The Beautiful Losers
An oral history of the Philadelphia Phillies
The existentialist Samuel Beckett exhorted, "Fail better." And no professional sports team has ever failed better or with greater frequency than the Philadelphia Phillies. Failure has become synonymous with a franchise whose players have borne such nicknames as Losing Pitcher (Hugh Mulcahy) and What's the Use? (Pearce Chiles). If luck is on the Phils' side -- and over 125 seasons it rarely has been -- one day before the end of July they will record their 10,000th defeat, a milestone never before reached by any franchise in any sport. Through Sunday the tragic number stood at 9,991; the next most prolific losers, the Braves, are at 9,677.
The Phillies' lack of success has been monumental. From 1918 through '48 they had only one winning season. Between 1920 and '45 they lost 100 or more games 12 times. Over 27 seasons, from 1919 through '45, they had 16 last-place finishes. During World War II owner Bob Carpenter tried to shed the Phils' loser image by renaming his club the Blue Jays. But students at Johns Hopkins, where sports teams also use that sobriquet, objected on the grounds that the change would be demeaning to birds.
On the Phillies' lowlight tape, of course, the most phantastic phree-phall is the Phillie Phlop. Up by 61?2 games in 1964 with only 12 remaining, the team lost 10 in a row and the pennant. Asked in '76 what he remembered about the implosion, manager Gene Mauch muttered, "Only every pitch."
Which is not to say that skippering the Phils is a no-win situation. The franchise has won a World Series (1980) and played 57 postseason games, 35 of them losses (which, incidentally, are not counted toward the 10,000 total). As ex-Phillies infielder Solly Hemus observed in the mid-1950s, "Even monkeys fall out of trees once in a while."
Happily, the Phils -- and virtually everybody associated with the team, from employees to fans to players -- are never at a loss for words. Here are some gleaned from a century and a quarter of the 10 not-so-grand.
Loss number 1, May 1, 1883
"I hope this doesn't start a trend."
-- Jamie Moyer, lefthanded pitcher and current Phillie, when asked what his forebear John Coleman might have said after the franchise, then named the Quakers, dropped its inaugural game 4-3 to the Providence Grays. Coleman lost that game and 47 others in '83, and the team finished 17-81.
Loss number 2,657, June 29, 1921
"Not anymore. I've been traded to the Giants!"
-- Casey Stengel, gimpy-kneed Phillies outfielder, when asked if his leg hurt. Told of the swap in the Baker Bowl locker room during a rain delay, Stengel dashed half-clothed into the deluge and gleefully circled the bases, sliding into each bag.
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