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London-Born Al Reach, Phillies’ Founding Owner, Left Lasting Legacy On America’s Game

 Leif Skodnick  |    Jun 8th, 2024 7:09am EDT

The Philadelphia Athletics pose for a team portrait in 1874. The stars of the team are Dick McBride, middle row, center, Al Reach, middle row, far left, and Adrian ‘Cap’ Anson, standing second from right. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)

In 1865, a young man left Brooklyn for Philadelphia to accept an offer to play baseball for $25 per week that would cover his expenses, making him the first professional baseball player.

Twenty-five years earlier, that man, Al Reach was born in London, cementing a tie between America’s game and London that will be renewed this weekend when the Philadelphia Phillies, a team Reach helped to start, face the New York Mets in the 2024 MLB London Series.

Reach’s playing career, as it is recorded, only spanned five years with the original Philadelphia Athletics. He played for those A’s from 1871-75, the lifespan of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, the first major league, though there is substantial debate among historians and statisticians as to whether the National Association should be considered Major League.

His statistics, when viewed through a modern lens, are unspectacular: a .247 batting average, a .584 OPS, and 53 RBI in 83 career games over five seasons. The game was different then, though, with fewer games each season, different rules, and a deader ball.

While living in Philadelphia and playing for the Athletics, Reach owned a cigar store on Chestnut Street in Center City, and realized that there wasn’t a store selling sporting goods despite the high demand. He opened the A.J. Reach Company, and added Ben Shibe, as a partner in 1881.

Reach was a co-founder of the Philadelphia Phillies, who will play in the 2024 MLB London Series, in 1883. Four years later, Reach and his ownership group moved the team to a new ballpark at the corner of Broad Street and 15th Street, a corner the Phils would call home until 1938, first in National League Park, then at the Baker Bowl.

But it was as a sporting goods manufacturer that Reach exerted an influence on baseball that remains a part of every professional game played to this day. At the time, the A.J. Reach Co. manufactured baseballs that were used in nearly every professional league in the United States – balls that featured a cork center and the common figure-eight cover still used.

Reach’s sporting goods company made him wealthier still when he sold the business to A.G. Spaulding – himself a former ballplayer – in 1889. So strong was the A.J. Reach brand that Spaulding kept the brand name in use for years to come.

For years, Spaulding annually published books of the official American League and National League statistics, colloquially known as the “Red Book” or the “Green Book” depending upon which league it covered, and originally known as the “Reach Guide.”

Years after Reach sold out to Spaulding, Milton Reach, working for the company bearing his family name, created a ball to be used in all Major League games that featured a “cushioned cork center.” If you’ve ever taken the cover off a baseball and unwound all the yarn, in the middle you find a rubber ball, known as the “pill”, which is actually a rubber-coated ball of cork.

Reach’s name remained on the official baseball used in American League games through the end of the 1975 season when Major League Baseball began using Rawlings as their ball supplier.

But think, for a moment, about the longevity of the Reach name: every home run hit and pitch thrown by Babe Ruth in the Major Leagues was with a ball that bore Al Reach’s name. As was every single hit by Ty Cobb and every home run by Roger Maris in 1961.

And every fan that catches a foul ball at the 2024 MLB London Series, when Reach’s Phillies face the Mets, will be holding a ball with a cushioned cork center, a small piece of the legacy of Al Reach, the first professional baseball player, born in London in 1840, 184 years ago.

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Leif Skodnick