This article was written by William Akin
William B. “Bill,” “Silver Bill” Phillips became the first Canadian to play in the major leagues when he opened the 1879 season as the first baseman for Cleveland’s new National League franchise. In 1988, 100 years after his last major league game, he was enshrined in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. Phillips continues to be recognized as the best Canadian born first baseman to play the game.
Little is known of Phillips’ early years. “Willie,” as his family called him throughout his life, was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada in 1857. The exact date of his birth remains unclear. His father, a cooper (barrel maker) of English heritage, raised a large family of seven daughters and three sons. One of the boys became a physician and one a lawyer.
At some point in Phillips’ teen years the family moved to the United States, settling in Chicago. Canadian journalist Peter McGuire dates the family’s departure to a major fire in 1877, which leveled much of Saint John (McGuire, 2). It is likely the move occurred earlier in the decade. Alfred Spink, founder of The Sporting News, also a native of Canada who moved to Chicago at an early age, remembered playing against Phillips in Chicago in the 1870’s (Spink, 64). That had to have been before 1877, because Phillips was playing professionally in Minnesota that year.
In any event, the Phillips family was just one part in a massive migration that saw two million people move from Canada, especially the Maritime Provinces, to the United States between 1870 and 1900. Baseball flourished in Phillips’ native Saint John in the 1870s. A city of 40,000, Saint John could boast at least nine amateur clubs by 1874. It is likely Phillips caught the baseball fever before his family pulled up stakes in New Brunswick.
Phillips grew into a big man for the nineteenth century. When he began to play baseball professionally, Phillips had reached six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds. In team photographs he towered over his teammates. His size and sure hands made him a natural first baseman, although early in his career he played numerous games as a catcher. Tall, with dark hair, and a large bushy mustache, he cut a dashing figure and was well liked by teammates and opponents.
While a teenager in Chicago he played for the amateur Pastime club, a team Spink described as the “cock of the baseball walk” in the South Side of Chicago (Spink, 64). He left the Windy City in 1877 to play for the independent Clipper Club of Winona, Minnesota. The club had aspirations of competing for the International League championship but disbanded after 29 games.
The following year, 1878, Phillips hooked on with one of the best of the many independent professional teams, the Forest City club of Cleveland. A right-handed hitter and thrower, he played in 65 of the team’s 66 games and hit .296 to lead all regulars on the team.
When the Cleveland club obtained a National League franchise in 1879, Phillips found himself in the major league. As the regular first baseman and backup catcher, Phillips hit NL pitching for a .271 batting and .354 slugging average. The team, now called the Blues, finished sixth in an eight-team league.
Cleveland’s infield of the early Eighties, labeled the “Stonewall Infield,” may have been the finest fielding unit of the era. In 1880 Jack Glasscock moved from second base to shortstop, where he became the slickest fielder of his era, and Fred Dunlap took over at second. Charles Faber rates that group the best double play combination of the nineteenth century (Faber, 50). Writing thirty years later, Al Spink remembered them as “perhaps the greatest infield ever known” (Spink, 196). They led the League in double plays in 1882 and fielding average in 1883. Phillips participated in more double plays than any other first baseman during Cleveland’s first five years of NL play.
“Silver Bill,” as he came to be called while with Cleveland, did not hit for power but delivered in the clutch for the Blues. In 1880 he hit his first career home run against Worcester, but he never smashed more than four in a season. He did, however, lead the Blues in RBIs for five of his six seasons with the team.
Phillips’ most embarrassing moment came during Lee Richmond‘s perfect game on June 12, 1880. The closest Cleveland came to getting a baserunner was when Phillips smashed what appeared to be a clean single to right field. Lon Knight, playing shallow right field, charged the ball and managed to throw the slow-footed Phillips out at first.
The Cleveland double-play combination broke up in 1884 when first Dunlap and then Glasscock jumped to the short-lived Union Association. Phillips picked up some of the slack, batting .276, his highest in a Blues’ uniform, but it was not enough. Cleveland finished 49 games out of first place, fans stopped attending games, and the franchise folded after the season.
