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"Then Bowa Said to Schmidt ..."
The Best Phyllies Stories Ever Told
By Robert Gordon
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Robert Gordon
All rights reserved.
The Phillies are Major League Baseball's longest-running continuously named team. In 1883, they debuted in the National League, known forevermore as MLB's Senior Circuit. Despite a few feeble, risible, and abortive attempts at a name change, the Philadelphia Phillies have remained the Philadelphia Phillies since conception. No other team in professional sports can match such fealty to a city and a name. Unfortunately, no other team in MLB can match the well over 10,000 losses they have accrued from 1883 until now, either. And each of those losses was marked off against the Philadelphia Phillies unlike, for instance, the Giants, whose franchise losses can be split among the San Francisco Giants, the New York Giants, or the New York Gothams.
The Philadelphia Phillies were one of sport's most inept franchises for the first part of the twentieth century. They were overshadowed and outdrawn almost every year by the Philadelphia Athletics when both the A's and Phillies represented the City of Brotherly Love.
Given the club's horrendous record in its first seven decades, Phillies history should begin in 1950 with one of Philadelphia's most cherished sports teams, the Whiz Kids. The Whiz Kids eked out a pennant on the final day of the 1950 season. They had almost blown a substantial September lead. But their near meltdown is overwritten in the euphoria of their dramatic 4–1 final-day-of-the-season win to cop a pennant — their first since 1915. The game featured heroic performances by two of Philly's most revered athletes, Robin Roberts and Whitey Ashburn. On that historic final day of the '50 season, Roberts took the hill and notched his 20th win. Ashburn made a sensational throw to nail what would have been the winning run at the plate.
The following stories tap a few of the lesser-heard recollections of the Whiz Kid era and the hopeful years building up to that fleeting magic.
Ralph Joseph "Putsy" Caballero's soulful face morphs into a smile. "I'm 'bout the only one left on this earth you can talk to who saw the whole Whiz Kid thing play out." Putsy is a lifelong resident of New Orleans. His expressive southern drawl rolls along like a Big Easy jazz riff.
"No one in Philly would recognize the name Ralph Caballero! But they sure as hell remember ol' Putsy," he cracked. "I can't rightly give y'all a clever reason on how 'Putsy' became my name. Everybody down here in N'Awlins has a nickname. My brother, Monroe, is 'Money.' My brother, Raymond, is 'Rainbow.' There's no special reason for any of those nicknames. There's none for mine, either. People just always called me Putsy. As far back as I remember, that's the name I answered to. And that's a pretty long way back!
"I can tell you a couple funny stories about my name — things that happened in Philadelphia. First off, Caballero is Spanish, not Italian. Philly folks back in those times didn't know a hoot about Spanish names, but down here in N'Awlins, us native folks come from a Spanish heritage from long ago. You'll find lots of Spanish and French names around here. But Philly people only knew Italian names back then. I suppose that's changed, but we're talking about the era right after the big war here. Back then, they just automatically assumed Caballero was Italian. I never told anyone I was Italian. Of course, I never denied it either, but there's a good reason why I didn't. You see, in the forties and fifties, there was this Italian guy named Sam Framo who used to own a restaurant near Shibe Park. Well, he thought I was Italian, so I used to eat there free! When I'd walk in — I was usually with Richie Ashburn because I roomed with Richie — Sam would yell, 'Paesano! Paesano!' I never did let him know I was a mix of Spanish, French, and Irish — with no Italian. If I had, he'd 'a made me pay!
"Here's another funny story about my name. The two Phillies play-by-play announcers, Gene Kelly and By Saam, took to shortening my name to 'Putz.' I didn't think anything of it 'til one day they came up to me with a stack of letters they received. Turns out 'Putz' means a whole different thing in Yiddish. It meant something they shouldn't have been saying on the air. Some listeners were offended, so they stopped calling me Putz right quick after that. From then on, it was nothing but Putsy."
Putsy Caballero spent his entire career from 1944–52 with the Phillies.
PUTSY: "Red Barber, an old Dodgers' announcer used to say that he was settin' in 'the catbird's seat' when he was broadcasting. Well, that's where I was as the Whiz Kids team came of age. I'm the only one who was there from the very beginning. I was already a Phillie when the young Whiz Kids like Del Ennis, Andy Seminick, Richie Ashburn, Robin Roberts, and Curt Simmons first came up.
"The rest of the league was kind of surprised that the Phillies blossomed into a powerhouse the way we did in '50. In '49, sure 'nuff, we finished in third place. That sounds good 'til you consider we ended up 16 games behind Brooklyn. The Brooklyn team had a solid reputation in 1950. No one doubted they were for real. They had themselves some talent over there: Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges. And as bad as the Phillies had been for so many years, no one really believed we could be real contenders. But in 1950, we showed the world we weren't no slouches, either. There wasn't a finer pitcher in baseball than Robin Roberts. Curt Simmons blazed a fastball as good as any pitcher I ever saw. Del Ennis had as much power as anyone in the game. Eddie Waitkus could pick 'em up at first as well as any first baseman, and no one covered as much ground as ol' Putt Putt Ashburn did in center.
