Phabulous Phutility: 10,000 Losses

Posted: July 01, 2007

Where can we possibly begin?

With the 17-81 record in their 1883 debut? With the 31-year span in which they produced a single winning season? With the 23-game losing streak in 1961? Or the fatal 10-game slide at 1964's disastrous denouement?

How about with an owner who sold the office furniture to make payroll? With two others who were banned from baseball? With the ex-sportswriter who bought the team in 1912? Or the shoe salesman who owned it two decades later?

No, there is no simple way to explain the Phillies and their lamentable legacy of losing. It's like asking why dogs bark. After 124 years of it, that's just their nature.

What's prompted this renewed interest of Phillies history is a fast-approaching milestone that will cement the club's reputation as the most accomplished loser in American sports history.

Sometime soon, the franchise fortune forgot will become the first pro sports team to suffer its 10,000th loss, an unprecedented, nearly unfathomable accomplishment.

The Phils head into today's game against the Mets needing just five losses to reach the mark.

Certainly, longevity has played a role. Baseball alone has 100-plus-game seasons, and only a handful of teams are as old as the Phils, who played their first game - a loss, of course - in May 1883. And, it must be said, their performance over the last 32 years has, for the most part, been a vast improvement from their first 92.

"We've been around longer than any other team in the city. Only three other teams in the National League were around before us," said Larry Shenk, the Phils' vice president for public relations. "We did some research and discovered that something like 28 percent of our losses came in the '20s, '30s and '40s. Since we moved into [Veterans Stadium] in 1971, we've had some pretty good teams."

Still, whatever the reasons, 10,000 losses remains a remarkable achievement, even for a franchise that featured Tight Pants, Death to Flying Things, Fidgety Phil and Weeping Willie, Stonehands and Dr. Strangeglove, Putsy, Puddinhead and Pinky, and the countless other players who had little to offer a winning team besides a colorful nickname.

They lost no matter where they played, whether it was rickety Baker Bowl, the nation's first collapsible ballpark; Shibe Park, which by the time they finally owned it, was doomed by changing times; or Veterans Stadium and its notorious turf, as hard and unforgiving as Broad Street.

They've lost 570-some more times than the equally maligned Chicago Cubs, who are seven years older. The Braves have the second most losses, 9,677, through Thursday's games, but they too have played seven more seasons than the Phils and aren't likely to drop their 10,000th game until midway through the 2011 season.

There is no Bambino-like curse to blame here. The reasons the Phillies have been unparalleled losers are not supernatural. They are as plain as the P on their caps.

For 53 years, the franchise suffered from an inferiority complex about its American League neighbor - the A's. The Phillies' talent level has been consistently thin. Their front office and clubhouse frequently are roiled by controversy. They've misfired far too often on their managerial selections. They were shamefully slow to tap into the pool of African American athletes. And, perhaps most significantly, they've been plagued by underfunded, unstable, unwise, uninspired ownership.

"William Baker set the bar for this franchise when he put that high, wire fence above the right-field stands at Baker Bowl because he didn't want Chuck Klein to break Babe Ruth's [home run] record, thus costing Baker a hefty salary payment," said Frank Bilovsky, the co-author of the Phillies Encyclopedia.

Baker was a particularly frugal Phils owner in the 1920s.

"If that doesn't explain a culture of losing, nothing does," Bilovsky said.

Curiously, many of those recurring themes were on display on the day defeat officially submerged this franchise, Aug. 13, 1921.

On that long-ago Saturday, while the three-time world-champion A's were turning away thousands from their sold-out Shibe Park matchup with Babe Ruth's Yankees, the Phillies were dropping a doubleheader before a few thousand fans in Boston.

Baker, their owner, was the target of an investigation by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who rightly suspected foul play in the firing of manager Wild Bill Donovan two days earlier.

And when new manager Kaiser Wilhelm's Phils lost, 4-3, in that doubleheader's opener, the 39-year-old franchise's overall record dipped below. 500. The Phillies' heads had been beneath water before. This time, though, like a drowning swimmer, they would not resurface.

Through nearly nine more decades, through 36 more managers, seven more owners, three more stadiums, 13,500-plus more games, generations of fans and nearly as many philosophies as players, the Phillies' record has never again returned to .500.

In fact, the franchise's win-loss mark (8,805-9,995) has slipped so far below the break-even point that in order to get back to .500, the Phils would need to win 1,190 games in a row, a winning streak of seven-plus seasons.

As Shenk and others have noted, it's that horrible period in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s that allowed the Phillies to separate themselves from the rest of baseball's traditional losers.

"It's probably no coincidence," said Lyle Spatz, an official with the Society of American Baseball Research, "that that's also when they had all those really inept owners."

Even though the current Phils ownership group has managed to build a popular, state-of-the-art stadium and to accumulate a 2007 payroll in excess of $96 million, the complaints born at least a century ago continue to be heard around Philadelphia:

The Phillies' owners, fans bark, are too cheap to fund a contender.

While that may or may not be the case with Dave Montgomery and his co-owners, it certainly has been the central element in this franchise's historical failures.

From the moment original owner Al Reach, the local sporting-goods magnate, sold them to stockbroker James Potter for $170,000 in 1903, until the wealthy Carpenter family rescued them in 1943, the Phillies were run like a second-rate business.

Sportswriter Horace Fogel, who it turns out was a front for the family of President William Taft, took over in 1909. Within three years he'd been drummed out of the game for drunkenly implying that the 1912 season had been fixed.

In 1917, two years after their first pennant, Baker, a former New York City police commissioner whose finances were as shabby as the stadium he renamed for himself, traded Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander for two nobodies and $60,000.

"You could make the case," said Spatz, "that that was the deal that sent the Phillies spiraling downward."

Asked to explain such an unthinkable transaction, Baker uttered a phrase that might have served as the mantra for the Phils in the first half of the 20th century.

"I needed the money," he said.

His final move before his death in 1930 was the trade of outfielder Lefty O'Doul, who merely hit .398 and .383 in his two seasons with the Phils.

Gerry Nugent, a onetime shoe salesman, ran the team - into the ground many would insist - from 1933 to 1943, the absolute nadir of Phillies existence.

According to the Phillies Encyclopedia, Nugent had a simple business strategy. He figured it cost $350,000 annually to operate the team, $250,000 of which was payroll. Revenue was just $200,000. So each year he sold two players - and sometimes furniture - for cash.

One of those traded players was Hall of Famer Chuck Klein. Eventually, the National League took the cash-starved franchise away from Nugent. The Phils' record for his 11-year tenure was an astoundingly atrocious 598-1,076.

The NL granted the team to William Cox, a 33-year-old lumber-company executive. After less than a year at the helm, it was alleged he'd been betting on Phillies games. He, too, was banned from baseball.

That opened the door for Bob Carpenter, the du Pont heir whose family's nearly 40-year tenure is now seen as the halcyon days of a franchise that has spent most of its existence in the darkness of defeat.

"It is mind-boggling," Shenk said of the 10,000 losses. "But it's what it is. We'll take it and move on."

On to the next 10,000.


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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