Phil Morrison

This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf

Phil Morrison’s baseball career is indelibly connected to that of his older brother Johnny, known as Jughandle because of his quick-dropping curveball. Johnny’s glowing recommendation led directly to the professional baseball career of Phil, who was three years younger. Just as Johnny started out with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1920, Phil began pitching for his brother’s former team, the Birmingham Barons. The following season, Phil was a late-season call-up by the Pirates and was reunited with his brother. He faced three batters in his only appearance. But that’s where the careers of the two right-handers diverged. While Johnny developed into a star, Phil never made it back to the majors.

Philip Melvin Morrison was born on October 18, 1898, in Rockport, a town of about 2,800 residents situated on the Ohio River in the southern tip of Indiana. He was the second of five children born to Arreatus, known as Reat, and Palestine May (Ford) Morrison, who married in 1895. His parents, as well as all of his siblings (Johnny, Golda, Arthur, and Robert), were all born across the river in Kentucky. Phil spent his first few years on his family’s farm in Patesville. By 1910, the family had relocated to nearby Deanefield, where the elder Morrison worked as an engineer in a distillery. Phil and his brother Johnny are most often associated with Owensboro, where the Morrison family had eventually moved. The bustling industrial city of about 17,000 on the Ohio River was the center of semipro and town-ball baseball in the area. Though it’s uncertain when Phil began to play, the teenager was considered a talented, hard-throwing pitcher, who formed a potent battery with brother Johnny.

With the United States on the cusp of war with Germany, 18-year-old Morrison enlisted in the Army on February 21, 1917. According to his own testimony, he was stationed initially at Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville and then transferred to Camp Wright in Southold, New York. While stationed there, he also had the chance to play semipro ball occasionally on the weekends.1 On March 6, 1918, his company embarked by ship to southern France and arrived 12 days later. Over the next months, Morrison experienced death and destruction of war by engaging in 12 battles as a soldier in the American Expeditionary Forces. After stops at two different base camps, his company proceeded to the front on April 10. Five days later he experienced his first active combat. “[W]e worked on our pits [trenches] under shell fire and we were digging in the ground,” recalled Morrison. “I was anxious to get down as far as I could. I made up my mind that I would never live to see old Kentucky again. I was scared for about a week, but then I began to get so I didn’t care if I did get it. It would end the misery anyway.”2 Morrison survived the war, but like many other soldiers, he never forgot the horrors. He returned stateside in late 1918 and served another year and nine months, primarily at Camp Jackson, in Columbia, South Carolina, where he had also played semipro ball in 1919 and 1920. He was discharged on August 19, 1920.

Morrison’s introduction to professional baseball was through his older brother Johnny. While stationed at Camp Zachary Taylor and playing for the camp team, Johnny made an impression on a teammate, Pat Duncan, a former player with the Pittsburgh Pirates who had played with the Birmingham Barons of the Class A Southern Association in 1917. Upon Duncan’s discharge and return to Alabama, he arranged a tryout for Johnny with the Barons, whose manager, Carlton Molesworth, signed the curveballer. After going 12-15 with the Barons in 1919, Johnny emerged as one of the circuit’s best hurlers, posting 26 wins the following year, and was purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates in August. According to Pittsburgh sportswriter Edward F. Balinger, Johnny told Molesworth about his younger brother, whom he considered an even better pitcher than he was. “This led [Barons] President W.D. Smith to sign up Phil Morrison,” wrote Balinger, even though the younger Morrison had never pitched an inning in Organized Baseball.3

Phil joined the Barons in Atlanta for a series against the Crackers, on August 30. Morrison “comes with a reputation that he has as much stuff to offer as his distinguished brother,” opined the Atlanta Constitution. The paper went on to describe Morrison as “a stalwart as any hurler on the Cracker staff and looks as if he might possess a world of steam.”4 Skipper Molesworth was counting on the 22-year-old hurler to shore up the staff as it prepared for the final stage of the pennant race. Morrison made three starts, the second of which was a sparkling five-hit shutout with six punchouts against the New Orleans Pelicans on September 14.5 His final appearance was in a wild, sloppy game against the Little Rock Travelers on September 18. He tossed a complete game and was charged with five unearned runs, losing 8-1. It was interrupted for 10 minutes at one point when spectators bombarded the field with seat cushions after the umpire ruled a Travelers home run a foul. The fans, still livid despite the victory, abused the umpire at the end of the game, hitting him with cushions and other items as he excited the park.6 So much for minor-league ball in 1920.

