The present beware, the future beware, it’s coming, it’s coming! 10,000 losses for the Phillies is almost a reality. I have a feeling I’ll treat it like every other Phillies loss I’ve experienced in my life, but people are definitely making a big deal about it. Here is an article by our old friend DMac published in this week’s Philadelphia Weekly – read it to the end for the Phillies Nation shoutout. Go Phils!
How a foul ball and an 11-year-old kid still define our feelings about Phillies management 85 years later.
Photographs by Jeff Fusco & Courtesy of Temple Urban Archives
Anyone who’s caught a ball at a Phillies game—whether at the Baker Bowl, Connie Mack Stadium, the Vet or Citizens Bank Park—can thank the Phillies, a principled judge and a brave 11-year-old boy.
There may be no better American sporting tradition than keeping a ball that’s hit into the stands. Fans keep foul and home run balls as lifetime souvenirs, treating them as cherished possessions. The crowd cheers fans making a nice catch on a foul ball. Fans dropping an easy one get a hearty boo—at least from Philadelphia fans.
Home run balls make fans instant celebrities. Andrew Morbitzer did the TV morning show circuit earlier this year when he caught Barry Bonds’ 715th homer. Todd McFarlane paid $3 million for Mark McGwire’s 70th home run ball. Bonds’ record-setting 73rd homer in 2001 caused a legal battle that went on for two years. McFarlane eventually bought that ball too. In 2004 Texas Rangers fan Matt Starr knocked over a 4-year-old attempting to get a foul ball. (After an outcry, he gave it to the kid.)
And then there’s the case of Robert Cotter.
The 1923 season wasn’t anything special for the Phillies. The team finished last from 1919 to 1921, and moved up to next-to-last in 1922. The Phillies were 5-4 and in third on April 29.
It was the best they’d do all year.
Despite Cy Williams’ league-leading 41 home runs, the Phils finished last in 1923 with a record of 50-104. Lefty Weinert, a West Philly High School grad, went 4-17 with a 5.42 ERA. Petie Behan went 3-12 with a 5.50 ERA. The Phillies went a pathetic 20-55 at home and lost by five or more runs 34 times. They went 3-19 against both the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Giants.
(This isn’t close to the worst season in Phillies history.)
Phils Management Drag the Crying Boy to the Cops
Bad as the play was, the most embarrassing moment of the Phillies’ season came from the front office. The Phillies had defeated the Cardinals, 7-6, on a Walter Holke RBI single in the bottom of the ninth, moving them out of last place for the first time since May.
During the Phils’ win, 11-year-old Robert Cotter—who snuck into the stadium in a way the Inquirer described as “a method known only to small boys slipping past a guard when that official was looking elsewhere”—made a nice catch of a foul ball, drawing cheers from the crowd. He pocketed the ball.
Baseballs cost $1.50 in 1923. When one landed in the stands, fans were expected to return them to the ball club.
After the Black Sox scandal of 1919, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis changed the rules of the game, and baseball entered the lively ball era. Previously the same baseball had been used all game, allowing pitchers to scuff it up, making it harder to hit. Now baseballs were changed at the first sign of wear, leading to an explosion of hits and runs—and more foul balls.
There were previous incidents of fans keeping foul balls—most notably a 31-year-old stockbroker named Reuben Berman who kept a foul ball at the Polo Grounds in 1921. He was ejected, sued the Giants and won.
But the Phillies’ notoriously thrifty owner William Baker apparently hadn’t heard of this lawsuit. When Phillies guard John Wood caught the 11-year-old Cotter, he dragged the crying boy to a police sergeant, who refused to arrest him.
Undeterred, the Phillies business manager William Shettsline urged the boy’s arrest—so the Phils could make a “test case” of fans pilfering foul balls. A smart business move, since there’s no more unsympathetic defendant than a tearful 11-year-old boy.
Cotter spent the night in jail. The following morning Judge Brown heard about the case and called an immediate hearing. He summed up the situation thusly: “Why, I would have done the same thing myself if I had been in this boy’s place.”
