The Phillies’ magnificent five-year run has come to a close, and they’ll be on the golf course come playoff time. Some think this is the greatest Phillies team of all time, but they are not the greatest Philadelphia baseball team of all time. Not even close. That would be the 1929 Philadelphia A’s, who crushed Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the rest of the Yankees by 18 games, and steamrolled into the World Series against the Chicago Cubs. They were starting a string of three straight World Series appearances, and they’d win two of them, and lose a third in a Game 7. (Side note: I will actually be covering the 1929 World Series as if it were live next week on my blog, phillysportshistory.com).
Jack Rooney remembers that 1929 team quite well. His family lived right behind the right-field fence at Shibe Park. When the A’s got good, his family decided to make a little extra money by letting people use their roof and their front rooms to watch the games. And when the team got real good, Jack’s dad built bleachers on the roof. A few months ago, he self-published a book about the experience, called Bleachers in the Bedroom. I spoke with Jack about the book, about the bleachers, the Babe, and about the greatest baseball team in Philadelphia history.
You just recently wrote the book, correct?
Yes, I had written an article for Philadelphia magazine in 1984 called “Bleachers in the Bedroom,” which was about what it was like growing up across the street from Shibe Park. Having fans on our roof, in our bedrooms. Selling peanuts and lemonade, parking cars. … Though a good deal of it is about baseball.
So tell me about the 1929 team.
Well we might want to go back to the 1927 team. Of course ’27 was when you had that great Yankees team when Ruth hit the 60 home runs. Then in ’28, the A’s battled them, and in September they were tied with them, but the Yankees pulled ahead and won in ’28. So in ’29, there was a lot of anticipation before the season started.
So there was already a rivalry between the Yankees and the A’s?
Oh yeah. There was a big rivalry there. In games when the A’s were playing the Yankees, especially on a Saturday, say for a doubleheader, that would draw, and the battle was heated.
So where exactly did you live?
I lived on 2739 20th street. Behind the right field fence. And they had a low right field fence, about 12 feet high, so you had a great view from there. I was interviewed at Citizens Bank Park a few years ago, and I sat in a section there they called rooftop bleachers, and it’s supposed to duplicate the view we had from our rooftop bleachers on 20th Street. So the reporter asked me, “Is it the same?” And of course I could look out and sort of visualize what it was like back then, and I said, “We were a lot closer.”
Some of the A’s players lived right in your neighborhood right?
The one we really had a relationship with was Al Simmons. He was probably the biggest star on the team. He rented a room from a family that was three doors away from us on 20th Street. We saw him often. My kid brother had the job of waking him up sometimes, because Mrs. Conwell didn’t want to go into his bedroom, so she’d say, “Hey Jerry, would you go in and wake up Al?” And he’d go in, wake him and talk to him. My brother would say, “Come on all, you’ve got to get up, you’ve got to get your batting practice.”
I’ve always thought that Al Simmons isn’t really appreciated enough in Philadelphia. Do you think that?
You know how Philadelphia fans have a tradition of booing some of their stars. Well, Simmons was no exception. They got on him. He had an unorthodox batting stance. Foot in the bucket type stance, and so they’d yell, “Al get your foot out of the bucket!”
What did your parents charge for the rooftop seats?
They charged 50 cents during the season. Fifty cents was the price of the cheapest seats in the bleachers. For the World Series of course we charged a little bit more. I don’t know what it was, maybe $5, maybe more. The management at Shibe wouldn’t let the newsreel photographers come into the park to take videos. We allowed three of the photographers up on our roof during games. And my father charged them $20 a game. It was kind of a coup.
The Phillies were terrible back then. Did you know any Phillies fans or was most of the city in love with the A’s?
Some of my friends used to tell me that the city used to divide among A’s fans and Phillies fans, and kids who were A’s fans would get in fights and arguments with Phillies fans, but in our neighborhood, they were all A’s fans. But my grandfather was a Phillies fan and that used to annoy my father.
Was there ever a home run hit over your bleachers?
There was one that Babe Ruth hit that is often claimed to be the longest home run ever hit. It went over the roofs on 20th Street, the roofs on Opal Street, and broke a second-story window.