philadelphia's top 50 baseball players
Reviewed by Tim Morris, University of Texas at Arlington
21 april 2013 archive
To convince Phillies farm director Paul Owens to sign Larry Bowa, scout Eddie Bockman rented a motel room and a projector, and played home movies of the young shortstop on bedsheets tacked to the wall (223). Versatile Athletics star Jimmy Dykes often "carried exploding cigars, which on occasion singed his or somebody else's face" (94). Whiz Kid Granny Hamner just avoided death when a bridge he was driving across in Florida was hit by a ship, killing 34 other people (168). Ted Williams once said of Richie Ashburn that "the kid has twin motors in his pants" (177).
I went to middle school, high school, and graduate school in Greater Philadelphia, which in the the 1960s through the 80s was roughly defined by the range of Ashburn's radio voice on broadcasts of Phillies games. So I was delighted to learn these factoids about Philly baseball legends in Rich Westcott's book Philadelphia's Top 50 Baseball Players. My one complaint about the book is that there aren't nearly enough factoids. Much of the book consists of prose descriptions of players' batting averages and won-lost records. This is fine, but one could do better by poring over the stat lines on Sean Forman's miraculous Baseball-Reference website and imagining the careers of these players. Too many biographies of old ballplayers, these days, are made up of little more than elaborations of statistical data.
On the other hand, to fit fifty such profiles in 272 pages means that none of the individual chapters of Westcott's book overstays its welcome. If you get tired of hearing Pinky Whitney's batting averages, you will quickly be supplied with Bucky Walters's W-L records. The variety is agreeable, and archival photographs give a sense of depth and context.
"Top 50" lists are meant to provoke arguments, so I'll play. Did Westcott leave out any deserving Philadelphians of the diamond?
He includes not just Athletics, Phillies, and Negro Leaguers, but also stars with homes or roots in the Philadelphia area (so that Walters, a Mt. Airy native who played mostly for Cincinnati, and Reggie Jackson, a local high-school talent who never played pro ball in Philadelphia at all, are among the entries). Locals seem to be defined as from the city, or at least on the city side of the Delaware River, so South Jerseyans like Goose Goslin and Mike Trout are out of bounds.
These are loose criteria. The greatest Philadelphia major-leaguer not in Westcott's book, by Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement, is A's pitcher Eddie Rommel, who was both top starter and ace reliever for Connie Mack's teams in the 1920s. The greatest Phillie not in the book is Johnny Callison, one of the highlights of some 1960s teams fans would rather forget. The weakest player to get a chapter is Tony Taylor, but as Westcott notes, Taylor was a "fan favorite," so it's not really a scandal that Taylor appears and Callison doesn't. In other words, the provocative potential of the book is small. Somebody might get outraged that Mike Piazza, whose Philly connection is limited to growing up in the Pennsylvania suburbs and playing lots of away games against the Phillies, is in the book, while, say, Eddie Joost and Puddinhead Jones are not. But now that I mention it, that somebody would have to be me, and I'm just not feeling it.
No, I'd rather have more anecdotes along the lines of one about Lefty Grove, who once "ripped off his shirt so hard that the buttons went flying in all directions" (132). If only some alert A's clubhouse attendant had collected the buttons; they could have been embedded as precious relics in special packs of 21st-century baseball cards.
Westcott, Rich. Philadelphia's Top 50 Baseball Players. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013. xiv + 272 pages. $24.95 paper.
Copyright © 2013 by Tim Morris