Living on America’s frontier cost Deadball Era star Charles “Deacon” Phillippe a chance at Cooperstown
A career worthy of Cooperstown review
Deadball Era star Charles “Deacon” Phillippe pitched in more than 450 professional games in a career that almost never happened. Born less than a decade after the end of the US Civil War, Phillippe grew up on the outskirts of the American frontier, beyond the reach of pro baseball. His big league talent undiscovered, Phillippe had to wait until just before his 27th birthday to throw his first pitch in the majors.
Once he reached baseball’s highest level, Phillippe made an immediate impact, topping the 20-win plateau in each of his first five seasons. A control artist, Phillippe’s career walk-per-nine-innings rate is the lowest since the pitching distance moved to 60’6″.
Phillippe’s glove work was also top-tier. His career fielding percentage was 23 points above the league average. As a hitter, he topped the .200 mark 8 of his 13 seasons. In 1910 the 39-year old Phillippe became the first pitcher to hit an inside-the-park grand slam. More than a century later Mel Stottlemeyre is the only moundsman to match the feat.
The forgotten Deadball Era star also has an impressive postseason pedigree. The winner of baseball’s first World Series game, his performance in the 1903 Fall Classic stands the test of time. Phillippe started 5 games in 13 days in the best-of-nine affair. He completed them all.
No pro baseball on the outskirts of the Union
In 1875 when Phillippe was three years old, his family moved to the Dakota Territory, the northernmost land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. The region remained remote until the 1880s when Great Northern Railroad connected it to the rest of the country. At the end of the decade the area split into two. North and South Dakota gained admission to the Union in 1889.
Phillippe started playing baseball early in his youth. By his teens he played at the highest level available in the Dakota Territory. If not for his family’s move to the more developed Mankato, Minnesota, he might never have reached the big leagues. His new home in Mankato was 80 miles from the closest professional team, the Minneapolis Millers. Thought quite a jaunt in those days, word of Phillippe’s mound work traveled quickly.
The Millers signed Phillippe to his first pro contract in 1897. By then he was already 25 years old. In two minor league seasons before reaching the bigs, Phillippe threw 53 complete games and earned 29 wins.
Deacon Phillippe breaks into the big leagues in his age-27 season
In his first big league season in 1899, Phillippe ushered out the 19th century by winning 21 games for the Louisville Colonels. When the team folded at the end of the season, Colonels owner Barney Dreyfuss bought controlling interest in the Pittsburgh Pirates. Phillippe joined Colonels teammates Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke, and 11 others in moving to Pittsburgh.
He followed up rookie year with the Colonels by reaching the 20-win plateau five times in his first six years with the Pirates. Phillippe’s finest season came in 1903. Among NL hurlers, only the Giants Iron Man Joe McGinnity and Christy Mathewson bested Phillippe’s 25 wins. Despite the New York duo’s performance, Phillippe’s Pirates finished the season 6 1/2 games ahead of the second-place Giants.
Phillippe’s career year coincided with the inauguration of the World Series. Player-manager Clarke tabbed him as the Game 1 starter. Phillippe did not disappoint. He struck out 10 in a complete-game six-hitter to beat Cy Young. His 44 innings and 5 complete games in ’03 still top single-season World Series marks.
Despite Phillippe’s heroic performance, Young and Bill Dinneen pitched the Boston Americans past his Pirates 5 games to 3. Phillippe remains the only pitcher in history to record three wins for a team that lost the Fall Classic.
Still productive into his mid-30s
Over the next four seasons Phillippe won 59 games. In 1905 he won 20 games for the last time and posted a 2.19 ERA. In 279 innings he did not allow a home run. Before that, only Ed Killian had pitched as many as 250 innings from the modern pitching distance without allowing a long ball. Phillippe led the league in walks per 9 innings three straight years from ’05-’07.
A sore shoulder then a combacker that broke his finger limited Phillippe to 12 innings in 1908. He returned the following year in his age-37 season to pitch 131 2/3 innings. His 8-3 record and 2.32 ERA helped the Pirates win the NL flag. In his return to baseball’s biggest stage the aging star pitched six scoreless innings and earned a World Series ring.
Phillippe’s last productive season came in 1910 when he posted a 2.29 ERA. After a splitting his first two decisions that season, he won 13 of 14 to finish with a league-leading .875 winning percentage. He also saved four games. It was that season that he circled the bases for the inside-the-park grand slam.
Phillippe appeared in just three games in 1911, his final big league season.
Did his late start cost him a plaque in Cooperstown?
The upstart and outlaw United States League persuaded Phillippe to stay in the game. The Pittsburgh franchise tabbed Phillippe as their player-manager in 1912. The sportswriters of the day dubbed the squad the Filipinos in honor of their skipper. Phillippe’s men finished with a league-best record of 27-17 in the USL’s only year.
The Filipinos joined the Federal League in 1913, it’s last year as a minor league. Phillippe won the final three of his 221 professional games before leaving the game for good.
Phillippe had a stellar career. He finished with 189 big-league wins, a .634 winning percentage, 242 complete games, six 20-win seasons, the lowest lifetime walks-per-nine mark and numerous World Series records.
Phillippe’s youth spent in the remote outpost of the Dakota Territory outside the reach of the pro ball prevented him from making the big leagues until his age-27 season. By the time he threw a pitch for the Louisville Colonels, only one of the club’s ten pitchers was older. It’s likely the late start cost him a half-dozen seasons. If not for the delay to his ground-breaking career, Charles “Deacon” Phillippe would be more than a forgotten baseball footnote. He just might’ve earned a plaque in Cooperstown.
Reach Jim Smiley, the author of this story, CooperstownExpert@yahoo.com