Dick Koecher, a left-handed pitcher from Philadelphia. joined his hometown Phillies for parts of three postwar seasons – 1946, 1947, and 1948. He had served in the United States Navy during World War II. Hundreds of thousands of fellow servicemen doubtless dreamed of pitching in the major leagues. Koecher accomplished his dream. He was 20 years old at the time of his debut.
Getting into seven games, he was 0-4 in decisions over the three years. He posted a 4.91 earned run average in 25 2/3 innings (the team’s ERAs for the three seasons were 3.99, 3.96, and 4.08.) In his five plate appearances, he was without a base hit. He had six fielding chances and handled all six without an error, earning six assists. Looking back at his statistics, one can see that he could have wished for a win or a base hit, but nonetheless he had put on the Phillies uniform and pitched from a big-league mound.
Koecher also played professional basketball. Standing 6-foot-5 and listed at 196 pounds, he played guard in one game for the 1945-46 Wilmington Blue Bombers of the American Basketball League.1 After his time in major-league baseball was over, he returned to basketball for six more seasons.
Richard Finlay Koecher was born in Philadelphia on March 30, 1926, to Kathryn and William Koecher. William worked as a salesman of furniture at the time of the 1930 census, and in wholesale baking in 1940. William Koecher’s parents were immigrants from Germany. The couple had three children – William, Robert, and Richard.
Dick played baseball for several years, beginning in 1939 with the Nicetown Boys Club and American Legion ball in 1940. He graduated from Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia, then spent six months at Temple University, where he also played other sports.
In 1943 and the first part of 1944, Koecher played baseball in the American Industrial League.2 At the age of 18, he joined the Navy on July 24, 1944, at the Naval Training Station at Bainbridge, Maryland. In 1945, Koecher was aboard the destroyer escort USS Stafford when news came in early May that German forces had surrendered. The Stafford, named for Marine Corps captain Richard Y. Stafford, who had been killed in the Battle of Guadalcanal, was part of the Pacific Fleet destined for Honolulu’s Pearl Harbor. Arriving in Pearl Harbor on May 14, the Stafford departed 10 days later as an escort for a formation headed to the Marshall Islands, then shaping a course for Okinawa. Koecher thus took part in the invasion of Okinawa, and throughout the coming months, the Stafford participated in operations in the Pacific Theater, which included serving as an anti-submarine screen station. When the Japanese ceded control of Okinawa, the Stafford assisted with cleanup operations.
By October 1945, the Stafford was in Japanese waters, participating in the occupation of Japan. Koecher said he saw with his own eyes where the first atom bomb had been dropped in Hiroshima.3
Koecher was honorably discharged at the rank of Seaman First Class on June 28, 1946 having earned the Pacific Theater Ribbon, American Theater Ribbon, and Victory Medal.
Three days later, Phillies scout Jocko Collins signed him for the team on July 1. There was apparently a bit of a bidding war for his services, with the Phillies’ $17,500 offer outranking those of the Braves and the Cardinals.4
He had had the opportunity to play baseball in the service, and before shipping out to the Pacific had shut out the Fort Dix team for the Eastern Service title, striking out 16 while allowing just two base hits.
Dick’s father apparently wasn’t thrilled with his son’s determination to play sports. An AP brief that ran in early 1947 said his father “gave him one spanking after another for sneaking off after school to play baseball, basketball, or football” – but, quoting Dick, “Now he’s an avid sports fan.”5 In a 1946 questionnaire, however, Koecher credited both parents and his two brothers. He also said that his most interesting experience in baseball was pitching a one-hit shutout at Nicetown in his first game as a pitcher, with his brother Billy catching.6
Koecher began his professional career with the Terre Haute Phillies in the Class-B Three-I League (Illinois-Indiana-Iowa). He appeared in 19 games, working a total of 125 innings with a very good 2.88 earned run average, driven by four shutouts. He posted a 9-3 record. Terre Haute finished fourth in the eight-team league, but made the playoffs and reached the finals, where they were swept by Evansville.
Koecher was brought up to the big leagues and got into the game of September 29, the 155th and last of the year. The Phillies were facing the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. Manager Ben Chapman gave Koecher the start. In the bottom of the first, he allowed a double, a walk, and then a single by Sid Gordon, driving in one. The Phils tied the game in the top of the third. After the first two batters singled for the Giants in the bottom of the third, Gordon came up and singled again to drive in another run. Koecher retired the next two batters, then Buddy Blattner doubled to drive in Gordon. Chapman called on Tommy Hughes in relief. The final score was Giants 3, Phillies 1. Koecher got the loss. Sheldon Jones threw a complete-game win for New York.
