—especially Tom, the oldest—had an interest in baseball, and both were anxious to get involved in the business management of the franchise. Tom was named Vice President of the Athletics, and John was appointed the club’s Secretary/Business Manager. Connie Mack, in addition to managing the A’s team, filled the position of treasurer.

 

Running the club on the field was left entirely to Mack, while Tom and John Shibe oversaw the business side of the franchise. Although Ben was club president, he was consumed primarily by his responsibilities at the Reach plant, so Tom performed many of the duties associated with his father’s office. According to Kuklick, “Jack (John) became the Athletics’ business manager or “secretary” in 1902. He oversaw the finances and the club’s physical plant (Columbia Park and then Shibe Park)—its maintenance and the nuts-and-bolts of running a business out of a ball park.”

 

In his role, John Shibe oversaw the remodeling of Shibe Park. The major renovations of 1925—adding upper decks from third base to left field, from first base to right field, and on the left field bleachers; rebuilding the original grandstand; and relocating home plate so that more seats (those most expensive to sit in to watch a game) could be emplaced behind it—took place under John Shibe’s direction.

 

John Shibe also earned the everlasting ire of residents on the 2700 block of North 20th Street, which ran parallel to Shibe Park’s right field wall, when he ordered 22 feet added to the top of the original 12-foot wall that ran from the right field line to the flagpole in centerfield. Rich Westcott, in his book, “Philadelphia’s Old Ballparks,” explains why the “spite fence” (or “spite wall”) was constructed:

“Mack had long been disenchanted with the way fans sat on the rooftops along 20th Street and got a free view of his team’s games. From a rooftop, fans could peer over the 12-foot right field wall and see the entire game and also get a suntan in the process. It was a practice they’d been following since the park was opened in 1909.”

 

The “rooftop stands” produced substantial income for the block as residents sold tickets to people who would sit on the homes’ flat second-story roofs to watch games. The A’s, on the other hand, viewed the practice as reducing ballpark admissions. Raising the right field wall by 22 feet—using corrugated metal which was then painted green—effectively blocked the views of the rooftop squatters. Neighborhood residents took the A’s to court in an effort to have the addition removed, but the club won the case. According to Kuklick, “The residents never forgot.”

 

John Shibe also confronted a firestorm of protests in the early 1930s when an A’s official raised the prospect of moving the Athletics to Camden, New Jersey so the team could play home games on Sunday. Pennsylvania’s “blue laws” prevented professional sports from being played in the state on the Christian Sabbath. John Shibe compounded the problem when he made a well-publicized visit to the Garden State ostensibly to look at prospective sites for the new ballpark. Shibe’s gambit was intended to create pressure on Pennsylvania politicians to remove restrictions on the A’s playing home games on Sunday, but it backfired. The outcry in Philadelphia that greeted the prospect of the Athletics moving across the Delaware River to play their games in New Jersey was so great that John Shibe was compelled to announce that the idea was visionary and not even in its embryonic stages.

 

Despite occasional controversies and public relations gaffes, the division of responsibility between Mack and the Shibe family worked out splendidly. A story about John Shibe in the “New York Times” noted, “Even while he was secretary and vice president, John Shibe was the “park” man of the partnership. The playing end was in charge of Mack and the Shibe brothers never interfered.” The influence of the Shibes in managing the Athletics franchise, nevertheless, was considerable. As Kuklick points out in his book, “The Shibes worked quietly but powerfully on the A’s.”

 

More About John Shibe

 

Although John Shibe spent most of his life working for the Philadelphia Athletics, his passion for sports was not confined to baseball. Frederick Lieb, in his book, “Connie Mack: Grand Old Man of Baseball,” writes, “While John was an ardent Athletic fan, his big hobby was speedboat racing, and he spent a fortune trying to win the American Cup. Connie and his associates often called him Thomas Lipton.”

 

Shibe’s love of speedboat racing also was mentioned in a newspaper story about him, which

included a remarkable revelation about combining that devotion with his need to be at Shibe Park to carry out his duties:

 

“During the last decade or so Mr. Shibe took up power-boat racing as a hobby and at his death he had a fleet of speedy craft. He built a large plant under the left-field stands at Shibe Park where he could make repairs and even build boats.”

 

Bruce Kuklick offers a view of John Shibe that also shows his interest in sporting endeavors went well beyond baseball:

 

“Younger brother Jack (John), however, typified the twentieth-century American “sportsman”: he was a wealthy entrepreneur who associated with athletes and who promoted the political and social aspects of professional competition. Jack liked horse racing, football, boxing, and speedboat racing as well as baseball. He looked after the family’s money in the franchise (Athletics). For a time he owned the publication “Sporting Life” and also had interests in contracting and in amusement parks.”

