Editor’s note: Bob Miller died Friday at 94. This story first appeared in August to celebrate Mr. Miller and Curt Simmons for their roles as pitchers on the famed Phillies Whiz Kids. We republish it now to honor Mr. Miller.
After a third left-hip surgery in 2012 made golfing impossible, Curt Simmons enjoyed sitting behind his Horsham home and watching players traverse the fourth hole at Limekiln Country Club, the public course he and partners purchased in 1966.
Last December, that vicarious pleasure ended for the 91-year-old Phillies Wall of Famer when the developers who bought the 206-acre layout for $18 million closed it for good. Now, nine months later, the course is virtually unrecognizable, its idled fairways and greens shrouded by seasons’ worth of uncut grass and weeds as tall as two-irons.
“I don’t like to sit out there anymore,” said Simmons.
The disappearing golf course isn’t the only slow and painful loss he’s been experiencing. The tendrils of time have nearly obliterated the Whiz Kids, the beloved 1950 Phillies team that Simmons and several other 20-somethings – Robin Roberts, Richie Ashburn, Del Ennis – led to a National League title.
Seventy years ago, Simmons won 17 games as the surprising Phillies captured the franchise’s only pennant between 1915 and 1980. Their unexpected success and beguiling nickname made the Whiz Kids enduring local heroes. Their reputation, one sportswriter predicted as recently as 2010, “would echo down the corridors of history.”
But in the end, baseball teams are as ephemeral as golf courses and those corridors are nearly silent. Even Whiz Kids, it turned out, get old and die and are forgotten.
Few remain who watched them play. Their significance in Phillies history has been dimmed by the franchise’s five subsequent World Series appearances. And death has gradually decimated a roster whose hallmark was its vitality.
Of the 32 players, five coaches, and a manager who that year wore the Phillies’ first red-pinstriped uniforms, only two survive – Simmons and 94-year-old Bob Miller, who in 1950 won 11 games and finished second in voting for NL rookie of the year.
Their bodies are deteriorating, their minds fading, their familiar worlds shrinking, but like leaves clinging stubbornly to a tree in late autumn, these last two Whiz Kids continue to embrace each other and their long-ago glory.
Separated by 600 miles but connected by the tissues of memory, Simmons and Miller talk on the phone every few weeks, as much to stave off the gathering darkness as to reminisce.
“If they don’t talk for a while, they miss each other,” said Miller’s son, Bob Jr., who often listens in. “Curt will call and say, `I want to make sure you’re still alive, Righthander, because you’ve got to pitch tomorrow.’ Their stories are great. You can tell it invigorates them.”
Time waits for no man
These conversations are much-anticipated rituals, two old men happily summoning sepia-toned reflections on places they visited, hitters they faced, teammates they lost. (Paul Stuffel, who relieved in three 1950 games, was the last, in September 2018.)
“It bothers Dad that we’ve lost so many Whiz Kids,” said Miller’s son. “But he knows time waits for no man. He’s just thankful he and Curt are still around and can share their stories.”
Miller resides in an assisted-living facility in Waterford, Mich., 35 miles northwest of Detroit. He has bad knees, difficulty hearing and other physical ailments. But, his son said, “from the shoulders up he’s doing real good.”
“Bob remembers everything,” said Simmons. “Not me.”
Simmons, whose wife, Dorothy, died in 2012, still occupies the spacious Montgomery County ranch house he bought in 1979. He gets around in a wheelchair and has a daily caregiver.
“When you get old,” he said, “you can’t do anything.”
His son, Ted, said that despite his father’s worsening condition, the conversations with Miller continue to buoy his spirits and jog his cloudy memory.
“He can’t walk anymore and he’s starting to lose it mentally,” said Simmons’ son. “But sometimes he’ll surprise you. He really looks forward to those talks with Bob.”
Asked during a recent interview what he and Miller typically discussed, Simmons was briefly stumped. The caregiver, Cheryl Raffle, who’s overheard many of these phone chats, prodded him.
“Tell him how you like to talk about being on the road,” Raffle suggested, “or about that nice lady you used to see all the time in the restaurant.”
The perfect place
The pitchers’ friendship goes back to that 1950 season, when they lived together at the Germantown Cricket Club, a 2.3-mile car ride from Shibe Park.
It bothers Dad that we’ve lost so many Whiz Kids. But he knows time waits for no man. He’s just thankful he and Curt are still around and can share their stories.
Asked why they chose that location, Simmons said, “that’s just where they told us to live.”
It was, Miller said, “the perfect place for us.”
“We were close to a lot of restaurants in Germantown,” he said. “And there was an old lady who lived there and liked to cook for us.”
A Detroit native, Miller enlisted in the Army in 1944 and saw combat in the Philippines. Discharged in 1947, he played baseball at the University of Detroit until the Phillies signed him a year later. After two successful minor-league seasons, he arrived in Philadelphia in September 1949.
In 1950, he was a 23-year-old right-hander with an unflappable demeanor and a sweeping curveball.
