Norris Phillips may have had a short-lived career in the Negro Leagues, but he had the distinction of being a member of the powerhouse 1942 Kansas City Monarchs pitching staff during the regular season.1 The team captured the Negro League World Series championship, but since Phillips was a back-end starter who toiled behind Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith, he ended up being left off the World Series roster.2 However, Phillips held his own when he was called on to pitch during the 1942 and 1943 seasons, and he amassed many fond memories along the way. In 1995, he recalled, “The one I will always cherish was at (Washington’s) Griffith Stadium and I came in to relieve Satchel Paige. … I struck out Josh Gibson. I got him swinging at a high fastball between the letters and the belt. We all stayed at the same hotel and we talked about it when we all got back.”3
Norris Phillips was born on June 18, 1916, in Rosenberg, Texas, a town on the Brazos River 32 miles southwest of Houston. He was the fifth of seven children born to farmer Isiah Phillips and his wife, Della (Milligan) Phillips. Isiah Phillips may have died, or may simply have abandoned his family, while Norris was still a young boy, though the exact year of his departure is unknown.4 At the time of the 1930 census, Della Phillips was listed as a widow and the family was being supported financially by Norris’s 21-year-old brother, James, who worked in a brickyard, and his 17-year-old sister, Lillie, who worked as a nursemaid for a private family.
Little is known about Phillips’s early life, but, unlike many children of poor African American families in the South, he did complete all four years of high school. In 1940, Phillips was living in the home of his uncle, Alvin Jackson, in Rosenberg and worked in a barbershop. It is uncertain why Phillips no longer lived at home; he still listed his mother, Della, as the person who would always know his address on the World War II draft registration card that he filled out in October of that year.
Also lost to time is how Phillips got his start in baseball, although it is likely that he played for a local town or business team at some point before he was discovered by the Monarchs. The Lone Star State was known for producing talented ballplayers; in addition to Phillips, fellow 1942 Monarchs Newt Allen, Jack Matchett, Hilton Smith, and Jesse Williams all hailed from different cities in Texas. Whichever way events may have transpired, Phillips’s draft card shows that he moved from his hometown of Rosenberg to Kansas City, Missouri, where he lived at 420 East 9th Street upon joining the Monarchs as an almost 26-year-old rookie.
The first report of Phillips, who stood 5-feet-9 and weighed 174 pounds, pitching for Kansas City involved an April 23 game against the Memphis Red Sox at Travelers Field in Little Rock, Arkansas. Five was Norris’s number for much of the day as he pitched five innings of five-hit ball during which he struck out five Memphis batters. However, after he allowed a run in the sixth inning, he was taken out of the game at the top of the seventh, and the Red Sox rallied in the ninth to win, 3-2.5
Phillips must have impressed the Memphis management as the Red Sox apparently enticed the hurler to jump to their team. He may have imagined that he had a better chance to pitch more often for the Red Sox than for the Monarchs. In a preview of the Chicago American Giants’ upcoming tilt against Memphis on May 31, the Chicago Defender noted, “The Sox will present several new faces in their 1942 lineup. Fred McDaniels, the hard-hitting outfielder, along with pitchers Percy Keys, ‘Kid’ Lipsey and Norris Phillips and several others will greet the Giants.”6
Whatever opportunities Phillips may have envisioned with Memphis, his stint with the Red Sox was a short one. Official statistics credit him with one relief appearance that lasted 2⅔ innings in which he struck out two batters, walked one, and allowed two hits and one earned run. Once again, circumstances remain unclear due to a lack of press coverage, but it is likely that Phillips was forced to return to the Monarchs to honor his contract obligations to Kansas City. Negro League teams often raided other squads for players, and many disputes were settled by having the player return to his original team.
