This is the first in a series of our looks at the great Phillies teams to never win a championship.
There haven’t been many good Phillies teams in their history. It’s littered with more bad teams than good, something you’d expect when you saw that they have exactly 11,000 losses in team history, the most in professional sports. However, there have been a few teams here and there that were actually pretty good. The first real version of this, not counting the teams that came before the formation of the National League, is the 1915 Phillies.
Baseball was a completely different sport then than it is now. Where now the game is mostly dependent on athletic individuals that each have the ability to drive the ball 390 feet or more, not concerning themselves with whether or not they make contact, the early game was extremely concerned with making contact. Baseball was more exciting then, with batters making more contact, the ball in play more often and more action on the basepaths. That isn’t to say that they game was better, it was just different. So when you look at the team statistics for the year, it can be a little startling.
The best hitter on the team was clearly Gavvy Cravath. He lead the team in most major categories and his 170 OPS+ was the tops in the National League, 21 points ahead of the second place player, his teammate Fred Luderus. While this isn’t Cravath’s finest season with the bat (that would be 1913, when he finished second in MVP voting), it surely is one of his best. In addition to the OPS+, Cravath also that season led the NL in:
- WAR (position players)
- on-base percentage
- slugging percentage
- runs scored
- total bases
- home runs
He was an offensive machine that year and was the engine that propelled the offense that called the Baker Bowl home. This is a highly important part of the narrative that surrounds Cravath and his 1915 season. Of those 24 home runs that he hit, 19 of them came at home, a place that has been called a hitter’s haven, which might be putting it modestly.
At a slim 272 feet down the right field line, there wasn’t much between the hitter and a cheap home run. The 60 foot high fence was the team’s way of trying to impede these cheapies from reaching the street behind it, but even hitters in the deadball era knew that getting the ball in the air, high enough to clear that fence, usually led to good slugging numbers. So, we’d assume that a left-handed hitter like Crav—-oh. He’s a right-handed hitter you say? Hm, that does change the narrative a bit on his benefitting from his home confines. In fact, according to his own words, Cravath felt that Baker Bowl took more from him than it gave:
“That right-field fence was never any farther away than it was when I joined the club,” he told F. C. Lane. “And while we are on the subject, let me make a point. That fence isn’t always a friend to the home-run slugger. I have hit that fence a good many times with a long drive that would have kept right on for a triple or a home run if the fence hadn’t been there. There are always two sides to every fence.”
Cravath’s right handed power is something that will emerge later on.
The other offensive hero of the 1915 team is Fred Luderus. Often forgotten in team lore, Luderus is perhaps the second best first baseman in the team history offensively, his 115 OPS+ ranking third among those who have at least 850 games there, right behind Ryan Howard (124). In 1915, his 149 OPS+ was second on the team to Cravath and gave them an offensive threat that teams could not forget about. That season was the best of his career, where he had his best batting average and on-base percentage, as well as the most doubles and stolen bases he ever had in a single season. His play was recognized at the time by some of the more astute observers in the game:
Though acknowledging that Fred Luderus “is not a Stuffy McInnis on defense, nor a Jake Daubert in batting, nor a Fred Merkle on the baselines,” J. C. Kofoed in the July 1915 issue of Baseball Magazine called the Phillies first baseman “the most under-rated man in baseball today.”
But as much as one wants to talk about the bats in the team’s lineup that year, the main focus was the pitching, particularly that of one Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander. In a Hall of Fame career that featured many ups and downs, this was the one that would be his masterpiece.
The 1915 season saw it all come together for Alexander. It marked the beginning of the end for his tenure with the Phillies, as he’d end up in Chicago to start the 1918 season, but oh wait a three year stretch it was. In those final three years in Philadelphia, these were Alexander’s totals:
94-35, 1.54 ERA, 142 G (131 GS), 108 CG, 1,153 1⁄3 IP, 170 BB, 608 K, 179 ERA+
While we can go back to the saying that this was a different type of baseball being played, that kind of run over three years is a different kind of elite. However, 1915 was the greatest of them all. On a pitching staff that had a collective ERA of 2.17 (!) for the entire year, the fact that Alexander’s was almost a full run lower shows you what kind of elite it is.
