The Philadelphia Phillies weren’t an original National League franchise, but they were one of the earliest ones, joining the league in 1883. They were known as the Quakers then, and by the second half of the 1880s they were a good ball club, consistently in the first division. In 1890 the Phillies nickname was adopted, and while they never won any pennants, the Phils were generally competitive, usually in the first division, through the 1890s and 1900s.
In the 1910s, led by ace pitcher Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander and slugging outfielder Gavy Cravath, the Phillies were consistently a top contender. In 1915 they won their first pennant but lost the World Series to the Red Sox in five games.
But in the late 1910s and through the 1920s, hard times befell the franchise. They fell out of contention and indeed finished in last place eight times in 12 seasons from 1919 through 1930. From 1925 through 1930, they were last in the league in attendance as well, five years out of six.
But in the early 1930s, the team’s fortunes revived a bit. Led by superstar outfielder Chuck Klein, the Phillies climbed to sixth place in 1931, and then in 1932 rose all the way to fourth place, at 78-76: their first winning season, and by far their best performance, since 1917.
Alas, that would be a high point. In 1933 they dropped back to 60-92 and finished in seventh. Attendance had remained dismal, dead last in the league, even through the team’s mini-revival, and especially with the economy mired in depression, the Phillies were suffering financially. In November of 1933 they decided to sell Klein to the Cubs, for three second-line players and $65,000.
The infusion of cash helped the franchise economically but obviously didn’t do anything for them on the field. In 1934 and ’35 they remained in seventh place, and in 1936 they lost 100 games and dropped back to dead last. The early 1930s signs of life were gone.
But Things Would Get Worse
The Phillies were a bad team overall, but they improved a bit in 1937 (to 61-92, seventh place) because of the outstanding performances of three stars: slugging first baseman Dolf Camilli and hardworking pitchers Bucky Walters and Claude Passeau. But the team’s financial woes persisted; they were last in attendance again in 1937, for the sixth consecutive season, and 11th time in 13 years.
In the spring of 1938, Camilli was sold to the Dodgers for $45,000. That June, Walters was sent to the Reds for two journeymen and $50,000. Passeau alone was powerless to prevent the team from sliding to a miserable 45-105 (.300), last-place finish, its worst showing since 1928.
But Things Would Get Worse
In May of 1939, Passeau was dealt, though this time not for cash: he went to the Cubs for three young players, the best of whom was Kirby Higbe, a hard-throwing 24-year-old rookie who wasn’t good right away but demonstrated a great deal of promise. But generally the roster was bereft: the Phillies finished last again in 1939, losing 106 games, and last again in 1940, losing 103. And they were, of course, last in the league in attendance again, both years.
But Things Would Get Worse
In November of 1940, Higbe was sent to the Dodgers, for three mediocrities and $100,000 cash. This left the Phillies with just one dependable pitcher: a durable young right-hander named Hugh Mulcahy, who was indeed so dependable that he had racked up well over 200 innings every year from 1937 through 1940. Of course, the Phillies supported Mulcahy so poorly that despite the fact that he didn’t pitch all that badly, his won-lost record over that span was just 40-76, leading the league in losses in both 1938 and 1940. Listeners around the country became so familiar with radio broadcasters relaying out-of-town game results including the description, “Losing pitcher: Mulcahy,” that Mulcahy’s nickname had become, you guessed it, “Losing Pitcher.”
Yet with Higbe gone, Losing Pitcher Mulcahy was far and away the best pitcher the Phillies had. And on March 8, 1941, the team lost his services as well, as Mulcahy became the first major league player to be drafted into the US military amid the gathering storm of World War II. So the Phillies had to play the 1941 season with neither of their best pitchers, and their nearly talentless roster was pummeled to a 43-111 (.279) finish, the worst performance in franchise history since the first-year Quakers had struggled in at 17-81.
But Things Would Get Worse
In 1942, the Phillies fielded the very worst of the terrible teams they’d been featuring over the previous several years. The ’42 team performed just slightly worse than the ’41 version in actual wins (42-109, .278), but significantly worse in Pythagorean Wins (39-112 vs. 46-108).
Things wouldn’t get any worse than this.
How Bad Were Things?
Oh, things were very bad indeed:
- The 1942 Phillies’ regular lineup featured two solid, capable major league hitters in their primes: first baseman Nick Etten and left fielder Danny Litwhiler, who posted OPS+ figures of 119 and 109, respectively. No other regular achieved an OPS+ as high as 90.
- The team OPS+ was 85, last in the league.
- They were last in the league in runs, home runs, walks, stolen bases, on-base percentage, and slugging average. They were next-to-last in doubles and batting average.
Here’s the ’42 Phillies’ offense in Player-Seasonal Notation:
AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB BA OBP SLG OPS 562 44 130 19 4 5 40 44 54 4 .232 .287 .306 .593
- Their pitching staff featured one strong performance, by 22-year-old righthander Tommy Hughes, who contributed 253 innings with an ERA+ of 108 (though he was supported so poorly his won-lost record was just 12-18). No other pitcher in as many as 20 innings achieved an ERA+ better than 90.
- The team ERA+ was 80, last in the league.
