Sports

Routine Moments in Baseball History: The Phillies' Long Years of Losing

It's difficult to describe the history of the Philadelphia Phillies, but let me give it a try: For a long, long time, they were very, very bad.

by Harry Cheadle
Aug 26 2014, 4:25pm

Welcome back to Routine Moments in Baseball History, a running weekday feature that looks back at plays that have been ignored by the history books because history books only talk about things that are important or interesting. Today's installment is "The Phillies' Long Years of Losing." 

It's difficult to describe the history of the Philadelphia Phillies, but let me give it a try: For a long, long time, they were very, very bad. Their badness was a fact of life, like gravity, like the sun coming up in the morning and coming down at night. Between 1921 and 1945 the team lost 100 or more games in a season 12 times, and during those years the team regularly drew fewer than 300,000 fans per season to the old Baker Bowl. "The franchise was locked in a vicious cycle—low attendance meant no money to acquire good players, and bad players meant low attendance," is how a description of the 1921 season put it. It's the same old story familiar to anyone who's rooted for a franchise that can't put itself together: The team is at first heartbreaking in its ineptness, then you get bitter at how the owner can't put out a winning team and doesn't seem to even care, then you ignore the steady stream of ugly box scores, then maybe you kindle a fondness for the losers in your heart, like you would for an ugly dog that's also amazingly stupid. 

But back to 1921. The Phillies had been in contention for the pennant as recently as 1916, so maybe it wasn't obvious the team was going through a decades-long skid yet. Even at the time, though, the signs of a dysfunctional team were written in big letters for anyone to see. The big-name stars the Phillies had in previous years had been traded for cash. The team's manager, "Wild" Bill Donovan, quit in disgust midway through the season. A group of players got into a fight with fans in the Baker Bowl parking lot. They were last in pretty much every statistical category you could name. They lost 38 games by five runs or more and 103 total. Like I said in the beginning: very, very bad.

One of these blowout losses was on August 26, an afternoon game at the Baker Bowl. The oddly shaped ballpark was notoriously small and a pitcher's nightmare to play in—the right-field wall was only 280 feet from home, and to prevent home runs from flying out of there regularly a 60-foot-high wall had been cobbled together out of rock, wood, and tin; at the time the wall hosted a giant ad for Lifebuoy soap. On the day in question the Cincinnati Reds were in town, and they whupped the home team 7-2 thanks mostly to a four-run third, during which the Reds grooved pitches from Jesse Winters into the outfield with ease and were helped by a misplayed ball from third baseman Dots Miller. By the end of the inning Winters was out of the game and the Phillies were behind 5-0, a hopelessly huge deficit for a squad of such lousy hitters to surmount. The sparse crowd might have applauded sarcastically, or just rained jeers down on the home team. Some people would have left in disgust, others probably got disgracefully drunk and hooted every time the Reds knocked another hit off that immense right-field wall.

In the clubhouse, Winters might have been drinking too. At one time a bright prospect for the New York Giants, he was now known for being temperamental and unambitious; he had come over to the Phillies in the middle of the season in a deal that had the Giants exchanging several players and a pile of money for star outfielder Irish Meusel, who helped New York win the pennant and then the World Series. Winters was, in other words, a footnote of a pitcher stuck on a lousy team with a shitty park who just got knocked out of the game thanks to fucking Miller's fucking error. He might have found solace in the bottom of a bottle, which we can't really blame him for. He also might have gotten philosophical about his poor performance: In 1921 in Philadelphia, nobody cared about another loss one way or another.

This has been Routine Moments in Baseball History. Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.