"Of course, the whole Whiz Kids thing kind of unfolded real quick in '49 and '50. The years before that were nothing to write home about."
Indeed. Prior to Putsy's 1944 arrival, the Phils had finished last in 1938, '39, '40, '41, and '42. They climbed up to seventh in '43, only to plummet into the cellar once more in '44 and '45, which were Putsy's first two years as a Phillie. In '46, the Phils soared to fifth place, their highest finish since 1932 when they managed a fourth-place finish
"In '48, we finished in sixth," Putsy continued. "Some Whiz Kids came up that year like Ashburn, Ennis, Granny Hamner, Seminick, and Dick Sisler. Myself, I was already a veteran by 1948. It was my fourth big-league season. Do you know how old I was in 1948? Twenty! That's right, 20! I was our youngest starter for three straight years. I started at third base. Willie Jones took my job in 1949, but in '48 Willie was 'only' 22. He was down in the minors for seasoning. And there was ol' Putsy, 20 years old and a four-year vet holding down the third-base job.
"Baseball was a strange business during the big war. Lots of strange stuff happened. You oughta write a book about that! I came up to the majors at age 16. Yes sir, I became the youngest guy ever to play third base in the majors. And I'm still the youngest, and I'll probably always be the youngest third baseman ever. I wasn't the youngest player ever. That honor goes to Joe Nuxhall. Joe was 15 when he debuted in the majors. He was one month and 20 days shy of being sweet sixteen!
"By 1948, even though it didn't show in the standings, anyone could see something big was happening in Philadelphia. Ashburn won the Rookie of the Year Award. Ennis had won it in '46. And by '48, both those young arms — Robbie and Simmons — were on the staff for good. Curt was 19 when he came up. He was all of 21 when we won the pennant!" [Editor's Note: The Sporting News selected Ashburn as its Rookie of the Year in 1948 and Ennis in 1946. Ashburn finished third in the voting for the official award in 1948 behind winner Al Dark and second-place Gene Bearden.]
In 1949, the Willie Jones Seasoning Project had run its course. "Puddin' Head" Jones replaced Putsy Caballero at third for the Phils. It was perhaps the most colorful succession of nicknames since King Louis the Stammerer replaced King Charles the Bald in ninth-century France. Puddin' Head, as he was known, became an instant star, socking 19 homers as a rookie, the third highest total on the team behind Ennis and Seminick.
PUTSY: "By 1950, we had it going. We brought rookie Bob Miller up, and he started off winning eight straight. Bubba Church was another rookie who had a terrific season. We had brought Russ Meyer over from the Cubs. Russ was 'The Mad Monk.' You wanna write a good book? That's the guy to write it about! No shortage of material there! As you writers would put it, 'He was colorful.'
"But our biggest asset was Jim Konstanty who came to us from Toronto in the International League. Jim came out of nowhere and had a season like you wouldn't believe.
"Everything seemed to go our way in 1950, at least for most of the year. Then things went haywire. Bob Miller got hurt. The army called Curt Simmons up and we lost him in the rotation. I still think that we coulda beat the Yankees in that Series if Uncle Sam had allowed Curt to pitch.
"As for ol' Putsy in 1950, I spent the year gettin' splinters sittin' on the bench! Imagine that — I was 22 years old and had already lost my starting job to a rookie who was older than me! That's gotta be some kinda record. You gotta check that out for me! But I wouldn't have changed a thing about that 1950 season, except I wish we coulda squared off with the Yankees with our whole roster healthy. I think we coulda beaten them. The games we lost were so close, and if we'd 'a had Curt, it woulda been a different story.
"It's probably the strangest thing you heard in an interview, but my greatest memory in baseball came as a scrub in that wonderful year of 1950. It came in the greatest game I ever had the honor to participate in — the final game of the 1950 season against the Dodgers. What a battle! We beat those rascals 4 — 1 on Dick Sisler's homer.
"I didn't start, and I was only in the game for about a minute. I went in as a pinch runner for Andy Seminick after Andy singled. I wanted to do something to help the team, so I tried to steal second. Don Newcombe was pitching for the Dodgers. Newk was a big guy. It took him a while to unravel in his delivery. So I took off. But Campy [Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella] threw me out. That was it. I was in the game one minute and out the next.
"Important thing is that we went on to win. And playing just one minute in that game that won us the pennant was the biggest thrill I could ever ask for!"
Maje McDonnell passed away in the middle of the 2010 baseball season. To the end, Maje continued the same routine he had followed for the better part of six decades — he showed up at the Phillies' offices every day and dove into whatever task his beloved Phils needed done.
Maje was a Philly guy through and through. He graduated from St. Anne's Catholic Elementary School in Port Richmond, one of Philadelphia's proud working-class Northeast neighborhoods. Maje was one of the first people ever to receive a basketball scholarship to Villanova.
