SABR

Bob Carpenter

This article was written by James Lincoln Ray.

Robert Ruliph Morgan Carpenter Jr. was born August 13, 1915 in Montchanin, a community in New Castle County, Delaware. A month later, in nearby Philadelphia, the Phillies captured the first National League pennant in the team’s 32-year history. There was no connection then between these two events, but in time the Carpenter name and the Phillies baseball franchise became inextricably intertwined, for better or worse, for more than half a century, and resulted in some of the most memorable teams in the club’s long history.

To say that Carpenter was born into privilege would be a gross understatement. His mother, the former Margaretta L. du Pont, was an heir to the fortune of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, the Wilmington chemical firm better known as Du Pont. His father, who joined the company and married Margaretta in 1906, was a senior executive and member of the board of directors of the company by the time little Robert came along in 1915.

Montchanin, the community where Carpenter was born, was named for one of his Du Pont ancestors. He grew up there with his sisters, Irene and Louisa, and his younger brother, William. As the oldest son of an heir to the Du Pont fortune, from a very young age Carpenter was referred to as “the Scion of the du Pont Family.” He had an active youth, learning to ride horses and hunt, and also to play baseball and football. He developed into a good athlete in his teens and played on the football team as an end (players played both offense and defense then) at Duke University, where he developed a reputation as a tough blocker. "I was a damn good end," he recalled in later years. "I could smash like hell."1

Despite his “scion” status, Carpenter was also very much “a regular guy,” according to his college friends and teammates. Wayne Ambler, a baseball player at Duke who later played for the Philadelphia Athletics, recalled that he knew Carpenter for two years before he found out that his friend was an heir to a large fortune. “I never knew him as Bob Carpenter, the du Pont heir,” Ambler said. “I knew him as Bob Carpenter, the football player. He was easy to talk to, just a regular guy.”2

On June 16, 1938, Carpenter married Mary Kaye Phelps in Wilmington. The couple would have three children: Robert III (known as Ruly), Mary, and Keith.

In 1940 Carpenter and his father partnered with Connie Mack in the ownership of the newly organized Wilmington Blue Rocks, a team in the Class B Inter-State League that Mack used as a farm club for his Philadelphia Athletics. The relationship led to the Carpenter family’s purchase of the Phillies soon thereafter.

By 1943, Philadelphia’s senior circuit entry, the Phillies, were a competitive, financial, and public relations mess. The National League had purchased the team from debt-ridden owner Gerald Nugent and sold it to New York businessman William Cox, who promptly got caught betting on the Phillies and was banned from the game. This created an ownership limbo for the team; it desperately needed a white knight, a wealthy owner who could not only save the team but turn it around.

That man turned out to be Robert Carpenter, Sr., who bought the team for $400,000 on the strength of a strong recommendation from Connie Mack, who told Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis that the Carpenter family would stabilize the franchise. The elder Carpenter immediately handed over the reins to Robert Jr., just 28 years old, making him the youngest owner in baseball. The Blue Rocks conveniently became a Phillies farm team for the 1944 season.

Carpenter was in the Army at the time, so he hired Herb Pennock, the Boston Red Sox farm director and a former pitcher for the New York Yankees and other teams, to run the club as general manager. Pennock had been a favorite player and boyhood idol of Carpenter’s. He also conferred frequently, albeit informally, with Mack on player and business issues.

While Carpenter served in the Army, the team finished last for two straight years. But under Pennock and Carpenter, the franchise invested heavily in its farm system, signing top recruits like speedy leadoff hitter Richie Ashburn, slugger Del Ennis, and pitchers Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons. Carpenter hired marketing consultants to investigate ways to increase ticket sales, and installed a modern accounting system to keep track of the organization’s substantial money flow. All of these moves paid off quickly for the Phillies.

Carpenter was discharged from the Army as a staff sergeant in 1946 and took over as president of the Phillies. He assumed the general manager’s duties two years later, in 1948, after Pennock died.

By 1949, key youngsters Ashburn, Ennis, Simmons, and Roberts had all successfully broken into the big leagues, and for the first time in many years, the Phillies had a contending team. They finished in third place that year, their best season since 1917. For his efforts and innovations, Carpenter was named Major League Baseball’s Executive of the Year by The Sporting News.

