Deleted Scenes: It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

27 Jul

The following is a previously unavailable portion of my chapter on the 1964 National League pennant race from the Baseball Prospectus book It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over. Though portions of what follows, including the entire first and last paragraph, included here for context, did make it into the book, most of this background information on the changes in the Phillies’ ownership during World War II, the contemporaneous state of race relations in the city, and the Phillies’ and Athletics’ refusal to integrate, was cut.

That stretch, from 1918 to 1948, was the worst period of losing that any major league franchise has ever endured, expansion included. Just once in that span did the Phils finish above .500, that coming in 1932 when they were 78-76. Their fourth place finish that year was also their best of that era. Along the way, they suffered five separate seasons in which the club failed to win 30 percent of it’s games, including a combined .279 winning percentage in the nearly identically dismal seasons of 1941 and 1942.  The Phillies’ five-year streak of 100-loss seasons from 1938 to 1942 remains a major league record.

It was in this atmosphere that the team and its city missed a historic opportunity. As the game’s top stars went off to war, the competition in the all-white major leagues was declining. Connie Mack’s Athletics, with whom the Phillies shared a city and Shibe Park, were rivaling the futility of their NL counterparts, and Phillies owner Gerry Nugent had accrued $256,000 in debt. With Nugent looking to sell, both Bill Veeck, the 28-year-old owner of the minor league Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, and Eddie Gottlieb, owner of the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro National League and later a key figure in the creation of the National Basketball Association, attempted to buy the team. Both men planned to stock the club with the Negro Leagues’ best players.

Had either succeeded, they not only would have integrated baseball four years before Branch Rickey eventually did with the Dodgers, but, given the quality of play in the war-time major leagues, would have all but guaranteed the Phillies their first World Championship. In his autobiography, Veeck as in Wreck, Veeck claimed that his plans were foiled when he made the fatal mistake of informing Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis of his intentions as a courtesy. Whether or not that’s true, Landis handed control of the Phillies over to NL President Ford Frick, who promptly sold the team to a group headed by lumber dealer William D. Cox, a good friend of Branch Rickey’s.  After two seasons, Cox was banned from baseball by Landis for betting on his team. Cox’s share was subsequently purchased by 28-year-old DuPont heir Bob Carpenter.

Four years after Veeck and Gottlieb’s plans were foiled, Rickey put Jackie Robinson in a Dodger uniform and Robinson immediately led Brooklyn to the pennant, their first of six in Robinson’s ten years with the team. Then a curious thing happened. Although Carpenter declined to have his team participate in Rickey’s noble experiment, the Phillies became competitive in its wake. After an 81-73 third place finish in 1949, the club’s first winning season since 1932 and best record since 1917, the Phillies came out of nowhere to win the 1950 pennant with a young team lead by 23-year-old future Hall of Famers Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn and 25-year-old slugger Del Ennis. Philadelphia’s “Whiz Kids” were swept by the Yankees in the World Series that year, but, in a cruelly ironic twist, the fact that the Phillies went to their second-ever World Series with an all-white team that also happened to be the youngest pennant-winning team ever emboldened the franchise against integration.

Philadelphia, which sits just 15 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line, has a complicated racial history. By 1920, Philadelphia was home to the largest African-American population in the United States, a population which nearly doubled in both sheer number and as a percentage of the city’s total population by 1940. In August 1944, during Cox’s ownership of the Phillies, the Fair Employment Practices Committee ordered the Philadelphia Transportation Company to promote blacks to the then all-white positions of driver and conductor, resulting a city-wide strike of more than 10,000 white transportation workers that devolved into violence forcing President Roosevelt to send in federal troops to restore order. Three years later, the mistreatment of Jackie Robinson during his rookie year by the Phillies, led in practice by manager Ben Chapman an in spirit by general manager Herb Pennock, was far beyond what he experienced anywhere else.

As Philadelphia’s black population, originally concentrated in the area just south of Shibe Park known as Lower North Philadelphia, began to migrate north (in part due to misguided urban renewal efforts that demolished old housing without plans to build anew), the city’s failing baseball franchises refused the obvious salvation that Veeck had envisioned a decade earlier. Octogenarian Athletics owner Connie Mack passed on opportunities to sign Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, and Hank Aaron before being forced into retirement by his sons after the 1950 season. The A’s finally integrated in September of 1953, but, having missed its opportunity, the team fell on such hard times that Mack’s sons opted to sell the franchise following the 1954 season. New owner Arnold M. Johnson moved the club to Kansas City, where it would become best known for funneling talented players (most of them white) to Casey Stengel’s Yankees. The Athletics left Philadelphia having employed just two players of color, just one of them African American. The Phillies stayed put and were even less progressive.

Having dethroned the integrated Dodgers of Robinson, Don Newcomb, and Roy Campanella (the last a Philadelphia native who attempted to sign with the Phillies under Nugent) with the all-white Whiz Kids, Carpenter, who assumed the role of general manager after Pennock’s death in 1948, foresaw the dawning of a new era for his club. Instead, his obstinance would be the team’s undoing, and the 1950 pennant would be the last won by an unintegrated National League team.

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Posted by on July 27, 2012 in Deleted Scenes


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