On July 14, Phillips once again took the mound for the Monarchs against the Red Sox at Oklahoma City’s Holland Field. He allowed the Red Sox only four hits as he went the distance in Kansas City’s 5-0 victory, a triumph that the press hailed as “revenge for a 4-2 loss suffered against the Red Sox at Houston recently.”7 Phillips’s last start for the Monarchs in 1942 came against the Chicago American Giants at Kansas City’s Ruppert Stadium on August 23. The Monarchs prevailed, 4-3, in 14 innings, but Booker McDaniel earned the victory in relief of Phillips.8 It marked the end of Phillips’s 1942 campaign as the Monarchs used only three pitchers — Paige, Smith, and Matchett — in their four-game sweep of the Homestead Grays in the World Series.
Phillips had acquitted himself well enough that he returned to Kansas City for the 1943 season. The game he considered to be the highlight of his career — the one in which he struck out Gibson — took place in front of 23,000 fans at Griffith Stadium on June 17. Paige had been slated to start, but “he missed train connections from Pittsburgh … and finally arrived by plane … around the fourth inning.”9 Phillips, who filled in for Satchel on the mound, was dealing and held the mighty Grays lineup to only two hits over seven innings in a 2-1 Monarchs victory; the game was called in the seventh inning due to a heavy rainstorm.
On July 5 Phillips once again took the mound against Memphis in the first game of a doubleheader at Ruppert Stadium. According to the news account of the game, he “lacked control in the first inning with a pair of walks followed by [catcher Herb] Barnhill’s wild peg to second put the visitors off to a short-lived lead.”10 Phillips regained his composure, and the Monarchs soon took the lead in an eventual 6-3 win; the Monarchs also captured the second game, 4-0, to end the first half of the Negro American League season on an upbeat note.
The Birmingham Black Barons had won the NAL’s first-half title, but the Monarchs expected to compete for the second-half crown. Kansas City manager Frank Duncan pointed out that his squad had lost players to military service, holdout, and injury, but that his roster had now rounded into shape. Among the positive items Duncan mentioned was his confidence in “Norris Phillips having developed into an able replacement for Frank] Bradley,” a pitcher who had been lost to the military.11 The Chicago American Giants ended up as second-half champions, which left the defending World Series champion Monarchs out of the playoff picture in 1943. Phillips pitched to a 2-2 record and a 3.62 ERA, but he had serious control issues as he walked 25 batters (while striking out only 11) in 27⅓ innings pitched over six appearances. After the 1943 season, Phillips’s baseball career was at an end.
Considering both his age and his control problems, Phillips moved into the next phase of his life. Once again, his draft registration card provides insight, as his employer was now listed as the Canal War Apartments, Building 69-E, in Richmond, California. The city was a center of wartime activity and employment. According to the National Park Service, “The four Richmond shipyards with their combined 27 shipways, produced 747 ships, more than any other shipyard complex in the country. Richmond was home to 56 different war industries, more than any other city of its size in the United States. The city grew nearly overnight from 24,000 people to 100,000 people.”12 Phillips was one of the many people who sought gainful employment in support of the war effort on the home front.
Before long, Phillips moved up the Pacific coast to Portland, Oregon, most likely to work in the shipyards there. While in Portland, he met divorcee Sally K. Miller, a 25-year-old waitress who became his wife. There was an obstacle to the couple’s marriage, however, and it had nothing to do with the stigma that divorce carried at that time. The impediment in question was race, because Miller was white, and Oregon still had a law against interracial marriage. Phillips and his bride overcame this hurdle by getting married in Clark County, Washington, on February 3, 1947. Washington had repealed its law against interracial marriage (and cohabitation) prior to being admitted to the Union as a state, and the couple now settled in Seattle.13 Phillips was a seaman in the US Merchant Marine and sailed back and forth between Seattle and Sasebo, Japan, numerous times in the early years after the war as America helped its enemy-turned-ally to rebuild.
