Historical Markers
Al Reach Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Al Reach

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
1820 Chestnut St., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
April 4, 2003

Behind the Marker

Steel engraving of Al Reach, 1898.
Philadelphia baseball entrepreneur Al Reach, 1898.
If the fictional Horatio Alger were to put on a baseball uniform, he might well personify the real rags-to-riches rise of Al Reach. Like so many of the game's earliest stars, Reach began by cobbling together a hardscrabble living made up of several odd jobs, of which baseball was just one. But unlike most of his playing brethren, Reach didn't disappear from public awareness the day he packed his bat and glove away, for he was able to turn baseball into a stepping stone to a better life. He parlayed hard work, natural ability, superb instincts, and the business connections he made along the way into an empire that included both the Philadelphia Phillies and one of the largest sporting goods businesses of the day.

Born in London in 1840, Alfred James Reach and his family moved to the United States a year later, settling in Brooklyn. By age fifteen, he was already an experienced factory hand, molding iron while working in the grime and brutal heat of a foundry. But baseball was his passion, and it became his escape route. His superb athletic skills earned him entrance into what was then the fraternity of gentlemen ballplayers, amateurs all. In his mid-teens, he became the second baseman for one of the storied clubs of the era, Brooklyn's Eckfords.

The years before the Civil War were interesting baseball times. There were no organized professional leagues yet. Though the game was still technically amateur, the best players were compensated with good jobs or cash payments under the table. The system was about to change, though, and Reach would serve as its prototype.
"Reach, Baseball-Tennis-Golf" catalogue, 1917.
A. J. Reach Co. "Baseball-Tennis-Golf" Catalogue, 1917.

In 1865, the old Philadelphia Athletics decided they wanted Reach in their lineup, and lured him from Brooklyn with a contract for $25 a week. By accepting a salary, Reach became the game's first open professional. The floodgates of change were ready to burst.

In 1871, nine teams east of the Mississippi River formed the new National Association, and professionalism wove itself forever into the fabric of America's National Pastime. With a 22-7 record that year, the A's, won the league's first pennant, with Reach hitting a respectable .353 (His teammate, power-hitting third baseman Levi Meyerle, led the Association with a .492 average and four homers). Reach's playing days lasted another four seasons, his last two as the A's player-manager. He also ran a cigar store on Chestnut Street, manning it before and after the games.

Seeing the growing demand for bats and balls, and realizing that there was no place in Philadelphia to buy them, Reach opened a sporting goods store on South Eighth Street in 1874. A success from the start, the A.J. Reach Company added a partner in 1881 - leather expert Benjamin J. Shibe, the "Shibe" of marker Shibe Park. Two years later, he published the first "Reach's Official Baseball Guide." In his early forties, Al Reach was a prosperous businessman.

He was also still very much a baseball man. When A.G. Mills, the president of the young National League, decided the league needed a new franchise in Philadelphia, he approached Reach about taking over the failing club from Worcester, Massachusetts, and moving it south to Philadelphia. Reach needed very little coaxing before he agreed. On May 1, 1883, the Philadelphia Phillies took the field for the first time at the refurbished Recreation Park, losing to the Providence Grays. The first season was a 17-87 disaster, but Reach remained hopeful. "We spent a year finding ourselves," he would later say. "Of course, it was expensive. We made mistakes, but we learned from our experiences."
A woodcut portrait of Al Reach in uniform holding a bat.
A woodcut portrait of Al Reach in uniform holding a bat

Reach remained a co-owner and president of the organization for the next two decades, and the team quickly improved. In one of his ablest moves, Reach brought in Harry Wright, whom some historians consider the "Father of Baseball," to manage the club. Under Wright's tutelage from 1884-93, the Phillies improved substantially, notched 636 victories, and were almost always among the leading contenders for the National League pennant. (Only Gene Mauch, the team's manager through most of the 1960s, has surpassed Wright's record for winning games at the Phillies' helm.) In 1887, Reach built the new stadium that would later be called markerBaker Bowl, and then rebuilt it on the same spot after it burned down in 1894.

Meanwhile, the A.J. Reach Company was thriving. It ultimately moved to an even larger store at 1820 Chestnut Street. Competitor A.G. Spalding and Bros. eventually paid handsomely to buy the company, but kept the Reach name on the store and continued manufacturing baseballs at Reach's Philadelphia plant.

In 1901, Reach smoothed the way for Shibe, his business partner, to enter baseball as a co-owner with manager markerConnie Mack of the new Philadelphia Athletics in the new American League. Sadly, the poaching of players that ensued between the leagues would soon sour Reach. He sold his interest in the Phillies and retired from the game in 1903. Still, his name appeared in every American League game for years; the man so associated with the National League still manufactured the American League ball. His name also appeared on the chauvinistic 1908 report that falsely proclaimed Abner Doubleday had invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York.

Reach died in Atlantic City in 1928. There was no doubt that baseball had been very, very good to him. The former ironworker left an estate worth more than $1 million.
Back to Top