|Wednesday, May 1
Updated: May 6, 5:38 PM ET
Phillies history littered with losses
By Rob Neyer
When people talk about bad baseball franchises, the Philadelphia Phillies are not usually the first team that comes to mind. However, if you consider the totality of major-league history in the World Series era, the Phillies are clearly the least-successful franchise in the game.
Since 1901, there have been exactly 200 league championships available; 100 for the National League, 100 for the American League. The Phillies have won five National League pennants since 1901; every other "original" eight National League team was won at least nine pennants. Over that same span, no circa 1901 American League franchise has won fewer than five pennants (thanks to the Yankees, who can fly 38 flags, the Indians and White Sox are still stuck on five).
The Phillies have won exactly one World Series; each of the circa 1901 major-league franchises can claim at least two World Series (yes, even the Indians and White Sox).
From 1916 through 1979, the Phillies won exactly zero World Series games; each of their peer franchises won at least eight World Series games during those 64 years.
Of course, the Phillies did win the World Series in 1980, and in fact they'd won division titles in 1976, 1977 and 1978, and finished second in 1975. Going back a few decades, the Phillies reached the World Series in 1915, and they finished second in both 1916 and 1917. So the true stretch of Phillie phutility stretches for 57 seasons, from 1918 through 1974.
I didn't know all of these specifics until looking them up, but I did have some sense that the Phillies spent a long time looking up from the bottom of the National League standings. What I didn't know was why. So when I picked up David M. Jordan's new book Occasional Glory: A History of the Philadelphia Phillies (McFarland & Co.), that's what I wanted to know: what in Sam Hill was wrong with the Phillies for nearly six decades?
Basically, the Phillies' precipitous decline began on December 17, 1917. On that date, the Phillies traded Grover Cleveland Alexander and Bill Killefer to the Chicago Cubs for pitcher Mike Prendergast, catcher Pickles Dillhoefer ... and $75,000 cash. Prendergast would win 13 games for the Phillies, and Dillhoefer played in eight games for the Phillies before moving on to the Cardinals. And the $75,000 ... well, that sum's final destination has been lost to time. Meanwhile, Alexander had been the best pitcher in the National League for the better part of the decade, and after missing most of the 1918 season while serving in the U.S. Army, he became the best pitcher in the National League for the Cubs. Killefer, widely regarded as the league's top defensive catcher, gave his new club a few solid seasons.
Why did Phillies owner Bill Baker make the deal? Jordan reports that Baker later admitted, "I needed the money."
It was a sentiment that would be repeated by the team's owners, in deeds if not words, for the next quarter of a century. In 1920, the Phillies traded future Hall of Fame shortstop Dave Bancroft to the Giants for two players ... and $100,000. A year later, Baker traded right fielder Irish Meusel to the Giants for three players ... and $30,000. Meusel would total 470 RBI over the next four seasons. In 1923, Baker traded Lee Meadows, his best pitcher, to the Pirates for two players ... and $50,000. Meadows won 87 games over the next five seasons.
On page 66 of Occasional Glory, there's a photo of Baker with the caption, "William F. Baker, who ran a good franchise into the ground."
Baker died in 1930, but the selling wasn't over. In 1933, Gerry Nugent took over the club, and as Jordan writes, "The basic fact which dominated Nugent's ten-year term was a lack of money, which forced him constantly to scratch and scrounge for cash to carry out day-to-day operations." At the conclusion of the '33 season, Nugent traded Chuck Klein, the club's biggest star, to the Cubs for three marginal players and a large sum of cash in the neighborhood of $65,000. In 1938, Nugent traded first baseman Dolf Camilli and pitcher Bucky Walters, in separate deals, for players and lots of cash. Within three years, both Camilli and Walters would win National League MVP awards. In November 1940, Nugent traded pitcher Kirby Higbe to the Dodgers for three players and $100,000. The very next season, Higbe led the NL with 22 wins as the Dodgers won their first pennant since 1920. That same season, the Phillies drew the grand total of 230,000 paying customers. Oh, and they lost 111 games.
The Phillies lost 109 more games in 1942, and Nugent's fellow owners had seen enough. Deeply in debt, Nugent was forced to sell the club to lumber broker William D. Cox, who lasted less than a year before getting kicked out of baseball for betting on his own team. Robert Carpenter, a wealthy man, bought the Phillies from Cox, and essentially handed the team to his son, Robert Jr., who was only 28 years old. Young Bob was soon drafted into the Army, but before going off to war, "he hired Herb Pennock, the former pitching great, as his general manager. Pennock ... was a friend of the Carpenter family and had been serving as director of the Red Sox farm system."
Pennock did a fantastic job, slowly building a team that would, in 1950, win the franchise's first National League pennant since 1915. The Phillies got swept by the Yankees in the World Series, but the future looked bright.
Twenty-six more years would pass before the Phillies earned another postseason berth, and perhaps the biggest reason was a large degree of institutional racism.
In The Lords of Baseball (which has just been reprinted; more on that some other time), Harold Parrott wrote about Pennock's reaction to Jackie Robinson in 1947. Parrott was working for the Dodgers, and shortly before Brooklyn's first trip to Philadelphia, Pennock called Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey. With Parrott listening on another extension, Pennock told Rickey, "[You] just can't bring the nigger here with the rest of your team, Branch. We're just not ready for that sort of thing yet. We won't be able to take the field against your Brooklyn team if that boy Robinson is in uniform."
Pennock died shortly after the '47 season, but nothing changed with regard to black players. According to The Phillies Encyclopedia (Frank Bilovsky and Rich Westcott, 1984), Carpenter said at one point in the 1950s, "I'm not opposed to Negro players. But I'm not going to hire a player of any color or nationality just to have him on the team."
Right. By the time the Phillies employed their first black player in 1957 -- and he was acquired in a trade with the Dodgers, not developed in the Phillies' farm system -- the following black players had established themselves as National League stars: Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron and Monte Irvin. Think about that ... a full decade passed between Jackie Robinson's debut and the Phillies giving a black player a chance.
And by the time the Phillies had unveiled their first black star (Richie Allen) in 1964, other National League teams were featuring Orlando Cepeda, Bob Gibson, Willie McCovey, Roberto Clemente, Maury Wills, Bob Gibson ... Basically, the Phillies blew it. They might have been able to survive in the American League during the 1950s, where only the Indians and White Sox aggressively recruited dark-skinned ballplayers. But in the National League, populated by teams with Branch Rickey's fingerprints all over them, you just couldn't keep up with a roster full of pale-complected players.
Actually, the Phillies had two black superstars in the mid-1960s ... or they would have, if they hadn't traded Ferguson Jenkins to the Cubs when he was still only 22. Can you imagine a 1970s rotation featuring Jenkins and Steve Carlton? It could have happened.
But the Phillies eventually did just fine without Fergie. In 1972, Phillies farm director Paul Owens was promoted to general manager. Owens was a sharp guy, and four years later, with a lineup including organizational products Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Bob Boone and Larry Bowa, the Phillies won their first National League East title. They would win again in 1977 and '78, and in 1980 they won their first World Championship. Since then, they've had their ups and downs; more downs but ups, but the ups include a couple of NL pennants.
Jordan doesn't concern himself with the future of the Philadelphia Phillies, but I think it's a bright one. The Phillies are going to be in a new ballpark in 2004, and they have a huge market all to themselves. There's no obvious reason why the Phillies shouldn't be able to compete, and someday that's exactly what they'll do.