Instead of comparing today's squad to the best we ever had, what if we compared them to the worst?
The boys of summer are preparing their annual northward migration. Warm stove leagues have cooled, with the pundits, experts, and casual fanatics either fretting or salivating about the season to come. For us, it's the same questions as last year. Will Hamels be healthy? Will Howard see and hit the ball this year? Will Utley's knees last? Can Revere hit? Will Brown live up to the hype?
This is also the time of year when you see articles that compare current stars to the best that ever played for their club. All-time teams pop-up in the press, fueling debates about players, eras, and how today’s team rates against the best of all time.
But we are Phillies fans. Our spring ritual also includes bitching about how poor this years team will be. If you were born since 2000 or didn't live through the bad years, you may not really have a full appreciation of how this years' team spring struggles are reminiscent of our clubs in the late 60s. If only Short's arm holds. Can Bill White play 1 more? Will Callison regain 1964 form? Will Allen have more homeruns, errors, or days of suspension? The bullpen is suspect. Do we have a catcher that can hit? Isn't our core getting older, not better?
Sure, we've generally been good to great for the last decade. It's been a golden age. But this is an aberration. We actually are the team of 10,000 losses.
Even our best years involve suffering. Four great games in The Series against the 50 Yankees, all losses. The ghost of 1964. Manny Mota. The error by the Secretary of Defense. Rick Dempsey. Joe Carter. Cody Ross. And the stomach churn that comes from those names happen in our BEST years. The faint of heart should not open the Baseball Encyclopedia and look at our clubs' history. In the dark decades from 1919 to 1945 the Fightin’ Phils finished dead last an astounding 16 times. If you include 7th place in an 8 team league, it’s 23 out of 27. They rose as high as 4th precisely once. 100 losses? No problem – there were twelve 100 or greater loss seasons in that era alone, capped by a rather stunning 111 in 1941, the year DiMaggio hit in 56 strait, and when Ted Williams hit .406.
In 1975, I recall vividly how excited my father was that the Phillies looked capable of playing .500 ball. Like many from Luzerne and Lackawanna Counties, he switched allegiance from the Yankees to the Phillies in 1950. His reward was epitomized by the 23 game losing streak of 1961. The previous year, 'Whiz Kids,' manager Eddie Sawyer quit after losing the first game of the 1960 season. He reportedly said he was "49 and wanted to live to be 50." The late 60s and early 70s were another era of constant disappointment for our heroes.
So, for our club, I wondered if rather than picking a team of all-time greats, it might make sense to build a team of all-time duds. The challenge is to build the worst possible line-up of players who were the starting player of record at their position for a year, yet performed poorly enough that they stand exemplar of our fightin' franchise's famed futility.
Sure, it's depressing to look at Brown, Revere, and Mayberry and compare them to Luzinski, Maddox and McBride, or Sisler, Ashburn and Ennis. But what if we compared them to some of the players of our inglorious past? Today’s team looks a whole lot better in this light. Maybe it will help hope spring eternal - which is what this time of the season is really about.
So, fellow Phanatics, I offer you a Phillies all-time Hall of Dubious Distinction. Like any such list, it can be argued, so feel free to offer up alternatives. But, to be considered the player had to be recognized as the player of record, the "starter" for the referenced year. Our bench is way too fertile ground for this exercise.
1B Johnny Herrnstein .234 6 25 (1964 - sigh)
People blame Gene Mauch for the 1964 collapse. Others blame Chico Ruiz (damn him forever) stealing home. But, you could as easily blame Frank "the big donkey" Thomas for getting hurt. 'cause when Thomas went out that left Johnny Herrnstein as your everyday first baseman and every third inning easy-out. First Base is a power position, something Herrnstein abundantly lacked. So much so that the Phils actually traded away a very raw but talented Marcelino Lopez for the ancient Vic Power – who didn’t help with .208 0 3 in 48 At Bats. Lopez finished 2nd in the rookie of the year competition with the Angels, and later went on star with the Orioles and help win a World Championship in 1970. Everyone wanted the young Herrnstein to do well. He didn't. The Phils could afford two light-hitting positons at SS and C. But with Herrnstein, 1/3 of our order was unfit. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Runner up, Art Mahan .240 2 39. This may be unfair to Mahan, who was really no worse than his team, which was pretty awful.
