This article was written by Charles F. Faber
Jack Phillips spent almost a decade on Major League rosters and never got into more than seventy games in a season. But that less-than-stellar playing career was followed by an all-star second act: twenty-four seasons as a baseball coach and athletic administrator at his alma mater, Clarkson University.
Jack Dorn Phillips, the second son of Howard and Emma (Struwe) Phillips, was born at Clarence, New York, near Buffalo, on September 6, 1921. On his father’s side he was of English ancestry, on his mother’s side, German. He grew up in nearby Marilla, New York, where his father owned a meat market. Jack started playing baseball with the men of Marilla when he was only thirteen. At Lancaster High School he lettered in baseball, basketball, football, and track. In 1939 Jack enrolled at Clarkson College (now Clarkson University) in Potsdam, New York, where he majored in business administration and became one of the top all-around student athletes the school has ever produced.
Phillips’s six-foot-four frame enabled him to carry his nearly 200 pounds with ease and earned him the nickname Stretch. His size helped him lead the basketball team in scoring each of his three years on the varsity squad. He was the starting center on the 1942–43 Clarkson team that went 14-1, losing only to national powerhouse St. John’s of Brooklyn. However, it was on the baseball diamond that Jack was most dominant. During his three seasons, he led the Clarkson Golden Knights to wins in 85 percent of their games, including a 19-1 mark in 1943.
Phillips was a pitcher and first baseman on the 1943 club. In the summers he played for the semipro Watertown Collegians. Professional scouts rated him among the best right-handed-hitting prospects in the nation and flocked to see him play. Since childhood he had been a fan of the New York Yankees, so he was thrilled when legendary Yankees scout Paul Krichell signed him to a contract. Phillips left Clarkson before graduating to play in the Yankees’ farm system, but continued his studies during the off-seasons and received a bachelor of business administration degree on February 22, 1948.
Phillips made his professional debut with the 1943 Norfolk (Virginia) Tars of the Class B Piedmont League. There he met eighteen-year-old Yogi Berra. “Yogi and I broke in together,” said Phillips. “I remember I made $150 a month and he made $90. He’d always give me half his paycheck, because he was always borrowing money from me.”1 It was the start of a lifelong friendship between the two men. Phillips led the Piedmont League with eight home runs and hit well enough (.284) to earn a trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey for spring training with the Yankees in 1944. He was assigned to the Newark Bears of the International League, one of the Yankees’ top two farm clubs, for the 1944 season, but played only seven games before the Selective Service Board beckoned.
Phillips was sworn into the U.S. Navy on May 4, 1944, and assigned to the Naval Training Center at Sampson, New York. He joined the base’s powerful baseball squad, the Sampson Bluejackets, which won 26 of 27 games that summer. The lone loss was to the National League’s Boston Braves.
Phillips spent most of the 1944 and 1945 seasons in the navy. He was stationed at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, and later in Hawaii and Japan. While at Treasure Island he met Helene McBride, a member of the WAVES, the Navy’s female component. They were married on October 15, 1946, at St. Rita’s Church in Detroit.
After the war Phillips returned to Newark, where he spent most of the 1946 and 1947 campaigns. In 1947 he was hitting .298 for the Bears when he was called up to New York. He made his Major League debut on August 22 at Cleveland, striking out as a pinch-hitter for pitcher Randy Gumpert. Phillips’s first big-league hit, a single off Pete Gebrian of the White Sox, came in his first start, on August 25 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. He hit his first home run on September 21 at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, a fifth-inning solo shot off the A’s Joe Coleman.
Phillips played only sixteen games for the Yankees that summer, mainly as a replacement for aging first baseman George McQuinn. In the World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jack appeared in two games as a pinch-hitter, going hitless in two at bats. The Yankees won the Series, and Jack’s teammates voted him a quarter share of the winners take.
During 1948 spring training, the Yankees considered trying Phillips at shortstop, but abandoned the idea before the season started. If they had gone through with the experiment, he would have become perhaps the tallest shortstop in Major League history up to that time. As it was, Phillips played in only one game for New York (at first base), and split the rest of the season between Yankees farm teams in Newark and Kansas City.
He was back in New York in 1949 and was hitting .308 in forty-five games, but on August 6 the Yankees sold him to the Pittsburgh Pirates. His former teammates voted Jack a half-share of their 1949 World Series victor’s money.
On July 8, 1950 Phillips earned a place in the record books. He became the first major leagues to pinch-hit a home run with the bases loaded and the home team trailing by three runs.2 The Pirates were trailing the St. Louis Cardinals, 6–3, in the ninth inning. With one out and the bases loaded, manager Billy Meyer sent Phillips to the plate to bat for pitcher Murry Dickson. Jack drove Harry Brecheen’s second pitch over the left-field fence for a 7–6 victory. At first there was some doubt whether it was a home run. The Cardinals’ Stan Musial appeared to have caught the ball. The runners held their bases. Then one of the players in the Pirates bullpen held up the ball. Apparently, Musial had tipped the ball over the fence into the bullpen.
