I just knew this was our year. Like the vast majority of Philadelphians, I expected there would be a parade down Broad Street after our Phillies won the World Series. As has been the case too often with our sports teams, we have again become bridesmaids. Year after year, those of us who love our home teams have been greatly disappointed. a
Friday, Oct. 7, 2011 was a particularly horrendous evening when our Phillies suffered a crucial defeat at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals. From earlier in the day, right up to the first pitch, I was apprehensive about the last game; a game characterized as a “do or die” situation. As you know, my concern became a reality. What a devastating loss! This is still a major topic of radio, television and newspapers. The end of the season conjured up memories of Gene Mauch and the Phillies’ collapse during the 1964 season. I remember this season well, even though I was not a Phillies fan back then. As was the case of many Blacks who grew up in Philadelphia during the ’50s, we were Brooklyn Dodgers fans. Without question, most Black folk I know hated the Phillies. If you do not understand why, then talk with anyone who grew up in and around Philadelphia back in the day.
The reason many Blacks did not root for the Phillies is the same reason there was almost universal support for the Dodgers. You see, there was no Jackie Robinson, the first Black to play in the major leagues, on the Phillies’ roster. In fact, the Phillies was among the last of the major league teams to sign a Black player, infielder John Kennedy, whose first game with the team was April 22, 1957. Outside of boxing, we had few professional athlete role models. Thus, many of us looked up to the Black baseball players like Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, Luke Easte and Larry Doby for inspiration As elementary schoolchildren, we were often taken to games during school hours, to see our Black ballplayers. In light of the success of Black players in the Negro Baseball League, our parents advocated baseball as the sport of choice for us back in the day. The names of the teams in that league may not be familiar to you, but your parents knew about the Philadelphia Stars, Homestead Braves, Newark Braves and Black New York Yankees that produced many great Black ballplayers of that era. Black baseball could not be remembered without players like Satchel Page and Josh Gibson, two of the greatest Black ballplayers who would be stars today just as they were back in the day.
Baseball was extremely popular with Black families. As children, we pressed our ears against the radio to hear names announced or watched the 10-inch televisions with eyes glued on the screen to see players who looked like us. But, as you undoubtedly noticed this year, relatively small numbers of Black Americans are playing in the big leagues. Yes, there are many Latin players, but Black players, who only 20 years ago were found in large numbers, are slowly disappearing. So, in spite of my previous rejection of the Phillies as “my team,” I came to admire them for what they had accomplished over the past several years; their pitching, hitting, hustling, camaraderie, management and fan support. Obviously, their diversity gave additional motivation to claim them as my team. Let us take a trip back and visit things we do not see today, not only with regard to the Philadelphia Phillies but to baseball in general; things actually witnessed back in the day, but gone from professional baseball today.
Whenever I hear a sportscaster refer to of a pitcher’s “pitch count,” my mind goes back to Don Newcombe, a star pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s. On Sept. 6, 1950, Newcomb pitched and won the first end of a tri-night doubleheader. He shut out the Phillies 2-0 in a three-hitter. He returned to pitch the second game and gave up two runs before being pulled in the eighth inning for a pinch hitter. The Dodgers went on to win in extra innings, but Newcombe did not get credit. Pitch count? What pitch count? Something else you would not see today is one player named rookie of the year, winning Cy Young and MVP awards, as did Newcombe. There were no pitch counts when it came to Robin Roberts, Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn, Ferguson Jenkins, Nolan Ryan, Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax and Steve Carlton, some of the great pitchers of back in the day.
We are familiar with switch hitters today, but what about switch pitchers? One typically right-handed pitcher had such a desire to use both arms in pitching that he had a special glove designed that could be placed on either hand and allow him to switch pitching hands. He had worn it in games but was prohibited from throwing both right- and left-handed. However, on Sept. 28, 1995, Greg Harris, of the Montreal Expos, fulfilled his dream and pitched ambidextrously against the Cincinnati Reds in the ninth inning. Hard to believe, but Harris perfected the ability to use both arms.
Seeing a baseball manager go out to the mound to relieve a pitcher brings to mind such scenes in the past. It took a great deal for a starting pitcher to be relieved back then. If a reliever was necessary, the relief pitcher took that long, slow walk from the bullpen to the mound. Today you see them jogging in from the bullpen. In those days you could find a reliever who doubled as a starting pitcher. Furthermore, it was not unusual for a pitcher of the caliber of Don Newcombe to come into a game as a pinch hitter. We did not hear rumors about enhancement drugs, nor did we often hear of baseball players missing games due to injuries, even though there were no batting helmets. Ballplayers freely signed autographs for fans; ballplayers were well groomed and wore their uniforms in the way Hunter Pence of the Phillies wears his today. Bottom line: While they were paid little in comparison to today’s major league baseball players, they loved playing the game and were exceptionally trained and skilled athletes back in the day.
If you have closely followed the Phillies in recent years, I suppose you have been among the sellout crowds at Citizens Bank Park. Many from back in the day have fond memories of games at Veterans Stadium and undoubtedly have a souvenir or two secured prior to its demolition. I doubt seriously if any of you can go back to memories of games played at Recreation Park and then the Baker Bowl. However, you might recall games at Shibe Park, later renamed Connie Mack Stadium after the longtime Philadelphia Athletics manager, Connie Mack. At Connie Mack Stadium, parking was mainly on the street, which involved fighting for a parking space. Neighbors tended to save spaces in the same manner as they do today during snowstorms. There was no subway stop adjacent to the stadium; only buses, trolleys; the Broad Street Subway was some seven blocks away. Furthermore, race relations were challenging and problematic, in particular when Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Joe Black, Don Newcombe, Junior Gilliam, Willie Mays, Monte Irvin and other Black ballplayers were in uniform. Just getting to a baseball game was a struggle, but we went anyway,
In spite of the disappointing Phillies’ season this year, we cannot and should not lose hope. I am confident that someday soon, perhaps as soon as next baseball season, we shall see the talents of power hitters like Hank Aaron, Dick Allen, Willie McCovey and Frank Robinson; base stealers like Lou Brock, Ricky Henderson and Maury Wills; outfielders with strong arms such as Dave Parker and Carl Furillo who would hold the ball and dare a runner to try to take another base; and skilled hitters such as Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Rod Carew surfacing in the red and white pinstripes of the Philadelphia Phillies so we can once again have a World Series championship, and of course a parade, as we had as recently as 2008 or in 1980, that period I love to characterize as, back in the day.