This one goes out to a loyal Big Hair & Plastic Grass fan named John, who sent me a nice note yesterday to say how happy he is to see the BH&PG blog up and running again. He closed with, "December 16th is my birthday. Come up with something special."
Well, first of all, funky birthday greetings to ya, John. I wish I could tell you that you share a birthday with a 70s baseball great, but alas that's not the case. You did, however, narrowly miss sharing a birthday with Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins, who turned 69 three days ago; and since today is Adolfo Phillips' b-day, and the two are forever connected in Cubs history, I figured maybe we'd go for a little "two for the price of one" action, as Larry Williams and Johnny "Guitar" Watson might say...
Phillips' parents picked a bad time to name him Adolfo; he was born in Bethania, Panama on December 16th, 1941, just five days after Adolph Hitler declared war on the United States and all its holdings, including the nearby Panama Canal. But if young Adolfo's parents were harboring any Nazi sympathies, history doesn't record it; in any case, a bat and a glove would be his weapons in his quest for greatness, not a Panzer division or V-2 bombs.
Actually, Phillips' most lethal weapon was his speed. Nicknamed "The Panamanian Flash," it was said that the guy could easily go from first to third on an infield grounder, or score all the way from first on a single. In 1962, his second year in pro ball, Phillips stole 46 bases out of 50 attempts for the Magic Valley Cowboys, the Phillies' Pioneer League (Class C) farm team; he also hit .330 with 33 home runs that year. Three more successful seasons in the minors followed, and Adolfo looked like a can't-miss prospect; at least, that's what the Cubs thought in early 1966 when they traded half of their regular pitching rotation — Larry Jackson, who'd led the NL with 24 wins just two years earlier, and former Braves great Bob Buhl — for him, a backup 1B/OF named John Herrnstein, and an inexperienced fireballer from Canada named Ferguson Jenkins.
Touted as "the next Willie Mays" by Cubs skipper Leo Durocher, Phillips did flash some moments of brilliance as the Cubs' starting centerfielder — like the time he hit four homers in a June 1967 double-header against the Mets — but he never showed any consistency at the plate. (It probably didn't help that Leo usually batted him eighth, allowing opposing pitchers to pitch around him; in 1967, he led the NL with 29 intentional walks.)
Phillips was also plagued by stomach ulcers; behind that confident smile (as displayed above on his 1971 Topps card), was a sensitive cat who was literally being eaten up inside by the pressures of playing major league ball. On June 11th, 1969, the Cubs shipped him to Montreal for utility man Paul Popovich. Some folks like to speculate that the Cubs would have "gone all the way" in '69 if Phillips had remained in centerfield, but his stats that year with the Expos — .216/.286/.337 with 4 homers and 7 RBI in 220 plate appearances — don't exactly point to a potential North Side savior. Phillips did a little better in 1970, posting a slash line of .238/.352/.379 with 6 homers and 21 RBI in 254 plate appearances; but he lost his centerfield gig in 1971 to the much-young Boots Day, and spent the entire season in the minors. The lowly Indians picked him up for the '72 season, but even they couldn't find a place in their lineup for the Panamanian Flash. By 1973, Phillips was out of pro ball for good.
The story of Fergie Jenkins, that fireballing throw-in from the Phillies-Cubs deal, turned out much differently, of course. Beginning in 1967, he posted six-straight 20-win seasons for the Cubs, including 1971, when he went 24-13 with a 2.77 ERA; along with wins, he led the NL in games started (39), complete games (30) innings pitched (325), and walks per nine innings (a phenomenal 1.0), numbers which helped net him the NL Cy Young. (Vida Blue won the AL Cy Young that season, making it the first time that two African-American pitchers won the coveted award in the same year.)
Alas, Fergie's impressive streak was broken in 1973, when he went 14-16 with a 3.89 ERA. He bristled at the way that new Cubs manager Whitey Lockman handled the pitching staff; the fact that he only completed 7 games that season (after completing at least 20 the previous six) speaks volumes on that particular issue, as does the fact that — after being traded to the Texas Rangers in the off-season for Bill Madlock and Vic Harris — Fergie rebounded with a 25-12, 2.82 ERA performance in 1974. (He also led the AL in complete games with 29, and finished just a hair behind Catfish Hunter in the Cy Young voting.)
I posted the following clip a few days ago on the Big Hair & Plastic Grass Facebook page, but here's another chance to check it out. It's an amazing hour-long documentary, called King of the Hill; made by the National Film Board of Canada, it follows future Hall of Famer Fergie and his Cubs teammates (including Ron Santo, Randy Hundley, Billy Williams, Don Kessinger and Joe Pepitone) through the ups and downs of the '72 and '73 season, including their transition to the polyester pullover jerseys. No fan of 70s baseball should miss it...