2B Ralph "Putsy" Cabellero .186 1 11 (1951)
All you need to know is that Mario Mendoza calls .190 "The Caballero line." For god sake, man, what ballplayer would ever accept the moniker "Putsy?" OK, "Bonehead" Merkle was a worse moniker. But accepting a nickname like "Putsy" is like a self-prescribed death sentence for your batting average. In earning a promotion to play every day in '51, he actually did rally to raise his batting average 19 points! To .186. On the other hand, his performance gave teammate Rich Ashburn a chance to poke lighthearted fun at him to the entertainment of millions on many long, hot summer nights from the 60s to the 90s.
Runners up, George Lee "Sparky" Anderson .218 0 34 (1959) or Ted Kazanski .211 4 34 (1956). Anderson's season is cited by the sabrmetrics crowd as the least powerful full-time player of all time. 104 hits, 12 for extra bases. Sparky Anderson was a Punch and Judy hitter, without the punch. The Reds had Ted Kluszewski who was a 4 time all-star and MVP candidate; we had Ted Kazanski who was neither.
SS Steve "The Jet" Jeltz .187 0 27 (1988)
I came to bury Ceasar, but first will praise him. The Jet had one brilliant night in 1989. After Pittsburgh announcer Nellie Briles shot off his mouth saying if Pittsburgh - with a 10-0 lead - lost the game, he'd walk back to Pittsburgh. And walk back he did because Jeltz, one of the most anemic hitters of all time @ .210 hit 2 of his 5 career dingers in 1
inning game, one from each side of the plate. (A personal aside on Briles, I especially enjoyed his failure as he beat the Phils in the first game I ever saw back at Connie Mack.) Jeltz was a switch non-hitter, equally incapable of ball-striking ability from both sides of the plate. His line score really says it all. He was the kind of hitter you'd walk the bases loaded with two outs to bring to the plate. Finally, if you are going to have nickname "Jet," do you think you could steal more than 1 base in 3 attempts? I mean, Greg "The Bull" Luzinski had better base stealing numbers than that.
Runner up, Bobby "Wino" Wine .190 2 28 (1967)
3B John Vukovich .166 0 14 (1971)
Remarkably Vuke, later a well loved coach in Chicago and Philly, was not the only Philly hot corner who did not cross the Mendoza line in the 70s. But the other one is forgiven, because he hit 20 Home Runs in 1973, then managed about 528 more along the way with an assorted gold glove or two and the odd MVP trophy. Vuke earned his trip to the majors as an excellent defensive third-sacker. But his biggest contribution to our club was was sucking so supremely at the plate that the Phils converted their young SS Mike Schmidt to 3rd and then rushed him to the majors. Then they traded Vuke to Cincy. Deja vu all over again: Vuke performed so meekly that the Reds had to move All-Star leftfielder Pete Rose to 3rd base - and grabbed George Foster from the Giants to fill the gap. His teammates apparently called him Vuke. We called him rally-killer. But on the upside, he helped his club by causing Hall of Fame caliber players to replace him.
CF Larry Hisle .205 10 44 (1970)
In '68 and '69, Hisle was hailed as the savior of the franchise. He had power, speed, could catch the ball - and before a series of arm injuries - throw. He eventually did save the franchise; unfortunately the indebted team turned out to be the Milwaukee Brewers. It's hard to describe what happened to Hisle. There were all the Richie, err, Dick Allen problems with the fans. Richie, err, Dick Allen problems with Bob Skinner. The mood at Connie Mack Stadium in an era of volatile race relations, capped by the Curt Flood fiasco. Terrible management on and off the field. Youth. Hisle was coming off a fine rookie season where he managed to hit .266 with 20 homers and 18 stolen bases in 69. But Hisle's 1970 was so bad it nearly killed his career. By '71 he faded to .197 and oblivion. He kicked around in '72 and '73 before rebounding wonderfully in Minnesota and Milwaukee, driving in over 100 runs in '77 and '78. It was nice to see his potential eventually get realized even if it didn't happen in red pinstripes.
Runner up: Hey, this may be harsh 'cause I've forgiven him and he's actually not eligible to win, but I'm calling out Curt Flood. His refusal to come to Philly in the Dick Allen deal forced us to put Byron Brown, a not yet developed Oscar Gamble, Roger Freed, Ron Stone, Mike Anderson and oh so many other terrible outfielders onto the field - even though we eventually did get "Willie the Phillie" Montanez as compensation. With years to look back on it, many of us who hated Flood at the time have come to understand the man and his position, which ended his career as well. But his refusal to play in Philadelphia was a low point even by Phils standards.
