The Angels, led by that old noncommunicatin' devil Alex Johnson, may not have proved themselves everlastingly superior to the Birds last weekend when the Baltimore Orioles visited Anaheim and got clipped in two out of three superbly entertaining games, but no one is denying the surprising California club a place close to the American League West throne. And now—at last—it is clear what kind of Angel Harold (Lefty) Phillips is. He is not a cherub, because a cherub would not have his mouth forever half full of either chewing tobacco or chewed cigar. He is not anyone's idea of Gabriel, because Gabriel would not wear such baggy pants and he would speak up more distinctly. No, Lefty Phillips' kind of angel, as the Scripture and recent California baseball history reveal with careful reading, is a seraph, one of the seraphim. For we read in Isaiah that each of the seraphim that appeared to the prophet "had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly." Considering the way the Angels' manager walks and sort of runs, that is about how, as opposed to some less awkward way, he would fly.
Furthermore, like the seraphim who laid a hot coal on Isaiah's "unclean lips" to purge his sin, Lefty Phillips more gently took care of the local sports-page prophets "who have come up to me and said that after knowing me, they wanted me to know they were sorry for what they wrote." To these penitents Phillips has observed, in his equable way, "It takes a big man to do that."
Alex Johnson does not look like Lefty Phillips. His younger brother is University of Michigan and New York Giant Running Back Ron Johnson, but it often seems as though Alex could be Ron, too, in the off season. He gets down to first base as fast as anyone in the game and he is currently hitting a hard .366. Alex, however, does resemble Phillips in that his reputation has not been baseball's brightest.
For one thing, he is a heart-stopping leftfielder in the tradition of Rico Carty. From time to time he drops a fly ball, and sometimes he just looks as though he might. That is doubtless one reason why he has played on four different teams in seven years while maintaining a lifetime average, through Sunday, of .301. The other reason is that he is not, in any conventional sense, a sociable man. He is known for dressing in silence, doing his job, undressing in silence and going home. "But I don't think he was unpopular on those other teams," says Jim Fregosi, in Johnson's defense. "I think he just didn't have anything the hell to do with anybody. Here, though, we kid him and he kids us back. He does have some peculiar traits. Like he won't let anybody shake hands with him when he hits a home run. He says nobody wants to shake his hand when he strikes out so why the hell should he shake hands with them when he hits? And he calls everybody 'bleephead' or 'bleep-bleeper.' Just about everybody is a bleephead. But if you're decent with him he'll be decent with you."
June 7, 1970
Chico Ruiz, who came over from the Reds this year with Johnson, says, "Eet's not true that the players din' like heem in Cincinnati. They did. He jus' like to keep to heemself. But there they had lots of hitters. Here they glad to see hees hitting, he take some of the pressure off Fregosi, Jeem Spencer. He feel more appreciated. And he playing a lot harder here, he charging the ball in left field like he never did in Cincinnati. He din' like Dave Bristol there. Now that Bristol managin' Milwaukee he play extra hard against Milwaukee."
Johnson, playing with a stiff left arm, got two hits against the Orioles Friday night, including a long ninth-inning triple that was wasted, along with Andy Messersmith's six-hit complete-game pitching, as Mike Cuellar stifled the rest of the Angels to win 2-0. Saturday night Johnson took matters almost entirely into his own hands. He walked to force in the first California run, stole second to get into position to score the second run and won the game 3-2 for Tom Murphy with a 400-foot home run in the eighth. After Saturday's game the ebullient Ruiz said, "When he cross the plate he let Spencer jus' touch hees hand a little. I know he don' want anybody shakin' hees hand in the dugout so I hang back an' theen I jomp out an' grab eet. An' he keek me. He keek me. See theese shoe polish on my leg? See it right here? He keek me. Oh, he's my hero."
Delighted, Ruiz spotted Johnson glowering in his direction from across the locker room and said, "There he ees. He talk to you. Go talk to heem." Yes, he will talk, replies Johnson when asked the direct question. So he is asked another question: how does he like playing for this team as compared to the other teams he's played for? "They all alike," he says, and that, for any writer who knows strength of character when he sees it, is interview enough.
But the Angels of 1970 are in fact not like the Angels of 1969. So it is that Lefty Phillips' public relations are suddenly booming, a fact that infuriates as much as pleases Don Drysdale, whom Phillips (as a scout) signed and helped develop, and later (as Dodger pitching coach) counseled. "I think he's a great baseball man," says Drysdale, "and I've said this all the time. I was just burned up at the way everybody was talking about him last year—and nobody coming to his defense. It was a disgrace."
One trouble is that Phillips looks like a man who might come out to check the oil in a bandwagon, rather than a man who would have one of his own. "Lefty doesn't care about his pants," says Angel General Manager Dick Walsh. "As long as they stay on around the waist he doesn't think about what they look like." This year his pot is somewhat reduced and his pants overall a bit trimmer, but he still looks as though he may be keeping a few infield balls in his knicker legs and an extra infielder under his belt.