Wood, the guard who initially caught Cotter, testified that teams had the right to force fans to return foul balls.
Brown shot back: “It don’t so far as this court is concerned. I never heard of Connie Mack or Tom Shibe throwing small boys into prison because they took a ball that was batted into the bleachers. They were boys. I don’t know whether you or Shettsline were ever boys, for if you were you would know how they cherish the ball they get, and you would permit them to have the ball instead of throwing them into a cell overnight.
|Despite everything, the Phillies still draw around 37,000 boisterous fans to every game.|
“Such an act on the part of a boy is merely proof that he is following his own natural impulses … I wouldn’t brand this boy a thief just to help Mr. Shettsline save a $1.50 ball. If Mr. Shettsline wanted his test case, there is the decision.”
Phils Management Cries, “We Were Simply Trying to Protect Our Property”
Public opinion broke squarely on the side of Cotter. The following day a woman from Society Hill gave the boy a baseball signed by Yankees star pitcher Bob Shawkey and said she’d take him to an A’s game when the Yanks came to town. “Well, if a ball comes my way at Shibe Park”—the home of the Athletics—“I don’t see why I shouldn’t keep it,” Cotter said. “The judge said so.”
The boy then changed his allegiance from the National League Phillies to the American League A’s.
That same day baseball commissioner Landis attended the Phillies’ 1-0 win over the Cardinals. Not surprisingly, the Phillies didn’t orchestrate the arrest of any more boys that season.
But the Phillies business manager was undeterred. He called the ruling “all wrong.”
“All American and National League clubs are trying to cut down their losses from stolen baseballs,” Shettsline said. “We were simply trying to protect our property. About 500 balls a year are lost by each league team, aggregating a loss in both leagues of 8,000 balls.
“I have not been severe with boys at the Phillies park. There isn’t a day when two or three lads are not caught climbing the fence. Nothing is done to them. But I do feel we have a right to protect our property.”
Mitchell Nathanson, a Villanova law professor who discusses the incident in his forthcoming book The Fall of the 1977 Phillies: How a Baseball Team’s Collapse Sank a City’s Spirit, says the arrest isn’t an aberration.
“That the Phillies played no small role in the creation of this baseball tradition would be laudable if only they had not been on the wrong side of the argument,” he says. “That they were says much about their connection to the city of Philadelphia both then and into the future.”
One Current Lament: “Why Do I See Pat Burrell Make Better Plays at the Irish Pub Than on the Field?”
As you’ve no doubt heard, the Phillies are rapidly approaching 10,000 franchise losses.
They’ll be the first baseball team to reach that magical figure.
The Atlanta Braves are about 300 games behind.
The Giants already have 10,000 wins.
Between 1933 and 1948 the Phillies lost at least 85 games every season. They topped the century mark in seven of those 16 years. The Phillies have only nine playoff appearances in their history. They’ve won one World Series.
When this city was a two-team baseball town, the A’s were the hot ticket. The A’s won five World Series compared to none for the Phils. (The A’s moved to Kansas City, and later to Oakland, where they’d win the World Series four more times.)
If you find a random bad stat—say, homers allowed—chances are the Phillies might be at the top of the list.
Phillies Hall of Famer Robin Roberts gave up 505 homers in his career, most of them with the Phillies.
Steve Carlton had 14 opening-day starts for the Phillies.
He went 3-9.
Russ Miller (1928) and Steve Gerkin (1945) each went 0-12 for the Phillies. Jack Nabors went 1-20 in 1916.
The post-1900 record for consecutive losses is 23, by the 1961 Phillies. Biggest shutout in major-league history? Providence 28, Philadelphia 0. (None of these records, of course, shows that the Phillies are bad. They’re just the symptoms of an epidemic of losing.)
|Creature discomfort: Even the Phanatic has its detractors. Tommy Lasorda once famously assaulted the mascot after it ran over a dummy in a Lasorda jersey.|
The Phillies never seem to let anyone go for good. Well, no, they do let some players go for good. Ferguson Jenkins and Ryne Sandberg, both future Hall of Famers, began their careers with the Phils but were sent off in deals to do the bulk of their work elsewhere.