“He could hit a dime with that curveball,” Phillies coach Benny Bengough said at the time.
The 6-3 pitcher was sensational, winning his first eight decisions. But Miller hurt his back in June when he slipped on North Philadelphia Station’s steps. That led to persistent shoulder problems, He was never the same.
In 1958, with a lifetime record of 42-42, Miller retired. He eventually returned to the University of Detroit, where he became Michigan’s winningest Division I baseball coach.
Simmons was a high school phenom in Egypt, Pa. The Phils won a bidding war for him in 1947, paying a then-astonishing $65,000. In 20 major-league seasons, more than half in Philadelphia, he made three All-Star teams, won 193 games, and started twice for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1964 World Series.
In 1950, he had 17 victories by September, when the Korean War caused his National Guard unit to be activated. He missed the World Series, in which the Phils were swept by the Yankees, and all of 1951.
Good old days
During their phone calls, Miller, also a widower, is the more sentimental of the two. Often, he’ll guide Simmons back into the past, to a dramatic pitch or a night on the road.
“God, those were some good days,” Miller said. “I know I’ll never forget them. I can close my eyes and relive every game. I was never on a team where the players loved each other so much.”
Simmons was always reserved and self-deprecating. But he lights up whenever he hears Miller’s voice.
“Bob’s a great guy,” Simmons said. “We had a lot of good times together.”
During their conversations, they might recall ventures into Center City to see a movie or to dine at Stouffer’s, the then-popular restaurant on South Broad Street where the manager, J.F. Vollmer, was a big baseball fan.
“It was a good place,” said Simmons. “Cheap.”
They often reference departed teammates like Roberts, Puddin’ Head Jones, or Jim Konstanty, the MVP reliever whose nickname, Miller said, was “Ymca” because YMCAs were where he preferred to stay on the road.
Money is a popular topic, particularly how much of it modern players make. The average big-league salary in 1950 was $13,000. Simmons, in his third full Philadelphia season, earned $8,000; the rookie Miller, less than $5,000.
In 1951, according Miller’s son, his father asked for $11,000.
“They sent him a contract for $8,000 and Dad said, `Look, I won 11 games and was runner-up for rookie of the year,‘” his son said. “Mr. Carpenter said, `Miller, you’d better sign it or we’re going to release you.‘”
Their daily meal money on the road was $6, a sum, Miller said, that expensive cities like New York tested.
“My son said, ‘That was a lot of money back then, right?’ I said, `Really? You should have tried to get by in New York on $6 a day,‘” Miller said. “We had to pay for our own taxis, our own beer in the locker room. The only time we got free beer was coming back to Philadelphia after we won the pennant. [Owner Bob Carpenter] was on the train and he said, `The Ballantine beer’s on me.‘”
The stories they share most frequently evoke a vanished baseball era: the offseason when Miller played with Negro League legend Satchel Paige in Miami; the whistlestop games the Phillies played while coming north each spring; the night Simmons, still a 17-year-old high-schooler, struck out 11 Phillies in an exhibition; when Simmons, coached that day by Babe Ruth, hit three triples and was named the MVP of an American Legion All-Star Game at New York’s Polo Grounds.
“Nobody else did anything, so they gave me the MVP trophy,” Simmons said.
One subject that, no surprise, arises often is 1950′s final game in Brooklyn, when Ashburn threw out a Dodger runner at home in the ninth and Dick Sisler won it with a 10th-inning home run. Roberts was the winning pitcher.
“Dad and Curt both mention that Robin pitched four times that week,” said the younger Miller. “They said after you pitched, you’d take a hot shower, drink a cold beer, and run the next day. That was it.”
Time hasn’t yet erased their reputations. Simmons’ name, in particular, still resonates in Philadelphia. And many Philadelphians still remember Miller, whose mail frequently includes baseball cards for him to sign. Phillies fans they encounter invariably tell them how much they -- or more likely their parents or grandparents -- loved the Whiz Kids.
“It was great playing in Philadelphia,” Miller said. “Those fans are unbelievable. They remember.”
Miller and Simmons used to see each other at Phillies old-timers games. Some springs they’d go to Clearwater to golf with Roberts, who died in 2010. The last time they met in person was in the 1990s, when Miller traveled here for a card show.
“I stayed with Curt,” Miller said. “He had a great house. Right on a golf course.”
The COVID-19 outbreak has slowed Toll Brothers’ plans to build a senior-living community on Limekiln. But soon, Simmons knows, the bulldozers will arrive and the old golf course will forever be obscured.
“It’s sad,” said Simmons. “But the houses will be nice.”
And it will be sad, too, when he and Miller are gone and time has buried the Whiz Kids.
Meanwhile, Miller’s son will do what he can to keep alive the memories and the legacy of the 1950 Phillies. He is writing a children’s book. And he didn’t have to look far for its heroes.
“It’s going to be called Life Lessons From a Whiz Kid,” he said. “Those guys, that team, that era, it will never be repeated. That’s why it’s hard to see these guys go, one by one.”