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A surprising list of top Phila. ballplayers

According to local baseball historian Rich Westcott, someone named Bob Johnson is one of the top 50 baseball players in Philadelphia history.

Philadelphia's Top 50 Baseball Players

By Rich Westcott

University of Nebraska Press. 272 pp. $24.95

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Reviewed by Larry Eichel

According to local baseball historian Rich Westcott, someone named Bob Johnson is one of the top 50 baseball players in Philadelphia history.

Never heard of him? The man known as "Indian Bob" (he was one-quarter Cherokee) played for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1933 through 1942, spending most of his time in left field. Over those years, he hit .298, averaging 25 home runs and 104 runs batted in per season. He walked more than he struck out, a remarkable achievement for a power hitter.

Why did he fail to achieve lasting fame? For one thing, the A's of the Depression Era were terrible, finishing last in the American League six times during Johnson's tenure and next-to-last twice. The man was outshone by other stars of the day, including fellows named Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio. And it is not all that easy to become famous when your name is Bob Johnson.

As the inclusion of Johnson indicates, Philadelphia's Top 50 Baseball Players is not only about the men who have worn the uniform of the club that now occupies Citizens Bank Park. To qualify for the book, one had to have played at least five years for the Phillies, the A's, or the city's teams in the old Negro Leagues - or have been born in the area.

That native-born category allows for the inclusion of Reggie Jackson, Roy Campanella, and Mike Piazza, in addition to Mike Schmidt, Richie Ashburn, and Chuck Klein (former Phillies); Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard (current Phillies); Louis Santop, Judy Johnson, and Biz Mackey (Negro Leagues); and Lefty Grove, Al Simmons, and Jimmie Foxx, members of the great A's teams of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The book consists of 50 profiles, each five pages long. Although a lot of those profiles read pretty much the same, the book's strength comes from the old-timers, the very old-timers. Among them are Billy Hamilton, a member of the Phillies of the 1890s, who scored 196 runs (more or less) in a season and stole seven bases in a single game; Roy Thomas, a Phillies outfielder who led the National League in walks every year but one from 1900 to 1907; and the troubled Rube Waddell, an A's pitcher from 1902 to 1907, who wrestled alligators and once tried to teach geese to skip rope.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the players on Westcott's list is that only five of them are there primarily as Phillies pitchers, namely Grover Cleveland Alexander, Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning, Steve Carlton, and Tug McGraw.

This tells us two things. One is that the Phillies, in their mostly tortured 130-year existence, have struggled mightily on the mound. The other is that a few strong candidates got left out. Curt Simmons, Chris Short, and Curt Schilling did not make the cut, despite ranking fourth, fifth, and sixth in wins in team history. In fact, no member of the pennant-winning Phillies of 1993, for whom Schilling pitched, gets a mention.

One of the aims of a list-based book, of course, is to start a conversation about who belongs and who does not. In this case, the dialogue would be a lot more fun had the author ranked the players from 1 to 50, as problematic as that might have been. That way, fans could talk about whether their favorite overlooked player was better than whomever Westcott had 49th or 50th.

Instead, the players are presented by era, an approach with problems of its own. Individuals are categorized on the basis of the year in which they broke into the majors, rather than when they earned their fame. This results in Larry Bowa, Greg Luzinski, Carlton, and McGraw being in the chapter for one era and Garry Maddox and Schmidt in the chapter for another, even though all of them were teammates from 1975 through the World Series championship season of 1980.

If you love Philadelphia baseball, though, this volume will give you enjoyment. It does not lend itself to straight-through reading, but you are likely to learn a little something whenever you pick it up.