DAVE PHILLEY – Most Valuable Oriole 1955
Dave Philley needed only half a season to earn Most Valuable Oriole honors in 1955. That’s either a heckuva compliment to him, or a jab at the rest of his teammates. You be the judge.
Seventy-three games into the season, the 1955 Orioles were nine games behind the pace of Baltimore’s 1954 ballclub that lost 100 games. The Sporting News warned that the O’s were “in danger of collapsing from batting anemia”, and after the Yankees beat Baltimore handily eleven out of twelve tries, the New York papers speculated that the Orioles could be one of the worst teams in the history of the American League.
Something had to be done, and in mid-June, the Orioles completed the first of five transactions with the Cleveland Indians that would take place over the next five weeks. First came 34-year-old outfielders Dave Pope and Wally Westlake in one deal, then 38-year-old infielder Hank Majeski in the next. The last two moves brought pitcher Bill Wight and outfielder Jim Dyck, each 33, to Baltimore.
“They’re a good influence on our youngsters,” said Baltimore’s first-year manager, Paul Richards. “They are free to give advice to kids, and that makes them doubly valuable.”
That was especially true of the man purchased from Cleveland right in the middle of the transactions listed above, 35-year-old outfielder Dave Philley. Ex-Cleveland Indians could have stocked the entire Orioles outfield had Westlake not been released to make room for him.
Philley was a native of Paris, Texas, an ex-boxing standout, that stood a burly 6’1″, 180 lbs. He started switch-hitting after suffering a broken arm at the age of nine. Philley initially reached the majors with the White Sox late in 1941, then missed four seasons while serving in the Army during World War II. He finally cracked the White Sox lineup in 1947, and proved to be an above average player across the board without doing any one thing exceptionally well. The .270 career hitter had a little bit of pop, but never exceeded 14 home runs. He stole 21 bases in his first full season, and led American League outfielders in assists three times. He made good enough contact to walk more than he struck out.
The White Sox eventually traded Philley to the Philadelphia Athletics in 1951, where he batted .303 a couple years later to rank ninth in the American League. Cleveland dealt for Philley prior to 1954 and, though he had the worst season of his life, he was the regular right-fielder for a team that finished 111-43 and won the pennant. The Indians imported Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner in 1955 however, and Philley’s days in Cleveland were numbered. After batting .298 in 43 games, Philley was sold to the Orioles on July 2 for about $10,000 to clear a roster spot for Dyck. (Ironically, Dyck also wound up in Baltimore two weeks later when the commissioner ruled the Indians didn’t have the right to promote him).
Philley joined the Orioles at the tail end of a 12-game losing streak that dropped their record to a miserable 20-53. He contributed an RBI single against the Washington Senators on the Fourth of July to help break the slide, and quickly made a corner outfield spot and the third place in the batting order his home.
Fans appreciated Philley’s hustling style, and his arrival coincided with improved play by the rest of the team. The Sporting News lauded Philley’s “rock-ribbed band of leadership” and called his acquisition “a master stroke”. Philley did his part by batting .299 in 83 games. Home runs were hard to come by at Memorial Stadium in 1955 -hedges marked the end of centerfield nearly 450-feet from home plate- but Philley’s six longballs tied for second best on the team. His .418 slugging percentage topped the club, but his greatest contribution was articulated by White Sox manager Marty Marion. “Dave Philley has been a big help since he went there,” remarked the 1944 NL MVP. “He’s made a ball team out of the Orioles.”
Indeed, while Baltimore started the season 20-53, they went 37-44 after Philley joined the squad. He pounded out ten hits in seventeen trips during a four-game series in late-August against Marion’s White Sox, and finished in the AL top ten for the second time in three seasons by hitting .299.
The Sports Boosters of Maryland presented Philley with a large trophy between games of a doubleheader on September 11 at Memorial Stadium after he was voted Most Valuable Oriole. He’d quickly become a fan favorite, but this honor was voted on by the press, radio and TV people that traveled with the team on a daily basis.
Following the season, Philley was honored as number one sports citizen of Paris, Texas, and announced his belief that he had a couple seasons left. He figured Baltimore would be the last stop of his major league career, and accepted a one-year contract to remain the highest paid Oriole in 1956, collecting $23,000.
Other teams kept asking Richards about Philley’s availability in a trade though, and less than two months into the 1956 season, he returned to the White Sox in a six-player deal that brought Hall of Famer George Kell and three others to Baltimore. Before Philley departed, he said, “It’s natural for the fans to expect too much too early, but if they stay behind Richards, he will build a contender in Baltimore.”
That contender became a reality, and a 40-year-old Philley got a chance to be a part of it when Richards purchased him again to help out for the 1960 stretch run. Philley played for four teams in four years after leaving the Orioles in 1956, but became one of the best pinch-hitters in baseball history while he was away. In 1958-59, he stroked a record nine consecutive pinch-hits. With the Orioles in 1961, Philley set a record (since broken) with 24 pinch-hits in 72 at bats for a .333 average. He was released after the season anyway, and his 18-year career came to a close in 1962 with the Red Sox.
That’s the story of Dave Philley, Most Valuable Oriole of 1955. Now 87, he’s still living in Paris, TX.
by MALCOLM ALLEN
DID YOU KNOW? – Both uniform numbers that Dave Philley wore with the Orioles have since been retired. He wore (Earl Weaver’s) number 4 in his first stint in Baltimore, then (Jim Palmer’s) number 22 when he returned.