Anita Ray can still remember how the baseballs would fly onto the street in front of her house in the 1950s. On one occasion, she was struck square in the chest as she sat on her front porch. “Kids were always getting hit,” she says. “And not just on game days, but batting practice as well.” From her front stoop, Anita looks westward across the street to an era long past. On this warm April afternoon in 2018, the street is quiet, no different from any other block of tidy homes in this corner of North Philadelphia. But this is no ordinary row of homes. The baseballs were hit from the legendary Shibe Park, and these unassuming houses shared its grand stage in their glory days. These are the fabled “bleacher houses” of North 20th Street.
If you indulge in the fanciful notion of ghosts, then there can be little doubt that they remain here; they’re the ghost of a place, of legends, of teeming crowds, the ghosts of a time gone by. One hundred years ago, when the Philadelphia Athletics took the field of neighboring Shibe Park, this street and these houses took on a carnival atmosphere. The homes of North 20th Street had front-row seats–indeed, they were the front-row seats–to the country’s most magnificent sports stage.
From Shibe Park’s auspicious opening day in 1909 as the nation’s grandest ballpark to its sad demise borne of fire and neglect in the early 1970s, these modest homes bore witness to it all. They were the vantage points into the glorious days of its earliest decades and claim the proud distinction of having served as targets for out-of-the-park homers by nearly every power slugger of the early 20th century: Frank Baker, Eddie Collins, Al Simmons, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, and the Sultan of Swat himself, Babe Ruth. These houses saw eight World Series, two All-Star games, two presidential motorcades and the first-ever night game in the American League. For six decades they stood at the epicenter of the Philadelphia sports world, shouldered against the most majestic baseball palace that had ever been built.
Built in the first decade of the 1900s as part of a development boom into open lands northwest of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the homes and their gleaming new ballpark settled an area the locals dubbed “Swampoodle,” for its low spots that frequently collected rainwater. Two stories high, with a side-hall staircase accessing three upstairs bedrooms and a central bathroom, the houses were modest, but functional, designed to house the city’s growing turn-of-the-century working class of Irish and German immigrants that were filling the hulking factories nearby. Set against their industrial bulk, however, the scale and grandeur of the soaring steel and concrete ballpark had no equal. The park was the new home of the successful Philadelphia Athletics and formed the gravitational center of the neighborhood, swelling with 23,000 fans, dressed smartly in thick suits and wool hats, each game day. Drawn by the excitement, thousands more thronged the adjacent streets seeking a means to view the game. And thanks to the park’s unique configuration and the enterprising home owners along North 20th Street, there was an excellent way to do just that.
The massive park filled the entire block bounded by Lehigh Avenue, North 21st Street, Somerset Street, and North 20th Street. Home plate was set in its southwestern corner, against the high domed edifice of the entrance gates. Grandstands formed sheer walls along Lehigh Avenue and North 21st Street, and a smaller, but still imposing set of stands extended along left field, backing to Somerset. Somewhat incongruously, however, the right field wall was a meager 12 foot high fence running along the western side of North 20th Street. A scant 50 feet beyond the fence and standing 28 feet tall, the houses along the eastern side of North 20th Street were the beneficiaries of the park’s odd geometry. The second-floor windows and roof of nearly every house on the block offered an expansive view of the field. With thousands of overflow fans eager to see their beloved Athletics, the homeowners quickly seized on the opportunity and invited them directly into their homes on game days for a fee. By the middle of that first season in 1909, the North 20th Street houses became the de facto right field bleachers of Shibe Park.
It helped that the Athletics, managed by Connie Mack, were an elite team of the era, capturing American League Pennants four times between 1910 and 1914 and winning three World Series in this same time period. The momentum of their early success at Shibe carried them through a decade-long slump before returning to winning form again in the late 1920s.
John J. ‘Jack’ Rooney is likely one of the last Philadelphians to have remembered this all from a first-person perspective. Rooney, a retired professor of psychology at La Salle University, was born at 2739 North 20th Street, roughly mid-way along the block. In a recent telephone discussion, Jack recalled the incredible excitement of those game days and how his parents would usher spectators inside their house for 35 cents a head. Jack and his friends, not ones to be left from the action, would buzz about, offering errands on demand–a lemonade here, sandwich there, a parked car to be fetched, all for a nominal fee of course.
Now in his 90s, Rooney says that the glass and screens would be removed from the triple-bay windows in the upstairs front bedroom to maximize the view for those packed shoulder-to-shoulder within. More daring spectators could stretch out on the patio eaves, just below the windows, but the best view by far was up on the roof. For those willing, access was typically offered by way of a wooden ladder propped against the skylight in the upstairs bathroom. A favorite tale of Rooney’s, recounted in his 2012 memoir, Bleachers in the Bedroom, describes an afternoon when his father misplaced the ladder and resorted to hauling each paying customer up through the skylight by hand, while the waiting group sang from the bathroom, “Take me up to the ball-game…!”
