Return of Professional Baseball
February 24, 2018
The History of A.J. Reach & Co.
A.J. Reach American Assoc. Base Ball Guide, 1884
"When the cover is rigidly secured to the ball, the shifting strain to which the inner periphery of the ball is subjected in batting not only tends to impair its sphericity, but actually so greatly impairs it as to render the ball practically useless for its intended purpose.."
Ben's defection instantly transformed A.J. Reach & Co. from a retail store to a sporting goods manufacturer as they proudly proclaimed in an 1883 advertisement in the same issue of the Sporting Life. The ad utilized the identical ball illustration as J.D. Shibe's except for the notice of a pending patent, the first of many patents Benjamin Shibe would be awarded for baseball innovations. The patent (No. 272,984) was for a baseball design in which the ball's horse-hide cover wasn't attached to the interior yarn. This seemingly minor tweak to the manufacturing process helped the ball retain its spherical shape. According to the patent:
J. D. Shibe Advertisement, Sporting Life, 1883
A.J. Reach Advertisement, Sporting Life, 1883
The rapid adoption of A.J. Reach & Co's Patent Plastic Ball by professional and semi-professional baseball leagues was due to multiple factors. First, was Shibe's patented design, which produced balls of uniform size, shape, and liveliness. Second, Shibe developed manufacturing techniques and machinery that produced balls quickly with less manual labor, thereby allowing A.J. Reach to drive down costs and put competitors out of business. According to a June 11, 1884 article in the Boston Daily Globe, by 1884 there were "only eight factories of any importance" manufacturing baseballs in the U.S. Finally, Al Reach's celebrity and business acumen allowed the company to reach markets that were otherwise inaccessible. All of these factors led to A.J. Reach's 1885 claim of being the largest manufacturer of baseballs in the country. In fact, contemporaneous news accounts suggest that by 1886 A.J. Reach was producing the official American Association baseball and the official National League baseball, which it stamped and wholesaled to A.G. Spalding & Bros.
By 1884, A.J. Reach & Co's operation had expanded to the manufacture of baseballs, bats, gloves, boxing gloves, foot balls, and lawn tennis equipment out of two factories in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown, 1101 Frankford Avenue and 1219 Beach Street along Fishtown's riverfront.
Perfecting the Baseball
In 1881, Ben Shibe left J. D. Shibe to join Al Reach in a new baseball manufacturing and retail business, Reach & Shibe, at 23 South 8th Street, just four blocks from J. D. Shibe & Co.'s store at 135 North 8th Street. The circumstances of, and reaction to, Ben's exodus are unknown, however, there is evidence that it may not have been entirely amicable. John Shibe claimed that the new company name infringed on J. D. Shibe, forcing Reach & Shibe to rename their business A.J. Reach & Co., Limited in 1882. Hard feelings may also be evidenced in a 1883 J. D. Shibe & Co. advertisement in the Sporting Life which stated, "No Connection with any other House in this City."
Reach & Shibe
In 1882, Shibe and Sharsig's Athletics were a founding member of the American Association, a new professional league that offered lower ticket prices and alcoholic beverage sales to lure fans and players away from the National League. The Athletics finished 3rd in the new league in 1882 with a respectable 41-34 record, and won the American Association pennant in 1883.
Meanwhile, Al Reach and the owners of the Quaker City Club successfully acquired rights to a National League franchise from the Worcester (MA) Worcester's, which folded after a disastrous 1882 season. After finishing dead last in 1883, Reach and Rogers hired Harry Wright as manager and changed the Quakers nickname to the "Philadelphias," which would eventually become the "Phillies."
The return of professional baseball to Philadelphia opened major promotional and licensing opportunities for A.J. Reach & Co. Al Reach secured the rights to publish the Official American Association Base Ball Guide, which provided a platform to advertise Reach sporting goods well beyond the Philadelphia market. In addition, Ben Shibe's new A.J. Reach & Co. baseball was adopted as the official American Association league ball. By 1885, Reach's Patent Plastic Ball had also been adopted by the Southern League, the Western League, and the New York Inter-Collegiate Association.
A.J. Reach Beach St. Factory, 1884 Reach Base Ball Guide
In early 1888, A.J. Reach & Co. moved its retail business to a larger space at 1022 Market Street. The new store allowed the company to expand its offerings to include Al Reach's "model gymnasium for the advancement of physical culture," featuring the latest exercise equipment and gymnasium apparatus. It was in the retail store that Reach's son, George first joined his father's business as a clerk.
On December 27, 1888, the A.J. Reach Company was incorporated, with Al Reach and Ben Shibe each being issued 300 of the 600 shares of company stock as payment for the machinery, book accounts, and trademarks of A.J. Reach Co., Ltd. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, incorporation was part of "extensive preparations for the manufacture and sale of sporting goods." It is possible that the incorporation may also have been in preparation for the eventual sale of the business.
Expansion and Incorporation
Philadelphia Inquirer, December 28, 1888
Philadelphia Times, September 18, 1888
In 1887, with help from financier E.D. O'Kane, Al Reach and John Rogers completed construction of a grand new ballpark named the "Philadelphia Baseball Grounds" at 15th and Huntingdon Street. Rogers and Reach purchased the grounds from O'Kane in January 1888 and leased the facilities to the Phillies . The 14,500 seat stadium, was rumored to cost over $100,000 and was considered the most complete and best appointed in the United States. An estimated 17,000 fans packed the stadium on opening day, April 30, 1887, to watch the Phillies defeat New York 15-9. The Phillies wouldn't win a National League pennant during Reach's ownership tenure, however, the team would regularly lead the league in attendance, a stat that would become a source of pride and wealth for Reach and Rogers.
Philadelphia Baseball Grounds
St. Louis Sporting News, December 11, 1886
Philadelphia Base Ball Grounds, Philadelphia Times, August 12, 1894
A.J. Reach baseball and football goods, 1884 Reach Base Ball Guide