The Phillies are also the team of prospects doing well elsewhere, or not doing well at all. The Phillies’ first true star youngster was Charley Ferguson, who went 22-10 in 1887. He also played second base when he wasn’t pitching. Sadly, he died of typhoid in April 1888.
In Occasional Glory—a perfect title, as is the 1980 tome You Can’t Lose ’Em All—David Jordan writes: “There have been many ‘might-have-beens’ in Philadelphia’s baseball history—the names of Ryne Sandberg, Nellie Fox, Joe Jackson and Fergie Jenkins come quickly to mind—but none is as striking as Charley Ferguson, who might have been one of the best of them all.”
Then there’s Eddie Waitkus. He was 29, hitting .309 and playing the best baseball of his life in 1949. When he was with the Cubs, a local woman became obsessed with the first baseman. She was crushed when he was traded to the Phillies. At a game in Chicago on June 15 she got into his hotel room, pulled out a .22-caliber rifle and shot him. Four surgeries later, Waitkus helped the Phillies win the pennant in 1950, but he wouldn’t reach that level again. The incident with the fan inspired the book The Natural.
Speaking of Depressed, All This History Has Me Seriously Blue
The Phillies’ first star met an early end as well. Ed Delahanty might be the best ballplayer in Phillies history. It’s tough to say. As Jerrold Casway writes in his book Ed Delahanty in the Emerald Age of Baseball, “No one now alive saw him play the field or hit a baseball.”
Sure, the game was different, but Delahanty was one of the revered players of his day. Connie Mack put him on the level of Babe Ruth. He hit .407 in 1894 and .404 in 1895. (The entire Phillies outfield—Delahanty, Sam Thompson and Billy Hamilton—hit over .400 in 1894. The team finished fourth, thanks to a 5.63 ERA, third-worst in the league. That year Jack Scheible started one game, gave up 10 runs in a third of an inning—the seven earned runs giving him an ERA of 189.00—and never played baseball again.)
Delahanty hit four home runs in a game in 1896. He hit .410 in 1899, and won his first batting title. Among players who played in more than 1,000 games, Delahanty’s .346 average ranks fourth all time.
Baseball in those days was never all that friendly to the players. The reserve clause forbade players from signing with another team even if their contract had expired. This would be in effect until Curt Flood challenged a trade to (who else?) the Phillies after the 1969 season, which set in motion the beginning of free agency.
The reserve clause essentially gave all the power to the owners. And despite Delahanty’s stellar performances, the Phillies never won the pennant.
Delahanty’s life became increasingly troubled by the end of the decade. He was held out of the last seven games of the 1900 season along with fellow star Nap Lajoie. After a diminished status in the 1901 season, Del jumped to the American League. While he hit .376 with the Senators in 1902, Del’s personal life began to suffer due to increased drinking, gambling and marital problems. The New York Giants’ John McGraw began to manipulate Delahanty, hoping to get him to jump back to the National League. Del began to hallucinate, claiming his teammates were out to get him, and eventually pulled a pocket knife on several young players.
In 1903 Delahanty left the Senators on a train bound for Buffalo. He then caught a train to New York to meet with McGraw. Delahanty caused a stir and was eventually kicked off the train close to his destination. Del attempted to cross a bridge, and after a near-miss with a freight train, got into an argument with the bridge’s night watchman.
Casway writes: “Acting quickly, the watchman tried to grab Delahanty. He said he ‘threw his arm over his and caught him by the collar of his coat and pulled him down.’ Both men tumbled onto the track … lying astride the tracks with his lantern light out, the [watchman] struggled to his feet when he heard a splash. He ran to the side of the bridge, and saw Delahanty’s head above the water hollering for help. The ballplayer called out several times until he vanished from sight … The rescuers found no body. Only a derby hat was recovered from the watchman from the top of the iron chord.”
