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August 5, 2008

You Could Look It Up

Josh and Shufflin' Phil

by Steven Goldman

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Shufflin' Phil Douglas's major crime was that he was an idiot. An idiot and an alcoholic.

Maybe we should start at the beginning. Maybe we should start today, with Josh Hamilton. In Monday's game against the Yankees at Texas, Hamilton didn't do anything special with the bat, but he did make what probably was a game-saving catch in the top of the ninth. With the game tied 5-5 and Johnny Damon on second with two outs, Derek Jeter hit a looping drive to short center which seemed sure to dunk in and give the Yankees a 6-5 lead and a chance to continue hitting. Instead, Hamilton raced in and caught the ball at his shoe-tops to end the inning. In the bottom of the frame, Marlon Byrd hit a walk-off grand slam to win the game.

Hamilton's continued comeback from substance abuse problems was of only mild interest to me until this chat that I did here at BP.com back in late May. We had this exchange on Hamilton:

jlarsen (DRays Bay): Care to entertain why Josh Hamilton's "story" is a feel-good story? Seriously, we shouldn't flaunt a former full-fledged drug addict.

Steven Goldman: Because he didn't have to come back. He could have just remained an addict and squandered all his abilities on his disease. Anyone who gets their life under control is alright with me. Would you have him wear a scarlet A for Addict on his chest for the rest of his life? Redemption, I think, is something that we should always "flaunt." Look at the healing power of baseball. And just to give you a sense of how unusual it is, since I've been thinking about the 1980s, a lot of ballplayers from that period who had drug problems ended up dead-Rod Scurry, Alan Wiggins, Eric Show, Steve Howe-Hamilton's story had a pretty big alternative ending, and it wasn't pretty.

We also had this near-perfect follow-up:

Ameer (Bloomington, IN): Response to jlarsen on his Hamilton comments… I'm surprised you would make that statement about the Hamilton story not being a feel-good one. Have you known anyone with a serious addiction? If you are my age like I suspect, I find it hard to believe that you haven't. I've experienced the other outcome for guys like that, which is basically a high school reunion at a funeral home-trust me, Hamilton's story is feel-good for as long as he keeps it together.

Steven Goldman: I don't think I need to add anything.

I was thinking of 1980s analogues back in May, but another example of a player who never got a chance to bounce back was Phil Douglas, a grandfathered-in spitball pitcher for the New York Giants in the early 1920s. A big right-hander for the time (6'3" officially, 6'5" in some sources, and heavy), Douglas might have picked up the appellation "Shufflin' Phil" because he was usually too drunk to walk correctly. Baseball was more tolerant of alcoholism for the first half of the 20th century-drinking to excess was so much a part of the culture that it would have been very difficult to staff a good team with teetotalers. All that mattered was that a player showed up for work the day after a binge, or three days after if you were a starting pitcher, and performed up to capabilities. A major part of John McGraw's success as manager of the Giants was his ability to take these sorts of problem players and get decent work from them. Once they crossed the line from asset to problem, he dumped them, without sympathy, and picked another player off of the discard pile. Sometimes, as with the Brigadoon-like appearances of Turkey Mike Donlin, the Giants benefited hugely, getting a Vladimir Guerrero-style hitter because no one else could tolerate his excesses. At other times, such as when McGraw tried to redeem Hal Chase, McGraw ended up losing control of his team and retreating in disgust.

The problem with Douglas was that he tended to drink to the point that he couldn't pitch, or would pass out and fail to show up at the ballpark-for days. He called these disappearances "vacations." This was the reason McGraw was able acquire Douglas in the first place in a July, 1919 deal that sent outfielder Dave Robertson to the Cubs despite Douglas's career 2.29 ERA with Chicago. "Nobody ever knew more about pitching than he did," wrote Frank Graham. "He had a bristling fastball, a curve ball, a tantalizing slow ball, a spit ball, and an uncanny change of pace."