- They were last in the league in complete games, shutouts, saves, walks allowed, runs allowed, and ERA.
Here’s the ’42 Phillies’ pitching staff in Player-Seasonal Notation:
IP H HR BB SO W L ERA 206 204 9 93 73 6 17 4.12
- They were last in the league in errors and fielding percentage. They were next-to-last in defensive efficiency.
That Is Bad
The 1942 Phillies lost their first four games of the season, by scores of 2-1, 6-2, 2-1, and 7-1. With the third of those losses, they were alone in last place, and would remain so for the rest of the season.
On May 24th, the Phillies won the first game of a doubleheader against the Braves, to bring their season’s record to 13-25, a .342 winning percentage. That would be their best winning percentage at any point in the season; following that they lost the second game of the twinbill, which set them off on a run of 29 losses in 35 games.
Their best month was May, in which they went 10-20. Their longest winning streak of the season was three games, which they achieved once (August 23-26). Following that hot streak, they immediately lost 13 in a row, for their longest losing streak of the year. They also had two nine-game losing skeins.
The 1942 Phillies were outscored in the aggregate of every inning, one through eight, in both home games and away games. Other than extra innings, the only frame in which they outscored opponents was the ninth inning of away games, in which they prevailed by 17-8: of course that was simply because, with a road record of 19-58, their road opponents rarely had to bat at all in the ninth inning.
Playing in low-scoring Balata Ball wartime conditions, the 1942 Phillies scored just 394 runs in 151 games, or 2.6 per game. That total of 394 runs was the lowest of any major league team since 1909, and has been by far the lowest in any non-strike-shortened season ever since.
They never scored as many as 10 runs in a game, while allowing 10 or more 10 times. Their season scoring high was nine, which they achieved once (September 25th); they scored as many as eight runs only twice, and seven runs only twice as well. They were shut out 16 times, and scored just one run 36 times. Yes, you read that right: in over one-third of their games, the 1942 Phillies scored no more than a single run.
Wrapping up their 11th consecutive season of last-place attendance (with an average of 3,111 per game at Shibe Park), and with no stars left to sell, the Phillies financial situation was beyond salvation: they were bankrupt.
Things were, all in all, thoroughly dreadful.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
After a long negotiation, in February of 1943, the rest of the National League took over the franchise from owners Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Nugent, and sold it to a syndicate headed by William Cox of New York City.
The Cox ownership might be best described as brief and eventful. Cox signaled that a new era was beginning by renaming the franchise the Philadelphia Blue Jays. He was willing and able to invest money in player acquisition, and helped by the wartime-induced topsy-turvyness in the standings, in 1943 the Phil, er, Blue Jays went 64-90, finishing in seventh place, their best showing since 1935. Better yet, attendance jumped to 467,000, sixth in the league, their highest attendance since 1916.
Cox himself immediately got into hot water with Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis over gambling allegations (which Cox didn’t deny, he just insisted he’d only bet on his own team to win). His ownership was terminated after just one year, but the next new owner the league found, Bob Carpenter, was also quite well-capitalized, and carried no scandalous baggage.
Carpenter didn’t think much of the “Blue Jays” thing, and went back to the “Phillies” nickname after 1944. But the important thing Cox had started, Carpenter continued: the construction of a viable farm system. In 1943 Cox’s regime had acquired 22-year-old catcher Andy Seminick in a minor league transaction, and signed 18-year-old outfielder Del Ennis. Under Carpenter, the signings included 17-year-old shortstop Granny Hamner in 1944, 18-year-old catcher (soon to be converted to outfielder) Richie Ashburn in 1945, 21-year-old third baseman Willie Jones and 18-year-old pitcher Curt Simmons in 1947, and 21-year-old Michigan State star pitcher Robin Roberts in 1948.
Through the 1944-48 period, the ball club Carpenter put on the major league field wasn’t good, but neither was it terrible: they finished last three times, sixth once, and fifth once. Attendance at Shibe Park wasn’t good either, but neither was it as paltry as in the gloomy seasons past. There was reason for hope at last.
The Whiz Kids
In 1949, the nucleus of excellent young talent began to coalesce. Following a slow start, the young Phillies got hot and rose to 37-28, just 2 games out of first place, by June 25th. For the first time in a very long time, Phillies fans truly had a team worth getting excited about. The ball club had its ups and downs over the rest of the season, but finished strong and wound up at 81-73, in third place: far and away the strongest showing by the franchise since 1917.
Then in 1950, the talented young Phillies (with one key veteran, the sensational relief ace Jim Konstanty) bolted away from a tight pack of contenders with a tremendous 33-11 run from July 21st through September 2nd. They then weathered a rough September and withstood a late run by the Dodgers, clinching the pennant on the season’s final day, as left fielder Dick Sisler (at 29, one of the roster’s old men) belted a three-run-homer in the top of the tenth inning at Ebbets Field, and Roberts hung on for the 4-1 victory. The “Whiz Kids” had brought the Phillies the second championship in their long history, and their first since 1915.
The victory was all the blissfully sweeter given the recent memory of rank bitterness that had all but swallowed up the franchise back in 1942.