MAJE McDONNELL: "Villanova changed my scholarship while I was a student there. I started out with a basketball scholarship and they made it half-basketball and half-baseball. That left more money in the pot for each program — basketball and baseball. So I played baseball at Villanova, too, and that's how I hooked up with the Phils."
Villanova sent Maje to the mound in a '47 exhibition game against the Phils. It was Maje's senior year. The Wildcats lost 7–6, but Maje succeeded in catching the eye of Herb Pennock, the Phillies GM and former Yankees hurler who was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame.
Pennock liked the way Maje threw strikes. He intimated that the diminutive Wildcats hurler — Maje stood 5'6" on his tiptoes and weighed in at 140 lbs. — had the makings of a major league hurler. Pennock said he'd work with Maje on increasing his velocity and developing another pitch. Unfortunately, Pennock — another local guy, born in Kennett Square and nicknamed the "Knight of Kennett Square" — died in January 1948. He never had the chance to mentor Maje.
MAJE McDONNELL: "No, Mr. Pennock died and I never got my personal lessons from a future Hall of Famer. Mr. Pennock hired me in '47 as the Phils' batting practice pitcher. I started as soon as I graduated Villanova. Then the Phils made me a coach. You see, the Phillies really were Whiz Kids! That means everybody was a kid, even the coaching staff! Heck, I was 29 in 1950. You don't find too many 29-year-old coaches! By the time 1950 came around, we were 'old' guys. It was as big a thrill seeing the Phils kind of come of age before 1950 as it was to go through the 1950 season itself.
"We had some other fine ballplayers come through Philly who didn't get to taste the glory of that pennant. We had a pitcher named Schoolboy Rowe for a number of years in the forties. He was our big gun — an All-Star on poor Phillies teams. Schoolboy even picked up some MVP votes for a couple of years. Can you imagine that! On a last place team! Schoolboy had winning records about four straight years before 1950 even though he was playing on last-place teams. I'll tell you what I remember most about Schoolboy Rowe. He could really swing the bat, which made for some episodes.
"One day late in '47, our manager yanked a guy out of the game and sent Schoolboy up to pinch hit for him. Not a big deal, right? But the guy he yanked was Harry Walker, who was on his way to winning the batting title that year and, after all, Schoolboy was a pitcher! He had a higher average [.363] than Ted Williams that year. I call that impressive no matter what.
"Anyway, this particular day, somehow Harry got into a tiff with our manager, Ben Chapman. Both of them were southerners, and both were hot-tempered. Harry was from Mississippi, and Ben was born in Tennessee and then moved to Alabama. For some reason that I can't remember, Ben wanted to teach Harry a lesson, so Chapman sent Schoolboy up to pinch-hit for him. Now understand, Schoolboy could have been a position player. He might be the best-hitting pitcher besides Newk [Don Newcombe] I ever saw in 60 years of major league baseball.
"It was uncomfortable in the clubhouse for a long while after that game! Ben Chapman might have been a good player for 15 years with the Yankees and a few other clubs. But he had trouble trying to manage people, and particularly, as the whole world found out, black people."
Rowe was a big 6'4" guy who hit .263 with 18 round-trippers in a 15-year career. Schoolboy had been used in the pinch several times in his career. In 1943, his first year with the Phils, he batted .306 as a pinch-hitter and led the NL in pinch-hits and pinch-hit appearances. He even whacked a grand slam off Braves righty Al Javery, which produced a sixth-inning tie in a game the Phils went on to win 6 — 5 in 12 innings. It wasn't Schoolboy's first slam. Rowe hit a slam previously in 1939 when he was a Detroit Tiger. That makes Schoolboy Rowe the only pitcher ever to hit a grand slam in each league. In 1947, Schoolboy made history in the All-Star Game by pinch-hitting for pitcher Johnny Sain. The appearance made him the first player ever to appear in an All-Star Game for both leagues.
PUTSY CABALLERO: "Maje is right! That big ol' Schoolboy could flat out hit a baseball. I remember him hitting in a couple of games against the Cincinnati Reds.
"We played a doubleheader in '47 against the Reds. In the first game, we went into extra innings tied at 3–3. When we came to bat in the bottom half of the 10, it was 12–3 Reds. Just like that! The Reds — well, it was like they caught lightning in a bottle. They didn't have a very impressive lineup. Like us, they were just a second-division club. Our pitcher, Blix Donnelly, had held them down for most of the game. Then in the 10th, Cincinnati started hitting bullets everywhere, and anything they didn't hit hard fell in safe. They scored all those runs without a homer! That Reds club was nothing like that Big Red Machine years later, or the fifties team that had Kluszewski, Bell, and a bunch of other bombers and set a record for most homers in a season. On the '47 club, nobody even hit 20 homers.
Excerpted from "Then Bowa Said to Schmidt ..." by Robert Gordon. Copyright © 2013 Robert Gordon. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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