April 8, 2017
Between games of a double-header in Chicago on May 5, 1963, on a day the White Sox honored Minnie Minoso for his outstanding seasons there, a 31-year-old rookie with the Washington Senators was feted by a marching band and presented with a new car and other gifts. The player was Richard Eugene Phillips, the pride of Racine, Wisconsin, who was already more than a decade into a career in baseball that lasted until his death in 1998.
Dick Phillips spent nine seasons in the minor leagues, interrupted by a three-year enlistment during the Korean War, pursuing his dream of reaching the majors. He finally made it, playing two full seasons and parts of two others, mostly with the expansion Washington Senators.
His versatility – he once played seven positions in a seven-inning AAA game — and his long and varied experience helped him extend his professional career for another 30 years as a manager, scout, coach and broadcaster. He managed teams in places as far flung as Honolulu, Bangor, Maine; Orlando and Vancouver, working for the Minnesota Twins, Milwaukee Brewers and San Diego Padres. He was the analyst for Al Michaels when the two broadcast AAA Hawaii Islanders games in 1968. He spent 1980 as the first-base coach for the Padres.
Phillips was born on November 24, 1931, in Racine, a city on Lake Michigan 22 miles south of Milwaukee. He was the second of three sons of Edward and Leona A. Phillips. The family’s ancestry was Dutch and German. His father abandoned the family in the depth of the Depression, leaving Dick and his brothers to be raised by their mother, who later served as the longtime secretary to the mayors of Racine. Dick graduated in 1949 from Racine Lutheran High School, where he was an outstanding basketball and baseball player. On the court, he averaged 21 points and once scored 40 points in a game. He also played for American Legion and various travel teams. His athletic prowess earned him a basketball scholarship to Valparaiso University in Indiana, where he played a season of varsity baseball, drawing the attention of pro scouts.
Signed to a $1,500 bonus at 19 by the Boston Braves, Phillips left school and was assigned to Class A Saginaw in the Central League to begin the 1951 season, but was soon shipped to Class D Fulton in the Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League, where he hit .297. That was enough to get him recalled to Saginaw, where he promptly broke his wrist and missed the last month of the season after he ran into an outfield fence. The Braves released him at the end of the year.
With U.S. troops fighting in Korea, Phillips decided to join the Marine Corps. He was first stationed in San Diego before eventually spending 11 months in the war zone, where he saw combat. He attained the rank of sergeant. Before his three-year enlistment ended, he was able to play baseball on a service team with other professionals while stationed at Cherry Point, North Carolina. Scouts from the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates and the Braves, then in Milwaukee, took note.
As soon as he was discharged in February 1955, Phillips was offered another $1,500 bonus and signed by Braves scout Gil English. That same month, he married his high school sweetheart, the former Betty Jane Kitzman, to whom he had become engaged late in 1954.
Phillips split the ’55 season between Class C Eau Claire, where he hit .320, and Class B Evansville, where he hit .342. The left-handed batter, who stood six feet even and weighed 180 pounds, was the Northern League’s rookie of the year at Eau Claire, where he was a regular in center fielder and an occasional second baseman. That fall, the Braves listed Phillips among their top 10 prospects.
Promoted to Class A Jacksonville in ’56, he was a teammate of Juan Pizzaro and Ed Charles, among others who later played in the majors. Phillips hit .288 with 15 homers, batting leadoff and playing center most of the time. During the season, he celebrated the birth of his first child, his son Danny, by going 4-for-5 that night.
That fall, Phillips went to Mexico to play in the Veracruz winter league with seven other Braves farmhands. The team was managed by Braves coach John Riddle, under whom Phillips prospered, hitting .342 with 11 homers among 36 extra base hits in 301 plate appearances. He also began playing first base on a regular basis for the first time, and grew to like it.
His climb through the Braves minor leagues continued with AA Atlanta in 1957, where Phillips put in significant time at third base in addition to playing the outfield. Although he hit just .254, his 79 walks produced a respectable on-base percentage of .353. He was named to the Southern League all-star team.
“Phillips has done a fine job in center,” Atlanta Crackers manager Buddy Bates said in July 1957, “but his best chance of going to the majors will be as a third baseman. Dick is a fine instinctive player and makes a mistake only one time.”
Back with Atlanta in 1958, he played 86 of his 98 games at shortstop. Again, he was named a Southern League all-star, hitting .297 with a .378 OBP, although he spent 40 games with AAA Wichita. Early in the season, on the night his wife gave birth to their daughter Karen, Phillips had a double and three singles. Clearly, fatherhood agreed with him.
The Braves, meanwhile, were winning their second National League pennant with a powerful lineup. Phillips had to know he’d have a hard time getting beyond AAA. Offered the same pay he received in ’58, Phillips decided to hold out for a small raise from Louisville, where the Braves top minor league team had relocated. As a result, Louisville sold him to Sacramento, which had a looser affiliation with the Braves.
