Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Forty Greatest Philadelphia Phillies of All-Time: Part 1

Phillies Logo, 1911-1920

It's mid-September, the first hints of fall are finally in the air, and the Phillies are stumbling to the finish line of a forgetful season, 9 games below .500 and 20 games behind the division-leading Braves, making mockery of my overly-optimistic opening day prediction that the club would win 85 games. Steep decline and debilitating injuries (which I should have anticipated) among the old guard stalwarts and largely overmatched "prospects" (save for the fragile Dom Brown) led to the thankful demise of Charlie Manuel's managerial tenure and hopefully will lead to a changing of the guard in the front office.

Phillies Logo, 1950-1959

What then is an inveterate Philly fan to do while trying not to be unreasonably optimistic about the "Kelly Express" operating out of Lincoln Financial Field? Reminisce, of course. Back in January I wrote a series of six posts listing those I considered the Forty Greatest Eagles of All time (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). Today begins a similar series on the men I consider the forty greatest Phillies who ever donned red pinstripes. The Phillies famously hold the record for most cumulative losses in the history of American professional sports. At the time of writing, the record stands at 10,453, against only 9389 victories. That amounts to an underwhelming .473 winning percentage (better, I might add, than the Colorado Rockies, Miami Marlins, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, and Tampa Bay Rays, all of whom are of much more recent vintage; actually, in the 50 years I have followed the team [1964-2013], the Phils have won 67 more games than they have lost, won 9 1/2 divisional titles, 5 National League pennants, and 2 World Series crowns [1980, 2008]; Philly fans will, it seems, never live down the 31 consecutive losing seasons between 1918 and 1948, a time when the Phils were decidedly the despised and/or neglected stepsister of the beloved and since-departed Philadelphia A's).

Phillies Logo, 1970-1983

Despite the franchise's acknowledged vicissitudes down through the years, it has a long and, at times, proud history. Indeed, the Phillies hold the distinction of being the oldest continuous one city, one name franchise in American sports history, dating back to 1883 (they were known as the Philadelphia Quakers until 1890). A number of Hall of Famers have called the Baker Bowl, Shibe Park, or Veterans Stadium home. And for real Philadelphians, who would never consider rooting for franchises in other, alien cities, the names of the players on the forthcoming lists will bring smiles of recollection and appreciation, even if their memory is tied solely to the pages of the Baseball Encyclopedia.

Phillies Logo, 1992-Present

As with my list of greatest Eagles players, I acknowledge the provisional nature of my judgments. Comparing players of different eras is always problematic, even in baseball, arguably the game with more continuity than obtains in the cases of, say, football or basketball. Nevertheless, players must be judged without anachronism, and that means comparing them with their own peers. Yet another problem is comparing players of different positions. Comparing second basemen to outfielders is not easy (does one give extra points to offensively proficient infielders because sluggers tend to be congregated in the outfield?), let alone any position players to pitchers. And does one give extra points to players who played the entirety of their careers in Philly? There are no easy, let alone definitive, answers to such questions. So I have laid down a couple of ground rules: a player must have played at least four seasons with the Phillies, and these seasons—even if at the early or tail end of the player's career—must have been ones in which he performed at peak effectiveness. Nevertheless, there are a few players who, though they fail to meet these criteria, still deserve comment. So here are six Phillies players whose best years occurred elsewhere or who didn't have quite enough peak seasons in Philly. The forty greatest list proper will begin with my next post.

