The young owner who may have saved the Phillies

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In the 1950s when the population of the United States was drifting away from the established Eastern and Midwestern cities, Major League Baseball saw the first movement of franchises since the early 20th century. Many major cities were unable to support two franchises and owners saw the advantage of being the only team in one town as opposed to fighting for a split fan base.

The teams that moved were the clear second choice for the city’s baseball fans. The Braves left Boston to the Red Sox as they headed off first to Milwaukee and later to Atlanta. St. Louis has always been a Cardinals city, so the Browns left for Baltimore. Even the passionate fan bases of the Giants and Dodgers were not as strong as the Yankees when they went west.

But in Philadelphia, the Athletics were the team with the richer history, the Hall of Fame legends and the championship pedigree when compared to the Phillies. When the A’s left for Kansas City for the 1954 season, they had eight pennants over four different decades and won the 1910, 1912, 1913, 1929 and 1930 World Series. Hall of Famers like Rube Waddell, Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, Home Run Baker, Al Simmons and Mickey Cochrane all won World Series titles in Philadelphia. And three of the biggest figures of their era were Athletics champions: Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx and Connie Mack.

By the same token by 1954 the Phillies had won a single World Series game. They were overmatched by the 1915 Red Sox and the 1950 Yankees in their only Fall Classic appearances. Their two greatest players were Pete Alexander, best remembered for his heroics with the Cardinals and Chuck Klein, whose home run totals have been downplayed because he played in the band box known as the Baker Bowl.

Why would the team with the rich history leave and the team that had accomplished so little stay in Philadelphia? The change of the baseball culture in Philadelphia and upending half a century of tradition began with the nine months of Phillies ownership by William D. Cox.

Cox was a young entrepreneur who made a fortune in a strange variety of sources. He was an art dealer and owned a lumber business. He received government contracts to reinforce the Panama Canal during the build up to World War II and sold stamps featuring Disney characters to small Caribbean nations.

He was a rabid sports fan and owned two different pro football teams and created a pro soccer league. In 1943, the 33-year-old Cox spent $80,000 and bought the hapless Phillies. They had six 100-loss seasons in the previous seven years and not had a winning season since 1933 when they had a less-than-imposing 78-76 season.

Cox was intent on putting his thumb print on the team in many ways. He was a former baseball player at Yale and still thought of himself as an athlete. He worked out with the team and hired his former track coach to be supervise the team’s strength and conditioning.

And he brought in a successful manager, Bucky Harris, to run the team. A precursor to Charlie Finley and George Steinbrenner, Cox would constantly be in communication with the manager and often circumvent the skipper to give the team instructions.

Harris and Cox were constantly at loggerheads. Less than two months into the season with the Phillies still losing, Cox held a press conference where he announced that Bucky Harris had been fired. He had not told Harris ahead of time and he learned about his termination with the rest of the press corps. The team threatened to go on strike in support of their manager, but Harris discouraged them. Besides, Harris had a much more lethal bullet at his disposal.

The day after his dismissal, Harris spoke with reporters and began to insult his former boss. The reporters loved that Harris was firing back, but they were not expected his newest revelation.

Harris said “[Cox] is a fine guy to fire me, when he gambles on games his club plays.”

It was on record. Cox was gambling on games involving the Phillies. And now the office of Judge Landis, who became the commissioner based on his fighting the gambling element in baseball, were going to go after Cox with all of their resources.

Cox admitted he had made bets on the Phillies but maintained they were “sentimental” bets. He put the blame on a business associate who consistently bet on the team to win.

The hearings were disastrous for Cox. Bucky Harris testified that he heard Cox’s secretary making calls asking about the odds on individual games and seemed surprised when Harris didn’t know her boss bet on the Phillies.

The hearing also allowed the Phillies board of directors to lash out against their young and brash self-promoting boss. He was drawing a larger salary than was originally agreed to and kept the board in the dark as he made many business decisions involving Phillies money.