Phillips lived out his life as a family man with baseball no longer in the picture until September 9, 1995. On that day, the Seattle Mariners held “Tribute to Negro Leagues Night” and recognized the Seattle Steelheads of the short-lived West Coast Negro Baseball Association and other former Negro League players who were now residing in Seattle; Phillips was among the latter group.14 A few months later, Phillips died on February 4, 1996, at the age of 79. He was survived by his five children: Clarence, Marilyn, Teresa, Regina, and Richard.15
Phillips is among the many Negro League players whose career was brief, but during that short time he moved among the giants of the game, having been on the same pitching staff as Paige and Hilton Smith and having faced such luminaries as Gibson. Although he had to play baseball in a segregated league and then continued to confront discrimination based upon the color of his skin — most notably in regard to his marriage — he persevered to raise a family and contributed his efforts to the improvement of the country he called home.
Phillips’s obituary states that he was a member of the 1946 Portland Roses (a.k.a. Rosebuds) of the West Coast Negro Baseball Association. Phillips did live in Portland in 1946, but he listed his occupation as “Seaman” on his January 1947 marriage license application, and this author was unable to find a single news article to corroborate that Phillips was a member of the team. Press coverage of the league was admittedly sparse, but even retrospective articles fail to mention Phillips. The Negro Leagues Book, Volume 2, also lists Phillips on the roster of the Portland team as well as the Harlem Globetrotters baseball team; the Globetrotters briefly became the Seattle Steelheads and then reverted to the Globetrotters name not long after the demise of the West Coast Negro Baseball Association. Again, this author turned up no evidence that Phillips was a member of either squad, or any indication that Phillips ever made such a claim for himself.
An August 8, 1946, news article stated that the Oakland Larks, champions of the West Coast Negro Baseball Association, “possess several ex-Kansas City Monarchs,” and there were other ex-Monarchs in the league. Thus, it is possible that Phillips could have played for Portland; however, again, it seems unlikely since he already listed his occupation as “Seaman” for 1946.
For sources that mention Phillips as a member of the Portland team or fail to mention him as such, see:
“1946 Coast Negro Champs to Face Strengthened Hills Creek Monday,” Eugene (Oregon) Guard, August 8, 1946: 20. (This is the article that stated the Oakland Larks team had several ex-Monarchs on its roster.)
Eskenazi, David. “Wayback Machine: Seattle Steelheads’ Short Life,” sportspressnw.com/2145947/2013/wayback-machine-seattle-steelheads-short-life. (No mention of Phillips at all in this article about Seattle and the West Coast Negro Baseball Association)
Lester, Larry, and Wayne Stivers, eds. The Negro Leagues Book, Volume 2 (Kansas City, Missouri: NoirTech Research, Inc., 2020). (Names Phillips as a member of both the Portland Rosebuds and Harlem Globetrotters.)
“Norris Phillips, Negro Leagues Pitcher, Dies/Played with Satchel Paige, Once Struck Out Josh Gibson” (obituary), Seattle Times, February 8, 1996, genealogybank.com/doc/obituaries/obit/0FA3744D55657D68-0FA3744D55657D68?h=1&fname=Norris&lname=Phillips&fullname=&rgfromDate=&rgtoDate=&formDate=02/08/1996&formDateFlex=exact&dateType=date&kwinc=&kwexc=&sid=ncqwrikazwtqqtfupapczhegaaucvwbk_s072_1592248849759. (States that Phillips was a member of the Portland team.)
Sherwin, Bob. “Mariner Log/Seattle 6, Kansas City 2: M’s Pay Tribute to Ex-Negro Leagues Players,” Seattle Times, September 10, 1995, archive.seattletimes.com/archive/?date=19950910&slug=2140878. (States that Phillips was a member of the Kansas City Monarchs, but does not mention any other team.)
Whirty, Ryan. “Remembering the Steelheads, Seattle’s Negro League Team,” Seattle Magazine, May 2013, seattlemag.com/article/remembering-steelheads-seattles-negro-league-team. (No mention of Phillips at all in this article about Seattle and the West Coast Negro Baseball Association.)
