Phil Marchildon

Phil MarchildonPhilip Joseph “Babe” Marchildon, was born in Penetanguishene, Ontario on October 23, 1913. Of French and Quebecois ancestry, his last name being pronounced with the characteristic French “sh”, his branch of the family was English-speaking by the time he arrived on the scene. Despite this his future teammates sometimes called him “Froggy”.

Even by the disorganized standards of early 20th-century baseball he came to the major leagues in an odd way. While playing for a Penetanguishene amateur team in 1936 he came to the attention of the Creighton Mine Indians, a company team in the Nickel Belt League out of Sudbury. He was duly hired to work various labor jobs related to the mine and pitch for the Indians.

Marchildon was in Sudbury until age 25 when he was signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs—not the famous hockey team or the current semi-pro team playing out of Toronto’s Christie Pits, but a long-time unaffiliated International League team, one step down from the majors. After a short time playing for a lower-level team in 1939, he was called up to Toronto. By the end of the 1940 season he’d established himself as a real talent on what was, at the time, not a very good team. This experience may have helped him cope with his next stop, as he was transferred to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in September of 1940 to begin a major-league career that was essentially the same thing.

He himself said years later—and contemporary newspaper accounts did too—that he arrived in the majors as a thrower, uselessly wild, but learned on the job from Earle Brucker (senior, though his son junior was a teammate of Marchildon’s for two games in 1948). Brucker was a journeyman catcher near the end of his career and a de facto coach for the Athletics before becoming an actual one. Under his guidance Marchildon managed to get some idea of how to hit the strike zone.

That was true only up to a point. Marchildon threw very hard by 1940’s standards, and Jimmie Foxx considered him the equal of Dizzy Trout as the fastest pitcher he’d seen since Bob Feller. The post-Brucker wildness that remained with it led to some astonishing walk numbers: 140 in 244.1 IP in 1942, topped by 141 in 276.2 innings in 1947, and then followed by 131 in 1948. You’d think that in return he’d rack up some strong strikeout numbers, but this was a different era. He never, not even once, struck out more men that he walked in any of the seasons he played. He topped out at 128 K’s in 1947, but even so the difference in batting philosophies between now and then means that he did crack the NL’s top five in strikeouts twice.

As well as his fastball he threw a curve, and after his return from World War II he developed a forkball. In an interview years later, he explained that his fastball was a natural slider and that he didn’t even know what it was until Ted Williams asked about it. On that basis he thought that perhaps he’d invented the pitch, though modern-day consensus is that it’s thirty years older than that.

Marchildon was the unquestioned ace of the Athletics’ terrible pitching staff by the end of the 1942 season and even came in ninth in the MVP voting that year, which was astonishing considering that he pitched for a last place team. On the other hand, newspaper writers of the time commonly made the point that he was held back by his teammates, and for that matter it’s worth considering that he won 17 games for a team that only won 38 others without him the whole season.

His 1942 season was almost interrupted by the Canadian Army calling him up on June 23, 1942, but he managed to arrange a deferment to the end of the season. On November 5th he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, and then pitched for various RCAF baseball teams through first part of 1943. He volunteered for combat, though, and graduated from RCAF training as a tail gunner on July 23, 1943.

After a period of time when he was reported to be in the Mediterranean, he and the rest of his Halifax bomber crew were based out of England. As the war raged through France—the Liberation of Paris would begin two days later—they were shot down on August 17, 1944 while on a mission to mine Kiel Harbor near the German border with Denmark. There were two survivors including him, and by the next month he was in Stalag Luft III.

Marchildon then spent January through May on the forced marches that the Germans put their prisoners through as the Allies closed in on Berlin. Marchildon had lost a reported 20-30 pounds before being freed by British patrol on May 2, 1945. Quickly repatriated, he was induced to report back to the A’s on July 16th. By August he was playing again, but unsurprisingly did not do well and only made three appearances.

The next season he had recovered his strength and pitched a full season: 13-16 with an ERA+ right at league average. It was 1947 that saw him get back to where he had been, and then some. He finished that year 19-9 for an Athletics team that was the first to clear .500 since 1933. His ERA+ was the best of his career, he came ninth in the MVP voting again, and he set his career high in innings pitched. He also nearly threw the first perfect game in the major leagues since 1922, losing one to a called fourth ball in the eighth inning of a game against Cleveland on August 26th.

He had one more decent season the next year, and even that was a bit iffy: his ERA+ dropped below average, and his SO/W dropped to 0.50, the worst of his career since his shaky cup of coffee in 1940. On August 1, 1948 he threw a ball sometimes called the wildest pitch in history (though with no-one on base it was technically just a ball). While pitching to Vic Wertz, the ball got loose at the top of his delivery and flew ten rows into the stands about 30 feet up the third baseline and beaned a fan named Sam Wexel. Wexel was, fortunately, only slightly hurt. Marchildon did have five actual wild pitches, three hit batsmen, and seven walks in 8.2 innings pitched that day, which had to be something to see in aggregate.

News began to circulate, and Marchildon himself said both at the time and later, that he was starting to suffer from “war nerves”—PTSD as we say now. At the time this was a source of worry, but something that it was felt someone could simply work through. Instead his 1949 consisted of 16 innings over six starts and a relief appearance, with more than a walk per inning and only two strikeouts.

The Yankees were reportedly interested in trading for him anyway in December 1949 in return for Johnny Lindell, but Connie Mack backed off after a medical exam confirmed that his arm was uninjured. He pitched very poorly in spring training, though, and when camp broke and the Athletics returned north he was sold out of the major leagues to the Buffalo Bisons of the International League.

He pitched just as poorly for the Bisons and was released by them on June 5, 1950, the day of a double-header with Toronto in Buffalo. The Red Sox decided to give him a try and, eleven days later, he relieved Mel Parnell in the first inning after Parnell had given up five runs while getting only one out. He made it into the second, but surrendered a triple and two walks and didn’t make it to the third.

After baseball, Marchildon moved to the Toronto area and worked for Avro (of the famous-in-Canada Avro Arrow) until the cancellation of the Arrow closed the company in 1959. A blip of interest was generated in him during the Expos’ inaugural season of 1969, and he was interviewed by the Montreal Gazette for a multi-page spread—the second part of which was published the day before the Apollo moon landing.


 

Sources

Daytona Beach Morning Journal, December 19, 1949

Daytona Beach Morning Journal, April 6, 1950

Milwaukee Journal, November 6, 1942

Montreal Gazette, June 24, 1942

Montreal Gazette, June 6, 1950

Montreal Gazette, July 12 and 19, 1969

The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, p.291. James, Bill and Neyer, Rob.

Ottawa Citizen, July 28, 1943

Owosso Argus-Press, August 2, 1948

Phil Marchildon, Baseball Reference (http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/m/marchph01.shtml)

Pittsburgh Press, August 27, 1948

SABR Bio by Ralph Berger (http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/d428f52c)

St. Petersburg Evening Independent, July 16 1945

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