Phillips also did mop-up duty as a pitcher in 1950, appearing in a 14–2 blowout loss to the Boston Braves on June 1. While position players taking the mound in such games usually work only an inning or two, Phillips hurled five innings. After driving in a run with a fly ball as a pinch-hitter in the fourth inning, he stayed in the game, allowing seven hits and four runs in his five innings. Nineteen-fifty was Phillips’s best year in the Major Leagues. He hit .293 with seven doubles, six triples, five home runs and thirty-four runs batted in.
In 1951 Pittsburgh’s general manager, Branch Rickey, tried to make a first baseman out of outfielder Ralph Kiner. “I taught him how to play first base,” joked Phillips. “I was a reserve infielder and he had led the league in home runs for several years. I called the first-base job a $75,000 job; he got $70,000 and I got $5,000.”3
Phillips played a career-high seventy games for the Pirates in 1951, but hit only .237. After playing in one game in 1952, he was sold to the Hollywood Stars, the Pirates’ farm club in the Pacific Coast League. He was a regular with the Stars for the next three seasons. In both 1952 and 1954 he hit .300 (he hit .270 in 1953) and was named to the PCL All-Star team both years. He was named the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1954, earning him another Major League opportunity. In September the Stars traded him to the Chicago White Sox for Jim Baumer and cash. Three months later the White Sox traded him, along with Leo Cristante and Ferris Fain, to the Detroit Tigers for Walt Dropo, Ted Gray, and Bob Nieman.
Phillips never became a full-time player for the Tigers. In April 1957 Detroit traded him to the Boston Red Sox for Karl Olson. Boston promptly sent him to San Francisco in the PCL, and Jack’s Major League career was over. In nine seasons he had played in 343 games and compiled a .283 batting average.
After one year in San Francisco, Phillips closed his playing career with Buffalo of the International League in 1958 and 1959. In eleven seasons in the minors, he appeared in 1,212 games and hit for a .278 average. Although he had never played shortstop in the majors, he did play 278 games at the position in the minors.
From 1960 to 1964 Phillips was a manager in the Phillies and Tigers farm systems, for such clubs as Elmira (New York) and Jamestown (New York) in the New York-Pennsylvania League, Magic Valley (Idaho) in the Class C Pioneer League, and Chattanooga of the Class Double-A South Atlantic League.
Leaving professional baseball, Phillips returned to Clarkson University as baseball coach from 1965 through 1988. He also helped administer the athletic department, worked in the sports information office, assisted with basketball, and coached cross-country. When he retired in 1988 he was named a professor emeritus.
Phillips was active in promoting Potsdam’s youth through the Elks Lodge. He also was involved with golf tournaments, both locally and nationally. For many years he refereed high-school basketball games in northern New York. In 1992 Jack became one of the first fifteen inductees into the Clarkson University Athletic Hall of Fame. Even after “retiring,” he served as assistant coach of the golf team until 2001. As a coach he was a tough taskmaster, but inspired his players with his enthusiasm, jokes, and funny stories.
His daughter Sharon wrote: “Throughout his life my dad loved to tell jokes and was quite the comedian with his funny stories and antics.”4 In 2008 the school renamed its baseball facility Jack Phillips Stadium at Snell Field. In remarks accompanying various ceremonies, Clarkson officials frequently referred to Phillips as a local icon. Jack and Helene had five children, all of whom were inducted into the Potsdam Central High School Hall of Fame.
Jack Phillips died at the Chelsea Retirement Center in Chelsea, Michigan, on August 30, 2009, at the age of eighty-seven. In failing health, he had gone to Michigan to be near his daughter, Patty Roberts. He was buried in St. Mary Cemetery in Potsdam, near the campus of his beloved Clarkson University. He was survived by his wife, Helene, three daughters, Susan, Sharon, and Patty, thirteen grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. His sons Jack Jr. and Michael predeceased him.
This biography is included in the book “Bridging Two Dynasties: The 1947 New York Yankees” (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), edited by Lyle Spatz. For more information, or to purchase the book from University of Nebraska Press, click here.
Johnson, W. Lloyd, and Miles Wolff (eds.). Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 1993.
Palmer, Pete, and Gary Gillette (eds.). The Baseball Encyclopedia. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004.
Spatz, Lyle (ed.). The SABR Baseball List and Record Book. New York: Scribner, 2007.
E-mail correspondence with Sharon Mohns, Patty Roberts, and Tommy Szarka.
1 Syracuse Herald American, June 12, 1988.
2 Brooks Conrad of the Atlanta Braves duplicated the feat on May 20, 2010.
3 Syracuse Herald American, June 12, 1988.
4 Sharon Mohns e-mail to Charles Faber, April 6, 2010.