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Adolfo Phillips - The Panamanian Flash

January 28, 2011

by William Szczepanek

1967 Topps #148 Adolfo Phillips1965 Topps #420 Larry Jackson1966 Topps #185 Bob BuhlProspects, potential, could-haves and would-haves are all part of baseball.  Dreams that are never fulfilled are commonplace in baseball. Talk to a Cubs fan. They will tell you.

It began in 1966 when Leo Durocher was in his first year as manager of the Cubs. A trade was made with the Philadelphia Phillies. The Cubs sent aging but effective pitchers Bob Buhl and Larry Jackson to the Phillies for a much-needed center fielder, Adolfo Phillips. Reliever, Ferguson Jenkins was thrown in by the Phillies. When I saw this trade in the newspapers I thought the Cubs had gone mad. Trading two good pitchers for unknowns seemed like another certain disaster. Buhl and Jackson would never reach greatness again.

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1967 Topps #333 Ferguson JenkinsWe know that Jenkins quickly moved into the starting rotation, won more than 20 games for 6 consecutive seasons and is in the Hall of Fame, but the primary person in the trade was Adolfo Phillips.

The young Adolfo Phillips was going to be Leo Durocher's next Willie Mays. Leo liked to pressure his players and regularly told the press that Adolfo would be better than Mays, considered by some to be the greatest center fielder of all time. The only real difference between the two was that Mays excelled under pressure and was a natural, but was coddled by Durocher.  Phillips agonized under the pressure, needed to learn the game and was pressured by Durocher.

Phillips had speed, power, range, a good arm and did I remember to say he had speed. He wasn't known as the Panamanian Flash for how quickly he got in the shower after a game. His speed was frightening.  I remember him going from first to third on a hit and run. No big deal, except that it was on a sharply hit ball to the shortstop. An accurate throw from first to third was considerably late.

The Cubs were an explosive team in 1967. On May 20th Phillips led the Cubs to a 20-3 thrashing of the Dodgers. On June 11, 1967 Phillips hit four home runs in a double header against the Mets, with 3 home runs in the second game and the Cubs winning 18-10. Okay, it was against the Mets.  It was a very blustery day with the wind blowing out and 11 home runs being hit in the second game, a NL record. But, it would again pressure Adolfo to play to a different standard. Fergie Jenkins would say, "One handed, he could hit the ball out of the ballpark..."

Phillips' numbers began to decline in July of 1967 and he never regained the spark that he had at the beginning of 1967. The Cubs were tied for first place on July 24, 1967, but could not compete with the Cardinals down the stretch and ended in 3rd place, 14 games out. Phillips' average fell to .221 from July through the end of the season, but the rest of the team did not do much to pick up the slack. He did lead the league in intentional base on balls with 29. The stage was set for the Cubs to be competitive for the next few years.

1970 Topps #258 Paul PopovichOn June 11, 1969 Phillips was traded to the Expos for Paul Popovich. Again, the what-ifs are enormous, but part of the downfall of the 1969 Cubs was the lack of a good centerfielder. No one can be sure if beating the Mets in a late season crucial series that was lost by a centerfielder dropping a fly ball would have changed the results. No one can say that an extra spark in the lineup could have lifted the Cubs past the Mets. The Mets played extremely well and the Cubs dropped like a rock, but it's hard to say what one player might have done. It would be difficult for one player to make up the difference of an eight game deficit, but we'll never know.

After Phillips was traded he would undergo an operation for a stomach tumor. Ulcers could have been the problem that prevented him from playing to his potential. He never regained the luster of his early years and his career ended at the age of 30. What-ifs never can make up for playing the games, but they are fun to think about.  Adolfo Phillips was also a player that brought a great amount of hope and joy to Cubs fans, even if only for a short time.


I have a baseball that was tossed into the Wrigley Field bleachers by Adolfo Phillips in 1968 during batting practice.  Phillips was playing catch with Billy Williams and the ball was tossed into the seats and landed on the concrete behind me.  I grabbed the ball and think that there were five hands each pulling on a finger as I yanked it away from the not-so-friendly fans.  The ball is still intact as well as my fingers.   

 

You can check out Phillips' stats at Baseball-Reference.com.

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