Thursday, August 8, 2013

Mission Impossible: Phillies Pitchers at Baker Bowl

Philadelphia, the site of last week's SABR conference, has a rich baseball history that includes Baker Bowl, once home to the Phillies.  This Baseball Historical Insight examines how Baker Bowl was so extreme in favoring batters after the dead ball era that it made it impossible for the Phillies to build a quality pitching staff necessary to be competitive.

Mission Impossible:  Phillies Pitchers at Baker Bowl

Baker Bowl, the Philadelphia Phillies' home park from 1895 to 1938 and named after Phillies' owner William Baker after he bought the team in 1913, was probably the most hitter-friendly park in baseball history and an absolute nightmare for pitchers, especially after the dead ball era gave way to the lively ball in the 1920s.   Baker Bowl's dimensions in left, left-center, and even straight-away center field were within the ballpark, so to speak, of contemporary major league stadiums of that era, but adjacent train tracks and a rail yard left precious little space for right field.  It was only 280 feet down the right field line and a mere 300 feet to right-center field. Other parks were short down the right field line--in the National League, New York's Polo Grounds, Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh were all 300 feet or less, as was Yankee Stadium and Cleveland's League Park in the American League (and Boston's Fenway Park was barely over 300 feet)--but the fences in all these parks pulled away sharply to right-center to create open space. The Polo Grounds, for example, with the shortest distance down the lines, had a vast expanse of outfield because of how dramatically the grandstand turned outward, with right and left center fields more than 440 feet away.

The dimensions of Baker Bowl were clearly helpful to the Phillies' greatest left-handed slugger, Chuck Klein, who made a Hall of Fame career by pounding out 246 doubles (leading the league twice) and 191 home runs (leading the league four times) while batting .359 in his first six major league seasons from 1928 to 1933 before being traded to the Cubs primarily for a cash infusion after winning the Triple Crown in 1933.  But 53 percent of his doubles (131) and 68 percent of his going-going-goners (130) were at Baker Bowl, where he also batted .413 during those six years compared to only .305 on the road.  In his Triple Crown season, 20 of Klein's 28 home runs were hit in the friendly confines of Baker Bowl, and his league-leading batting average of .368 was built on a .467 average in 72 games at home rather than his very ordinary .280 average in 80 games on the road.  (Rainouts and scheduling constraints forced the Phillies to make up three postponed home games on the road, in case you're wondering why there were 80 road games instead of 77.)

It is a true truism (as opposed to an anecdotal truism) that good pitching is an essential component of winning teams.  The only Phillies teams to have any success at Baker Bowl were from 1915 to 1917, winning the NL pennant the first year and finished second the next two.  But this was the dead ball era, and the Phillies had Hall of Famers Grover Cleveland Alexander and Eppa Rixey on the pitching staff.  In 1915, when they won the pennant, the Phillies led the league in ERA, and they were third and second in ERA in 1916 and 1917.  Even so, Baker Bowl was a park that was distinctly more favorable to hitters than pitchers.  More runs were scored in Baker Bowl in 1915 than in all but two other National League parks--Chicago's West Side Park and St. Louis's Robison Park--and in 1917 only fans in Weeghman Park in Chicago (later to be renamed Wrigley Field after the chewing gum magnate bought the Cubs) saw more total runs scored than those in the Phillies' home grounds.

After the dead ball era, Baker Bowl's claustrophobic dimensions made it impossible for the Phillies to put together a good pitching staff.  From 1919 until the Phillies moved over to share Shibe Park with Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics in 1938, the Phillies allowed the most runs in the National League every single season except 1934, when they allowed the second-most runs in the league.  More runs were scored by both teams at Baker Bowl than in any other NL park every one of those years except 1927, when the Phillies played 12 home games at Shibe Park, and 1934, when they played only 71 of their scheduled home games at home, and in both those years there were more runs averaged per game at Baker Bowl than in any other NL park.  How bad was it for pitchers on either side?  In 1929, Chuck Klein's first full season with Philadelphia, there were 25 percent more runs scored in Baker Bowl than in any other NL ballpark (Wrigley Field was second), and so it continued each of the next four years when he was mashing his way to a Hall of Fame career: 20 percent more runs scored in Baker Bowl in 1930 (once again ahead of Wrigley); 7 percent more in 1931 (the Cardinals' Sportsman's Park coming in a close second); 28 percent more in 1932 (ahead of Ebbets Field); and 20 percent more runs in 1933 (ahead of Sportsman's Park).

Having to labor in Baker Bowl for half the season, no pitcher was going to have a great career with the Phillies as long as they played there.  And none did after Alexander and Rixey, who had the advantage of pitching before livelier balls were introduced to help facilitate Babe Ruth's home run revolution. Moreover, the tremendous handicap for pitchers at Baker Bowl gave no incentive for the Phillies to try to build a quality pitching staff.  With that 40-foot high tin-covered brick wall in right field topped by an additional 20 feet of fence looming menacingly behind their left shoulders and probably seeming so close they could reach back and touch it, even good pitchers simply were not going to be very successful pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies.  The resounding boom of batted balls banged off the wall no doubt left pitchers shell-shocked, perhaps even just listening to batting practice, let alone what occurred in the game.  

After World War I, the best pitchers to have pitched for the Phillies at Baker Bowl made their mark after they left Philadelphia--Bucky Walters with the Reds and Claude Passeau with the Cubs.  Had Walters and Passeau been condemned to pitch their entire careers with Baker Bowl as their home park, it is likely neither would be remembered in baseball history today.  As for the more notable starting pitchers with the Phillies who were teammates of Mr. Klein and surely welcomed his battering of Baker Bowl's 60-foot high right field wall (including the in-play fence)--righties Phil Collins, Ray Benge, Claude Willoughby, and lefties Les Sweetland and Jumbo Jim Elliott--are not these names lost to history?


Personal Note:  My presentation at this year's conference of the Society for American Baseball Research was entitled, "Consolidating Major League Integration:  A Different Perspective," based on the series of posts on this site related to the movie, 42.

1 comment:

  1. I recently wrote an article on the Baker Bowl and much of my inspiration to do so came from following SABR. Learning what high quality, original content looks like. I love the uncompromising approach they take for uncovering the historical truths about the game that I so dearly love. I can only hope to learn to write with the same passion and honestly that they do.