But McGraw was no more able to live with the uncertainty of Douglas than the Cubs, Dodgers, Reds, and White Sox had been able to do before him, and that despite some awfully good pitching. In the 1921 World Series victory against the Yankees, Douglas started three times, going 2-1with a 2.08 ERA in 26 innings, allowing 20 hits, walking five, and striking out 17. By 1922, that was all in the past for McGraw. With Douglas's drinking kicking into high gear, McGraw hired a series of babysitters to stay with Douglas off the field. One had a novel tactic for keeping Douglas in shape to pitch: go drinking with him. With his handler for company, Douglas would drink in what was for him moderation. This worked for a while, but when McGraw found out he canned the handler and replaced him with future Hall of Fame left fielder Jesse Burkett, now in his mid-50s and, not known as "The Crab" for nothing, and not the most personable of guys. Burkett insisted that Douglas go cold turkey. Catcher Pancho Snyder told John Lardner that Burkett and Douglas, "probably drank more ice-cream sodas together than any two men in history."

Unfortunately, Burkett's methods gave Douglas extra motivation to disappear and hit the bottle. When Douglas was shelled by the Pirates on July 30, McGraw accused him of being too drunk to pitch and kicked him out of the clubhouse. It was at this point that Douglas shook off Burkett and went on his final major league drinking binge. When the Giants found him (with the aid of the police), they had him forcibly institutionalized. He was given a weird drinking cure that involved heavy sedation and shock therapy.

Consider that the Giants needed Douglas. At the time he was 11-4 with a 2.63 ERA. He was indisputably the ace of the staff, and the Giants were in a tight, five-way race for the NL pennant-they were in first place, but led the Cardinals by 1 ˝ games, the Cubs by 3 ˝, the Pirates by five, and the Reds by 6 ˝. Nonetheless, when Douglas finally emerged, McGraw handed him a bill for the hospitalization, docked him additional money for missed work, and threw him back out onto the mound again.

What happened next, at least insofar as Douglas' motives, isn't clear and never will be. Smashed, still feeling the effects of the drugs that had been pumped into him, or both, Douglas picked up a pen and a piece of Giants' stationary and wrote a letter to Cardinals' outfielder Les Mann, his former roommate with the Cubs. Douglas wrote:

I want to leave here but I want some inducement. I don't what this guy to win the pennant and I feel if I stay here I will win it for him. You know I can pitch and win. So you [go] see the fellows and if you want to, send a man over here with the goods, and I will leave home on the next train… I will go down to fishing camp and stay there.

In other words, 'bribe me and I'll jump the club for good.' Later, Douglas would claim no memory of having written the letter, but write it and post it he did. Douglas picked the wrong time and the wrong potential accomplice. First, Mann was as pure as fresh-fallen snow, a clean-cut college man. Second, the Black Sox scandals were less than two years in the past. Mann knew if he withheld evidence of game-throwing, he could be banned as an accomplice. He turned the letter over to Cardinals team president Branch Rickey, who in turn passed it to Judge Landis, the commissioner of baseball. After a hearing in which Douglas admitted writing the letter, Landis banned him permanently from organized baseball. The career of Shufflin' Phil Douglas was at an end. He was 32 years old. "He is the victim of his own folly," Landis said. "It is tragic and deplorable."

A weeping Douglas was put on a train and sent home. He offered a variety of implausible explanations for the letter in support of his argument: "I am as innocent as a child." Despite several attempts at reinstatement, Douglas spent the rest of his life on the ineligible list, facing dire poverty. He made it to age 62 before shuffling off this mortal coil, but it wasn't easy and it probably wasn't very much fun.

Phil Douglas is a Josh Hamilton antecedent. Though the circumstances of his fall were unique, the causes were quite common. Only a small handful of addicts are able to force a second act for themselves. See also: Hack Wilson. See also: Bugs Raymond. See also: Wiggins and the other dead from the cocaine years. Hamilton's season is a kind of miracle of self-denial. The alternative is a life like Douglas's, manual labor on a road gang, wondering what might have been. Less than two months after letting Douglas go, the Giants were again in the World Series. They lost to the Yankees in five games (4-0-1); with Douglas, they might have won. Douglas might have once more been a World Series hero, acclaimed by all, instead of, as Douglas put it, "a traitor and a deserter."

For Further Reading

"The Crime of Shufflin' Phil Douglas," by John Lardner in The New Yorker, May 12, 1956.

Judge & Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis by David Pietrusza, Chapter 16.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  Josh Hamilton,  The Who

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