This article was written by Rob Neyer
By most lights, Adolfo Phillips, a 22-year-old rookie who was a September call-up with the 1964 Phillies, owned the physical talents of a major-league star. It’s almost as apparent that Phillips was not temperamentally suited for long-term success in the major leagues. At least not in the 1960s, his prime years.
Phillips was born and raised in Bethania, Panama, just outside of Panama City. In 1960, before signing to play in Organized Baseball, he batted .458 in the Latin-American World Series. According to Phillips, the Giants tried to sign him but “I was only 18 then and my parents think I’m still too young. But the next year they give consent and Gilbert Torres of the Phillies signs me. I was third baseman then and they change me to outfield.”1 He reportedly received $5,000 for signing; he’d already attended the University of Panama for one year, taking a pre-med course. (During Phillips’ career, he was consistently listed with a 1942 birth date; he apparently was a year older, and is now listed with a December 16, 1941, birth date.)
In the spring of 1961, Phillips’ first professional season, the Phillies sent him to Idaho to play for the Pioneer League’s Magic Valley Cowboys. It’s safe to say that Philips had never seen Idaho before. As George Vecsey later wrote in Sport, “For a 19-year-old, Spanish-speaking boy, that’s a long way from Tipperary.”2 Phillips batted .192 and struck out 101 times in 203 at-bats; he also spent most of July on the disabled list.
Phillips returned to Idaho the next season and this time he obliterated the Pioneer League, batting .330 with 33 homers in 112 games. In 1963 Phillips jumped to Double-A and batted .306 with a .402 on-base percentage and a .488 slugging average in 121 games with the Chattanooga Lookouts. Phillips was just getting warmed up; in ’64 with the Triple-A Arkansas Travelers, he fared even better, and debuted with the major-league Phillies in early September … the same September in which the Phillies blew their big lead. Phillips played in 13 games that month – starting just two – and the Phillies lost a dozen of them.
Considering his minor-league track record, a lot of clubs would have made room for Phillips on the roster the next spring. But not the Phillies. As manager Gene Mauch told Vecsey a few years later, “He was not about to beat out Johnny Callison. And he was not about to beat out Tony Gonzalez. Was he going to beat out John Briggs in center field? You don’t know. And we didn’t want him just sitting around.”3
So Briggs and Alex Johnson – both even younger than Phillips – and veteran Wes Covington got most of the outfield at-bats that Gonzalez and Callison didn’t get, with Phillips opening the season back in Arkansas. He did earn a promotion to the big club in mid-July, but started only 21 games the rest of the way. He didn’t hit much, and presumably didn’t endear himself to Mauch with 34 strikeouts in only 87 at-bats.
In 1966 Adolfo Phillips was the Phillies’ Opening Day center fielder. He went 0-for-3 … and would never start for the Phillies again. Two days later, on April 15, Phillips pinch-ran in the ninth and scored a run. It was his last appearance as a Phillie. On the 22nd he was part of a blockbuster trade that sent him, John Herrnstein, and (most famously) Ferguson Jenkins to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for veteran hurlers Bob Buhl and Larry Jackson.
Almost immediately, Cubs manager Leo Durocher began raving about Phillips:
“If Mr. Rickey ever saw the Phillips boy he’d have a $500,000 price tag on him faster than you could repeat the figure. Then his eyes would light up like two silver dollars and he’d say: ‘Speed and throwing ability are the gifts from The Man upstairs.’
… “In case you don’t know it, let me share a little secret with you. We are lucky to have him. Sixteen clubs were after him. We were able to get him because we had experienced pitching, something the Phillies figured they needed to go all out in their pennant bid. …
“This much I know: Adolfo is the best center fielder the Cubs have had in a lot of years, and that adds up to progress in my book.”4
Phillips seemed thrilled to escape Mauch’s clutches. Unlike Mauch, Durocher gave Phillips a real chance to play, and from this distance he seems to have played quite well. In 116 games, Phillips stole 32 bases, showed plenty of range in center field, and posted a .262/.348/.452 batting line. Objectively, it’s easy to make the case that Phillips was one of the three or four best center fielders in the National League. And at 24, his best years presumably still lay ahead.
At the time, though, not everybody was so thrilled with Phillips. For one thing, he struck out 135 times in those 116 games. In June he set a National League record for a nonpitcher, striking out nine straight times. Worse, he often seemed to be giving the game less than his full effort. In one game that summer, he was slow going after a fly ball in center field, and when he got back to the dugout after the inning, team captain Ron Santo started yelling at him. According to one source, Santo eventually had his hands around Phillips’ neck and Durocher had to break things up before anybody got hurt. According to Dick Young:
The next day, Leo Durocher got a call from John Holland, the general manager.
“Adolfo Phillips was in my office this morning,” said Holland.
“Oh?” said Durocher. “What did he have to say?”
