This book is a delight both for fans of Philadelphia baseball and fans of baseball itself. Prolific author Rich Westcott has assembled five-page reflections on each of Philadelphia’s top 50 players. The list extends from the Pioneers (pre-1900) to the greatest players of the Modern Era (1971-2012). In-between are looks at Philadelphia legends which are sure to strike the nostalgia keys and bring back memories of great names whom one has seen play or whose exploits have been read about through the years.
Turning to the end of the book, we find the “Sources” from which Westcott has drawn his information. These include interviews by the author with nearly twenty former players. So there are genuine first-hand reminiscences throughout the book. The books listed along with periodicals, websites, and other sources provide the opportunities for further exploration of those players who have whetted one’s appetite with Westcott’s presentations. While the task of choosing the top fifty players in Philadelphia baseball history is fraught with making judgments, Westcott has consulted others along the way. This input from colleagues has been important and “in all but a few cases they have verified the choices of the author” (pg. xi). So this is a solid list.
A photo of each player gives a “face” to their biography. A tagline is also given, such as: “Gavvy Cravath: King of the Deadball Home Run Hitters;” and “Louis Santop: First Great Negro League Catcher; ” and, “Granny Hamner: Fiery Captain of the Whiz Kids.” Not surprisingly, it is “Greg Luzinski: The Bull Could Bash the Ball”!
Westcott indicates that twenty-five of the fifty players selected are members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Twenty-eight impacted baseball the most while playing for the Phillies. Fourteen biographies are from the Athletics, three Negro League players appear, and five native sons. Westcott looked for players from a Philadelphia team who played for the team for at least five years. Native sons are those born in the greater Philadelphia area. It was hard, says Westcott, to keep some players off the list. Those included made a strong impact on baseball in Philadelphia and are included, not because of popularity but because of performance (pg. xiv).
Since I am from Wampum, Pennsylvania, I turned first to the story of Dick (Richie) Allen, who is also from Wampum. Westcott does not disappoint in recounting the zigs and zags of Allen's career. He was a “spectacular hitter with awesome power” and served two stints with the Phillies, from 1963-1969 and 1975-1976. Westcott is a master of description and also providing an apt quotation. On Allen, he quotes Willie Stargell who said, “I know why they boo Richie all the time. When he hits a home run, there’s no souvenir” (pg. 202).
Another favorite of mine is Lefty Grove. Here too, Westcott quickly sets the stage for the story of the great southpaw, who won three hundred games and possessed blazing speed. Quoting writer Westbrook Pegler’s famous remark, “Grove could throw a lamb chop past a hungry wolf,” Westcott follows it up with the observation of Detroit’s second baseman Charlie Gehringer who said, “It’s hard to believe that anyone could throw faster than Lefty Grove” (pg. 131). And, from Babe Ruth: “When this guy is right, there isn’t a team, and never has been a team that could lick him” (pg. 132). Grove's furious temper is also mentioned. Grove punched lockers, says Westcott, “always making sure, though to use his right hand.”
Yet a third Philadelphia player is close to my heart. Grover Cleveland Alexander, “Ol' Pete,” pitched for the Phillies for his first seven years in the majors and in the last months of his career. Alexander's exploits are well-known, his records leading him into the first class of inductees into the Hall of Fame in 1938. In what Westcott calls perhaps “the greatest bargain in baseball history,” the Phillies signed him from the minor leagues for $750. But Alex's great baseball successes were matched by the sad downward spiral of his life after baseball and his death at sixty-three—alone—in the boarding house in which he lived.
Space prohibits further descriptions of more of the greats in this wonderful collection. The book can be dipped into, with delight, for stories of Rube Waddell, Eddie Plank, Al Simmons, Jimmie Foxx, Richie Ashburn, Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton, Larry Bowa, Garry Maddox and the rest. The University of Nebraska Press has produced this book most attractively, a fitting tribute to the genuine joy baseball fans will find in savoring the stories of Philadelphia’s Top 50 Baseball Players. Read this fine book with pleasure—and happy memories!