#GoingDeep: Phil Douglas’ battle with baseball in 1922 derailed a stellar career
“Here I am without a cent with everybody spotting me as a traitor and a deserter and all that sort of bunk,” arguably the top pitcher in the game, with tears in his eyes, told a reporter from his room at Pittsburgh’s Hotel Schenley. “I’m as innocent as a child.”
One-hundred years ago, the veteran righty, arguably one of the game’s top moundsmen at the time, found himself prohibited from participating in the game he loved. It was the end result of a journey that featured multiple future Hall of Famers – and denied fans the chance to cheer for one of the game’s most colorful characters.
In 1922, the Tennessee-raised Douglas, a savvy hurler with speed and a sharp-breaking spitball, was coming off a stellar 15-win season with the National League pennant-winning New York Giants. The powerfully built righty, who stood 6-foot-3, then went on to win two games in the World Series to help defeat the New York Yankees – a co-tenant with the Giants of the Polo Grounds before they moved into the newly built Yankee Stadium in 1923.
“We are not ready to make any announcement about the matter now,” said Giants secretary James J. Tierney to the press in February 1922, “but you may look for interesting news in a few days.”
Speculation regarding Douglas’ sudden availability centered on his clashes with manager John McGraw, the future Hall of Famer, and the fact that he was considered, according to baseball writers, a “bad actor” now and again during the season. Both pitchers would be gone by summer – one traded (Barnes) and one banished (Douglas).
Continuing the success he enjoyed in 1921, “Shufflin’ Phil” got off to a rousing start in ’22, compiling an 11-4 won-loss record and a league-leading 2.63 ERA by mid-August for the first-place Giants. But then, due to his own shortsighted and ill-conceived solution to a self-inflicted wound, he was sent home in disgrace.
As far as McGraw, 49, was concerned: “The Giants are glad to get rid of Douglas. His erratic actions have given me many gray hairs but I could not have believed that he would do anything like this. Now we have proof in his handwriting and in the words of persons who overheard his telephone conversations.”
The letter referred to in this case, written on Aug. 7, 1922, was allegedly mailed to outfielder Les Mann of the St. Louis Cardinals, a team battling the Giants for first-place. Mann later became one of the earliest adopters of video technology as a training tool, and his Mannscope projector is now part of the Hall of Fame collection.
But from the time he received Douglas’ letter, Mann – who played with Douglas with the Cubs from 1917 to 1919 – refused to discuss the Douglas case or admit that he ever received the communiqué from Douglas.
The infamous letter, as reported in the newspapers, reads as follows:
A wire service reporter tracked down Douglas later the day he was kicked out of baseball in his Pittsburgh hotel room. Douglas placed the blame for his banishment from baseball on McGraw.
After alleging that McGraw “had it in for him,” Douglas, 32, saw Mugsy stick his head into the hotel room. “Get the h--- out of here, you big bum,” Douglas yelled at McGraw.
“That’s him,” Douglas said. “That’s the guy that threw me out for something I don’t know anything about.”
Not only did Douglas and Burkett sit side by side through many movies, but, according to Giants catcher Frank Snyder: “They probably drank more ice cream sodas together than any two grown men in history, before Doug got away on his last binge.”
The “last binge” turned out to be the linchpin for the drama that ensued. With Burkett doing such a good job, Douglas grew to detest him. But finally, in what proved to be his final game ever, Douglas eluded his guardian after giving up five runs in seven innings in a 7-0 loss to the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates July 30, 1922.
Soon, a despondent Douglas, back in New York and desperate for a drink, went missing. He ended up at a friend’s Upper West Side apartment, got drunk and passed out. Then, as Douglas told it days later, detectives dragged him from the apartment and took him to a sanitarium, where he was held until Aug. 5.
Upon his release from the sanitarium, Douglas said, he believed McGraw had suspended him.
McGraw’s version of event, as could be expected, varied widely from Douglas’ take on the sordid episode.
“After the game on July 31, Douglas disappeared and could not be found for several days. However, about the middle of the week we got trace of him. I told Jesse Burkett to go up and get Douglas. According to what Burkett told me over the phone after the game that day, Jesse and two plain clothes men went to the apartment and found Douglas dead to the world. They made him leave the place at once. They carried Douglas to a cab and took him to a sanitarium on Central Park West.
“That night I went down to see Douglas and talked briefly with him. I told Phil to get into condition to pitch and everything would be all right. Not until the next Monday morning, Aug. 7, would the doctors let him leave. That day there was no game and I called him to my office for a talk. I told him he was fined $100 and his pay during his absence, but if he would get into condition every cent would be remitted. He had already overdrawn his account by $200 and said that he was dead broke. So I ordered that $200 be sent to Mrs. Douglas, along with a $90 check for the rent.
“Under the conditions, I think I have been treated unfairly, but I have not the means to fight it,” a broke and discouraged Douglas told a sportswriter in 1936. “It has worked many hardships and caused me many heartaches, this hanging over my good name. I love baseball and, as you know, was always in there for a lot of games every year.
“I surely need help, and any other information I can give I’ll be glad to do so. Nothing would do me more good than to have a chance to come back in life, and I, as well as my family, will appreciate anything you can do for me.”
After a series of strokes, a bedridden and nearly destitute, Douglas passed away on Aug. 1, 1952, at the age of 62. He spent his last two decades living in a log cabin on the side of a cedar covered hill in Whitwell in southern Tennessee. Neighbors claimed that Douglas was a good citizen who sang tenor in the church choir and was generally at peace with the world.
In 1990, an unsuccessful attempt to lift Douglas’ banishment from baseball was made by his family. In a letter released later that year, then Commissioner Fay Vincent refused to open the case, contending there was not enough evidence to reverse Landis’ decision.
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum