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Philadelphia Baseball Ghosts: John Francis "Phenomenal" Smith

Philadelphia was the birthplace of the world's best reason people shouldn't come up with their own nickname.

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For many players, Philadelphia becomes merely a second home. What we aim to do with the "Philadelphia Baseball Ghosts" series is take a look at those who are born within Philadelphia city limits before they set off on their grand baseball adventure somewhere else in the vast, horrible world. In past editions, we looked at William "Yank" Robinson and Harry "Socks" Seibold.


John Francis "Phenomenal" Smith

DOB: December 12, 1864

What was happening in Philadelphia at the time: Philadelphia hosted The Great Sanitary Fair the year Smith was born, an event that was set up to get money funneled into the U.S. Sanitary Commission so that everything wouldn't be disgusting for the Union army, which as we all know was the most hygienic time in American history.

And to this day, Philadelphia remains not disgusting at all!

The year also included a horrifyingly normal amount of raging fires (including one at a candle factory - MAYBE WE COULD HAVE SEEN THIS ONE COMING GUYS) and building collapses for the period. Which is why it makes sense that Mayor Alexander Henry declared that the State House bell would no longer be rung for "ordinary" fires. The frequency of uncontrollable blazes in this city probably had alarm bells ringing around the clock, and somebody had to do something to preserve at least one of them. Good thinking, Mr. Mayor.

MLB career: 1884 Philadelphia Athletics, Pittsburgh Allghenys; 1885 Brooklyn Grays, Philadelphia Athletics; 1886 Detroit Wolverines; 1887-88 Baltimore Orioles; 1888 Philadelphia Athletics; 1890 Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Alleghenys; 1891 Philadelphia Phillies

54-74, 3.89 ERA, 519 SO, 479 BB, 4.8 WAR

Bio: High school's chief role in the youth experience is to teach us certain lessons. For instance, finding vodka that's been in the trunk of a car all day is not a "reason to party," as your parents will be happy to explain to your passed out body on the mulch pile in the driveway. Another lesson is that you are not ever the author of your own nickname; that is a sacred right given to your friends and/or tormentors, who select it after a careful process based on a personality or physical quirk that you probably can't help at all.

What you cannot do is start referring to yourself as "Phenomenal," especially if the thing you are claiming to be "phenomenal" at is something you have never even done. This was a lesson learned by Philadelphia native and pitcher John Francis Smith, who, just before his first-ever baseball start, demanded that each of his teammates refer to him by the incredibly subtle nickname of "Phenomenal."

Thanks to being not very good at pitching, as well as a conspiracy hatched by his bitter, vengeful teammates on the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers, Smith lost the game, 18-5. Historians agree that at least some of the runs were his fault, but it was tough to ignore that the infield was purposefully blowing plays when grounders would roll past the shortstop, Germany Smith, whose reaction to them was barely more than a sniff of the breeze.  He would commit seven errors on the day. The catcher, Jack Hayes, just let five pitches go by without touching them. In all, the Trolley Dodgers booted the ball, or failed to touch it at all, 14 times on the day, under a hail of boos.

The manager refused to take Smith out of the game and he pitched the whole thing. A writer from the Brooklyn Eagle called the team's actions "a disgusting rottenness," and the sport was probably set back a decade or two thanks to Phenomenal's pathetic attempts to impress people.

Smith was able to piece together enough of a career to put his opening humiliation behind him, playing in some sort of league until 1906. In 1887 for the Orioles, he combined with fellow starter Matt Kilroy to win 75 of the team's 77 victories. Unlike some people - looking at you, Socks Seibold - Smith was able to go onto a successful managing career, at one point being called "by far, the best minor league manager in the business." He eventually moved to the outfield in order to serve as a player/manager (wish we still had those), and is credited with mentoring a 19-year-old Christy Mathewson.

What the conversation in which Phenomenal Smith told people his new nickname probably sounded like

PLAYER 1: Christ, you guys hear about this candle factory fire?

PLAYER 2: Which one?

PLAYER 1: What a horrifying time to be alive.

PHENOMENAL SMITH: Hey gang. Just making sure we all heard the update about my nickname situation.

PLAYER: John, keep your voice down. A fire might hear you and break out.

PHENOMENAL (whispering): That's just it - I wanted to be clear that I'll be answering only to the name "Phenomenal" from now on.  It's got a syllables so maybe we should all practice saying it out loud. I'll go first: "Phenomenal."

PLAYER 2: Did Skip call you that?

PHENOMENAL: No. It's your turn to say "Phenomenal," now. go ahead.

PLAYER 1: Did Charlie? Earl? Fat Earl? Little Charlie?


PLAYER 2: Little Fat Charlie?

PHENOMENAL: Guys, I just woke up this morning, looked in the mirror, and realized it was the perfect name for me.

PLAYER 2: You can't do that.

PLAYER 1: Yeah. You can't just give yourself a new nickname, especially one that doesn't make sense. You've never even pitched before.

PLAYER 2: Now, "Little Fat Charlie," that's a nickname that works.

[A massively obese man who is only knee-high in height walks by]


PLAYER 1: What's up, Chas!

PHENOMENAL: Look, I'm not asking you guys to do me a huge favor here.

PLAYER 1: It sounds like you are.

PHENOMENAL: I'm good, though! Some might even say phenomenal!

PLAYER 2: Who, though. Who said it.


[Phenomenal storms off]

PLAYER 1: Please. My house is soaked in water, preventing all fires.

PLAYER 2: That's the way to do it.

PLAYER 1: Lots of mosquitoes, though.

LITTLE FAT CHARLIE: Hey what would you guys think if I just rode a Great Dane around the infield between innings today and caught pennies in my hat.

PLAYER 2: You're the man, Fat Little Charlie.

Further reading on Phenomenal Smith:

The Baseball Hall of Shame: The Best of Blooperstown, by Bruce Nash and Allan Zulo

The Baltimore Orioles: The History of a Colorful Team in Baltimore and St. Louis, by Fred Lieb

Early Professional Baseball in Hampton Roads: A History, 1884-1928, by Peter C. Stewart