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How Johnny Doc helped the Phillies sign Jim Thome

An oral history of how John Dougherty helped the Phillies sign Jim Thome as a free agent back in November 2002.

John Dougherty (left) and Jim Thome.
John Dougherty (left) and Jim Thome.Read moreSTAFF AND AP PHOTOS

The electricians stretched across Darien Street as if they were forming a picket line as the white limousine carrying Jim Thome turned north off Pattison Avenue on that November morning in 2002.

The Phillies were giving Thome a full-court sales pitch, trying to persuade the free agent to come to Philadelphia and help turn their franchise around. They planned a tour for Thome, and the first stop was at the Preview Center, a small building the Phillies built on Darien Street to showcase what their new ballpark, later to be named Citizens Bank Park, would look like when it opened 16 months later.

"It was very important to us to portray our vision to Jim Thome of what we thought we would be like if he joined us," said David Montgomery, then the Phillies president, who was in the white limo with Thome and other members of the Phillies brass. "So it was important for us to get him to see that."

But the electricians — who had traded their hard hats for rush-ordered baseball hats — were not budging as the limo approached. This was not part of the tour plan. The Phillies' decision makers inside the limo did not yet know, but their pitch to Thome was about to receive the perfect boost.

>>READ MORE: En route to Cooperstown, Jim Thome spent a short but powerful four years with the Phillies

John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, IBEW Local 98 business manager: "We're diehard sports guys. We all have the baseball package. I'm in two fantasy leagues. We're diehards. I got the word that they were bringing in Thome. I thought that's a great addition. So, I put a quick call in. 'Does anybody have any union-made hats at the place where we get our clothing?' I wanted them to say, like, 'We Want Thome.' "

Bill "Cuz" Edwards, IBEW Local 98 business agent: "I was the business agent on the Eagles stadium, which was being built at the time. The Phillies stadium wasn't as far along yet, so all of our guys were at the Eagles. John gives me a heads-up. 'Yo, I think Thome is coming into town. Let's do something for him.' We knew Thome's dad was a union guy and John loves that kind of stuff. He told me to get down to KO [Sporting Goods] on Moyamensing because he had some hats made."

Dougherty: "I ordered whatever he had. Red, white, different colors, I'd take them."

David Montgomery, then-president of the Phillies: "I guess it was in the paper that Jim was coming, so IBEW took it upon themselves to make a sales pitch, basically."

There is something uniquely Philly about Johnny Doc and the electricians' helping to sway where a Hall of Fame baseball player chooses to play. Dougherty is synonymous with the city's political scene, perhaps carrying as much influence as any elected official. Johnny Doc has been called a kingmaker, and Local 98 is a political powerhouse. For at least one day, that influence would be wielded on a different type of campaign.

Edwards: "A couple guys started making banners, homemade banners on sheet rock just like the old times. Cutting up drywall and spray painting it. '98 Wants Jim Thome.' We figured they were going to go to the Preview Center, but we didn't know for sure. We figured they would take him there on their tour. So we blocked traffic in the middle of Darien Street. Not in a bad way, but in a good way. You know what I mean?"

Dougherty: "I stayed on the phone. It was even better that I wasn't there because then it didn't look staged.

Edwards: "We brought a little warlock from the Eagles stadium. It's a machine to get material from place to place. We were parked on the yellow line, and Darien's a two-way street. It was like all the guys hanging on a tank. Some guys were handing out the hats. We were just waiting. We didn't even know if he was coming or when he was going to be there. I have to give credit to the contractor for letting those guys off the job. John knew he was coming. How he knew? I have no idea."

Edwards grew up in South Philly and spent plenty of nights staking out Eagles and Phillies players for autographs outside Veterans Stadium after games. Some players stopped and signed; others zoomed past. That's just the way it was. As the wait for Thome's white limo stretched into the afternoon, some electricians became discouraged. You can have a baseball catch in the middle of Darien Street for only so long.

Edwards: "Somebody said, 'He's not coming here.' Like they thought he would do a drive-by. But Thome pulled up in his limousine and we blocked the way a little bit. He rolled the window down and shook hands. I started pulling the hats out and everyone was waving the banners. He got out with a giant smile on his face."

Jim Thome: "We jumped out, and it was just an overwhelming sense of happiness and joy. It was so great. It was a moment for me, personally, that was like, 'Wow. They really, really care and they really want you to come here.' I felt that. I felt that vibe of just love. Here's your blue-collar, hardworking men telling someone, 'Hey, we love you. Come here.' "

Montgomery: "Jim Thome is a man of the people, and I think his response was 'Wow, this isn't some highfalutin group of people that want me to come here — this is the guys working on the ballpark.' Unbelievable."

>>READ MORE: Jim Thome stops in Philly on his way to Cooperstown

Dougherty: "When Thome gets out, Cuz is standing right there. Cuz is like a stat machine. So he's telling him you can hit 40 bombs here and that he knows his dad is a machine operator. All of these guys on the job, they knew how many dingers he hit. They knew how many doubles he had. They knew all that. He's like, 'How do you guys know this stuff about me?' "

Edwards: "He put a hat on and we were all cheering. Some guys were doing Eagles chants, of course. Everybody was saying, 'Welcome to Philadelphia.' It was like welcoming an old friend home from college or the Army. He shook everybody's hand. We were all so happy."

Thome: "I got a hard helmet. They gave me one. The hats, too. 'Philly Wants Jim Thome.' I have that one, as well. The special part to me is how it all unfolded. Like, did they plan this? This was so cool."

Dougherty: "They always tell you that the best dinner happens when you don't plan it. Well, this was not planned. It just occurred. It just happened at 6:30 in the morning. Everything was done that morning. That was the cool part."

Thome spent 15 minutes with the workers, signed some autographs, and took his new hard hat into the Preview Center. Thome's father was a union worker at a Caterpillar plant in Illinois. This touched him. The Phillies finished their sales pitch, and Thome accepted their deal a month later. The contract, $85 million over six years, was the driving factor for him to leave Cleveland. Plus, the Phillies looked to be a team on the rise with some young players ready to emerge. But if there were any lingering doubts, Johnny Doc and the electricians helped push them away.

Montgomery: "I give them the credit for originating it. We didn't call them and ask. They just realized how important this was to us."

Edwards: "When I saw the video of him getting the phone call that he was going into the Hall of Fame, I started crying. He was crying. I was crying. We met a total of 15 minutes, but it felt like such a deep connection."

Thome: "It was just a sense of joy and excitement. 'Hey, we really want you to come.' Here's your hard-working, blue-collar men that bring a lunch pail every day and grind. To get that, as a baseball player, like, I know we grind, but those guys really grind. It felt really good."