Adolpho Phillips: The Man Who Would Be Willie Mays



June 11, 1969 was during the week I generally consider as the time I cast my lot as a Cubs fan, though I had been following them for several weeks. But unknownest to me at the time, it was also the day that saw the end of Adolpho Phillips career as a Cub. Although I never actually saw him play for the Cubs, his departure would end up being important in determining the fate of the team in that great, tragic season. I had no idea that Phillips had left such untapped potential.
In April 1966, the Cubs acquired Adolpho Phillips and Fergie Jenkins in a trade with the Phillies. Leo Durocher announced that Phillips was going to be the next Willie Mays, which almost immediately became a burden that would prove unbearable to the young outfielder.
Adolpho Phillips was born in Panama and signed to a minor league contract by the Philadelphia Phillies. Because he could run, hit, hit for power and play solid defense he moved quickly through the Phillie farm system.
 I find it interesting that the Phillies had 3 players in their organization at the same time that would at some point have a "headcase" label pinned on them for whatever reason. There was Richie Allen, an extremely talented 3rd Baseman who won the 1964 Rookie of the Year award, Alex Johnson, an excellent average hitter with some power and Phillips. Allens entire career in Philadelphia would be plagued with problems, some of his own doing, others possibly overblown. He would leave the Phillies in a trade and went on to have some of the best years of his career with the Chicago White Sox, by then calling himself "Dick" Allen. He would return to the Phillies near the end of his career, but it didnt go much better than it had before. Of course, some of his behavior could be considered simply eccentric but I do think he brought on a lot of problems himself. Johnson, as would turn out, had some emotional problems as he first got dealt to the Reds where he had problems with manager Dave Bristol, then a trade to the California Angels seemed to be what he needed as he won a batting title there in 1970, but those emotional problems came to the surface in a big way in 1971 as he was accused by teammate Chico Ruiz of pulling a gun on him. He would admit to seeking help, but it didnt stop him from being traded again. Johnson would never quite get past his problems and would be out of baseball by 1978.

Then there was Phillips.
At first it was hoped that Phillips would be the center field savior they had been hoping for since Wid Matthews foolishly traded Andy Pafko in one of the worst trades in Cubs history. It was thought that maybe Lou Brock could be the CF of the future but he never looked comfortable there and spent most of his Cubs career in RF. It didnt take long for Phillips to get on the wrong side of his teammates, especially Ron Santo. A run in between Phillips and Santo illustrated a seeming disconnect. When Phillips appeared to loaf after a ball in the outfield, Ronnie called him out,
"What kind of play was that?", rebuked the Cub captain.
 "What do you talk about?" said Phillips.
 "Dont give me that language bit, you know what I mean!" rejoined the angry Santo, "when you pull a trick like that youre not just letting Durocher down, but 24 players as well!"
With that Santo grabbed him and Durocher had to intervene. The next day John Holland called Leo and told him that Phillips had been in his office, "There were tears streaming down his face, he said nobody here loves him." Leo turned on his charm in a talk with Phillips, assuring him of his worth, but to little avail. Adolpho hit .260 in 1966 with 16 homers, but drove in only 36 runs. Durocher seemed really frustrated, but he did send him to work with coach Pete Reiser over the winter. Reiser was once an extremely talented center fielder with Leos Brooklyn teams of the early 40s, but too many collisions with the wall by the passionate outfielder took its toll on his body. He seemed to be the right person to work with the sensitive Phillips because suddenly Adolpho began to respond by having a good year in 1967, hitting 17 homers and 70 RBIs, though his average was only .268, but his OBP was up to .384 and he stole 24 bases, plus he cut down his strikeout rate significantly. And his relationship with Santo improved. Early on he came to Ronnie and said, "You were right. I shoudve run after the ball. Any time you think you should bawl me out, do it. " It certainly looked like Phillips was poised to take the next big step. Its hard to say exactly what happened, but it may be directly related to a beaning Phillips suffered late in 1967. Adolpho may have become more touchy about getting hit and perhaps did not approach his hitting as aggressively as he had previously. Then there were the medical problems that were not public knowledge until years later. He had a kidney problem that affected him whenever he caught a cold, it would settle in his kidney and blood would settle in his urine. His back also ached because of the kidney problem. Its fair to assume that he was dealing with these issues in 1968. Of course, the team as a whole took a step back, but because of the pressure Leo had placed on Phillips, Adolpho seemed to get most of the blame. Its at this point that you have to begin questioning the way Durocher was running the team. But he would make several huge mistakes that may have cost the team the pennant in 1969. And one of his biggest can be directly traced to his handling of Adolpho Phillips.
As the new season dawned it looked like Phillips was ready to get back on track. He got off to a great start in spring training, hitting the ball all over the place, when he broke his hand in a spring game. It was a devastating blow to a team that seemed poised to make a serious run  at winning, especially since expansion had created 2 divisions and decreased the number of teams the Cubs had to jump over. But there was a young outfielder in camp named Oscar Gamble who was one the better prospects in the farm system. So Leo gave a shot at the CF job to Gamble, though he didnt seem to play up to Durochers satisfaction, so Leo gave it to Don Young. Young was a veteran who had been in the Cubs organization since the early part of the decade and he even had a brief stint with the Cubs in 1965, even playing in the Sandy Koufax perfect game. But Young had never really hit for much throughout his entire career. Even if he could play good defense, it seems odd to justify keeping him simply on that basis. And its not like Gamble was totally overmatched in spring training. Just bringing Young north always seemed like an odd decision, like Leo was simply trying to make a point and not necessarily for the good of the team. As Phillips continued to heal, Leo became increasingly agitated about his center fielder  taking so long that he began to attack Adolpho in the media, accusing him of being lazy and not wanting to play. When he finally did play, he had trouble getting going and Durochers growing dependance on Young did not help. Plus Leo stopped talking to him altogether. It was clear that Phillips did not seem to be in the managers future plans. Finally, the Cubs pulled the trigger on a 3 team trade that saw Phillips going to expansionist Montreal and in return the Cubs got utility IF Paul Popovich from the Dodgers. At the time the Cubs were riding high in first place and kept expanding their lead until it peaked at 8 and half games in August. However in July an incident in a game with new rivals the New York Mets illustrated why trading Phillips the way they did may have been an overreaction. Young made an error on a ball he probaly should have caught and Santo berated the kid for it. Leo also attacked his player. The next night Jimmy Qualls was in CF and Don Youngs days a starting outfielder were over. Qualls was slightly better offensively but it wasnt a significant improvement. It was clear there was a huge hole in the outfield and as the first place lead slipped away and the Mets caught and passed the Cubs, questions would linger as to what mistakes the Cubs made.
Would Phillips alone have kept the Cubs from collapsing? It seems unlikely, but maybe it would have slowed the Mets down a little. Durocher made other mistakes that cost the team. He stuck with Phil Regan as his closer too long, he probaly should have rested the regulars more. He probaly should have trusted more of the younger pitchers. In any case, Leos handling of Adolpho Phillips was only a sympton of what Leo did wrong. He was clearly out of touch with his younger players in general and did not treat them like the men that they were. Phillips was a sensitive young man who was also dealing with health issues that maybe he should have to come to Holland with. That year Phillips underwent an operation for a stomach tumor while also dealing with an ulcer. I think it also has to do with the expectations placed on these young players. Calling him the next "Willie Mays" right off the bat was totally unfair and it clearly affected his ability to perform at a high level. After leaving the Cubs, Phillips would never quite get his bearings and following another disappointing year in Montreal, a minor league stint and one last shot in Cleveland, Phillips would be out of baseball. Since leaving baseball he now works as a security guard as well as a baseball instructor in his native Panama and seems to be happy.

