Phillie follies

Losers are more interesting than winners. Any darn fool can triumph smartly and with a touch of style. Losing with grace and wit requires much more creativity. Losing well builds character. We can identify with losers because, in the end, we all lose.

In baseball, the Red Sox perfected the trick of losing grandly and with a dash of panache. They had a lock on that art form for 86 years, raising it to the level of mystique. Face it friends. They’ve been nowhere near as fascinating since ’04.

Winners give us an excuse to go “nuts” but losers more often steal our hearts. It’s the reason the Brooklyn Dodgers were so much more beloved than the far more imposing New York Yankees and it’s the reason the Boston Braves are still sorely missed by more folks than you may realize a half century after they were heisted. On the memorabilia market -- a barometer of such things -- no team-stuff sells better than artifacts related to the St. Louis Browns who’ve been dead and gone almost as long as Marley’s been a ghost.

In the interminable history of baseball, the Phillies are the all-time losers followed closely by the Braves, Browns and Senators with the Cubs and White Sox baying from the back of the pack. A booby prize of sorts goes to Connie Mack’s “trick or treat” Philadelphia Athletics of blessed memory. In his 53 seasons in the modern era (beginning in 1901) Mr. Mack finished first nine times. But he also finished last 15 times, including a glorious seven straight (1915-1921).

Over that same 53-season span the Phillies, who shared the city of alleged brotherly love with Connie all those years, finished last 16 times. Imagine having 31 cellar-dwellers cluttering your neighborhood most of your lifetime. And you had wondered how otherwise urbane Philadelphians became the grouchiest baseball fans in the Republic.

So, now it’s official. The Phils are the first professional sports team of any description in all of creation to lose 10,000 contests representing one town. It’s a staggering achievement; the equivalent of losing 100 games a year for 100 consecutive years. Happily, the Phils have been around for 123.5 years so they have averaged only 81 losses a season. Ironically, that’s the number of losses they sustained their very first year of existence, 1883, when they were known as “The Quakers.” They finished 17-81 that season, a mere 46 games behind the pennant-winning Braves. It was all fairly prophetic.

Had Connie Mack lived another 50 years or had his estate not gleefully dumped their moribund ball club for pennies on the dollar, the A’s doubtless would have reached the much coveted 10,000 defeat distinction first. Connie’s last 20 seasons were mainly dreadful and by the ’50s the Phils were the superior organization. But the A’s took the easier way out and simply expired, as did the Braves, Senators and Browns among others. Some including the MLB statistical gurus hold to the pretense that when teams get folded and peddled to be re-invented elsewhere they retain some sort of DNA that remotely connects them to their original town forever. That’s why you’ll find the achievements of Al Simmons and Lefty Grove still sprinkled in the record books of the Oakland A’s. It’s why Atlanta still posts Tommy Holmes’s hitting streak fashioned six decades ago when he played for Boston as the highest in their history. But that’s nonsense. There is no genetic link between Duke Snider and Nomar Garciaparra and none between Holmes and Chipper Jones either. Franchises can be sold but traditions can’t be transplanted. When they die, they die.

The wonder of the Phils is that they could have been so aggravating for so long and not have been run out of town. Seems to me Philly’s good burghers get a bad rap. Only the best of fans would have tolerated so much embarrassment for so long and remained so faithful. Wise guys insist baseball in Philadelphia is a kind of sick joke. But I prefer to believe the people there -- no matter how bellicose they can be and belligerent they sometimes seem -- are really quite remarkable. Could Red Sox Nation have put up with the Phillies for 123 years? I don’t think so.

Not that they’ve always been awful. Like bookends, the early and latter years have been reasonably impressive. They were a powerhouse back in the gay nineties featuring possibly the greatest outfield of all time; Ed Delahanty, Sliding Billy Hamilton, and Big Sam Thompson, first of the outsized sluggers. They actually won a pennant in 1915, thanks mainly to Grover (31-10) Alexander, only to get routed by the Red Sox in the Series. Even when they reached their utter pits in the ’20s & ’30s they always had guys who could hit; maulers like Cy Williams, Cactus Cravath, and that rakish pair of depression-era dandies, Lefty O’Doul and Chuck Klein.

It was pitching that killed them. Between Pete Alexander and the incomparable Robin Roberts they had nobody. The nadir came in 1930 when the entire team, led by Klein (.386) and O’Doul (.383) hit an ungodly .315 yet finished last, 40 games behind the Cardinals. At battered Baker’s Bowl, a 15-10 game was considered “a pitcher’s duel.” At their worst the Phils were truly appalling. In a stretch of 31 seasons (1918-1948) they wallowed in the 2nd division 30 times finishing last fifteen years and next-to-last eight more. Think about that for a moment. It’s rather Homeric.

Some redemption has come the past six decades when they’ve consistently contended beginning with the post-war rise of the charming “Whiz Kids” led by Roberts, the matchless gentleman who remains an all-time favorite. Was there a more constant, resolute, or heroic character back in the Golden Age of the ’50s than Mr. Roberts? Not to my knowledge. Year after year he answered the bell for 350 innings and 30 complete games. His nice supporting cast included Del Ennis, Curt Simmons, Granny Hamner, “Puddinhead” Jones and another personal favorite, the elegant Richie Ashburn. Memories of that team still bring a smile but the “Kids,” alas, won only one pennant then got steam-rolled by the Yankees. Liberation came in 1980 when an aroused Pete Rose, with help from Larry Bowa, Tug McGraw and Lefty Carlton, took them over the top. I was there and I can tell you that it was wonderful.

While the Red Sox were never as awful as the Phils, they have much in common. Sieges of indolence and decadence crippled both franchises for long stretches. Apathy and cronyism were chronic and corrosive problems. Both integrated reluctantly. No team persecuted Jackie Robinson more than the Phils, managed by unreconstructed Rebel Ben Chapman. Both had a penchant for the spectacular meltdown although the Red Sox never quite matched the Phils’ epic feat of blowing a seven game lead with 12 to play handing the ’64 pennant to the Cards while breaking the heart of Manager Gene Mauch, as noble a baseball man as ever suited-up.

And, as was the case with the Red Sox, an incredibly dumb deal haunted them for generations. In 1917, the Phils traded the great Alexander, a 30-game winner three straight seasons, and catcher Bill Killefer to the Cubs for Pickles Dillhoeffer and Mike Prendergast. They got 13 wins out of Prendergast but only one base hit from Pickles. As for old Pete, he would win another 184 games while merrily carousing all the way to Cooperstown. That should ring a bell.

Such a team certainly deserves to be the all-time loser of professional sports. Congratulations are in order.

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