The next year Carpenter’s vision for the team came to fruition. Nicknamed the Whiz Kids, the 1950 Phillies were the youngest team in baseball, with an average age of 26. But they had the talent and the fortitude of a veteran squad. They won 91 games and beat out the Brooklyn Dodgers by two games to win the National League pennant, their first since Carpenter was born in 1915. They blew a lead in the pennant race but won the flag on last day of the season to avoid a tie and a playoff game, on a dramatic tenth-inning home run by outfielder Dick Sisler. (Sisler, in a twist of fate, was the interim manager of the Cincinnati Reds team that dealt crucial blows to the Phillies’ pennant run in September 1964.)

The Whiz Kids were swept by the Yankees in the 1950 World Series. They acquitted themselves admirably though, losing by scores of, 1-0, 2-1 (ten innings), 3-2, and 5-2. The Phillies were without the services of Curt Simmons, their second-best pitcher, who was in the Army after his National Guard unit was called up for Korean War service. Despite Simmons’s absence the Phillies played the Yankees fairly even. The team brightened the spirits of Philadelphia. It was thought that the Phillies had a good young nucleus and would remain competitive for years.

The success and likeability of the players helped the Phillies win the affection of the city at the expense of Mack’s Athletics. The 1950 team drew four times as many fans as the Athletics.

In essence, Carpenter’s ownership was part of the death knell of the Athletics in Philadelphia

After the A’s moved to Kansas City before the 1955 season, Carpenter reluctantly purchased Connie Mack Stadium (it had been Shibe Park until 1953, and the Phillies also played there) for $1,657,000. The ballpark was not an asset that Carpenter particularly wanted, saying at the time, “We need a ballpark as much as we need a hole in the head.”3 But the Phillies did need a home park and for lack of suitable alternatives, the 42-year-old ballpark had to do.

Despite the promise shown by the Whiz Kids in 1950, that nucleus never reached the heights that many expected. The team’s best finish between 1950 and 1964 was an 83-win, third-place finish in 1953. After that, the squad fell further each year, culminating in four consecutive last-place finishes (1958 through 1961). Perhaps Carpenter had “fallen in love” with his team and become too close to his players. In any case, he relieved himself of the general manager’s duties in 1959 when he hired John Quinn away from the successful Milwaukee Braves franchise.

By 1964 the Phillies were back on top – for most of the season. Led by Rookie of the Year slugger Dick Allen and superstar pitcher Jim Bunning, the Phillies were 6½ games ahead in the National League with only 12 games to play. However, they suffered a stunning collapse, dropping ten straight games and ultimately losing the pennant to the St. Louis Cardinals.

By the mid-1960s, both Connie Mack Stadium and the neighborhood surrounding it had fallen into disrepair. The 50-year-old structure was a shell of its former grand self. The Phillies needed a new ballpark, and Carpenter sold Connie Mack Stadium in 1967 for $600,000 to Philadelphia Eagles owner Jerry Wolman, absorbing a loss of more than one million dollars if one figured in all of the refurbishing Carpenter had done.

The Phillies went on the hunt for a new ballpark. After much strife, dispute, and government obstruction and incompetence, the city, the Carpenters, and the financiers chose South Philadelphia as a site. There, in 1971, the Phillies began play in a brand-new multisport facility known as Veterans Stadium and popularly called “The Vet.” They shared the stadium with the football Eagles, and were across the street from the Spectrum, home of the city’s NBA and NHL franchises. The Vet was demolished in March 2004 after Citizens Bank Park was built.

During his long tenure as owner, Carpenter was well liked by his players, managers, and coaches. “He was the best owner I ever played for,” said outfielder Del Ennis. “Everybody thought the world of him. He was just like a father.”4 “He was a tender-hearted guy,” said Eddie Sawyer, manager of the Whiz Kids. “When he fired me in 1952, I think it was tougher on him than it was on me.”5

But Carpenter was no softie when it came to issues like free agency, unions, and sports agents. He was from the old school, viewed playing professional baseball as a privilege, and thought players were already well compensated for that privilege. He became particularly upset with Curt Flood, who famously refused to report to the Phillies after he had been traded from the St. Louis Cardinals. Flood didn’t want to go to Philadelphia, a city he felt was racist and perhaps dangerous to his well-being. But his argument was much larger and more far-reaching than that. Flood argued that the reserve clause, which allowed teams to control players for their entire careers – or trade them to a new team without their consent – was an affront to human dignity, and he likened it to slavery.

