Jerry Summers: Shufflin' Phil Douglas

Friday, February 26, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

The adjoining states of Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia have a connecting bond to a major league baseball pitcher from 1912-1922.

Phil Brooks Douglas was born on July 17, 1890 in Cedartown, Georgia but moved to Cowan, Tennessee in Franklin County where he grew up.  He would also move to Birmingham, Alabama during his life.

At 6’3” and weighing 190 pounds, Phil was a big man for that era and began his professional baseball career in 1910 at the age of 20.

His fastball pitch was impressive enough that he would be favorably compared to future Hall of Famer Walter “Big Train” Johnson, often considered the greatest right-hand pitcher of all time.

However, their careers took distinctly divergent paths over the years.

Johnson’s major league career extended over 21 years and he played for only one team – the Washington Senators.

Phil Douglas was a virtual vagabond and would be signed and released by five teams because of his alcoholism and tendency to disappear from his teams for days at a time.  He would eventually be banned from baseball for life in 1922.

Phil’s first season in organized baseball started in 1911 with the Rome, Georgia team in the Southeastern League until it folded in July.  That started an odyssey that included numerous minor leagues and the five major league stints.

Douglas obviously had more than just size and a big fastball.

Prior to it being outlawed, the spitter was the pitch that Phil and many other hurlers used as their dominant pitch although he also would effectively rely on a curve, fastball, and change up.  He learned his devastating spitball from Hall of Fame pitcher Ed Walsh of the Chicago White Sox.

He was also fined numerous times for violating training rules.

Douglas came from “a hard drinking Southern family and had developed a taste for alcohol as a teenager.”  He also had a love for fishing and the two pastimes occupied much of his time on days off between pitching starts.

What would follow is a tragic story of what might have been but was not.

Alcohol and his inability to control this weakness was also aggravated by inconsideration by others including the acid and venomous tongue of John McGraw, the legendary manager of the New York Giants who had differences with many known players over the years.

Douglas did not have a Hall of Fame career as he only had a record of 94 wins-93 losses but had a career Earned Run Average (ERA) of 2.80 runs per game which to baseball fans is excellent and in fact was tenth (10th) among National League pitchers over those nine seasons that Douglas played in the majors.

A 21-page summary of his life by Mike Lynch can be obtained by Googling Phil Brooks Douglas.  It goes into great detail about the ups and downs of the talented performer on the baseball diamond who could not control the off-field alcohol demons.

Some of the events of his turbulent life are humorous, most are sad, and are indicative of a career which might have been but was not.

Babe Ruth once described Douglas “as tough a man as I’ve seen" (in the American League) and even John McGraw called his performance “among the best pitching that has ever been displayed in a World Series.”

However, Douglas’ slide to the bottom continued and, amid tales of his alcohol binges and unsubstantiated allegations that he might have thrown or offered to throw ball games to get revenge against McGraw and the New York Giants, it all finally led to Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis banning him from baseball for life in 1922.

Landis had been working to crack down on crooked players in the wake of the infamous 1919 Black Sox scandal where several players had accepted money from gamblers to lose games where they were heavy favorites against the mediocre Cincinnati Reds.

Banned from his lifelong profession, Douglas would wander from one semi-pro team to another accepting nominal pay for limited appearances.  In 1925 he pitched in Pikeville, Tennessee and Tracy City, Tennessee, Lynch, Kentucky and Bluefield, West Virginia and at times when not drinking displayed some of his potential greatness.  At the age of 38 he would pitch regularly for the local Cowan team and he often beat squads from Tennessee and Alabama.

After his first wife died in 1927 his descent into the liquor bottle started over and it did not subside until he remarried in 1928 and lived in several Tennessee towns in Tullahoma, Nashville, Whitwell and Bon Air.

After his career was over Phil became a foreman for a state highway crew in Jasper, Tennessee until 1949.  Injured on the job, he would reside in poverty in a log cabin in Sequatchie, Tennessee living on his meager state pension.

After suffering three strokes he died on August 1, 1952 at the age of 62 and is buried at Tracy City, Tennessee.

To the end of his life, he maintained he was innocent of the charges that he led to his ban from baseball but each request to be reinstated both during and after his death by friends to Commissioner Fay Vincent were denied.

In 1979, author Tom Clark wrote a book on the life of Douglas titled, “One Last Round for the Shuffler” (Pomerica Press) which emphasizes the failure of the player to use his natural talents to achieve greatness.  It is still available at several publishers for prices ranging from cost of a used paper back for $6.50 upwards to $100 for a hard cover depending on condition.

He would earn his nickname, because of the slow pace with which he “shuffled” from the bullpen to the mound.

Phil Douglas would be described in a 1938 article as one of the “outlaw” ball players for their often-outrageous conduct on and off the playing field who were Hall of Fame caliber players such as Shoeless Joe Jackson, Buck Weaver, Hal Chase, Eddie Cicotte and Douglas.

He was a unique individual who had lifelong ties to the Sequatchie Valley and the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

 

Phil Douglas
Phil Douglas

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