An Indelible Mark

Pioneer Al Reach to be considered by Pre-Integration Era Committee

November 27, 2012
2013 Pre-Integration Committee candidate Al Reach. (NBHOF Library)

While Al Reach was considered one of the best baseball players of the 19th century, it was his contributions to the game as both an executive and as an innovative sporting goods magnate that many consider his greatest accomplishments.

In a real life rags-to-riches tale, Reach was brought to America as an infant but eventually embraced his adopted country’s national pastime. Though he experienced bumps along the way, his business acumen would eventually help him build a multimillion dollar empire and become one of the more famous men of his time.

Reach is one of 10 finalists on this year’s Pre-Integration Committee ballot at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The Pre-Integration Committee will vote on Dec. 2 at baseball’s Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn., and the results of the vote will be announced Dec. 3.

The 10 candidates on the Pre-Integration Committee ballot are: Sam Breadon, Bill Dahlen, Wes Farrell, Marty Marion, Tony Mullane, Hank O’Day, Jacob Ruppert, Bucky Walters, Deacon White and Breadon. Any candidate who receives at least 75 percent of all ballots cast will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2013.

Born May 25, 1840, in London, England, Reach’s immigrant parents took up residence in Brooklyn, N.Y., when their son was just a baby. Lacking a formal education, the youngster made money selling newspapers before seeking higher wages as an iron molder. Though he was taught cricket by his father, the young Reach preferred baseball and spent whatever free time he had learning the still-developing game.

By the time Reach was in his teens he was considered one of the most skilled baseball players from his area. At 15 he began playing with the amateur Eckfords of Brooklyn, and though small in stature - 5-foot-6 and weighing around 150 pounds - it was as a hitter that he excelled.

“He could hit the ball remarkably hard and far for a man for a man of his weight and build, and all the best pitchers of the day were afraid of his hitting and glad when he was out of the way,” was how writer Sam Crane described Reach’s hitting prowess.

A rare left-handed fielding second baseman, Reach was known to be a splendid gloveless fielder, a strong and accurate thrower, and a speedy baserunner.

Eventually, his playing attracted so much attention that he was invited to join the Athletic Baseball Club, an amateur organization from Philadelphia in 1865. The young Brooklyn player accepted but the “salary” offered him in Philadelphia - $25 a week for expenses - was looked upon with considerable disfavor because the majority of his career was spent during a time when baseball was emerging from a purely amateur sport into a professional arena.

Baseball’s first professional major league, the National Association, began play in 1871. With Reach leading the way, the Philadelphia Athletics won the loop’s first pennant. He would remain with the Athletics through 1875, managing the team the last two years.

It was during his time in Philadelphia that Reach began operating a cigar store that soon became a meeting place for sports enthusiasts. From these conversations he realized there was a need for a place to purchase baseball equipment, so in 1874, with his playing career coming to an end, he established a retail sporting goods store. A few years later, its success would lead Reach to partner in a company which would manufacture sporting goods and bear his name.

The A.J. Reach Company would manufacture equipment, including the Reach ball that would eventually become the official baseball of the American League. Reach often joked in his later years that although he played baseball without a glove himself he sold them to the next generation of ballplayers.

“If ever there shone an example of the poor boy who became a millionaire by his own efforts, that example was Al Reach,” wrote W.W. Aulick in 1911.

The National League began play in 1876 but was without a Philadelphia franchise until Reach applied for one. In 1883, Philadelphia was in the National League to stay. Reach became president of the team in 1883 and remained prominent in the game as an executive, his influence far reaching, until he sold his interest in 1903.

In an ironic twist, though Reach owned a National League club, the American League baseballs bore his signature.

Among Reach’s accomplishments as Philadelphia president was building the first modern ballpark of his era. When his team’s wooden facility burned down in 1894, he rebuilt it, with the game’s first modern steel grandstand, on the same spot.

Reach and his company published Reach’s Official Base Ball Guide from 1883-1939. The annual publication was the official publication of the American Association from 1883-1892 and was the American League’s official publication from 1902 to 1939, providing readers with statistics and stories from professional baseball.

When Reach passed away on Jan. 14, 1928, at the age of 87, the 1928 Reach Official Base Ball Guide, which he began publishing in 1883, wrote:

“Reach served baseball with distinction as player, organizer, club owner and provider of the equipment to attain the highest possible skill in the game.

“A good man, of the kindest impulses, his name will last as long as we have baseball.”

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum