Handy in a Pinch: Dave Philley

This article was written by Cort Vitty

This article was published in The National Pastime: From Swampoodle to South Philly (Philadelphia, 2013)

Fans of the 1958 Philadelphia Phillies had little to cheer about at the end of a rather dismal season. When the final standings were posted, the club was firmly planted dead last in the National League. One bright note was the team’s pinch-hitting performance. A leading contributor was a well-traveled veteran named Dave Philley, who hit .404 off the bench and ended the season with a remarkable streak of eight consecutive pinch safeties to set a major-league record. Not bad for a 38-year-old journeyman.

Fans of the 1958 Philadelphia Phillies had little to cheer about at the end of a rather dismal season. When the final standings were posted, the club was firmly planted dead last in the National League. One bright note was the team’s pinch-hitting performance: It led both major leagues with an impressive batting average of .308 and 11 home runs.[fn]Ford Sawyer, “Bowman, Zernial Top Pinch-Hitters,” The Sporting News, October 28, 1958.[/fn] A leading contributor to this clutch performance was a well-traveled veteran named Dave Philley, who hit .404 off the bench and ended the season with a remarkable streak of eight consecutive pinch safeties to set a major-league record. Not bad for a 38-year-old journeyman making his second tour of the city.

Philadelphians likely remembered Philley from his first stint in the City of Brotherly Love during the early part of the decade. Back then he was a defensive stalwart for the Philadelphia Athletics, regularly patrolling center field, where he covered lots of ground with his long, graceful strides and exceptional speed. He also possessed a rifle arm, fully capable of cutting down opposing baserunners. Dave Philley’s career was radically transformed during the decade of the 1950s and he did it in his own workmanlike style.

Born May 16, 1920, in Garrett’s Bluff, a suburb of Paris, Texas, David Earl was the second son of Maxie and Leila Philley. Baseball ran in the family; Dave’s dad played semi-pro ball in East Texas, while older brother Noel and younger brother Frank each had brief professional careers. In addition to baseball, Dave excelled at football, track, and boxing at Chicota High School, where he also became a local Golden Gloves champ.

As a youngster, Dave naturally batted left and threw right-handed, until a fall from a tree cracked a bone in his left arm. The injury made it impossible for the eightyear- old to swing from his natural side, but wanting to continue playing the game he loved, he learned to hit right-handed. Proper healing was a long, drawn-out process, so he had lots of practice batting right-handed and became so adept that he continued to switch-hit after the arm fully recovered.[fn]“Dave Philley is Fighting Slump,” Salisbury Times, April 24, 1956.[/fn]

Signed by the Chicago White Sox as a catcher in 1940, he was quickly shifted to the outfield to capitalize on his fine speed. Although an outfield novice, Philley did well enough to warrant a brief (seven-game) trial with the parent White Sox late in 1941. When Manager Jimmy Dykes cautiously inserted the rookie into the lineup against the Washington Nationals, Philley completely lost one ball hit in his direction and, later, a scorching line drive barely missed his head. A Washington sportswriter commented: “A rookie named Dave Philley played left field for five innings and escaped without serious injury.” Dykes later preemptively “removed the youngster before being charged with manslaughter.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Philley carried the tattered news clipping in his wallet for many years.

Philley served in the United States Army from early 1942 until after the end of WWII. He was discharged in 1946 and returned to work out the kinks with Milwaukee in the American Association, hitting .329 in 130 games, which was good enough to warrant another late-season call-up by the White Sox. He became Chicago’s regular center fielder in 1947, hitting .258 in 143 games. His 21 stolen bases ranked second in the league and his 11 triples placed him third in that category. White Sox General Manager Frank Lane admired Philley’s style, calling him “a battler not afraid of anything.”[fn]Art Morrow, “Hoodooed Hitter Philley Swings on Jinx,” The Sporting News, May 17, 1953.[/fn]

The six-foot, 188-pound Philley improved to a .287 mark in 1948, while leading all AL outfielders with 22 assists. A 1949 move to right field didn’t affect his hitting or fielding one bit, as Philley posted a .286 average, while again leading the league with 16 assists.

Realizing he hit about 100 points higher from the port side of the plate, Philley toyed with the idea of becoming strictly a left-handed batter in 1950. The test ended early in the season at Yankee Stadium, when he was jammed with a pitch.[fn]“Hats Off,” The Sporting News, May 6, 1953.[/fn] The close call prompted him to resume switch-hitting—at the time he was the only regular in the American League to do so. He finished the season with a career-best 14 home runs, although his average dipped to .242. Philley later acknowledged his productivity suffered at this point in his career, due to his self-imposed tendency to swing for the fences.

By 1951, his former skipper Jimmy Dykes was running the Philadelphia Athletics, and on April 30, he acquired Philley as part of a rare three-team deal, involving the A’s, White Sox, and Cleveland. Dykes had always admired Philley’s style of play and was happy to have him back. Philley settled into center field, while fellow acquisition (and roommate) Gus Zernial patrolled left. Right fielder Elmer Valo filled the remaining slot among the outfield corps. It’s interesting to note that all three would go on to become prominent pinch-hitters later in their respective careers.

After hitting .263 in 1951 with Philadelphia, and again in 1952, Dave decided to switch bats early in 1953. He’d been using a 47.5-ounce model as a left-handed hitter, but from the right side he preferred a 34-ounce piece of lumber. The monstrous war-club was a thick handled model brought to the clubhouse one day by Father William J. Casey, an old friend of Manager Dykes. Father Casey visited the team, accompanied by the 47.5-ounce bat he used in college. Dykes passed it around and intimated that modern players couldn’t handle such a bat. Zernial later recalled: “We all swung it around a little for warm-up, but Dave got to fooling around with it more than the rest of us. He began going up to the plate with it and one day at Yankee Stadium he lined one right into the stands. Well after that, it was his regular bat and he did well with it.”[fn]Morrow.[/fn] Philley abandoned the bat early in 1953, however, and began using his 34-ounce model from both sides.

The lighter bat produced immediate results and helped Philley enjoy his most productive offensive season yet, hitting .303 in 157 games for the A’s. Philley worked hard at his craft and practiced to become an exceptional bunter, and he once led the A’s in sacrifices. Defensively, he again led all AL outfielders with 18 assists.

After his success in 1953, the A’s simply couldn’t meet Philley’s salary demands. As a result, he was traded to Cleveland just prior to the start of the 1954 season. He learned of the transaction while negotiating a cattle deal in Oklahoma, and he couldn’t have been happier. “With Cleveland, I’ll have a chance at the pennant. They’re nice people and fine players. It’s a real break for me.” Cleveland GM Hank Greenberg added: “He’s fast of foot, a good defensive man, and an outstanding hustler. We’ve got another solid outfielder who can be very helpful to us. He’s the kind of ballplayer we’ve been looking for.”[fn]“Philley Pleased With New Team,” Paris News, February 21, 1954.[/fn]

The hard-playing Philley liked to win and called himself “the most hated player in the American League.” He confidently stated, “I never look for trouble,”[fn]Morrow.[/fn] but teammates and opposition alike agreed he never ran from it either. “I play so hard to win that if a man gets in my way, I go into him, knock him down. If I was a manager and one of my men didn’t go into the second baseman to break up the double play, I’d fire him. That’s part of team play.”[fn]Bill Thompson, “Billboard,” Paris News, April 7, 1954.[/fn]

In 1954, Cleveland was pennant bound. Cleveland teammates and fans agreed that the Paris outfielder was the man who built the pennant fire under the team, even though he hit only .226 for the season.[fn]Bill Thompson, “Billboard,” Paris News, October 10, 1954.[/fn] Philley made his only World Series appearance that October, as the New York Giants swept favored Cleveland in four straight. Philley started the first and third games, both against right-handed pitching. In the first inning of Game 1, he narrowly missed a two-run homer when Don Mueller, with his back firmly planted against the right-field fence, hauled in his deep drive.

In 1954, the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles, but despite relocating, the team still finished a dismal seventh. Under manager Paul Richards, 1955 started out even worse: the O’s opened the season at a 20–53 clip. Desperate to add offensive punch, Richards learned that Philley was available and promptly plucked the big Texan off the waiver list from Cleveland. The acquisition immediately sparked the club, with Philley hitting .299 as a regular outfielder. The Orioles went 37– 45 after his arrival and the media voted him Most Valuable Oriole for 1955.

Philley was traded by Baltimore back to the White Sox, in a multi-player deal on May 21, 1956. Hitting .265, while adding first base to his growing resume of defensive positions, he helped Chicago finish third in the American League. The versatile Philley also saw action in the outfield for the White Sox. Traded to Detroit on June 14, 1957, Philley was primarily a pinch-hitter and hit .400 off the bench, while posting an overall mark of .283 for the fourth-place Tigers.

Philley was sold to the Phillies on December 11, 1957, giving the veteran his first opportunity to face National League pitching. Although he was acquired specifically for pinch-hitting duties, the 38-year-old was still agile enough for outfield or first-base duties. On May 17, 1958, while chasing a foul ball, the hard-playing veteran broke his nose while diving into the first base stands. The collision kept Philley out of the lineup for six days.

Overall, he feasted on NL pitching to the tune of a .309 average, producing 18 hits as a pinch-hitter, with eight coming consecutively at the end of the season. The last safety was on September 28, 1958, against the Pirates. It broke the previous record of seven consecutive pinch hits, set by Debs Garms of the Pirates in 1941. Although the Phillies finished in last place, their pinch-hitting corps, led by Philley and Bob Bowman, paced the club to a league-leading pinch-hitting average of .308. Also prominent off the bench were Rip Repulski and Wally Post. Philley remarked about his approach to pinch-hitting: “I guess you’d call it a battle of wits up there. You learn more about pitchers. You have to keep learning.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]

Philley believed he became a better player at this point in his career. Although he relished the opportunity to play every day, Philley acknowledged he did more thinking about the game as a reserve than he did when he was in the regular lineup. He studied opposing pitchers, learned their best pitches, and became better prepared when called upon in the late innings.

Philley extended his streak to nine hits in a row when he connected in his first appearance of the 1959 season. His seventh-inning double came in Milwaukee on April 16, 1959, against right-hander Lew Burdette, in a 7–3 Phillies loss. Philley elaborated on his overall approach to pinch-hitting: “I walk to the plate with all the confidence in the world. I figure I’ve got only one shot at it. I relax as much as possible, yet manage to bear down. Of course it helps to know the opposing pitchers. I study them as much as I can.”[fn]Allen Lewis, “Philley and Bowman Give Phillies Top Clutch Hitting Team,” The Sporting News, May 20, 1959.[/fn] Confidently standing at the plate in a significant crouch with his knees bent, Philley utilized a slightly open stance and level swing, usually offering at the first pitch in the strike zone.

A productive .291 mark for the 1959 Phillies resulted in his sale to the San Francisco Giants at the start of the 1960 season. Philley hit only .164 in 39 games. He was reunited with the Orioles and former manager Paul Richards on September 1, 1960. Although 40 years old at the time and once again obtained specifically for pinchhitting duties, the veteran was immediately pressed into the lineup when starting left fielder Gene Woodling was injured. Philley hit .265 in 14 games.

By 1961, the Baltimore Orioles had become very respectable, winning 95 games and finishing a strong third in the American League. Coming off the bench, 41-year-old Dave Philley laced 24 safeties to establish an American League record. Despite his success as a pinch-hitter, the Orioles released Philley at the end of the season. By then, former boss Paul Richards was developing the expansion Houston Colt 45’s. He signed Philley as a free agent in 1962, and subsequently traded the veteran to the Boston Red Sox, where he wrapped up his big league career. Philley then returned to work for Richards as a minor-league manager in the Houston organization, helping to develop future stars in spring training, including Joe Morgan and Rusty Staub—the latter went on to tie Philley’s major-league pinch-hitting record. Philley also served as an instructor and scout for the Boston Red Sox.

Overall, Philley’s 1,700 hits in 6,296 at-bats produced a lifetime batting average of .270, with a total of 84 home runs, in a career spanning from World War II to the Kennedy administration. “I figured I’d play five or six years,” said Philley. “I had one thing on my mind and that was to play big-league ball. Nothing was going to interfere with that.”[fn]Tom Waits, “Memories Vivid for Philley,” Paris News, June 20, 1990.[/fn]

Philley was a competitor and strived to improve every aspect of his game. A believer in top physical conditioning, he was a proponent of fingertip push-ups, as taught to him by Ted Williams.[fn]Dan Dunkin,“Dave Philley, Still a Ballplayer After All These Years,” Paris News,
July 3, 1983.[/fn] Former Oriole teammate Willy Miranda related a story from the spring of 1956 when the holdout Philley and the tardy Miranda showed up late for spring training in Arizona. Arriving on the same evening, they were temporary roommates. Miranda commented how Philley arose the next morning at 6 a.m., sprang out of bed, hit the floor, and did 50 push-ups without even losing his breath. He then coaxed Miranda out of bed to do the same. Philley regularly turned in early, always got plenty of sleep, watched his diet, and strictly adhered to training rules. The strongest drink he would consume was soda pop, and an admitted vice was smoking an occasional cigar.[fn]Bob Maisel, “Morning After,” Baltimore Sun, July 2, 1960.[/fn]

Dave Philley played major-league baseball with the same no-nonsense efficiency he successfully utilized in operating his 557-acre Texas ranch and managing his other business enterprises. In retirement, he became an active community leader and held several local elected posts. He enjoyed fishing and quail hunting with fellow Texan and former major leaguer Eddie Robinson. Often in demand as an after dinner speaker, Philley would happily appear before youth and church groups. A devout Baptist, he spoke frankly about his religious views, and had no patience for major leaguers who set bad examples with partying and carousing.[fn]“Dave Philley: Baseball is His Business,” Paris News, March 8, 1959.[/fn] Philley was tending his Texas ranch when he passed away from an apparent heart attack on March 15, 2012, at the age of 91.

Primarily remembered as one of the game’s finest pinch-hitters, fans in Philadelphia could attest that Philley was much more. He actually had two very distinct careers while wearing the uniform of eight different major-league teams. In addition to his pinch-hitting prowess, he earlier played as a regular at multiple positions. He was fast afield and a threat to steal bases. A more than adequate switchhitter, he possessed some power and a strong throwing arm. “Durable Dave” was quite handy to have around for over 20 years. In many respects, he was the exceptionally rare pinch hitter, possessing all five tools.

CORT VITTY is a native of New Jersey and a graduate of Seton Hall University. A lifelong fan of the New York Yankees, he has been a SABR member ((Bob Davids Chapter) since 1999. Vitty’s work has appeared in “The National Pastime” and “Go-Go to Glory: The 1959 White Sox.” Web articles are posted at Seamheads.com and PhiladelphiaAthletics.org. Vitty has authored SABR biographies of Buzz Arlett, Lu Blue, Mickey Grasso, Goose Goslin, Babe Phelps, Dave Philley, and Harry “Suitcase” Simpson. Vitty resides in Maryland with his wife, Mary Anne.



The New York Times
Paris (Texas) News
Salisbury (Maryland) Times
The Sporting News
The Washington Post