The Pirates “purchased Morrison less than a month after his start” with the Barons and added him to their 40-man roster;7 however, a glitch on the waiver wire almost led to their losing the player in the offseason. Cincinnati Reds skipper Pat Moran was keen on acquiring Johnny Morrison when he debuted with the Bucs in late 1920. He pitched just twice, but both times were against Moran’s team, which coincidentally featured none other than Pat Duncan. In his second appearance, Johnny tossed an abbreviated six-inning shutout as part of a marathon afternoon tripleheader at Forbes Field in the Smoky City. According to The Post, Moran claimed a “Phil Morrison” on the waiver wire under the impression that it was Johnny.8 The Pirates pulled Phil off waivers to avert the loss.

The Pirates were high on both Morrison prospects. With just 24 innings pitched and one victory to his professional résumé, Phil was the greenest of recruits who still “needs lots of polishing before he is ripe,” suggested Balinger. The Pirates beat reporter raved that the right-hander “has a curve ball which resembles the offerings that made Chief Bender famous.”9 Not a shabby comparison. A longtime stalwart of the Philadelphia A’s, Bender led Connie Mack’s teams to five pennants and three World Series championships in the teens and retired after the 1917 season with 212 victories.

In 1921 the Pirates placed Phil back in the charge of skipper Molesworth, described as a “wonder at developing youthful baseball talent.”10 According to the Post, Molesworth himself thought Phil was “destined to become one of the best in the business,” but definitely needed a year of seasoning.11 Following Morrison’s fine showing in an exhibition game in Kentucky between the Barons and Louisville Colonels of the American Association, sportswriter Sam H. McMeckin of Courier-Journal gushed that the young pitcher has “plenty of natural ability ... a wide, fast-breaking curve and plenty of speed.”12 Those skills weren’t apparent when the Southern Association commenced its season. Morrison struggled and newspapers reported that he might be released. However, he soon caught stride and emerged as one of the circuit’s best hurlers. On July 20 he tossed a seven-inning no-hitter against the Mobile Bears.13 Five days later he blanked the Crackers on four hits.14 By season’s end, Morrison ranked among the league leaders in most statistical categories with a 21-13 slate, 2.88 ERA in 325 innings, and 51 appearances. No hurler with more than 135 innings allowed fewer hits than Morrison’s 7.7 per nine innings.

On September 15 the Pirates repurchased Morrison’s contract and the player joined the team on September 19.15 By this time, his brother Johnny was developing into a star. In a seven-start stretch, beginning August 14, “Jughandle Johnny,” as he’d be called for his knee-locking benders, had tossed three shutouts, including two three-hitters.

Phil Morrison made what proved to be his first and only big-league appearance on September 30 against the St. Louis Cardinals in Sportsman’s Park. It was Rogers Hornsby Day and the Rajah, en route to a .397 average to win his second straight batting title, was having a field day against Bucs hurlers. With two outs the bottom of the eighth, he walloped his third hit, a double, collecting his third RBI as Milt Stock crossed the plate to give the Redbirds an 11-4 lead. Pirates skipper George Gibson called Morrison to replace reliever Rip Wheeler, who had been victimized for four runs and six hits in three innings. Heinie Mueller greeted the green recruit with his fourth safety in this laugher, doubling home Hornsby (the run was charged to Wheeler). Morrison, probably taking a deep breath, gathered himself and punched out the next batter, Austin McHenry, the only Cardinal to fan the entire game. The big Kentuckian ended the inning by retiring Doc Lavan on a grounder to second.16 With few bright spots to discuss, Pittsburgh sportswriters were happy to mention Morrison. “The young pitcher looked well in action,” opined the Gazette Times;17 while the Post noted that the “gangling” hurler “showed a flash of rare ability.”18 It didn’t matter much that Morrison faced just three batters.