1. Eppa Rixey (SP, 1912-20)


A strapping 6'5", 210 pounder from Culpepper, Virginia, Rixey played the first 8 of his 21 seasons with the Phillies. After an uneven start, Rixey came into his own in 1916, when he posted a 22-10 record and 1.85 ERA (despite being overshadowed by the great "Pete" Alexander) for the second-place Phils. He followed that with another fine season in 1917, posting a deceiving 16-21 record with a fine ERA of 2.27 over 281.1 innings (shades of 1983 Steve Carlton, 2012 Cliff Lee, and 2013 Cole Hamels, lack of run support for good pitchers being a longstanding Philadelphia tradition). But after a year off in 1918 because of World War I, Rixey posted two subpar seasons in 1919-20, losing 22 games and posting a 3.48 ERA (97 ERA+) in '20, leading to his trade to Cincinnati the following year. It was in Cincy that Rixey's career took off. He won 100 games in his first 5 years for the Reds, en route to 266 career victories, a record for National League southpaws that stood until Warren Spahn eclipsed it in 1963, and ultimate enshrinement in the Hall of Fame that same year. For the Phils, his record was 87-103, despite his ERA of 2.83 (ERA+=08).

2. Dolph Camilli (1B, 1934-37)

Dolph Camilli was one of an all-too-common breed in Philadelphia: a great player who got away due to poor management (later Phillies of this type include Ferguson Jenkins and Ryne Sandberg). A slugger out of San Francisco with a good eye (4 times he walked more than 100 times in a season, and for his career struck out only 14 more times than he was walked), Camilli came to the Phils via trade in 1934, and improved in each of his seasons playing at the Baker Bowl, whose cozy (to put it mildly) dimensions were perfectly suited to his powerful left-handed bat. In 1936 he hit .315, with 106 runs, 29 doubles, 13 triples, 28 homers, 116 walks, and 102 RBI, with a .441 OBP and slugging percentage of .577. In '37 he was even better, hitting .339 with 27 homers with a league-leading .446 OBP and a career-best .587 slugging average. Nevertheless, after that season he was inexplicably dealt to Brooklyn for a stiff named Eddie Morgan, who failed even to make the roster of a Phils team that won but 45 games. For the Dodgers, Camilli continued to shine, belting at least 23 homers in each of the next 5 seasons, topping out in 1941 when he led the league with 34 homers and 120 RBIs. In his four years in North Philadelphia, Camilli hit 92 home runs, drove in 333 runs, batted .295, and slugged .510.

3. Pete Rose (1B, 1979-83)

No name brings a smile to the face of an old Phillies fan more than that of Peter Edward Rose. Long a hated member of the rival Big Red Machine (for whom he had 3358 hits, scored 1741 runs, and batted .307, leading the NL in runs 4 times, hits 6 times, and batting 3 times), Rose was acquired via free agency prior to the 1979 season (in which he was 38 years old) in order to inject toughness and confidence in a team that had nothing to show for three consecutive divisional titles, in two of which they had won 101 games. Rose responded by hitting .331 and leading the league with a .418 OBP, though the team didn't respond as expected, abysmally falling to 4th place with an 84-78 record. The next year, however, the "Rose effect" kicked in (with not-so-gentle proddings from manager Dallas Green), as the Phils responded by winning their first World Series title behind MVP Mike Schmidt and Cy Young Award winner Steve Carlton. On the surface, Rose's contribution was less substantial, as he finally began to show his age by hitting only .282 (his lowest since 1964) with a minuscule .354 slugging percentage. But he hit .400 in the thrilling NLCS against Houston and provided one of the definitive moments in team history when he caught a foul pop off the bat of Frank White in the 9th inning of their World Series-clinching victory over Kansas City that had deflected off the glove of Gold Glove-winning catcher Bob Boone (never mind Boone's claim that Rose "messed up" by not being in position to catch the ball in the first place). And with my own ears I heard Mike Schmidt give Rose the main credit, not only for helping him reach his full potential, but for propelling the team to its title, at his own 1995 Hall of Fame induction at Cooperstown. Rose had one more good year left in him, batting .325 in the strike-divided 1981 season, before age took its inevitable toll. Rose, of course, would go on to establish the Major League record for hits with 4256 and be banned for baseball for life because of betting on baseball. Indeed, Rose's failures as a human being are recognized. But it is high time that baseball reverse its course and reinstate Charlie Hustle. After all, drug users and dealers, let alone the vile Tyrus Raymond Cobb, are enshrined. Is betting on your own team qualitatively worse? The upshot is this: Pete Rose played the game the way it's supposed to be played. Period.