Ancestry.com was consulted for census information, World War II draft registration, marriage and death records, and ships’ passenger and crew lists.
Seamheads.com provided all player statistics and team records (unless otherwise indicated).
1 There is uncertainty as to whether Phillips pitched left-handed or right-handed. Historian James A. Riley states that Phillips threw and batted left-handed, but the Seamheads website states that Phillips threw right-handed but batted left-handed. News articles never referred to Phillips as either a lefty or righty; thus, they are of no help on the matter and the uncertainty remains for now.
2 James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994), 626.
3 Bob Sherwin, “Mariner Log/Seattle 6, Kansas City 2: M’s Pay Tribute to Ex-Negro Leagues Players,” Seattle Times, September 10, 1995, https://archive.seattletimes.com/archive/?date=19950910&slug=2140878, accessed June 14, 2020. The game that Phillips remembered took place on June 17, 1943, but Phillips started in place of Paige rather than relieving him; see “Monarchs Beat Grays Minus Paige on Hill,” Washington Evening Star, June 18, 1943: 16.
4 The 1920 census gives Norris’s father’s name as “Isaac” and his age as 53. On his marriage certificate, Norris spelled his father’s name as “Isiah.” Additionally, Della Phillips was listed as 30 years old in the 1920 census and, while there certainly could have been a 23-year age difference between husband and wife, it seems less likely in light of the death certificate for one “Isiah” Phillips. A Negro man named Isiah Phillips died in Rosenberg, Texas, on January 29, 1947; his year of birth was listed as 1890, his marital status as “married,” and his father’s name as Norris Phillips. It would make a lot of sense that this was the ballplayer Norris Phillips’ father: 1) His father and mother would have been the same age; 2) Norris would have been named after his paternal grandfather; and 3) Della would have given her status as “widowed” to future census takers to conceal her husband’s abandonment of her and the family, as many women did in those days. A preponderance of the evidence suggests that this was the true history of Norris Phillips’s father.
5 “Red Sox Nose Out K.C.M.,” Arkansas State Press (Little Rock), May 1, 1942: 7.
6 “Memphis Is Here May 31,” Chicago Defender, May 30, 1942: 20.
7 “Monarchs’ Homers Jolt Memphis, 5-0,” Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), July 15, 1942: 34.
8 “Monarchs Tip Giants, 4 to 3, in 14 Innings,” Chicago Sun, August 24, 1942: 17. Negro League statistics are notoriously incomplete and difficult to pin down due to inconsistent press coverage. Seamheads.com lists Phillips as having made only two appearances (one start) for the Monarchs in 1942; however, this author found articles about three games in which Phillips appeared for Kansas City, and all three were starts. Additionally, Seamheads.com lists a record of 0-0 for Phillips in 1942, but his July 14 shutout of Memphis gave him a 1-0 ledger for the season.
9 “Monarchs Beat Grays Minus Paige on Hill,” Washington Evening Star, June 18, 1943: 16.
10 “A Pair for Monarchs,” Kansas City Times, July 6, 1943: 12.
11 “Monarchs Expect to Capture Championship 5th Time,” Weekly Review (Birmingham, Alabama), July 17, 1943: 7.
13 The state of Oregon repealed its law against interracial marriages in 1951. In 1967, the US Supreme Court ruled, in Loving v. Virginia, that laws against interracial marriages were unconstitutional, leading to their repeal in all states.
15 “Norris Phillips, Negro Leagues Pitcher, Dies/Played with Satchel Paige, Once Struck Out Josh Gibson” (obituary), Seattle Times, February 8, 1996, GenealogyBank.com, accessed June 15, 2020. The obituary states that Phillips died on February 7, but both the state of Washington Death Index and the US Social Security Death Index list his date of death as February 4. Additionally, the obituary made no mention of Phillips’s wife; thus, she either preceded him in death or they were divorced.