“There were tears streaming down his face,” said Holland. “He said nobody here loves him. He says the only friend he has in baseball is Tony Taylor.”
Leo Durocher said he would talk to Phillips, and that evening, when Adolfo got to the park, Leo called him in. Adolfo went through the whole bit for Durocher. He said nobody wants him. He said that since he left Tony Taylor in Philadelphia, he didn’t have a friend. Only the tears were missing.
“You’re wrong,” said Leo Durocher. “I love you, Adolfo. Lots of guys on this club think you’re a good boy. You have great talent. Give them a chance to show how much they like you.”
Leo Durocher is usually very persuasive. “When he left,” recalls Durocher, “I knew I wasn’t getting through to him.”6
The Cubs finished the season in last place, and in those days when you finished behind the Mets you had to find a scapegoat. Durocher, still considered a managerial genius, wasn’t going to wear the horns. So instead much of the blame went to Phillips. Despite having been one of the Cubs’ better players, he was sent after the season to their Arizona training complex, where coaches Pete Reiser and Joey Amalfitano were assigned to work with him. The next summer, Reiser said, “All we did was show an interest in him. … We’d talk to him. I told him, ‘Adolfo, you say Tony Taylor is your only friend. No man can go through life with one friend. … Don’t let criticism get you. Only two people in this game don’t get criticized: the perfect ballplayer, and the ballplayer nobody gives a damn about. If we criticize you, it’s only because we think you are worth it.”7
Reiser was asked about Phillips because Phillips, in the first half of the ’67 season, played like a real star. While he wasn’t an All-Star, he easily could have been; at the break he sported a .306/.412/.565 line, with only 47 strikeouts in 72 games. His biggest highlight came on June 11. In the nightcap of a doubleheader against the Mets, Phillips hit three homers and drove in seven runs in the Cubs’ 18-10 victory.
His second half, though, didn’t go nearly as well. The next spring, The Sporting News reported that Phillips had “suffered a back injury and later also was handicapped by two severe ankle bruises. He collected only four homers and 21 RBIs the last half for totals of 17 and 70.”8 Durocher kept Phillips in the No. 8 spot in the batting order all season, leading to 29 intentional walks, a new National League record (Willie McCovey shattered the mark two years later).
That 1967 season proved to be Phillips’ best, by a lot. In late June of ’68, Durocher fined him $200 for not hustling on the bases, saying afterward, “Not sliding is bad enough. But he also didn’t run hard to first or to second. It’s only the second time I fined a player.”9 Shortly after yanking Phillips from the lineup for a few games in July, Durocher said, “No, I haven’t given up on Dolf, but I’m worried. … I’ve tried every psychological trick I know, but nothing has worked. Maybe I have to learn a couple of new ones.”10
Phillips wound up playing nearly as often in 1968 as in ’67, and while his numbers were still good – considering it was the Year of the Pitcher – he’d clearly taken a step backward, and it didn’t help that he kept making public pronouncements about going to the San Diego Padres in the coming winter’s expansion draft.
When 1969 arrived, though, Phillips was still a Cub, and good things were expected. On March 11, though, things changed. In the ninth inning of a spring-training game against the Reds, Phillips was plunked on the hand by a Pedro Borbon offering. The next day he flew back to Chicago with a hairline fracture, wore a cast for a few weeks, and didn’t get back into the Cubs’ lineup until April 22, two weeks into the season.
On June 11 the Cubs dumped Phillips. He hadn’t started a game in two weeks, and was dispatched along with relief pitcher Jack Lamabe to the expansion Montreal Expos in return for utility infielder Paul Popovich. In the wake of the trade, Jerome Holtzman wrote, “Adolfo, as was expected, took it hard.”
He was obviously disappointed and hated to leave. Though often moody and sulking, he, nonetheless, was extremely popular with his teammates, mostly because of his warm and open personality. What probably added to the disappointment was the realization also that he would be missing out on the possibility of a $15,000 payoff and World Series slice.
It was significant that Durocher, in an effort to wish Adolfo well, tried to shake Adolfo’s hand. But Adolfo turned away.
“I don’t shake hands with him,” Adolfo said later. “He hurt me. I shake hands with all my teammates, but not with him. I can not have a good feeling toward that man.”
That there was an extreme personal conflict between Adolfo and Durocher was obvious for some time. Adolfo revealed Durocher hadn’t spoken to him in three or four weeks before the trade, and said Durocher never explained why he took him out of the lineup on May 28 when the club was in San Francisco.11
As Holtzman noted, Phillips, before getting yanked from the lineup, had started seven straight games; he’d gone 7-for-19 in those games but scored just one run, and was lifted for a pinch-hitter in three of those contests. When Phillips lost his everyday job, he was batting just .229 (on the other hand, thanks to a scad of walks he sported a .431 on-base percentage).
