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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,214


This is the grave of Benjamin Shibe.

Born in 1838 in Philadelphia, Shibe grew up poor and lame. He had a bum leg and there wasn’t much anyone could or would do about that in pre-Civil War Philadelphia. He had to wear a steel brace and hobble around. But he got a job on a streetcar, then did a bunch of other jobs. By 1870, he was a conductor on the Philadelphia City Railroad.

At some point in the 1870s, Shibe and his brothers started a company to make balls for various games. Stick and ball games have always been common in human society and there were many of them in the mid to late nineteenth century. What made Shibe famous and rich is that he and his brothers decided to go all in on the new game of baseball and soon became the premier baseball maker in the country, putting out over one million a year by 1883. Baseball would soon become the dominant stick and ball game in the United States and remains so to the present, even if it is not as popular as it once was, having definitely lost the “America’s past time” crown to football. They went into making bats too. In 1889, he and his nephew figured out the basics of the modern baseball, particularly how to best stitch it. His nephew won the patent on that.

Well, Shibe was having a good time and making money. He liked sports. Companies started semi-pro teams all the time. So he got in on the action. He started his own team and also invested in the Athletic Club of the American Association. The AA went under, but Shibe’s interest in professional baseball did not. In 1901, the newly formed American League started a team in Philadelphia, under the leadership of Connie Mack. Needing money, Mack turned to Shibe, who was excited to be a part of what would become the Philadelphia Athletics. They ran the club together for the next several years. Although the As are not known for their winning and haven’t been for a very long time (minus the Bash Brothers years and the attempts to compete with the Moneyball stuff), in the early years, the As were a dominant team. Over the next 21 years, the team went to six World Series and won three. If only they had stayed that way instead of serving as a de facto minor league team for the Yankees during the Kansas City days.

Shibe left most of the running of the team to Mack and invested in a new stadium. That was Shibe Park, which at the time of its construction in 1909 was considered far and away the best stadium in the game. It received the kind of accolades that more modern stadiums such as the Skydome and Camden Yards did upon their opening, parks that changed the entire structure of the game. Shibe’s company then went on to contribute to the death of the dead ball era, creating a new ball in 1910 with a cork center that popped more and could lead to longer hits.

In 1920, Shibe was riding in his car when it was struck by another car. He never fully recovered from the this accident and died two years later, in 1922, at the age of 83.

Benjamin Shibe is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

Surprisingly, Shibe is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. There aren’t that many owners in there generally, but this feels like a real slight. Anyway, if you want this series to visit other owners or executives who are in the Hall of Fame, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. George Weiss is in New Haven, Connecticut and Warren Giles is in Moline, Illinois. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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