“Human dignity, my foot,” the usually mild-mannered Carpenter once raged in an interview. “Who gets more recognition, who gets more prestige, than the professional athlete?”

He was equally unhappy with players’ unions.”I don't think the union was necessary,” Carpenter once said. “I don't believe the union belongs in sports.” On agents, he said, “Look, if a player comes in to me and we sit and talk, and he’s had a good year, he’s going to get whatever he wants from me. But if he comes in with a sharp-shooting lawyer, I’m going to dig up every negative thing I can about that player.”6

Perhaps Carpenter’s greatest failure was his reluctance to sign black players. The Phillies were the last team to integrate in the National League when they debuted a rookie named John Kennedy in 1957 – a full decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color line. It wasn’t until the Phillies signed left fielder Wes Covington in 1961 that they had a starting player who was black. People can draw their own conclusions whether the Phillies’ decision not to sign black players of consequence until years after most of the other teams in the league had black stars hurt the franchise.

In 1972, a year after the Phillies moved from Connie Mack Stadium to Veterans Stadium, Carpenter relinquished control of the team to his son Ruly, then 32. Ruly recalled, “He came to me at the end of the 1972 season and said, ‘That’s it, you’re running things. Once he got out, he never interfered, he never second-guessed. Of course, he was consulted on major decisions, like [the December 5, 1978] signing Pete Rose as a free agent.”7

Carpenter had no regrets about leaving baseball, Ruly said. “It probably was better for him that he got out when he did,” he said. “So much had changed – the advent of free agency, multiyear contracts and hassles with the players associations – I don’t think he would have been very happy with any of it. I also don’t think he would have been happy with some of the new owners.”8

After he relinquished the club to his son, Carpenter was known to stop by Veterans Stadium now and then and pore over minor-league farm reports. He also continued his earlier involvement as a booster of the University of Delaware’s athletic program. “He was a very unpretentious man,” his son said. “I think he would like to be remembered for his total contributions to athletics.”9

Perhaps it was ironic, but after Carpenter retired, the Phillies finally established the consistency and excellence that he had sought for so long. The team won three straight National League East division titles, 1976-1978, and won the franchise’s first World Series championship in 1980. “[My father was] tickled to death,” Ruly said. “But the Whiz Kids were his biggest thrill.”10

In 1981, a year after the Phillies won the World Series, the Carpenters sold the team to a group headed by Phillies vice president Bill Giles for about $30 million.

Although he wanted the team (and thus himself) to earn money, Carpenter also believed that because of his inherited wealth, he had a civic obligation to provide a good team for the city. He was heavily involved in charitable causes his entire life, and he was a founding member of the Delaware Association for Retarded Children (DARC), later called the Delaware Foundation Reaching Children with intellectual disabilities. Carpenter was also heavily involved with Delaware sports at the high-school and college levels. In 1953 he instituted the annual Delaware High School Blue-Gold All-Star Football Game. Beginning in 1956, the game became a fundraiser for DARC. The game is played in June at the University of Delaware’s Delaware Stadium.

Carpenter died from lung cancer on July 8, 1990, at the age of 74. He was buried at Montchanin, New Castle County, Delaware.

 

This biography is included in the book "The Year of the Blue Snow: The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies" (SABR, 2013), edited by Mel Marmer and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.

 

Sources

Books

Bruce Kulick, To Everything a Season, (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1996).

Norman L. Macht, Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007).

Rich Westcott, Philadelphia’s Old Ballparks (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996).

Newspapers

Brian Smith, “Athletics Days in Philadelphia Worth Remembering,” Reading (Pennsylvania) Eagle, June 26, 2011.

“Robert Carpenter Jr., Former Phillies Owner, Du Pont Heir, Dies at 74.” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 11, 1990.

“Robert Carpenter, Jr., Ex-Phillies Owner, 74,” New York Times, July 11, 1990 (obituary).

Websites

Genealogy.com

Baseball-Reference.com

Baseball-Almanac.com

Geni.com.

 

Notes

1  “Robert Carpenter Jr., Former Phillies Owner, Du Pont Heir, Dies at 74.” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 11, 1990.

2 Ibid.

3 Rich Westcott, Philadelphia’s Old Ballparks, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996) , 115.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 “Robert Carpenter Jr., Former Phillies Owner, Du Pont Heir, Dies at 74.” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 11, 1990.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

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