Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Phutile Phillies: A Tale of Woe

You say your favourite team is having another horrible year? You say it's been painfully obvious for weeks now that their season's over? Well, take heart. As bad as things are ... they could be worse. If you were a Phillies fan in the thirties you knew real pain and suffering.

To cash in on the fan interest in the long ball that Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and others had made so popular, the owners juiced up the baseball for the 1930 season. It worked. The two leagues combined for a .296 average (the senior circuit hit .303) and hit more than 200 more home runs. Things returned to normal the next year, though averages and power were high in the thirties. 

The biggest beneficiaries of the rabbit ball were the Philadelphia Phillies. Chuck Klein (40, 170, .386) and  Lefty O'Doul (22, 97, .383)  led the way and Pinky Whitney (8, 117, .342), Don Hurst (17, 78,.327) did okay too. Actually O'Doul (at right) had done even better in '29 - 32, 112, .398. (Notice how many fans are in the stands - it may be right before the first pitch.) For the 1930 season the Phillies hit .315 which you would think would have made them very successful. 

But as William B. Mead, author of a study of the extraordinary 1930 season, wrote, "For hitting, no team was the superior of the Phillies, except any team they were playing. In the nightcap of a July 23 doubleheader the Phils ripped Pittsburgh pitchers for 27 hits. Not enough, the Pirates won 16-15. The next day the Phillies scored fifteen runs on the Cubs and lost 19-15.

The 280 foot distance to the right field foul pole in the Baker Bowl had a lot to do with the fact that the Phillies scored over six runs a game. But opponents hit .350 there! Errors didn't help. Shortstop Tommy Thevenow committed 56. Captain and second baseman Fresco Thompson had 32. Klein had 17 in left field.

But Philly pitchers, who must have had nightmares about the Baker Bowl's short porch, did not fare well. Ace Phil Collins (16-11) had a great ERA (just 4.78) compared to his comrades. Ray Benge (11-15) was 5.70. Les Sweetland (7-15) was 7.71, Clyde Willoughby (4-17) was 7.59, Hap Collard (6-12) was 6.80, and Hal Elliot (6-11) was 7.67. For a team ERA of 6.71. Fresco Thompson once took a lineup card to the umpire on which he had written in the pitcher slot "Willoughby - and others". 

The team finished in 8th (last) place with a 60-92 (.395) record and forty games back. Things briefly got better, they actually finished fourth, just 12 games back in 1932. But then things got bad - very bad. Their only talented pitchers - Phil Collins and Curt Davis left. And Chuck Klein and Lefty O'Doul were done in '33. (Klein would win a pennant with the '35 Cubs.)

The team coffers got emptier and emptier due to ridiculously low attendance - sometimes less than 200,000! They couldn't even afford to stay in their own stadium, so in '38 they moved into Shibe Park with the Athletics. Here are their records in the next few years. Check out the disastrous winning percentages, especially in the early forties when the team was managed by James T. "Doc" Protho (at right) , the second best manager of all time - who went to dental college. (Casey Stengal was the other.)

Year     Manager                 W-L            Pct.       GB     Place   Attendance     Rank

1930    Burt Shotton              50-102       .338        40         8th         299,007          8th
1931    Burt Shotton              66-88         .429        35         6th         284,849          6th
1932    Burt Shotton              78-76         .506        12         4th         268,914          8th
1933    Burt Shotton              60-92         .395        31         7th         156,421          8th
1934    Jimmie Wilson           56-93         .376        37         7th          169,885          8th
1935    Jimmie Wilson           64-89         .418        35.5      7th          205,470          8th
1936    Jimmie Wilson           54-100       .351        38         8th          249,219          8th
1937    Jimmie Wilson           61-92         .399        34.5      7th          212,790          8th
1938    Jimmie Wilson           45-105       .300        43         8th          166,111          8th
1939    Doc Protho               45-106       .298        50.5      8th          277,973          8th
1940    Doc Protho               50-103       .327        50         8th          207,177          8th
1941    Doc Protho               43-111       .270        57         8th          231,401          8th
1942    Hans Lobert              42-109       .278        62.5      8th          230,183          8th

If you're like me, as you read these woeful records you wondered how the hell they didn't finish last from '33 to '35. Who could have been worse? Well there actually was a team that arguably was as bad some years, the Cincinnati Reds. The sad-sack Reds finished dead last in '31, '32, '33, '34, and '37.  But they would magically rise from the ashes. Bill McKechnie took over as manager and they climbed to fourth in '38 and then won pennants in '39 and '40. Talk about a turn-around. The team that finished last in '35 was the Boston Braves. Their starting pitchers struggled that year, Fred Frankhouse did okay, he was 11-15. But Ed Brandt was 5-19 and Ben Cantwell was 4-25. Ouch.

The Phillies would climb to the top too, but it would take them a full decade longer. After continuing to finish 7th or 8th every year from '43 to '48, the Whiz Kids, led by Del Ennis and Richie Ashburn, jumped to third in '49 and won the pennant in 1950. 

But it wasn't hitting that finally led the Phillies to the promised land after wandering in the desert all those years. As you might have guessed, it was pitching - some fellas by the name of Robin Roberts, Curt Simmons, and Jim Konstanty. So there's your happy ending folks. And the really amazing part of the turn-around ... the Phillies led the league in attendance in 1950 with a whopping 1.2 million delirious win-starved fans pouring through the turnstiles. And their shortstop, Granny Hamner, committed only 48 errors.

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