Former Phil Maje McDonnell dies at 89

Posted: July 08, 2010

Robert (Maje) McDonnell, a standout athlete at Northeast High School and Villanova University who spent his life with the Phillies organization, died Thursday in his Philadelphia home. He would have turned 90 on July 20.

Growing up in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia, Mr. McDonnell got hooked on Phillies baseball. He was always playing ball, prompting people to call him a "little major leaguer." Over time, it was shortened to "Maje." That nickname stuck, more than Robert or Bob.

Mr. McDonnell captained the baseball and basketball teams at both Northeast HS and Villanova. He also served as an assistant basketball coach at Villanova.

"The Phillies extend our thoughts and prayers to the McDonnell family on the passing of our beloved Maje. His passion for the game and love for the Phillies were ever present throughout his 57 years spent with the organization. He called us all Coach but it was Maje who coached us to enjoy life and the game of baseball. We will miss him," said Phillies President David Montgomery.

While pitching for Villanova in a 1947 exhibition game against the Phillies, Mr. McDonnell was offered a position as batting practice pitcher by Phils General Manager Herb Pennock.

"You can't imagine how excited I was. Mr. Pennock wanted me with the Phillies. I couldn't wait. There was a jersey, No. 45. We didn't have names on the back in those days. If someone wanted to hit in the morning, at noon or at night, I'd be there ready to throw," Mr. McDonnell was quoted in Philadelphia Phillies: An Extraordinary Tradition, a commemorative book on the history of the Phillies published in April 2010.

Three years after Mr. McDonnell joined the Phillies, the "Whiz Kids," a bunch of home-grown, young players won the National League pennant.

Mr. McDonnell stayed with the club until 1966, left to be a "goodwill ambassador" for Ballantine beer and returned in 1973. He officially retired a year ago.

In addition to his role as batting practice pitcher, Mr. McDonnell served as a coach, scout, instructor at tryout camps and Phillies Phantasy Camps and as a Veterans Stadium tour guide. He was the Phillies' face and voice in the community for five decades. He dazzled as a banquet speaker and was a person with a million humorous stories.

During Mr. McDonnell's early years with the Phillies, they traveled by train. They got to know each other so well because they spent hours together. Baseball is a long marathon so staying loose was vital to survival.

"Maje kept everybody going with his sense of humor," recalled Bob Miller, a pitcher with the Whiz Kids. "He and [Dick] Sisler were a riot together. They did some of the craziest things to keep us loose.

"During one of our first flights, we encountered a thunderstorm," said Miller. "Richie [Ashburn] yelled out, 'Maje, do something religious.' So, Maje took a collection with his hat."

Mr. McDonnell was inducted into Villanova's Hall of Fame for excellence in baseball and basketball in 1984. He was also honored by the Northeast High School Hall of Fame, the Philadelphia Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame and the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame. He was awarded the Richie Ashburn Special Achievement Award in 2002, presented each year to a member of the Phillies organization who demonstrates the same loyalty, dedication and passion for the game as the award's namesake.

For three years in World War II, Mr. McDonnell shouldered a rifle in Europe. He returned with a combat badge, five battle stars and a Bronze Star. He didn't talk about that often but was always eager to show off his 1950, 1980, 1983, 1993 and 2008 championship rings. Two, 1980 and 2008, are World Series rings.

"All my life I only wanted to be a Phillie," he said in Philadelphia Phillies: An Extraordinary Tradition. "I never worked a day in my life. It's been beautiful, the greatest life a man could know. I may have not made a lot of money, but what I experienced is worth a fortune."

Mr. McDonnell is survived by his wife, Millie; three daughters, Mildred Mary, Kathleen and Maureen; and two grandsons, Jameson McDonnell and Major Lee VanWinkle.

Funeral arrangements are pending through the Monti-Rago Funeral Home in South Philadelphia.

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