Following Cleveland’s collapse, the Blues’ manager, Charlie Hackett, signed on to direct the newly created Brooklyn team in the rival American Association, and he in turn inked seven former Blues players, including Phillips, to Brooklyn contracts. Phillips played with Brooklyn in 1885, 1886, and 1887. One of his thrills came in Spring 1885 when the team made a stop at the White House on the way north from spring training. Phillips wrote of President Grover Cleveland “I tell you he is a fine man” (McGuire, 4).
Phillips put together his best season in 1885. Hackett did not last the 1885 season, being fired by team president Charlie Byrne, who took over as manager. Phillips responded well to the new manager. He batted .302, the only year he hit over .300, and the only time he was among the top ten in the league in batting average. His on base average of .364 placed in the top five among AA hitters. He also led the club in RBIs with 63, slugging percentage, and triples.
In the AA, Phillips continued to distinguish himself in the field. He compiled the best fielding average in the league in 1885 (.973) and 1887 (.982), and led the circuit in putouts in 1885 and 1888. Although he played only four years in the AA, he participated in five triple plays, the AA record for first basemen. He also had more putouts than any other first baseman over his AA career. In his entire career he averaged over 10 putouts per game, a figure that puts him in the top ten of all-time.
Phillips hit well on mediocre Brooklyn teams. His 72 RBIs in 1886 again led Brooklyn, and he placed among the top five AA hitters in hits and total bases. In 1887 he drove in a team high 101 runs, the only time in his career he drove in over 100 runs in a season. That year he also achieved a career best with 34 doubles.
After 1887, Phillips’ effectiveness declined dramatically. Bill McGunnigle took over as Brooklyn’s manager and wanted Dave Orr as his first baseman. Phillips caught on with the Kansas City Cowboys, a team destined to finish last in the 1888 AA season. The lanky first baseman could still field, but his hitting fell off sharply. He batted an anemic .236 with little pop in his bat. Kansas City released him at the end of the season.
Toward the end of the 1888 season, Phillips had become something of a pathetic figure. Years later, Charles Comiskey, then manager of the pennant winning St. Louis Browns, recalled instructing his pitchers to groove deliveries for Phillips to crush. It may be that Phillips was experiencing the early effects of the syphilis that would claim his life.
After his major league career ended, Phillips returned to Canada to play one more season with Hamilton, Ontario of the International League. A feeble .245 batting average signaled the end of his playing career.
During the 1890’s, which proved to be the last decade of his life, Phillips made Chicago his home. A lifelong bachelor, he died in Chicago of Locomotor Ataxia (a form of syphilis) at age 43. The baseball record books list his date of death as October 6, 1900, but the death certificate has it October 7, 1900. He was buried in Graceland Cemetery in Cook County, Illinois.
Never a great hitter, Phillips was a reliable batter in the clutch, and in 1,038 games over a ten-year span he compiled a .266 batting average, some 20 points above the average for the 1880’s. As for his fielding, the big Canadian was one of the slickest first baseman of the Eighties.
Akin, William E., “William B. Phillips (Silver Bill)” in Frederick Ivor-Campbell, Robert Tieman, Mark Rucker (eds.), Baseball’s First Stars. Cleveland: SABR, 1996, p. 127.
Faber, Charles F., Baseball Pioneers: Ratings of Nineteenth Century Players. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co., 1997.
Munro, Neil. STATS Canadian Players Encyclopedia (Skokie, Illinois: STATS Publishing, 1996), pp. 5, 52, 79, 93.
McGuire, Peter, “Meet Silver Bill Phillips,” Sports Week [Saint John Times Globe] January 1, 2000.
Shearon, Jim. Canada’s Baseball Legends Kanata, Ontario: Malin Head Press, 1994, pp. 3-5.
Spink, Alfred H., The National Game. 2nd edition, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.