Although his offensive numbers fell in 1959, his versatility was on full display as he played 46 games at first base, 29 at third, 23 at shortstop, and 13 in the outfield. At the end of 1960’s spring training, without checking with Braves management, Sacramento sold Phillips to Tacoma, the Giant’s AAA affiliate, for pitcher Bud Watkins.
Phillips rebounded at the plate with Tacoma in 1960, hitting .293 on a team that featured Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey and Matty Alou. He spent about two-thirds of his time at first base and the rest at third. Yet again, he was part of an organization full of talent and a parent team with an outstanding lineup. So he found himself back at Tacoma as a 29-year-old in 1961.
He made the most of it, producing hits that won six of the team’s first 29 victories. Phillips appeared in 59 games at first base, 37 at second, 10 at third, 48 in the outfield. His one game at shortstop came on the final day of the season when he played every position except pitcher and catcher. Although he hit just .264, he was named the Pacific Coast League’s most valuable player on the strength of 94 walks, a club-record 98 runs batted in and a .382 on-base percentage.
Tacoma won the 1961 PCL title – the fourth time Phillips had played on a minor league pennant winner. Fans voted him the team’s most popular player. Winning the MVP “was the biggest thrill of my life, but I didn’t receive one official word from the league about it,” Phillips said in January 1962. “But I got a great big trophy from the Tacoma fans.” In his book, Six Seasons: A History of the Tacoma Giants, 1960-65, Jacob Jordan described Phillips as “a special sort of a guy,” and “a terrific ambassador for the Giants organization and the city of Tacoma.”
That fall, Phillips was added to the Giants’ 40-man roster and was expected to have a good chance to make the Giants roster in the spring. “All I’ve ever wanted was a chance,” Phillips said in January 1962. “Maybe I can’t make it, but this way, I’ll know.”
Giants manager Alvin Dark envisioned him as the team’s top pinch-hitter as well as a backup infielder for the ’62 season. “A fellow of Phillips’ age and background realizes there is an opportunity as a pinch-hitter,” Dark told The Sporting News early in spring training.
Indeed, Phillips broke camp with the team and made his major league debut on April 15, flying out to right as a pinch hitter for Marichal in a loss to Cincinnati. He stayed with the Giants into May, but on a team headed to the National League title, he got into just five games and had just a walk and an RBI to show for his four plate appearances. Still, Giants player voted him a quarter share of their World Series payout.
Optioned to Tacoma, Phillips had another solid season, playing 108 games at second base and a dozen in the outfield. He made the PCL all-star team as a utility man. But he was 30 years old and still looking for his first major league hit. On December 25, 1962, Phillips received word that the Washington Senators had tentatively purchased his contract from Tacoma on condition that he make the Senators team in spring training. That he did, and the deal that sent him from the Giants organization to Washington was finalized on April 5, 1963.
“We were opening presents when the phone rang,” Phillips recalled about the good news on Christmas Day. “What a present that was: a chance to make the majors.”
The 1963 Senators finished with 106 losses, but the 31-year-old spent the entire season with the team, starting 67 games at first base and playing a few games at second and third. His many fans in Racine were so pleased that the much-liked Phillips was in the big leagues at last, that some 200 of them took chartered buses to Chicago for a “Dick Phillips Day” ceremony arranged in his honor. Minoso, a Washington teammate of Phillips’ at the tail-end of the Cuban star’s career, was baffled at the scene of a drum and bugle corps playing in honor of an unheralded rookie who was being presented with a brand new station wagon. Minnie had to settle for a plaque from the White Sox.
Writing about the incongruity, Merrell Whittlesey of Washington’s Evening Star wrote of Phillips: “He is a guy everybody likes. The people from Dick’s hometown were giving him a car simply because he’s a nice guy.” The following spring, Whittlesey wrote that “Dick is the perfect version of the handyman. He has done everything except pitch.”
“I’ll do anything they tell me, just so I can play,” Phillips told Whittlesey.
Despite his .237 average in 1963, Phillips hit seven of his 10 home runs playing part-time during a 29-game stretch between August 16 and September 11. The last of the seven was a 10th-inning game-ender that beat the Detroit Tigers. During that hot stretch, he raised his average from .218 to .244 and had a modest nine-game hitting streak. His 10 walks as a pinch-hitter in 1963 led the league.
Phillips’ positive attitude and versatility impressed manager Gil Hodges, who put Phillips in the lineup more consistently as the 1963 season wore on. “He’s a good guy to have around,” Hodges said.
In January 1964, Phillips returned the praise. “Hodges … made an effort to get to know all the players,” he said. “I got to play more after he took over.” The manager, a Gold Glove first baseman with the Dodgers, taught Phillips a few tricks about playing the position.
After the Senators acquired Bill “Moose” Skowron in the off-season, Phillips knew he was likely to see less playing time in 1964. Indeed, even after Skowron was traded to the White Sox in mid-July, Phillips still had to compete for playing time at first base with Joe Cunningham and Roy Sievers. He ended up starting 52 games at first and two at third. He was a late-inning substitute at second base in one game.