A few years later, Durocher (with collaborator Ed Linn) wrote a vivid memoir, Nice Guys Finish Last. Oddly, there is no mention of Adolfo Phillips. Perhaps Durocher just wasn’t interested in recalling a failure, or admitting that he’d been wrong about something. A month or so after joining the Expos, Phillips said of Durocher, “He thinks every center fielder who can run fast and hit with power is another Willie. But there is only one Willie Mays.
“Even Willie told me that in spring training. He says to me, ‘Adolfo, don’t pay attention to Leo – just play the game and you will make the same money as me. But, I tell Willie, I not like him because when Leo talks bad to me I worry all the time.’ ”12
Alas, his new team and new manager – the same manager, by the way, who couldn’t find playing time for him a few years earlier in Philadelphia – don’t seem to have meant less worrying. Upon joining the Expos, Phillips played a lot more but hit even less; he made his last start on August 22, and didn’t play at all in September. In The Sporting News, Ted Blackman reported that Phillips was “suffering from a stomach disorder that doctors feel may be an ulcer … and may not play again this season because of the lingering ulcer.” Manager Gene Mauch said, “Adolfo is a worrier anyway and the possible ulcer had made him more upset. I had a long talk with him, tried to convince him to enjoy life a little more … relax. Every man is entitled to peace and happiness. If baseball causes him so much distress, he should quit the game.”13
Phillips didn’t quit baseball. In September he underwent stomach surgery. Before the season ended, he visited Wrigley Field, and this time when Durocher offered his hand, Phillips shook it. The next spring, he explained his stomach problems: “I think it was because I used to be mean. I was a mean guy. If people said something about me, I got mad. Right after the operation I said to myself, no more.”14 Phillips earned the Expos’ everyday job in center field. On May 2 he hit a couple of home runs against the Dodgers in the first three innings,but those clouts disappeared from the records when the contest was rained out.15 A few weeks later, Phillips struck out three times; angered by “needling from the dugout” after his third strikeout, Phillips punched Phillies third-base coach George Myatt (he doesn’t seem to have been suspended in those looser days).16
Despite playing reasonably well as a part-timer for the 1970 Expos – he was arguably one of their seven or eight best players – Phillips spent the entire 1971 season back in the minors, first with the Expos’ Triple-A affiliate in Winnipeg, and briefly with the Angels’ Salt Lake City club. As usual, there was some drama in the middle: The Yankees reportedly tried to acquire Phillips from the Expos, but he refused to report to the Yankees’ Syracuse farm club, and seems to have been suspended for a few days until the Expos worked out a deal with the Angels.
After the season, the Angels returned Phillips to the Expos, who then sent him to the Indians. Phillips was on Cleveland’s Opening Day roster in 1972, but was optioned to Triple-A Portland in the middle of May, having gotten into 13 games but gone hitless in nine plate appearances. That would be Phillips’s last taste of the majors. He spent the rest of the summer with Portland, then played for the Mexico City Reds from 1974 through ’76. In 1979 Phillips closed out his Organized Baseball career back home, playing a few games with the Inter-American League’s Panama Bangueros.
After he left baseball, Phillips’ life becomes something of a mystery. I tried a few times in early 2013 to contact him, and I have tried finding out what he has been up to the past thirty-odd years, but he seems to have made a concerted effort to lead a private life in Florida.
Last revised: August 27, 2014
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.
1 Edgar Munzel, unlabeled article from National Baseball Library clippings file, May 14, 1966.
2 George Vecsey, “Waiting for Adolfo,” Sport, May, 1968.
4 James Enright, “Adolfo Has the Basics,” Chicago American, April 30, 1966.
5 Munzel, May 14, 1966.
6 Dick Young, “Young Ideas,” New York Daily News, June 21, 1969.
7 Young, June 21, 1969.
8 Edgar Munzel, “Cubs May Boost Adolfo From 8th to Top of Order,” The Sporting News, March 9, 1968.
9 “Leo Fines Phillips $200 for his Failure to Hustle,” The Sporting News, July 13, 1968.
10 James Enright, “Does Thought of Draft Chill Cubs Adolfo?” Chicago American, July 31, 1968.
11 Jerome Holtzman, “Cubs Quit on Adolfo, Get Popo as Infield Spare,” The Sporting News, June 28, 1969.
12 Ted Blackman, “Adolfo Phillips: his energy could light Beloeil for 16 years!” The Gazette (Montreal), July 30, 1969.
13 Ted Blackman, “Poor Adolfo Ailing; Nerves Very Taut,” The Sporting News, September 20, 1969.
14 Milt Richman, “Sports Parade,” Hendersonville (North Carolina) News-Times, March 10, 1970.
15 “Four Homers Washed Out in Dodgers-Expos Tussle,” The Sporting News, May 2, 1970.
16 The Sporting News, June 13, 1970.