Another trouble is that Phillips' message is not always easy to pick up. His syntax has been called Stengelian, though it is not as fully developed as that. Walsh says, "It is not continuous. It is here and there and here and there." A Phillipsian sentence is, "I'm planning my pitching rotation out through the All-Star break for the sake of the armed forces," which means not that he is trying to give the Defense Department some kind of break but that he is allowing for the days his pitchers will miss for military reserve duty.
Whole phrases are sometimes lost as Phillips adds a pinch of favorite tobacco to his chaw. Other expressions never emerge from the chaw at all, or at least they never make it as far as to the other corner of his mouth, which is the one he uses for speech. If the listener hangs in there, however, Phillips will, too. "He was not a yes-man," recalls Walter Alston of Phillips' Dodger days. "He talked the same way to O'Malley as he would to me, and he'd talk the same to me as to a rookie pitcher. Of course it wasn't always easy to understand. I had to ask him to repeat himself a lot."
Phillips' persecutors were unable to forget his predecessor, Bill Rigney. Now managing the division-leading Minnesota Twins, Rigney had been manager of the team since its inception in 1961 and he was, and is, one of baseball's most popular men. "Lefty doesn't have anything to drink with the writers or anything like that," says Drysdale. "Not that Rig drank with them that much, but he might go out with them after the game for a while and relax. Lefty may have a beer or something if he's on a winning streak and really happy, but usually he just goes home and goes to bed and can't wait to wake up in the morning and talk more baseball."
The California players were also devoted to Rigney, and when Walsh named Phillips to replace Rigney in May last year after the team lost 10 straight, few people were pleased. It is understandable that even though the Angels' record improved markedly under Phillips the word went around the league that he was a lousy manager. "Ugh," said one headline, when the Angels renewed Phillips' contract in September. Only recently, when it was pointed out that the Angels' won-lost record for the first 160-odd games under Phillips showed almost as much improvement as the Senators under Ted Williams last year, has the treatment of Lefty (Ugh) Phillips changed. He is now being nominated in the papers as Manager of the Year.
The difference lies in the Angels rather than in Phillips. But the team that he and Walsh have assembled gets along with him well and trusts his strategies. And it is the best all-round team in Angel history. Besides Johnson, the Angels have, most notably, a remarkably deep and consistent group of young pitchers. Boog Powell, fresh from his shower after hitting the home run that beat Messersmith Friday night, called him "the best pitcher I've ever faced." Murphy and Clyde Wright have won 13 games between them, and Rudy May, whom Phillips calls "our No. 2 pitcher for stuff," is three and three with an ERA of 2.47. The bullpen is even better. Ken Tatum had a 1.36 ERA last year and is 1.00 this season. In two years and 51 games of relief Paul Doyle has never once lost. Meanwhile, the club's hitting, aided by the 22-year-old surprise Spencer, Roger Repoz, Bill Voss, recent acquisition Ken McMullen and Jay Johnstone, is up more than 40 points over last year.
And that cackling in the background comes from Harold Phillips.
"He was a morning, noon and night kind of baseball thinker and talker," according to Alston, and according to Phillips he will stay that way. "Whenever I think about getting tired of baseball," he says, "I remember that I could have spent all my life working on the railroad, my family and me, just living from one payday to the next."
Phillips grew up in the Los Angeles area and got interested in baseball at the age of 10. He became a high school and sandlot pitcher of some promise, but after going two and two for Bisbee, Ariz. in 1939 he hurt his arm and that was the end of his professional playing career.
Still he wanted to get into baseball. Some scouts he knew "told me scouting would be a way for me to get back into baseball. So I'd work the graveyard shift for the railroad, from midnight to 8 a.m., then I'd sleep until 1 or 1:30 and go to a high school game."
He got a full-time scouting job with the Dodgers in 1951 and had great success, signing, among others, Drysdale, McMullen, Ron Fairly, Norm Sherry, Cincinnati Manager Sparky Anderson and Jim Lefebvre. Phillips moved onto the field as Alston's pitching coach in 1965 and after the '68 season, when both Buzzie Bavasi and Walsh left the Dodgers, accompanied Walsh to the Angels. "I had 10 years with the railroad," Phillips says, "and that was pretty good toward the pension. But my wife Roberta pushed me. She said if it was what I wanted to do, I should take the gamble. She's had to raise our children pretty much by herself. On a lot of occasions, when a fella's not a good ballplayer, he's got to work harder to acquire jobs and keep them."
Who knows, maybe hard work pays off better than imbibing with writers and shaking people's hands after home runs. So far it has put two all-business guys on the side of the Angels.