Meanwhile, Leo Durocher would continue to manage the Cubs, missing out in 1970, then faced a clubhouse revolt that was a product of the same nature that destroyed his relationship with Phillips. One of the key figures in the clubhouse revolt?  Ron Santo, the same man who once accused Phillips of letting Durocher down. Nuff said......

The Next Big Thing or the Next Big Bust
Adolpho Phillips was hardly the first player to be faced with high expectations or even compared to an icon. Joe DiMaggio was faced with the onerous duty of having to replace Babe Ruth in 1936. When Lou Gehrig was forced to retire because of the debilitating disease that would be named after him, he was replaced by Babe Dahlgren. The aforementioned Pete Reiser was compared to Ty Cobb when he first came up until his tendency to crash into walls caught up to him. But the most famous case of a player compared to an icon was Mickey Mantle, who was groomed to replace DiMaggio, though he had more of a Babe Ruthian quality, due to the long distance home runs he hit early on in his career. Mantle first joined the Yanks in 1951, Joe Ds last year, however in his first World Series game he suffered a serious knee injury that would affect him his whole career. The Mick would endure vicious booing from Yankee fans because he did not instantly transform into DiMaggio. The booing would continue for the next few years. However by 1955, Mantle had a big breakthrough and in 1956 won the Triple Crown , transforming him into an icon himself. Soon the media would be dubbing young players the "next Mantle", starting with Joe Pepitone. Though he had a couple of big years early on, he would never overcome the pressure and end up on the outs in New York. Tom Tresh was also tagged with the "next" title, but never became anything but a back up outfielder. Finally Bobby Murcer, who compared to Mantle due to his similiar upbringing in Oklahoma. While Murcer had a couple of great years, he never got over the hump and was eventually traded for Bobby Bonds, who was given the tag of the next "Willie Mays" during his tenure with the Giants. The moral of the story is that it is dangerous to place the pressure of the following in the footsteps of an icon on a young player. Plus its illogical because the reason a player is an icon is because he has a unique talent that not many can duplicate. I hope that the lesson of Adolpho Phillips is not lost in the mists of time.
I would like to acknowledge David Claerbaut and his excellent book Durochers Cubs, Doug Feldman and his book Miracle Collapse, plus the late Rick Talley and his book the Cubs of '69 for most of the information provided in this essay.

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