By Russ Walsh
As I am writing this article, 10 pretty good Major League baseball teams have qualified for the playoffs and are facing off against each other. The fans of these teams are being treated to some very exciting baseball. Of course, all true baseball fans are being treated to great ball, but for the fans of the 20 non-playoff teams, this is great baseball without the added thrill of watching their own team battle it out. These fans must bury their disappointment and soldier on with forlorn, but hopeful, cries of, “Wait ‘till next year.”
It is a sad fate that faces fans of the also-rans. Playoff season means finding a team to root for that is not your team. In some cases, this means aiming your cheers at a little-recognized team like the Tampa Bay Rays that steamrolled the opposition all year. Or it may mean rooting for a team that has a favorite player on it, such as Brandon Crawford of the Giants. Or it may mean simply rooting against a team that you hate, such as a team that is in the playoffs, but has established a reputation for cheating, like the Houston Astros. If you are a Philadelphia Phillies fan, it means rooting for whoever is playing against the hated Atlanta Braves. Anything to avoid hearing the dreaded Tomahawk Chop chant one more time.
Fandom is, of course, one of those inexplicable human phenomena, like the popularity of the Kardashians or the millions of devotees of the sport of curling. Take me for example, a Phillies fan since Mike Schmidt was in diapers. There is no explaining the compulsion that is fandom. And when it comes to the Phillies, that compulsion borders on delusion.
To paraphrase my late mother, “Being a Phillies fan is not for sissies.” Already the losingest franchise in Major League history when I started to follow them, they continued that losing tradition as I grew from boyhood enthusiasm for the team to a more manly resignation to my fate. The Phillies’ brief spasms of winning seasons were punctuated by decades of losing. On July 15, 2007, the Phillies became the first team to lose 10,000 games.
After the surprise pennant win of the Whiz Kids in 1950, the team’s first in 35 years and only its second pennant, the Phillies did not appear in the postseason for 26 more years. The Whiz Kids of 1950 quickly became the Fizz Kids who lost 23 straight games in 1961, still a Major League record. In 1964, another young Phillies team was streaking toward the pennant when they blew a 6 1/2 game lead in the final two weeks of the season by losing 10 straight games. The entire city went into a depression that year.
Even when the Phillies were the best team in baseball in the late ‘70s, they found ways to break fans’ hearts, losing three consecutive playoff series in the most ignominious ways possible from 1976-78. Those good teams were followed by 25 more years of lousy teams interrupted by the occasional blip of a National League pennant in 1983 (The Was Kids) and 1993 (Macho Row). Finally, the Phillies got very good for a sustained period from 2007-2011, but the last 10 years have seen generally poor play and more year-end disappointment.
Not only have the Phillies challenged the heartiest of fans with their consistently poor performance, but they have found many other ways to make themselves a difficult team to root for. Prominent among these was the overtly racist culture promulgated by the Phillies. So infamous and nasty was the Phillies’ response to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier that it was a featured aspect of the 2013 film on Robinson’s life, “42.” There was Ben Chapman (played by Alan Tudyk), manager of the Phillies and southerner opposed to integration in baseball, hurling the vilest of racist taunts Robinson’s way, and there was Robinson (wonderfully played by Chadwick Boseman) shrugging them off and finding new and creative ways to beat the home team.
From 1943-1981, the Phillies were owned by the Carpenter family, who showed little inclination to recruit and develop African American talent. As a result, the Phillies, who defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers for the NL pennant in 1950, fell farther and farther behind their more enlightened National League rivals who recruited great players like Willie Mays and Henry Aaron. Roy Campanella, stalwart of the Dodgers’ pennant winners in the 1950s, was a native Philadelphian and wanted badly to play for his hometown team, but the Carpenters passed on him because of his race.
When the Phillies finally did recruit and develop an African American superstar, Dick Allen, they bungled his treatment, sending him to their Little Rock, Ark. affiliate as the only Black player on a deep south team. In 1969, after six years of stardom and a dicey relationship with the front office, press, and the fans in Philadelphia, Allen forced a trade away from a team that he no longer wanted to play for and a team that no longer wanted him. He returned a local hero six years later.
More recently, many Phillies players have found a way to challenge the loyal fan by refusing to get vaccinated. The personal stupidity of this move is hard to overstate, but what manager Joe Girardi called a “personal decision” also showed a shocking lack of consideration to other team members, anyone traveling with the team, and their opponents. These players also turned their backs on the fans, who got to watch their team’s playoff hopes fade away as key members of the team were lost for stretches of the season due to COVID-19 protocols.
So no, it is not easy or even laudable to be a Phillies fan. And yet we Phillies fans soldier on. It is a bit like being the parent of a miscreant child. The child keeps screwing up and you’re pretty sure they will continue screwing up, but they are yours and you love them come what may. As diehard Phillies fans gripe on social media, vent on sports talk radio shows, and boo loudly from the stands, there is one thing that will remain constant: those same fans’ inexplicable loyalty to their team. You’re a Phillies fan. That’s the way it is. Besides, there is always next year.
Russ Walsh is a retired teacher, die hard Phillies fan, and student of the history of baseball with a special interest in the odd, quirky, and once in a lifetime events that happen on the baseball field. He writes for both the SABR BioProject and the SABR Games Project and maintains his own blog The Faith of a Phillies Fan. You can reach Russ on Twitter @faithofaphilli1.