While this kind of hitting and this type of pitching might make one think that they ran away with the 8-team National League, the Phillies of that year were actually in quite the race for the majority of the season. In fact, as late as June 21, the Phillies were in third place after losing to the Pirates, 4-3. After that date, they found themselves 2 1⁄2 games behind the Cubs and 1 1⁄2 games behind the Cardinals. They were only a paltry 4 games over .500 and weren’t playing very good ball. They started winning more often and coupled with some losing by the teams in front of them, they took over a share of first place on July 13 with the Cubs. They would hold that share, or the outright claim, of first place for the rest of the year, but didn’t have much breathing room, only going a few games in front of second place for next few weeks. In fact, after the action on September 7, they were only a game ahead of the Brooklyn Robins. However, a run in which they won 21 of their last 27 games gave them a comfortable cushion in National League, securing their first ever appearance in the World Series. They would end up facing off against the Boston Red Sox.
The Red Sox at that time were a burgeoning behemoth in the American League. This was the team of Tris Speaker, Harry Hooper and Duffy Lewis in the outfield, with some guy named Ruth or Babe or something waiting to hit on days he wasn’t pitching. Speaking of pitching, Boston had lots of it. Ruth was a dominant force as a left-handed pitcher, going 18-8 with a 2.44 ERA in 217 1⁄3 innings...and he was, by ERA+, the worst pitcher in the rotation. Rube Foster (132 ERA+), Ernie Shore (170), Dutch Leonard (119) and Smoke Joe Wood (188) all helped hold down the competition to 499 runs over the year, second in the American League. They, too, looked set up to build a winner that would last for seasons as no one on the offensive side was over the age of 29 and no one in the rotation was older than 27. Between these two teams, the World Series looked like it was going to be one for the ages.
The series started with a coin toss to determine home field advantage in the seven game series, Philadelphia winning and electing to begin at home. Game One began with President Woodrow Wilson throwing out the first pitch and becoming the first sitting president to do so in a major league game in history. It would end up being a series dominated by pitching, as the first game was won by the Phillies, 3-1 thanks to a strong performance by Alexander. It would also be the last game they would win in the series.
Each of the next four games were all decided by one run, the Red Sox winning the next three games by a score of 2-1, and the fourth by a 5-4 mark. Game Three was a particularly exciting affair, one in which Alexander was bested by Dutch Leonard and not Babe Ruth in a controversial decision at the time on the part of Boston manager William Carrigan. The play by play account done by SABR historian C. Paul Rogers III gives an extraordinary account of this game. In Game Four, much the same happened, where the pitching of Ernie Shore this time styming the Phillies’ linuep, waiting to get some runs across that would be enough to win the game for Boston. Game Five was the decider, one that broke the Phillies’ hearts since they had a 4-2 lead in the game going into the top of eighth inning. According to the play by play provided by Retrosheet, pinch hitter Del Gainer led off the inning with a single and Duffy Lewis, part of the Red Sox outfield that accumulated so many lauds that year, homered, tying the game at 4. In the top of the ninth, Boston took the lead when Harry Hooper hit a “bounce home run” that broke the tie and gave the Red Sox the championship. Try as I might, I could not find what a “bounce home run” is, but I can assume that there was an overflow crowd on hand that day and that ground rules stipulated that a ball bouncing into a certain section counted as a home run.
It’s kind of a shame that the Phillies couldn’t get this would-be dynasty off the ground. The Red Sox were the better team that year, yet the Phillies hung with them in every game. The next season, the Phillies actually finished with a record a 1⁄2 game better than in 1915, yet finished second to the Brooklyn Robins. After that, it was a steady slide downward into the basement where they would remain for quite some time.
The 1915 Phillies weren’t the greatest assemblage of talent in team history. However, they definitely were a talented group that could have won the whole thing had a few bounces in the Series gone their way. It’ll always be one of the near misses in team history that causes the “What if?” questions to appear.