Koecher worked out with the Phillies in spring training and started the 1947 season with the team. GM Herb Pennock said he liked the looks of rookie prospects Koecher, Bubba Church, and Homer Spragins. He said, “They have everything it takes to make pitchers except experience.”7 Koecher was described by United Press as “a rookie southpaw so obscure that he was not mentioned in early season rosters.” Nonetheless, he made the team; manager Chapman said, “I don’t see how I can keep him off the squad.”8
In the fourth game of the season, the opener of a doubleheader at Braves Field on April 19, Koecher threw the final two innings. He entered in relief of Hughes, with Boston holding a 6-3 lead. Three runs scored, and the Braves won, 9-3. Koecher gave up three hits but walked five.
He was next used on April 26 when Boston came to Shibe Park. He started the game and went six innings but gave up five runs on eight hits and three walks; the Braves won, 7-1.
On May 5, he was farmed out to Utica of the Eastern League (Class A) and put in a full season (198 innings in 36 games) for the Blue Sox. His record of 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA helped lead Utica to the Eastern League pennant. The 17 wins tied for the league lead with Mike Garcia of Wilkes-Barre. Seventeen of his games were complete games. Koecher won another two games in the playoffs as Utica beat Wilkes-Barre and then Albany. He was also an All-Star.
This clearly earned him another look in September, though he got into only one game – the first game of the September 28 doubleheader on the final day of the season. He pitched a complete game against the Giants, but lost, 4-1. New York broke through with three runs in the top of the seventh. Koecher gave up a pair of hits in the inning but was victimized by three errors. All three runs were unearned. He still got the loss.
After the season, Koecher married Helen Marie Faerber in Philadelphia on October 18. The two had met at Simon Gratz High when Dick was age 16 and Helen was one year behind him in school. Dick’s daughter Janice Page discovered in his papers a note he had written: “The very first day I saw her, I knew she was someone special. If love at first sight is a real feeling…I had it!”9
In March 1948, Koecher was assigned to Toronto of the International League (Triple-A). He worked in five games (one start) for the Maple Leafs. He was 1-1 in just six innings, with a 9.00 ERA. On May 25, he was optioned to Utica and spent most of the season with the Blue Sox again (13-5, with a 3.79 ERA in 178 innings). He hadn’t made the grade in Toronto, according to one writer: “They say he has deserted his fast ball for trick stuff with disastrous results.”10 That may have been, but he once again was named an All-Star in the Eastern League.11
Koecher was brought back to the big leagues and worked in three late-season games. He pitched a hitless, scoreless ninth inning on September 26 against the visiting Brooklyn Dodgers, though he did walk two batters. In New York, in the first game of a doubleheader against the Giants on September 28, he worked the seventh and eighth innings, giving up one run in the eighth. It was 6-0, Giants. The Phillies then scored five runs in the top of the ninth to give the Giants a scare. Johnny Blatnik pinch-hit for Koecher and doubled in two of the runs.
Koecher’s last game in the majors was on October 2, the next-to-last game of the year, at Ebbets Field. The Dodgers scored four runs in the bottom of the first off starter Robin Roberts, who departed without securing more than one out. The Phillies tied the game, 4-4, in the top of the sixth and Koecher was handed the ball in relief, the fourth Phils pitcher of the game. He retired Roy Campanella, then gave up singles to Eddie Miksis and Gil Hodges. On an error by the third baseman, Miksis got to third base, and then scored on Koecher’s wild pitch to Preacher Roe. Two infield grounders ended the inning, and Koecher faced only three batters in the seventh and three in the eighth. The 5-4 final resulted in the L going after his name for the fourth time in the majors, after having lost once in 1946 and twice in 1947.
Altogether in the big leagues, Koecher gave up 14 walks and 31 base hits in 25 2/3 innings. He struck out eight.
In 1949, because of a sore arm, Koecher was placed on the disabled list on April 18. He wound up pitching in just four innings over two games for the IL’s Baltimore Orioles, to which he had been released outright on May 5. His contract was returned on June 3, and he voluntarily retired three days later.
Koecher tried to rest his arm over the winter, but it remained sore in the springtime. He was reinstated on May 5, 1950, but was unconditionally released four days later. He was still plagued by what was evidently a long-lasting arm injury.12 He pitched briefly, but unsuccessfully for Danville (Carolina League), but he was never able to recover the arm strength that he needed to pitch professionally.