RF and LF - The .221 Club - Oscar Gamble .221 6 23 and Roger Freed .221 6 37 (1971)
The first of a pair of .221 hitting corner outfielders, Gamble played so poorly that nobody could have thought he would become one of the most dangerous, albeit platooned, players of the middle of the 70s. Nor could we have known he'd grow such an awesome 'Fro. It didn't help with the fans that Gamble was acquired from Chicago for aging but beloved Johnny Callison. After a decent '70 that included the hit and RBI that closed Connie Mack Stadium, the talented Gamble was yet another 'future of the franchise.' after his poor year in '71 he struggled again in '72 and never made an impact - in Philadelphia.
The second of our .221 corner outfielders in ’71 outfield was Roger Freed. In this season, Freed hit his weight which became increasingly difficult through his career. Roger was a very big man. Not particularly mobile, not particularly powerful, Freed was yet another major bust. The Phils traded the versatile Grant Jackson to Baltrimore for Freed who had been a star in the minors, but could not break into the star-studded Oriole outfield. After '71, Freed fell from over 350 at bats to under 150 in 72.
There are probably worse left fielders in team history. But since Luzinski left I can't begin to count the leftfielders... oh hell let's try... Lonnie Smith, Sarge Matthews, Glennbo Wilson, Jeff Stone, Gary Redus, Mike Easler/Chris James, Phil Bradley, John Kruk, Wes Chamberlain / Pete Incaviglia/ Milt Thompson, Greg Jeffries, Ron Gant, Pat the Bat Burrell, Raul Ibanez, Juan Pierre, and Dominic Brown... but the one thing you can say for every guy in and out of that revolving door is that he had a better year than Freed. He kicked around the majors mostly as a pinch hitter, never breaking 100 At Bats again.
There was a lot of blame to go around for why Philadelphia lost 95 games and dropped below the expansion era Expos in 1971, but two big ones stood in the corner outfield positions. Fittingly, both Gamble and Freed were packaged up and sent to Cleveland for talented journeyman and eventual pinch-hitting hero Del Unser after the 1972 season.
Del Ennis, sorry about the folks who booed you in the 1950s. We really, really miss you.
C "Irish" Mike Ryan .179 1 15 (1968)
People remember Ryan as a popular bullpen coach for many years. Before that, he was an all-glove / no-hit backstop in the 60s and early 70s. Philadelphia in the post-Baker Bowl era was perennially weak behind the plate with only an occasional decent year by Andy Seminck or Stan Lopata. You may not appreciate the consistency of Mike Lieberthal, but we had a year so bad and so injury prone that we had to activate bullpen coach Doc Edwards for active duty. Bob Boone was a godsend for a decade. But among the litany of sub-.220 Phillie receivers, Mike Ryan stands alone as the most inept at the plate year in, year out. In 11 years, Irish finished at .193 amassing 12 homers and scoring 146 runs. This was an era of defensive catchers, for sure. But even by these standards Ryan was an easy, easy out.
Runners up? Oh dear heavens... Dalrymple was so bad offensively the Phillies traded for Bob Uecker. There were some awful years by otherwise solid Seminick and Lopata. Jimmy Coker.
Bob Bowman. Bernie Warren. Mickey Livingston. What, there's no wing waiting for them in Cooperstown? Oh, the humanity.
P Les Sweetland 7-15, 7.71 (1930)
There was a lot of competition for this one. And there were much bigger losers. I mean, Hughie Mulcahy's nickname was actually "Losing Pitcher" because every fourth night the radio announcer would say something like, "Reds over the Phillies 6 to 4. Winning pitcher Vandermeer. Losing pitcher, Mulcahy." It's true Sweetland's numbers are inflated by playing in a bandbox. Nobody liked to pitch in the Baker Bowl. If you think for even a second that Colorado is the penultimate hitters ballpark, think twice. In '32, for example, the Phils featured 7 regulars that hit over .300 including the great Chuck Klein, and yet finished 6th of 8 with 88 losses. Fans at the Baker Bowl got to see something far more akin to pinball than baseball. The bottom line remains - hitters' park notwithstanding - in 1930 Les Sweetland hung around for enough innings and starts to get 22 decisions with an ERA of 7.71. Bravo, Les. That was very hard to do.
Runners up? Many too many to call.
So there you have it. My nomination for an all-time worst Phillie lineup. Punishment gluttons, feel free to add / subtract or simply revel in the hopes of glory for 2014, knowing it can't be this bad. Can it? That is the essence of a Phils fan through history. Win or lose, we're there. Or, if you support one of those franchises with less-dedicated and masochistic followers than us, bask in the schadenfreude.