 

A newspaper story describing John Shibe’s life notes that in his youth he played baseball with amateur teams, won honors as an oarsman, and under the ring name of “Young Devine” was an outstanding amateur lightweight boxer. Shibe’s connection to the ring led him to organize some professional fights at Shibe Park soon after it opened. Both the Shibes and Connie Mack were

amenable to staging events at the ballpark beyond baseball games to generate funds from the facility’s use.

 

John Shibe also was a prominent member of the Democratic Party in Philadelphia. His ties to the powerful patriarchs of the city’s political hierarchy helped the Athletics on more than one occasion when it came to obtaining favorable treatment involving building variances, municipal regulations, city services, and taxes.

 

The A’s Ownership Hierarchy Evolves

 

The Shibe-Mack partnership worked extremely well—the Shibes handling the cash and Mack being granted complete freedom to run the team—and the franchise prospered both financially and on the field. The original power-sharing arrangement lasted from 1901 until January 14, 1922, when Ben Shibe died. Tom Shibe was elevated to the position of club president, and John Shibe added the title of vice president to his portfolio—retaining the position of club secretary.

 

Thomas Shibe died on February 16, 1936 of a heart ailment, raising again a leadership succession question for the Philadelphia Athletics. Lieb says in his book that there was some talk about Connie Mack taking over as club president, but Mack threw his support behind John Shibe, who on February 24, 1936 was elected president of the Philadelphia Athletics. At that same meeting of the club’s Board of Directors, Connie’s son, Roy F. Mack, 48, was elected club vice president, replacing John Shibe in that position. Roy Mack had been the business manager of the Portland club of the Pacific Coast League. Connie Mack retained his title as club treasurer throughout this period.

 

A Brief Tenure

 

John Shibe served as the Philadelphia Athletics president from February until August 1936. In August, he resigned the position claiming an unspecified illness and expressing the hope that he would be able to resume an active role in the franchise after a year of convalescence. But, John Shibe would never do so.

 

John Shibe’s continued poor health led to Connie Mack becoming president of the Philadelphia Athletics. At the A’s annual business meeting on January 11, 1937, John Shibe’s retirement was officially announced and Connie Mack was elected as club president. In addition, Benjamin MacFarland was named traveling secretary, and Frank MacFarland was appointed assistant treasurer. (It was also at this meeting, according to a newspaper report of the proceedings, that a Ladies Day at Shibe Park was approved for the first time. Discounted admissions for ladies once a week on their special day became a regular occurrence at the ballpark on Thursday afternoons.)

 

On July 11th of that same year, John Shibe passed away—the last member of the Shibe family to have an influential management role in the Athletics’ organization. He was 65 years old.

 

Most newspapers that reported John Shibe’s death restricted their treatment of the story to the fact that he died of pneumonia at Beeches Sanitarium in Philadelphia. The “New York Times,” however, in its obituary of John Shibe that appeared in the newspaper on July 12, 1937, reported that he had suffered a “nervous breakdown” during the latter part of the 1936 baseball season, which forced him to give up the club’s presidency. His condition did not improve, and he entered the sanitarium in early 1937.

Upon being notified of John Shibe’s death, Connie Mack said, “We were partners for thirty-five years and not one bitter word ever passed between us. His friends and baseball men in general mourn his loss.” John Shibe was buried on July 14, 1937. Connie Mack, American League President William Harridge, and other baseball notables attended the funeral.

 

John Shibe’s obituary in the “New York Times” commented that he was survived by his widow, Ethyl Shibe. His first wife, the former Miss. Jessie Brown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, was living in Paris, France at the time of John Shibe’s death. They had divorced some years before.

 

A Momentous Turning Point

 

John Shibe’s death brought a profound change to the ownership structure of the Philadelphia Athletics and represented a turning point in the history of the franchise. As David Jordan in his book, “The Athletics of Philadelphia: Connie Mack’s White Elephants, 1901-1954,” writes, “Connie Mack in December 1940 was able to purchase the stock of the late John Shibe for $42,000 to attain majority control of the Athletics franchise.” For the first time, the Mack family controlled the Athletics and Shibe Park. (Connie Mack had acquired the one-quarter interest held by sportswriters Hough and Jones following the 1912 season for $113,000 using a loan provided by Ben Shibe. By purchasing their shares, Mack then held a 50 percent interest in both the franchise and Shibe Park.)

 

The Shibe family, nonetheless, continued to have considerable holdings in the franchise. Although both of Ben Shibe’s sons were gone, his daughters still lived—Mrs. George Reach and Mrs. Elfreda MacFarland—and retained blocks of stock.

 

But, John Shibe’s death shifted the locus of power over the franchise and its ballpark from the Shibe family to the Mack family. Connie Mack now faced the dilemma of dividing his shares amongst his heirs. Friction provoked both by disagreements over the distribution of shares and by sorting out who would do what in overseeing the franchise created bitter fissures within the Mack family, and it would eventually contribute to the departure of the Athletics from Philadelphia.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

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