While he was depressed, the death was almost certainly an accident. Ed Delahanty died July 2, 1903, in Niagara Falls. He was 35. At his death, his 101 home runs left him eighth on the all-time list. He’d remain in the top 10 until 1922.
|Aaron Rowand slides into second during a 7-4 loss to the Tigers earlier this month.|
Schmidt Deserved to Be Booed, Though We’re Not Sure Why
“People say it’s not a baseball town. It is a baseball town. They just hate the Phillies!” says Nathanson, the Villanova law professor.
It’s true. The Phils seem to be the only major-league team for whom nobody roots.
When the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004, people across the country celebrated. When Steve Bartman interfered with that foul ball and the Marlins rallied to beat the Cubs, people were crushed.
Who outside the city roots for the Phillies?
Since Phillies fans are so negative—at least about the team’s chances of winning—it sometimes seems the Phillies have no fans. (It seems even more so when Rod Barajas is at the plate.) Phillies fans booed Mike Schmidt! Mike Schmidt! The Phillies had the greatest third baseman of all time … and the fans booed him.
But you know what? He deserved to be booed—for whatever it is he did. This is the Phillies fans’ way. Sure, it happens in other sports too, but with 81 home baseball games, it just all seems magnified. Phillies fans watch games with a feeling of dread.
Oh, Geary’s going to blow it. Oh, here comes another Pat Burrell strikeout. Oh watch, Uncle Charlie’s going to make a bonehead move.
When the Phillies won the World Series in 1980, there were horses and dogs—two dogs actually went behind the batter’s box with two outs in the bottom of the ninth—on the field to control the crowd. (And shitting on it. The field, not the crowd: After all, the Phils won.)
After the game then-Phillies owner Ruly Carpenter spoke at the trophy presentation: “This franchise has been in existence maybe 96 years,” he says. “I hope to hell they don’t have to wait 96 years for another world championship.”
Being a Phillies fan means waiting for that next championship and knowing that there’s a realistic chance Ruly’s wish won’t happen.
The Phillies are the biggest bunch of losers to ever grace a baseball field. But the Phillies are our losers, our 10,000-loss team, and we’ll love them as they break our hearts for another 96 years.
Daniel McQuade (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes the PW blog Philadelphia Will Do.
Bloggers’ Fave Phillies Moments
>> “A few years ago I was at a game sitting down low and really berating Braves pitcher Jason Marquis. I must’ve said the wrong thing after he let up a Phillies homer, because his brother—sitting 10 rows behind me—lobbed a beer at me. We both ended up in the Vet police station, but I got to stay for the rest of the game. I’m pretty sure the Phils won that one.” (Brian Michael, PhilliesNation.com)
>> “Amid the bone-shattering cold that only a rainy October night at the Vet could produce, my father and I were at the 15-14 game. Game four of the 1993 World Series saw Larry Andersen and Mitch Williams cough up a five-run, eight-inning lead, wasting Lenny Dykstra’s two dingers and providing an awful harbinger of what would happen two games later in Toronto. Filing sullenly out of the stadium, 63,000 people never sounded so achingly silent.” (Tom Durso, ShallowCenter.com)
>> “September 2005: The Wild Card-leading Phils—this was our year!—faced Houston in a series at CBP. After two disappointing losses, making it 11 straight to Houston, the Phils were one out away from finally beating the ’Stros in the series finale. Billy Wagner was on the mound. Craig Biggio sent a Wagner fastball deep into the South Philly night. End of game. End of season. Phillies baseball!” (Enrico Campitelli, The700Level.com)
>> “The Phillies have had two of the worst owners in baseball history. In 1943 baseball removed Phillies owner Gerry Nugent. Nugent was continually bankrupt, and routinely sold off players—including Chuck Klein—for cash. William Cox purchased the team but didn’t last a season. He was removed for betting on baseball, and turned in by fired manager Bucky Harris. The absurd part is that Cox claimed to only bet on the Phightins to win. They lost 90 games that year.” (Tom Goyne, BallsSticksStuff.com)