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1942-43 Phillies: Turmoil, scandal, and hope

Financial insolvency, betting scandal, and nearly becoming the first to break the color barrier.

The Phillies organization had been languishing for decades, but over a period of 15 months in the middle of World War II it hit a new low, and then was at the center of a scandal. However by the end of that period the Phillies had new owners, and a new sense of hope. Borrowing liberally from wikipedia...

December 1942

Seventy-three years ago, the National League held its annual Winter Meetings, where NL owners devoted an entire day to discussing the issues of the Philadelphia Phillies. This was while a war was being fought both in Europe and the Pacific -- the prior year's meetings had been interrupted by news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Phillies were in the midst of a 30-year run (1919-48) where they would compile a .371% winning percentage -- the equivalent of going 60-102 (in 162-game season terms), every single year for 30 straight years.

In 1942 the team's owner was Gerald Nugent, who had been at the helm for 12 difficult seasons. From his wikipedia page:

"A leather goods and shoe merchant, Nugent married longtime Phillies secretary Mae Mallen in 1925. Longtime Phillies owner William Baker died in 1930, leaving half of his estate to Mallen and half to his wife. With the support of Baker's widow, Nugent became team president. Baker's widow died in 1932, leaving Nugent in full control.

Unlike Baker, Nugent cared more about winning than saving money. However, even with his income from his other businesses, he didn't have the financial means to get the Phillies out of the National League basement. He was forced to trade what little talent the team had to make ends meet and had to use some creative financial methods to be able even to field a team at all. The one highlight of his ownership was a 78-76 record in 1932, the only time that the Phillies finished with a winning record between 1918 and 1948.

Nugent finally reached the end of his rope in 1942. A year after posting a 43-111 record,the worst in franchise history, the Phillies needed an advance from the league just to be able to take part in spring training. Realizing that there was no way he could operate the team in 1943, he reached an agreement in principle that February to sell the team to Bill Veeck, who planned to bring in Negro League stars in an effort to turn the moribund franchise around. However, when Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, an intractable opponent of integration, got wind of it, he pressured National League President Ford Frick to quash the deal and take over the team. A week later, the league sold the Phillies to lumber broker William D. Cox."

There's some debate regarding how serious Veeck was (discussed here, page 109), but still, it's quite interesting to imagine the Phillies breaking the color barrier.

1943 Season

William Cox was 33 at the time, and the youngest owner in the league. He signaled a new beginning for the franchise when he announced that they were going to be called the "Blue Jays" from here on. And unlike Nugent (and Baker before him), Cox:

"...was not afraid to spend what it took to get the Phillies out of the cellar. He significantly increased the team's payroll and devoted significant resources to player development (including the farm system) for the first time in the history of the franchise. He also hired Bucky Harris, who had won two pennants and one World Series with the Washington Senators, as manager."

"However, Cox was a very hands-on owner. He'd played baseball at Yale, and still thought of himself as a star athlete; believing the team needed to be better conditioned, he hired his high school track coach, Harold Bruce, as team trainer. Cox even suited up for workouts, and frequently showed up at the clubhouse before and after games. All of this grated on Harris, and when he protested against Cox's interference, Cox fired him on July 27 at a press conference, without bothering to inform Harris. The players threatened to go on strike in protest, but Harris urged them to drop those plans after Cox threatened legal action.

Despite this, the Phillies showed signs of respectability for the first time in years, and they finished 64-90, a healthy 22-game improvement from 1942, to get out of the cellar for the first time in five years. The long-beleaguered Phillies fans appreciated what Cox was trying to do, as the Phillies had their best attendance since 1916. At the time of Harris' firing, the Phillies had already won 38 games, just four fewer than they had won in the previous season. More importantly in the long run, the farm system had begun developing the players who would help lead the Phillies to the 1950 World Series."

The day after his firing, on July 28, Harris made serious allegations about Cox:

"...he had evidence that Cox was betting on his own team. When Landis got wind of Harris' charges, he launched an immediate investigation. Initially, Cox denied any wrongdoing, but conceded that some of his business associates bet on the Phillies. As the investigation progressed, Cox changed his story and admitted making some "sentimental" bets on the Phillies, and he claimed that he didn't know it was against the rules. This made no difference to Landis, who suspended Cox indefinitely on November 23.

Cox immediately resigned as team president, but appealed Landis' ruling 11 days later. At the December 4 hearing, Harris testified that he'd heard Cox's secretary asking about the odds for a game between the Phillies and Brooklyn Dodgers; when Harris asked, "Do you mean to tell me Mr. Cox is betting on baseball?" the secretary replied that it was common knowledge in the Phillies office. On the basis of this and other evidence, Landis ordered that Cox be suspended for life, thus making Cox the first non-player to be banned from baseball by Landis; he is the last owner to be banned for life as of 2013."

Cox was forced to sell the team, and the buyer was R.R.M. "Ruly" Carpenter Sr. of the Dupont family, who installed his son R.R.M. "Bob" Carpenter Jr. as club president. Bob Jr. was 28.

The rest, as they say, is history. One of the first changes was that the semi-official change to "Blue Jays" was terminated after the 1944 season, and the team was the Phillies again. And as William Cox had started to do, the Carpenters invested in the team, and by 1950 the Whiz Kids had reached the World Series. They got a second trip to the Series, and the franchise's first championship in 1980 before selling to the current group a year later.