Take heart, Phils fans, it could be - and has been - worse | Frank's Place

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Phillies’ pitcher Zach Eflin, left, adjust his cap after giving up a home run to the New York Mets on Sunday, August 13, 2017 in Philadelphia. At right, Freddie Fitzsimmons, who became manager of the Philadelphia Phillies when Bucky Harris, former manager, was released, dresses in his Phils uniform before a game at St. Louis on July 28, 1943.

For all the torment inherent in being a longtime Phillies fan, there has always been one small salvation: No matter how bad things are, they were once worse.

How many other franchises can offer fans that kind of psychic cushion?

Phillies history is so replete with negatives that there’s always some disaster back there to make our current troubles seem more bearable.

A long losing streak? No worries, they once dropped 23 straight. A last-place finish? Been there, done that, 32 times in fact since 1900. A 100-loss season? Please, we’ve hit triple digits in defeats 16 times, five in a row at one point.

Even in summers like this, when 105 losses seems a real possibility, we can take comfort knowing that six other Phillies teams have exceeded that lamentable total, and all managed it in 154-game schedules.

One of them was the 1942 Phillies, who went 43-109, finished 62 1/2 games back, and drew 280,034 fans.  The catastrophe that was 1942 extended into the following spring and beyond, a period wonderfully detailed in a 2013 National Pastime article by SABR historian James Szalontai.

In the chaotic year between October 1942 and October 1943, failed ownership, hare-brained training techniques, sliced oranges, and one-eyed catchers were added to the Phillies’ long litany of embarrassments.

As the 1943 season neared, the debt-ridden Phils had no owner, no manager, no spring-training site, and so little talent that the National League asked each of its other seven members to sell Philadelphia one player at a discount price.

That proposed bailout was rejected at a league meeting when Dodgers GM Branch Rickey famously barked, “Baseball is no place for charity!”

The Phils’ notable talent shortage was exacerbated by a wartime draft and by a cash-starved owner who had sold his last few decent players after the ’42 season. That fire sale was the final straw for NL owners. They ousted Gerry Nugent and installed  New York lumber broker William Cox to lead the woebegone franchise in Philadelphia.

Cox inherited a roster that, as one Pittsburgh sportswriter accurately noted, “didn’t have enough talent to put up more than a fair battle in a Class B league.”

Desperate for bodies, the Phillies held an open tryout in Philadelphia on March 1. Three people showed up – an aging minor-leaguer, a local sandlot player with no discernible ability, and a one-eyed catcher from Hartford. Though none was signed, the day wasn’t a complete loss for the Phils, who, in a press release that made Page 1 of the next morning’s Inquirer sports section, announced that they had  added a new bat boy.

Because of World War II travel restrictions, the Phillies couldn’t train in Florida. But by mid-March they had yet to find a spring-training site close to home. Locales from Swarthmore to Wildwood, Newtown to Lancaster were explored before they settled on that late-winter Pennsylvania paradise, Hershey.

Cox hired a manager, Bucky Harris. Then, much to Harris’ annoyance, he added a physical-education director named Harold Bruce. The owner, a fitness nut who had run track at NYU, insisted his Phillies would undergo “commando-type” training, including “morning and afternoon runs.” Bruce would handle the rest of their conditioning.

According to Szalontai, Bruce put the skeptical team through drills with names that sounded like HersheyPark rides — “the pinwheel twist,” “the jingle-jangle,” and the “elephant walk.” Worse, before and after workouts, he made the players drink hot water, perhaps to thaw them out.

The Phils arrived at Hershey on March 15 to discover the field they were to use was frozen. In addition to warm weather, with only a dozen players signed, they also needed warm bodies. Among the collection of hopefuls they tried out that spring were a Narberth fireman, Penn’s freshman baseball coach, a former boxer, and a pitcher who occasionally blacked out during games and was so nearsighted the Army had recently classified him 4-F.

Former Phils pitcher Stan Baumgartner, then covering them for the Inquirer, took one look at the team in Hershey and made this prediction: “If the Phillies suffer losses through injuries, sore arms or further calls to the service, the team is going to look like the cat that was machine-gunned on the back fence.”

Players and especially the old-school Harris chafed at Bruce’s training regimen. While its purpose had been to get the team off to a good start, the Phils instead lost five of their first six regular-season games.

Harris finally found the excuse he needed to fire Bruce when, during a midseason game, the trainer fell asleep on the bench and slumped into a pile of sliced oranges.

Cox wasn’t pleased by the dismissal. Though the team’s 38-52 record was a marked improvement over 1942, he soon canned Harris and replaced him with Freddie Fitzsimmons. The manager, upon learning of his fate, ripped the Phillies owner.

“He’s a fine one to fire me when he gambles on games,” Harris said.

The comment wasn’t just sour grapes. Cox was betting on baseball and when, in November, an NL investigation confirmed that, he was banned from the game.

Somehow all the chaos yielded improvement.

War-time baseball talent was so thin that the ’43 Phillies won 22 more games than the team had managed a year earlier. And after Cox’s ouster, DuPont heir Bob Carpenter bought the team, ushering in a rare era of front-office stability.

So when you watch the 2017 Phillies stumble toward the finish line, take heart. It not only could be worse, it has been.