Cox resigned and was suspended for life by Judge Landis. He was the last person to receive a lifetime ban until Commissioner Giamatti suspended Pete Rose in 1989. Cox sold the team to the Carpenter family, who owned it through the Phillies first World Series title in 1980.

His only year running the team was tumultuous at best, but it also lay down the ground work for better days. The team still had a losing record in 1943 but they improved by nearly 20 games.

But more importantly, Cox wanted to build a winner in Philadelphia. Unlike the previous regime that allowed the team to wallow in 100 loss despair, Cox raised the payroll and invested money in the scouting department and farm system.

By 1949 the Phillies had a winner on the field and in 1950 they won their first pennant in 35 years. One of the stars on that team was Del Ennis, who was signed by the Phillies organization during Cox’s 1943 season. The revamped farm system developed Richie Ashburn starting in 1945 and Granny Hamner, Mike Goliat, Robin Roberts, Curt Simmons, Bob Miller, Bubba Church and Jackie Mayo, all of whom contributed to the surprise Whiz Kid pennant.

A farm system that had been barren for generations had developed a homegrown champion in the span of 7 years.

During the same time the A’s, still led by the aging Connie Mack hovered around .500 in most seasons with a smattering of 100 loss seasons thrown in but no contenders. By 1950, the Phillies were significantly outdrawing the Athletics in the stadium that would be named after Connie Mack! The NL Champion Whiz Kids drew 1.2 million while Mack’s Athletics brought in a mere 309,000. Mack retired after the 1950 season as the city became a Phillies first town.

By 1953, the Phillies were regularly drawing twice as many customers as their brothers in the City of Brotherly Love. If one team had to leave, it was the club with the deep tradition, which they did for Kansas City.

Today the A’s are struggling to find a new home in northern California and some have even whispered dreaded “Contraction” option. The have found success on the diamond in the East Bay with a total of 15 playoff appearances including four World Series titles. But that has not translated into box office at the gate nor television money.

Meanwhile the Phillies have become the top franchise of the National League. When Cliff Lee turned down the Yankees money, he was making the statement that Philadelphia was the franchise to play for if you want to win a title. With four straight division titles, two pennants and the 2008 World Championship, it is difficult to argue with Lee’s decision.

And the process that led to the Phillies staying in Philadelphia and the Athletics starting their nomadic journey began when a 33-year-old self promoter with a gambling problem decided to turn around the fortunes of a forgettable team.

Phillies fans should give William D. Cox a salute. Otherwise you’d be A’s fans.

References & Resources
Baseball Digest, New York Times

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Comments

  1. Kevin Salmon said...

    Even though I’m a lifelong Phillies’ fan, this article filled in some gaps in my knowledge. Great job. Quibble alert: the Athletics left Philadelphia for the 1955, not 1954, season.

  2. hhoran said...

    The best part of the story is how Cox became owner, but different histories tell the story differently. The commissioner’s (Landis) and NL office (Frick) knew that Gerry Nugent, the previous owner could no longer meet the rental payments at Shibe Park.  The best known story is that Bill Veeck had a handshake deal with Nugent, and a plan to stock the war-depleted team with Negro Leaguers. Landis freaked, and a sale to Cox (a friend of Frick’s) was hasily arranged. Other versions suggest that Veeck was just one of many parties expressing interest in the Phillies (given the team’s well-known problems), but that the real alternative was Jack Kelly (Grace’s dad and head of a well known Philly construction company). Annenberg (the Inquirer owner) was also interested. In this version, Veeck, Kelly and other bidders who actually knew something about business were making lowball bids (they knew the team had no assets and that Nugent was desperate) but Cox bid more (being dumber) and had the Frick connection. Landis’ embarrassment at Cox’s gambling was of course due to his own (and Frick’s) role in installing Cox in the first place.

  3. Vincent said...

    Perhaps in this alternate universe where the A’s stayed and the Phillies left, Harry Kalas (with his buddy Eddie Joost in the broadcast booth) becomes famous for his call, “Long drive—watch that baby! Outta here…home run, Reg-in-ald Mar-tin-ez JACK-son!”

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