Sports Collectors Digest: The Phillies

By Marty Appel

While baseball celebrates the success of the Philadelphia Phillies and their 2008 world championship, it is interesting to recall – especially for younger fans – how sad this franchise’s history has generally been.

It makes their triumph a little sweeter, perhaps.

I was drawn recently to a 1989 clipping I had saved; the obituary of William D. Cox, who had owned the team in 1943.

Read the following sentence carefully. (You’ll probably read it twice).

“In March 1943 at the age of 33, he bought the ailing Phillies franchise for $80,000 in cash and immediately set about reviving a team that had been last for five straight seasons.”

That’s right, $80,000. At least that was his portion of a sale price estimated at $230,000 – enough to own this National League franchise in what was then the third largest city in the U.S.

And they earned that price on merit! After winning the 1915 pennant behind Grover Cleveland Alexander, they would go 35 years – until the Whiz Kids of 1950 -without winning again.

And not only without winning, but, one could argue, without even a good player. In 35 years. Oh, they had all-stars – Morrie Aronovich, Cy Blanton, Hersh Martin, Pinky Whitney, Emil Verban, Hugh Mulcahy…..but only one Hall of Famer in that span, outfielder Chuck Klein, who took advantage of the band box dimensions of Baker Bowl and hit a lot of home runs. From 1938-1941, only one Phillie appeared in an All-Star Game, third baseman Pinky May, who had one at bat in 1940.

So bad were they that Mulcahy may have had baseball’s greatest nickname – Hugh “Losing Pitcher” Mulcahy, so named because that was often the last words fans would hear while listening to a radio broadcast.

So think now of poor Stan Baumgartner. Stan was a pitcher for the Phillies, off and on, between 1914-1922, and then pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics, actually managing to compile a lifetime record over .500. He pitched 16 games in relief for the champion Phils of 1915. In 1926, he changed professions and became a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He had a long and distinguished career there.

In 1952, editors at Putnam asked him to team with Fred Lieb in writing a history of the Phillies for their series of books on each team’s history. What an assignment! In a sentence clearly penned by Lieb, the Phillies book says, “And Stan Baumgartner, after having seen the acrobatics of the Phillies from the playing field, now saw them look just as bad from the press coop.”

Baumgarnter, meanwhile, was permitted to wear a Phillies cap in the press box, a breach of press box protocol that was overlooked in his case. If he was okay with wearing a cap that represented so many sour seasons, no one was going to complain.

Talk about making the best of things, here is one of my favorite sentences:

“Bad as the Phillies were, they could attract about a quarter million fans a year at home.”

That would be about 3,300 fans a day, factoring in doubleheaders.

Stan and Fred set off the tell the story of the hapless Phillies, including the misadventures of our William D. Cox, to which we now return.

Bill Cox had owned the Brooklyn Dodgers pro football team of the NFL and although based in New York, made his money with a lumber company in Oregon. He went to NYU and Yale, where he played baseball, and along with Captain G. Herbert Walker, a New York broker who was then in the Army, attempted to put together a syndicate to buy the Phillies in early 1943.

This is notable because Walker was the uncle of President George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president, and grand-uncle of George Walker Bush, the 43rd. Capt. Walker’s father (Bush 41’s grandfather), created the Walker Cup Match for international amateur golf, still an important event.

Although Cox wound up buying the Phillies without Walker, “Herbie” Walker would return to baseball 18 years later as an investment partner and treasurer of the expansion Mets. And then of course, George W. Bush would buy the Texas Rangers in 1989.

Cox first tried to rename the team “Blue Jays,” but to their small and loyal fan base, they remained the Phillies, and the name quietly returned to their letterhead by 1949.

By the end of the 1943 season, Cox fired his popular manager Bucky Harris, and Harris told the media, “He’s a fine guy to fire me – when he gambles on games his club plays.”

Harris’s revelation set the wheels in motion for Commissioner Landis to throw Cox out of baseball, resulting in the sale of the club after one season to the Robert Carpenter family of DuPont money.

As for Cox, how dumb could he have been to bet on the Phillies? He must have known little about his team. What was in his morning orange juice?

Baumgarnter died at age 60 in 1955. He also contributed a story on Greasy Neale to a Sporting News football book in 1950. Neale, a one-time Cincinnati Reds outfielder, had been the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles throughout the 1940s.

There would not be another significant Phillies history published until Allen Lewis, a Hall of Fame writer, did “The Philadelphia Phillies” in 1981 after the team’s first world championship. Lewis was truly the club’s finest historian. That book, a pictorial history, is well illustrated but stands out for Lewis’s writing. The popular Frank Dolson also checked in with a book after the Phillies’ first world championship, called “Philadelphia Story: A City of Winners.” Donald Honig, another fine historian, did a Phillies history in 1992 as part of his attempt to cover all the teams one-by-one as a single author. (He wound up doing eight franchises).

Win or lose, baseball provides great subject matter for writers, and some of the best baseball writing has been about less-than-successful teams. Good for Baumgartner and Lieb to handle this challenge as well as they did for the Putnam series.