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28, Dec 2012
1916 Philadelphia Phillies

Philadelphia Phillies colorful history

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

Phillies: An Extraordinary Tradition. Scott Gummer, editor. Insight Editions. 2010.

*
The signing of star pitcher Cliff Lee in 2010 was a landmark in the history of baseball in Philadelphia. Imagine, a star player turning down more money elsewhere because he really wanted to be a Phil! Even more than the world championships in 1980 and 2008, this gave the Phillies pre-eminence. It was quite a change from most of the team’s existence.

That 125-year history is impressively told – and shown – in the book Phillies: An Extraordinary Tradition by Insight Editions.

The volume is an emphatic response to those who predict doom for printed books. Phillies: An Extraordinary Tradition has many tactile features that you can’t find on a hand-held electronic screen. It gives more satisfaction than you could get on any Kindle or I-Tab.

Large and colorful, the book looks impressive on a coffee table. But that’s just a starting point. The publisher includes a detailed history of the franchise and personal essays by players and others who have had connections with the team. Then the editors creatively inserted replicas of posters, collectors cards, ticket stubs, newspaper clippings – even Harry Kalas’s scorebook. They are in pockets, so the reader can pull them out, touch them, caress them; whatever fans are wont to do with such memorabilia.

The photographs include shots of old city scenes, such as coal yards, factories and the Broad Street train station, which put the Phillies in a larger context. There are team photos from 1887 on, in superb quality prints on heavy stock. The color shots of Phillies uniforms are so textured that you feel you could touch the fabric.

One of those photos shows a Blue Jays uniform, which reminds us of the nadir in the team’s reputation. Philadelphia was the poorest team in the National League during the 1930s and into the 40s, athletically and financially. They perennially finished in last place, and lost money. Owner William F. Baker was so financially strapped that he allowed their ballpark to fall into disrepair until the Phillies gave it up and became tenants of the Athletics at Shibe Park, a few blocks away in the same North Philadelphia neighborhood.

A furniture salesman and Phillies fan named Gerry Nugent married Baker’s secretary and inherited the team after Baker died. He had to sell players each year to finance the next spring training and in 1943 the National League forced Nugent out because he was in arrears on rent and bank loans. The new owner, 33-year-old William Cox, did two notable things during his brief tenure. First he changed the name of the team to the Philadelphia Blue Jays. Fans didn’t accept this and persisted in calling them the Phillies. Second, Cox bet on ball games. His activities were discovered and commissioner Kenesaw Landis took the team away from Cox and banned him from baseball. The franchise was then awarded to Robert Carpenter, Jr, of the duPont family.Philadelphia Phillies Blue Jays

The trajectory of the book is upwards from there, and detailed attention is given to photos and essays about recent heroes, including all the team’s Hall-of-Famers plus Jamie Moyer, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Cole Hamels. Lee arrived too late to be included in the book.

A nice touch is the large space devoted to announcers, managers, mascots and beer and peanut vendors. In addition, there’s a two-page spread on a man who’s been a season ticketholder from 1948 to the present. A pleasant surprise is the coverage of a female scout named Edith Houghton, written by sports historian Rich Westcott. Some of the reminiscences are first-hand, others are from journalists and players about their teammates. The bulk of the writing is by editor Scott Gummer and the Phillies’ longtime director of public relations, Larry Shenk.

With its faces and places, action photos and great essays, this is one of the most enjoyable sports book I can recall.

 

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