4. Jim Thome (1B, 2003-05, 2012)

Gentleman Jim is a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer, with 612 home runs, 1699 RBIs, and a signature season few can top: 2002, in which he hit 52 homers, drove in 118 runs, batted .304, and led the league in slugging at .677 in only 480 at bats for the Cleveland Indians. No wonder Phillies fans were thrilled and shocked in equal measure when the team acquired Thome via free agency after that season, a clear signal that the team's notoriously niggardly ways (that had cost them the services of such stars as Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen) were a thing of the past. Thome responded brilliantly, leading the league with 47 homers while driving in a career-high 131 runs in the team's final season at Veteran's Stadium. In 2004 he was just as good, hitting 42 homers, driving in 105 runs, and improving his slugging percentage to .581 in the team's first season at Citizens Bank Park. An injury-plagued 2005 season (7 homers, .207 in 193 at bats) and the rise of rookie Ryan Howard led the team to part ways with Thome, but he was far from finished. In his first 3 seasons with the White Sox, Thome hit no fewer than 34 home runs, meaning that he had hit 30 or more homers in 12 of the preceding 13 seasons, the only exception being 2005. Thome played with skill, power, and class. I only wish he had been around for the team's World Series victory in 2008.

5. Roy Halladay (SP, 2010-13)

"Doc" Halladay is one of the best pitchers of his generation. When the Phils acquired him prior to the 2010 season, they sent a signal that they intended to continue the success they had enjoyed the previous two pennant-winning seasons. Halladay, after all, had been a two-time 20-game winner for Toronto, winning the Cy Young Award in 2003 and leading the AL in complete games 5 times and shutouts 3 times. And Halladay didn't disappoint. His first year in South Philly saw him lead the NL in wins (21), innings (250.2), complete games (9), and shutouts (4), striking out 219, posting a minuscule 2.44 ERA while pitching at homer-friendly Citizens Bank Park, and throwing a perfect game against the Florida Marlins on May 29. For his efforts he was granted his second Cy Young Award. In the NLDS he threw a no-hitter against the overmatched Cincinnati Reds, though he faltered somewhat against the Giants in the NLCS, losing game 1 to Tim Lincecum and sporting a 1-1 record and 4.15 ERA for the series. In 2011, he was nearly as good: 233.2 innings, 19-6, 2.35, 8 complete games, a league-leading 163 ERA+, 220 strikeouts, and (according to the calculations of a 7.0 WAR. Nevertheless, despite a valiant effort, he was on the losing side of the decisive 1-0 loss to Chris Carpenter and the St. Louis Cardinals in the decisive 5th game of the NLDS. Since his first two transcendent seasons with the Phils, Halladay has been wracked with arm injuries that have sapped his effectiveness and rendered his future uncertain at best: 11-8 with a 4.49 ERA in 2012, and 4-4 with a 6.71 ERA (and an uncharacteristic 5.0 BB/9 ratio) thus far in 2013. I wish him luck, but have the uneasy feeling that he is done, at least as a premier starter.

6. Cliff Lee (SP, 2009, 2011-13)

Cliff Lee is, if anything, even more popular with the Philly fan base than Halladay is. When the team acquired him at the trading deadline in 2009, he responded by winning his first 5 starts, and topped that by defeating the Yankees twice in the World Series that October. Since being reacquired prior to the 2011 series, Lee has been nothing but stellar, even in 2012, when his 6-9 record over 30 starts was due entirely to historically poor run support, considering his fine 3.16 ERA (128 ERA+!) that season. In his 3+ years for the Phils, Lee has compiled a 44-27 record with a 2.88 ERA (136 ERA+), has thrown 8 shutouts and struck out 720 in 731 innings while walking only 112.

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