The frenzy of the game days were offset by the routine familiarity that the children on the block had with the ballplayers themselves. Athletics players would frequently walk down North 20th Street to congregate at Kilroy’s, a tavern at the corner on Lehigh Avenue that was popular with home and visiting ballplayers. They’d even sign a ball or souvenir if offered. Al Simmons, the star Athletics’ outfielder from 1924 to 1932, is said to have lodged in a spare bedroom room on the block during the season, and the local children were often sent upstairs to wake him up for batting practice. According to Rooney, when a home run hit by Lou Gehrig broke the front door transom window of their neighbor at 2741 North 20th Street, ballpark officials quickly repaired it the next day. They finished the fix just in time for Gehrig to hit another one–through the exact same window.
In the fall of 1929, North 20th Street was bracing once again for a week of excitement. The Athletics had won the American League Pennant, and the World Series was returning to Shibe Park. The 20th Street neighbors put together a plan to erect a continuous set of rooftop bleachers extending up the block, thereby maximizing the number of spectators they could fit. They constructed it in time for the Series, with wide sets of wooden stairs spanning the gaps formed by alcoves between every other set of houses and offering a new route upward to the homemade upper deck from the rear alleyway. In addition to their greater capacity and more direct means of access, the bleachers also solved the understandably awkward issue of bathroom privacy during game days.
Photos from the 1929 Series show packed bleachers and front rooms in the 20th Street houses and hundreds more milling about excitedly on the street below. Commonly, hawkers for the bleacher houses would work the crowds at the stadium entrances offering a prime view of the game at a price set just below that of a stadium ticket. For the North 20th Street houses, this was their greatest era; they were a full-fledged part of the greatest baseball show in the country and the homeowners delighted in their role–and their extra income.
Seeing all that went on along North 20th Street one might think that Tom and Jack Shibe would have welcomed the spirit of enthusiasm that extended beyond the walls of their park. Sadly, that was not the case. As attendance numbers fell away during the Great Depression, and after Connie Mack sold off most of the team’s talent to reduce costs in 1932, the Shibes grew to resent the lost revenue that the North 20th Street bleacher houses represented. After years of escalating street-level tensions between park officials and bleacher house hawkers, the Shibes decided to act. On a winter day in early 1935 they erected an ugly, corrugated metal slab that elevated the right field barrier to 34 feet. It was immediately nicknamed the “Spite Wall.”
Robbed of their lucrative vantage point by the Spite Wall, the rooftop bleachers became obsolete instantly. No longer a source of income, and no doubt a fire hazard, they quickly disappeared into history. The park’s relationship with the 20th Street homeowners continued to sour in the years after the wall was built, culminating in a bitter battle over stadium lights in 1939 that allowed for the American League’s first-ever night game to be hosted at Shibe that year. The new light towers, with their hundreds of blinding 1,500 watt floodlights rising above the metal edifice of the Spite Wall were a bitter reminder to the homeowners that their days of sharing the glory of with Shibe Park were long gone. Photos of the block from the early 1940s show rooftops cleared of their former bleachers, platforms, and stairways, set against the backdrop of the Spite Wall that hastened their end. No one can quite remember who took them down or exactly when, but Rooney and Ray both attest that the bleachers were a distant memory by World War II.
The fortunes of Shibe Park, renamed Connie Mack Stadium in 1953, began to wane inexorably following the departure of the Athletics to Kansas City in 1954. Despite its continued use by the Phillies and Eagles over the next two decades, attendance dwindled and upkeep of the park was lacking. Ultimately, the rapidly deteriorating park was abandoned for the utilitarian concrete bowl of Veterans Stadium in 1970. A devastating fire the following year hastened its demise. In 1976, broken and silent, the old park was demolished.
Today, as Ray recalls those final years, she looks out across North 20th Street to the painted perimeter fence and the tidy grass landscaping of the Deliverance Evangelistic Church. The church was constructed on the former ballpark property in 1992, finally returning the old park grounds to life. From North 20th Street, the original decorated wood eaves of the bleacher houses can still be spied in some areas where strips of siding have fallen away. The vacant interior of a newly restored house offers a glimpse back in time when this bleacher house and its neighboring ballpark were young.
Surprisingly, the skylight in the upstairs bathroom still bears its metal chain and hinges, despite its heavy use as an access hatch by hundreds over two generations ago. The alcove between the house and its neighbor bears not a single visible remnant of the broad wooden stairway that extended from its rooftop perch to the rear alleyway below. All is gone, with not so much as an errant nail or scrap of wood remaining.
And in the upstairs bedroom, the three bay windows face westward onto the modern brick and glass façade of Deliverance Evangelical Church. On this quiet day in April there is no crack of a bat to be heard, no roar of a crowd. Yet, to stand in the center of this room is to stand with ghosts, dozens of them, wool caps in hand, facing Philadelphia’s great lost cathedral of baseball. They are here, the ghosts of Shibe Park, the ghosts of the bleacher houses. They congregate, close-shouldered, their gazes fixed on a fly ball arcing over the right field wall onto 20th Street.