The Morrison brothers called Owensboro their offseason home. They both met up with the club in New Baden, Indiana, to take advantage of the natural mineral baths, before the entire team embarked to another spa town, Hot Springs, Arkansas, for spring training in 1922. The Pirates seemingly had the pennant wrapped up the previous season, holding a commanding 7½-game lead on August 23, then went 14-23 down the stretch to finish in second place. Securing a spot on the Bucs staff, which easily led the majors in team ERA (3.17), was a lofty task for Phil. At 6-feet-2, he was the tallest player in camp, and weighed a sturdy 190 pounds. “He is at least going to equal his older brother’s ability,” cooed the Gazette Times about Phil, perhaps forgetting that Johnny went 9-7 with a robust 2.88 ERA and tied for the lead with three shutouts.19 Smoky City sportswriter Charles J. Doyle took a more measured approach, noting that the “agile as a cat” prospect “is still shy of seasoning, but the lanky Kentuckian seems to have everything in his repertoire.”20 In a potentially tense situation, the brothers faced off against each other, piquing the interest of the local spectators. After Phil, playing for the yannigans (the B-squad), fanned his brother, Johnny flashed a few curves at Phil. A noted switch-hitter, Phil applied some comic relief by moving to the left to minimize the bender only to be fanned on some high heat, much to the amusement of the crowd, reported Doyle.21 Phil was among the last players to be cut and was optioned to Birmingham. He picked up where he left off in the Southern Association, winning his first seven decisions, en route to 22 wins (tied for second in the league), and logged the third most innings (300).

Morrison’s success did not translate into an invitation to the Pirates’ spring training in 1923. Back with the Barons, he flashed his stuff against big leaguers, holding the Reds to one run and emerging as the victor in an exhibition at Rickwood Field in Birmingham on April 2.22 The 25-year-old hurler unexpectedly struggled as the season unfolded. In mid-July the Barons traded him to the Atlanta Crackers for right-hander Neal Brady, but his luck didn’t change.23 Morrison won just six games, tied for the league lead with 20 losses with a lackluster 4.05 ERA in 229 innings. It also proved to be the last full season Morrison pitched in Organized Baseball.

Morrison was expected back with the Crackers in 1924, but he never showed up. Nor again in 1925. Newspapers reported of an illness, later identified as rheumatism. It’s impossible to decipher whether Morrison actually suffered from the debilitating disease or if he just decided to quit the game and return to Owensboro and his wife, Sara (née Barker), whom he had married on January 12, 1922, and their first child, Shirley. [Two more children followed, Philip and William, born around 1927 and 1928, respectively]. According to the Post, he worked as a blacksmith during these years and occasionally pitched semipro ball.24 One can imagine how Phil Morrison anxiously read the news about his brother, who had emerged as a star since they trained together in Hot Springs. Jughandle Johnny won 25 games in 1923 and helped lead the Bucs to the World Series title in 1925, their first since 1909.

The Pirates invited Morris to their spring training camp as a free agent in 1926. Newspapers reported that he was pain-free and in good shape, which suggests that he had played more than just an occasional game of ball back home. For the first time in his life, Morrison traveled to California, where the Bucs had transferred their camp to Paso Robles, in 1924. The Bucs staff was coming off a season where their “Big Five” [Lee Meadows (19-10), Ray Kremer (17-8), Johnny Morrison (17-14), Emil Yde (17-9), and Vic Aldridge (15-7)] combined for 138 starts and logged 1,101⅓ innings, while also regularly relieving. Ageless 43-year-old wonder Babe Adams (6-5, 10 starts, 101⅓ innings) also contributed, making it essentially a six-hurler staff, which logged 88.8 percent of the team’s innings. Skipper Deacon Bill McKechnie was a genius with pitchers, but even his marvels were tested about how to get the most out of a 28-year-old who hadn’t pitched professionally in two years. Nonetheless, Phil surprised everyone in camp. The Press reported that Pirates catchers claimed that his “bender breaks more sharply and is more deceiving than his brother’s,” but that he lacked the control to make it consistently effective.25 Edward J. Balinger of the Post opined that Morrison possesses a “lot of speed and curve balls which perform wonders, but he appears to lack confidence, and if he could overcome this shortcoming, he would be one of the stars of the game.”26 Overwhelming favorites to capture their second straight pennant, the Pirates were loaded; and the chances for Morrison to join his brother on one of the majors’ best staffs was a million-to-one shot. Upon McKechnie’s recommendation, skipper Donie Bush of the American Association Indianapolis Indians purchased Morrison in early April. Morrison joined the Indians in Hot Springs and donned their uniform to play the Pirates in an exhibition game.27

Morrison’s professional career ended about two months after his failed attempt to land with the Pirates. In mid-May he was optioned to Little Rock in the Southern League.28 By June 10, Morrison had quit the team and returned home, never to play in Organized Baseball again.

Over the next years, Morrison continued to pitch for semipro and town teams in Owensboro. The 1930 Census shows he performed “sewer work,” and that he, along with his wife and three children, lived with his parents.

Morrison’s fate took a tragic turn in the 1930s. The 1940 Census lists his wife, Sarah as the head of the household and shows the she and her children had lived with their aunt Ada Barker in Owensboro since at least 1935. Where was Morrison in 1940?

Morrison’s death certificate provides some clues.29 Since May 23, 1939, Morrison had been treated by Dr. C.W. Gaskins, chief of surgical services at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, located about 180 miles east of Owensboro. Morrison died at the age of 56, on January 18, 1955, at the VA hospital, three days after Dr. Gaskins performed an operation. Morrison had suffered from syphilis of the central nervous system since 1939; the cause of death was mesentery artery thrombosis with gangrene in 12 feet of his small intestine. Furthermore, the death certificate shows that Morrison was still married and had been a permanent patient in the VA hospital since May 23, 1939, or as Dr. Gaskin noted, 15 years, 7 months, and 25 days. Morrison was buried in the Rosehill Cemetery in Owensboro and was joined by his wife on April 18, 1976.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was edited by Len Levin and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Morrison’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com, The Sporting News archive via Paper of Record, SABR.org, extensive use of the archives of the Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh Post, and Pittsburgh Gazette Times, and Ancestry.com

 

Notes

1 Phil Morrison player file, National Baseball Hall of Fame.

2 Morrison wrote his memories in the journal of George Lewis Morrison, dated October 27, 1920. Ancestry.com.

3 Edward F. Balinger, “Burlesque Form of Revised Waiver Rule Not Good for Baseball,” Pittsburgh Post, January 17, 1921: 8.

4 “Baron Manager Signs Brother of J.D. Morrison,” Atlanta Constitution, August 31, 1920: 10.

5 “Barons Give Pels an Awful Beating,” Daily Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock), September 15, 1920: 8.

6 “Johnson Gets Shower,” (Nashville) Tennessean, September 19, 1920: 29.

7 “Kentucky Hamlet Gives Morrison Brothers to Big School of Baseball,” Pittsburgh Gazette Times, February 19, 1922: 20.

8 Edward F. Balinger, “Burlesque Form of Revised Waiver Rule.”

9 Ibid.

10 Edward F. Balinger, “Chief Gibson Pays Flying Visit to Baseball Stadium,” Pittsburgh Post, January 30, 1921: 18.

11 Ibid.

12 Sam H. McMeckin, “Colonels Easily Defeat Birmingham in Final Game of Series,” (Louisville) Courier-Journal, April 7, 1921: 8.

13 Henry Loesch, “Inside Stuff,” Daily Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock), July 21, 1921: 8.

14 “Southern League,” Houston Post, July 26, 1921: 9.

15 “Pirates Purchase Star,” New York Times, September 16, 1921: 13. “Pirates Detail,” Pittsburgh Post, September 20, 1921: 9.

16 The play-by-play for this game is available at “Details of the Game,” Pittsburgh Post, October 1, 1921: 10.

17 “Notes of the Pirate Game, Pittsburgh Gazette Times, October 1, 1921: 9.

18 “Baseball Barrage Crushed Pirates on Hornsby Day,” Pittsburgh Post, October 1, 1921: 10.

19 “Kentucky Hamlet Gives Morrison Brothers to Big School of Baseball.”

20 Charles J. Doyle, “Gibby Well Pleased With Development at Hoosier Resort,” Pittsburgh Gazette Times, March 12, 1922: 21.

21 Charles J. Doyle, “Chilly Sauce,” Pittsburgh Gazette Times, March 22, 1922: 13.

22 Jack Ryder, “Miserable Exhibition of Ball Playing Put on by Moran’s Men,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 3, 1923: 11.

23 “Crackers Take Two,” (Nashville) Tennessean, July 19, 1923: 11.

24 Edward J. Balinger, “More Batterymen Join Buc Special in Mid-West Town,” Pittsburgh Post, February 23, 1926: 13.

25 “Phil Morrison Has Faster Breaking Curve Than Johnny,” Pittsburgh Press, March 19, 1926: 39.

26 Edward J. Balinger, “Champtown Chatter,” Pittsburgh Post, March 20, 1926: 13.

27 “Bushmen and Pirates Wind Up Series Today,” Indianapolis News, April 6, 1926: 24.

28 W. Blaine Patton, “Louisville Wins Final of Series From Indianapolis by 5-to-1 Count,” Indianapolis Star, May 19, 1926: 11.

29 The information about Morrison’s death and medical history is located on his death certificate, available on Ancestry.com.