Before the start of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, Billy Payne, the organization’s CEO, reminded everyone that while much of the attention during the Games would be focused on the high-profile athletes, not to forget that all 10,000 athletes from the 107 countries represented were and would forever be Olympians — a title very few people in the world would ever attain.
I thought about Billy Payne’s words last week when I met Taylor Phillips. He was a major league baseball player from 1956 to 1963 with the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Braves (and a member of the 1957 World Champions), Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago White Sox.
What kind of achievement is that? John Schuerholz, president of the Atlanta Braves, said at a luncheon recently that only 10 percent of those drafted by the major leagues ever make it to them and of those who do, only 2 to 3 percent manage to stay. Taylor Phillips did both.
Phillips lives in Hiram these days and has just turned 81. He is full of wonderful anecdotes of a simpler time in sports. A hard-throwing left-handed pitcher, the Atlanta native originally signed with the Atlanta Crackers, which in those days was one of the premier baseball organizations in the minor leagues.
Why the Crackers? “My daddy wanted me to play for them,” he said simply, even though he was being scouted by the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Crackers gave his daddy $1,000, paid Phillips $175 a month and sent him off to Waycross for two seasons where he became a sensation, winning 22 games his second year there and striking out 265 batters in 296 innings.
Around the same time, a highly touted Georgia high school pitcher, Hugh Frank Radcliffe, signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for $40,000, an enormous amount of money in those days. Radcliffe never played in a major league game. Scouting was — and remains — a very inexact science.
“When I made the Atlanta club, every time I won a game, Earl Mann (the team owner) would shake my hand and there would be a $50 or $100 bill in his hand,” Phillips said. “I made more money shaking hands than I did playing ball.”
His career was interrupted by the Korean War. He was sent to Fort McPherson in Atlanta, where the commanding general had assembled a group of outstanding players, including a number of major leaguers.
“We didn’t lose many games,” Phillips said. “We were afraid to. The general said if we lost, he would ship us all to Formosa.”
From there it was on to AAA Wichita and then to the bigs. In fact, it was almost 51 years to the day of our discussion that he was called up to the Milwaukee Braves. Phillips talks about the first time he took the field in a major league game.
“When I got there,” he recalled, “they told me to go to the bullpen and get some tosses in. We were playing the New York Giants and were behind 5-2.”
All of a sudden, the bullpen phone rang and Phillips was told he was going in the game.
“I was shocked,” he said. “Thank goodness, they had a golf cart to take me on the field. If not, I might have jumped the back fence and gone home. I get to the mound and there are 36,000 people watching me. I’d never seen that many people before in my life.”
After tossing a couple of balls to the backstop as he warmed up, Phillips settled down and proceeded to strike out the Giants’ three best hitters, including Willie Mays.
“I will never forget that experience,” he said. “Not many people have done that.”
He chuckled. “Of course, I will never forget the night I gave up 10 runs in one inning in Brooklyn. Not many people have done that, either.”
Phillips is grateful he had the talent and ability to play baseball at the highest level.
“I will always be a member of the 1957 World Champions,” he said proudly. “I have a ring (the championship ring) that only 25 people in the world have. Think of all the major leaguers who have played this game and never got a championship ring. I have been blessed.”
And I am blessed that I got to meet a man who has done what so few people have ever done or will ever be able to do. Taylor Phillips was a major league baseball player. He still is.