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28, Feb 2012
Phillies 2011 "Four Aces" pitching staff

Phillies greatest pitching staff, albeit briefly

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

The Rotation: A Season with the Phillies and the Greatest Pitching Staff Ever Assembled. By Jim Salisbury and Todd Zolecki. The Running Press, Perseus Book Group, 2012.

 

Observing recent dismal games by the Phillies, my teenage son said: “Dad, I guess this is what it was like when you were growing up.”

He refers to the many years when the Phils were losers.

But he’s wrong. What’s happening now is nothing like the experience I and my contemporaries went through. We grew up knowing, with certainty, that the Philadelphia Phillies and the Philadelphia Athletics were terrible teams who were destined for last place. Modern Phillies teams, on the other hand, vacillate between good and bad seasons.

Between 1935 and 1954, when the A’s departed Philadelphia, the team finished in eighth place every season but one. As for the Phillies, from 1918 to 1948 they only had one winning season. They finished eighth in 16 of those years and seventh for 9 years.

This created equanimity and serenity. It was a feeling similar to that observed by Lincoln Steffans in The Shame of the Cities (1902) that Philadelphia was notably corrupt but content. In sports, you could say it was inept and content.

As a kid, I bought tickets for the pleasure of seeing the game played, and to observe visiting stars. There was little expectation of victory. No one cared about that.

It was thrilling to see Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg and Stan Musial. There were more celebrities in the American League and that’s why I was more of an A’s fan than a Phils partisan. (NL stars Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays came later.)

We scoff at the nonentities who are rotating through the Phillies lineup these days. In the war years the nobodies at least remained in the lineup all season, so we got to feel familiar with the Phillies outfield of Ron Northey, Danny Litwiler and Coaker Triplett, and the Athletics’ JoJo White, Elmer Valo and Bobby Estalella — perhaps the first notable Latino major league player.

For some unexplainable reason I remember the A’s pitching staff of Russ Christopher, Jesse Flores, Lum Harris and Bobo Newsom and the Phillies’s Ken Raffensberger, Boom-Boom Beck, Al Gerheauser and Lynwood “Schoolboy” Rowe. Raffensberger had one of the widest ranges of pitches in baseball, ranging from underhand to overhand and a variety of side arm and three-quarter deliveries.

The Phillies had an unusual infielder named Ulysses “Tony” Lupien, a Harvard grad who wrote a book, “The Imperfect Diamond.” Their manager was Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons, who actually pitched in one game.

The A’s manager, of course, was the team’s owner, Connie Mack, who sat in the dugout wearing a black suit while the A’s lost more than 100 games year after year until he retired at age 88.

I even remember the AL umpires Cal Hubbard, Bill McGowen and Eddie Rommell, and the NL’s Babe Pinelli, Al Barlick and George Magerkurth — and I’ll bet my old friends remember them too. (We kids used to think that Magerkurth was an army officer, one rank below colonel.) These colorfully magisterial umpires seemed larger than life, and they remain so in my remembrance.

I’m not the only person to get pleasure from recalling names from the past. When I used to visit the home of broadcaster Gene Hart he’d pull out bound programs and run his fingers over the names printed on them: “Look at that. Jussi Bjoerling.” And from his collection of scorecards: “Imagine, Sandy Koufax.” The names alone –- without any sound or pictures — triggered his rapture.

I sat behind home plate in cavernous, echoing stands for weekday afternoon games attended by less than 1000 fans. My classmate Lionel Savadove recalls Shibe Park being so empty that he was able to leave his seat and walk, not run, 14 rows to retrieve a foul ball because no one was any closer to it.

Shortly before I was born the Athletics did have a precipitous descent from greatness to mediocrity. In 1931, while Al Simmons batted .390 and Lefty Grove achieved 31 wins and an incredible 2.06 ERA, the Athletics won more than 100 games for the third year in a row. (Their record was 107-45, even better than the Phillies in 2011.) They won three straight pennants.

Then, over three years during the Great Depression, Connie Mack sold off the Athletics nucleus and the team dropped from first place in 1929, ‘30 and ‘31 to last in 1935, where it languished during my childhood.

Even earlier, before the memory of anyone I know, the A’s won four pennants and three World Series in five years between 1910 and 1914. Before the 1915 season Mack dismantled his franchise and the team dropped to last place with a woeful 43-109 record. That started seven straight years in the cellar before the squad began to rebuild and improve. So that’s a record for rapid decline that surpasses what happened during the Depression.

Baseball prides itself on preserving statistical records. That historic drop is one that we’d rather not remember…much less repeat.

On the other hand, I’m very happy that Jim Salisbury and Todd Zolecki wrote a book called The Rotation: A Season with the Phillies and the Greatest Pitching Staff Ever Assembled. It memorializes the convergence of four awesome pitchers on the Phillies roster in 2011. The authors are reporters for ESPN and MLB and they tell colorful stories about the Four Aces who seemed destined to win a World Series: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswald and Cole Hamels. Who could have guessed that, one year later, one of the four would be gone and two others would be having mediocre seasons?

So that is a glimpse into a fleeting moment in sports history, and it’s a tantalizing story, packed with conversations with the hurlers and their teammates. It actually is more valuable because the time period it covers turned out to be so frustratingly brief.

 

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