Koecher had begun to consider turning to basketball and was given a tryout with Eddie Gottlieb’s Philadelphia Warriors of the NBA. In 1949, Koecher attended training camp at Hershey, Pennsylvania.13 He spent two days at a coaches and officials clinic at Bear Mountain, New York, then reported to Gottlieb. A Philadelphia Daily News article said that he hadn’t played basketball for two years but that “he maneuvered about the floor as a veteran. He made his presence felt under the boards and he took his shots when the opening arrived.” Saying he still had a long way to go, the paper added that “continued improvement would certainly give him more than a fighting chance of being with the club when the Warriors open their National Basketball Association campaign.”14
Koecher didn’t make the Warriors but did play basketball, appearing in 104 Eastern Professional Basketball League games over the next six seasons. As a guard, he averaged 8.5 points per game. His teams made the EPBL playoffs twice, in 1951-52 (when the Pottsville Pros/Packers won the league championship) and 1953-54 (for the Sunbury Mercuries). He played for the Reading Rangers for five games in 1949-50, then for Pottsville the rest of that year and the next two and the Mercuries in 1953-54 and 1954-55.15
Dick and Helen Koecher had two daughters – Janice (b. 1948) and Joanne (b. 1950). Daughter Janice Page adds an appreciation of her father: “He taught his girls they could be anything they wanted to be in life. He said you have to work hard, create opportunity, help and respect others and follow the Golden Rule.” Janice went on to a career as a retail executive with Sears in Chicago and Joanne became a special education teacher in Pennsylvania. Both girls married; Janice and her husband, Vern, added three grandchildren, Devon, Tyler, and Kendall, to the family.”16
Koecher joined his father and two brothers in the furniture business in 1952, working as manufacturers’ sales representatives for multiple companies. He was successful at the work and was able to purchase a second home in Florida. When he retired in 1993, he and Helen moved to Naples. Janice and her family moved there shortly thereafter, and all joined in fairly extensive world travel, including trips to China, Africa, Australia, and many other destinations.
Janice explained how both parents developed an interest in golf. “A natural athlete, he could cover a tennis court ambidextrously, shoot hoops, shoot pool, you name it. But his real love became the game of golf at which he excelled, winning club championships and taking on leadership positions in club oversight. Again, as in all aspects of his career and personal life, he was admired for his integrity, inclusiveness, fairness, and willingness to stand up for doing the right thing. Through much of his golf history, he was a 6 or below handicapper. Helen enjoyed the game as well and there were a couple of husband-and-wife championships through the years.”17
Helen Koecher died in the year 2000. For the next 20 years, Dick continued to enjoy golf, friends, family, and more world travel. Surrounded by loved ones, he died from cardiac failure in Naples on February 4, 2020.
Sources and Acknowledgments
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, and Koecher’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Thanks to Dick Koecher’s daughter Janice Page for providing a considerable amount of detail regarding her father’s life, and to Tyler Page. Thanks to Tom Hawthorn and to Mel Poplock for assistance with this biography, which was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact checked by Larry DeFillipo.
1 https://www.statscrew.com/basketball/stats/p-koechri01 . His cited baseball weight is as listed on Baseball-Reference.com.
2 See for example, “SKF Triumphs in Opening Test,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 11, 1943: 27 and “Greeby Takes Sixth in Row,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 4, 1944: 26.
3 American Baseball Bureau questionnaire, July 18, 1946.
4 Oscar Fraley, “Charlie Ferrell May Make Phils,” Durham Sun, April 1,1947: 11.
5 Associated Press, “Convinces Pop,” Indiana Gazette (Indiana, Pennsylvania), January 4, 1947: 9. Text of quotation modified to fix spelling errors.
6 American Baseball Bureau questionnaire.
7 Associated Press, “Rookie Pitcher Crop Impresses Phillies,” Corpus Christi Times, March 14, 1947: 22.
8 United Press, “Training Camp Briefs,” Evansville Press, March 21, 1947: 19.
9 Janice Page email to author, February 22, 2022.
10 Dry, “The Dope Bucket,” Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), June 2, 1948: 13.
11 “Tie Vote at Two Positions on Eastern All-Star Team,” The Sporting News, September 15, 1948: 30.
12 United Press, “Nothing Voluntary About Baseball’s Sad Retirement List,” Chicago Sun-Times, December 11, 1949: 154.
13 A photograph of Koecher as part of a small group of players in uniform being assessed by Gottlieb appears in the May 8, 1987, Philadelphia Inquirer on page 1-D.
14 “Adair Stars in Warrior’s Camp Drill,” Philadelphia Daily News, undated 1949 clipping with dateline of October 13.
15 https://www.statscrew.com/minorbasketball/stats/p-koechdic001. Those more versed in basketball history than this author may be able to contribute more detail. Statscrew.com lists the teams for which Koecher played as “minor-league” teams.
16 Janice Page email to author, February 22, 2022.
17 Janice Page email to author, February 22, 2022.