The highlights were few: He went 4-for-4 against Jim Kaat in mid-August, a month during which he raised his average from .216 to .245 He drove in the winning runs with sacrifice flies in consecutive victories over the Chicago White Sox on September 18 and 19, 1964, knocking the Sox out of first place.
On his 33rd birthday, November 24, 1964, Phillips and six other players were shipped to the Senators’ AAA affiliate, which was soon to become the Hawaii Islanders. The next week, the Nats traded for Bob Chance, a 24-year-old management envisioned as the first baseman of the future. The Senators also acquired first baseman Dick Nen, 25, from the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of the blockbuster Frank Howard-for-Claude Osteen trade in early December. Little room would have been left for Phillips.
Nen, optioned to Hawaii after spring training, became a teammate of Phillips in Honolulu, the Islanders’ home, in ’65. As a result, Phillips ended up playing most of the time at second base, with Nen playing first. Phillips hit .276 with 17 home runs and a .349 on-base-percentage. He was back at first base exclusively in 1966 when, in a surprise, the 34-year-old journeyman was recalled by the Senators on June 27. It’s unclear why, other than to provide a veteran presence on the bench. He started just five games, all at first base, and had just 40 plate appearances, the last of which came on September 25, his final time at bat in the majors.
Phillips was back with the Islanders in 1967. During the season, the new manager, Wayne Terwilliger, asked Phillips to join his coaching staff. The next year, Phillips found himself in the radio booth as the color analyst for Islander games with a young broadcaster named Al Michaels, who was doing his first year of baseball play-by-play.
Phillips and his family – by now, he and his wife had a second daughter, Jodi – liked life in Hawaii and remained on the islands for the next 15 years. He established the Dick Phillips Baseball Clinic there during the off-season and managed to attract Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin and Maury Wills as instructors. He probably didn’t have to twist their arms to get them to Hawaii in the winter.
After several years of selling insurance in Honolulu while scouting part-time for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Phillips was hired by the Minnesota Twins to manage the team’s Class A Carolina League affiliate in Lynchburg, Va., in 1973. He was recommended for the job by Hal Keller, the Texas Rangers farm director who had held the same position with Washington when Phillips played there. His Lynchburg team won the pennant. Promoted to Orlando, Phillips guided the Twins’ AA Southern League team to two titles in three seasons.
The San Diego Padres, now the parent club of the Hawaii Islanders, hired Phillips to manage the AAA team in 1977. He won the division title and took his team to the league championship series that year and again in 1979.
Phillips discussed his managing philosophy in an interview with Ferd Borsch of the Honolulu Advertiser in 1977. “I like to play the running game if I have speed. I like the hit-and-run, and I try and out-think the other guy,” Phillips said. “I expect the players to hustle all the time. If they don’t hustle, they don’t play.” But he insisted he had a relaxed style. “The only way to have fun in this game is to be loose. You should enjoy playing baseball,” he told Borsch.
Phillips was back in a big league uniform in 1980, hired as the first base coach and hitting instructor by new Padres manager Jerry Coleman, the team’s longtime broadcaster. Coleman’s Padres finished last in their division, so he was gone after a season. Philips, too, moved on, returning to the Twins organization in 1981 as the manager of Visalia, a team that featured Kent Hrbek, in the California League. Phillips won another pennant.
According to Dick’s son Danny, his father always hoped to get the chance to manage in the majors, and the Twins ownership had given him reason to believe his time would come. “That ’87 team should have been his,” Danny Phillips said, as his dad had managed many of the players in the minors. “Everybody who played for him said he was the best manager they ever had.”
The Milwaukee Brewers hired Phillips to manage their AAA team, the Vancouver Canadians, in 1982. After being replaced as manager midway through the ’83 season, Phillips moved to the Canadians’ front office, where he remained as assistant general manager through 1994. Back in uniform, he managed Surrey, a British Columbia team, in the independent Western League in 1996 and the Bangor, Maine, team in the independent Northeast League in 1997. He was planning to return to the front office with the Canadians before his death from cancer on March 29, 1998, in Burnaby, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver.
Phillips was inducted into the Tacoma Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992 and posthumously into the Racine County Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.
Dick Phillips is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Racine. His wife Betty died there in 2009.
“I never thought of giving up,” Phillips said in the spring of 1962. “I just wouldn’t give up until I got a shot at the major leagues.”
“He was a grinder,” Dick’s son Danny said.
“In my mind, Dick was a true big-leaguer,” Frank Howard, the Senators slugger and longtime family friend, said of Phillips upon hearing of his death. “I’m not talking so much ability as I am the way he interacted with people, the way he carried himself and the way he cared about people.”
A version of this essay appears as part of the Society for American Baseball Research’s BioProject (SABR.org)