#4 Most Underrated Athlete in Philly Sports History: Ricky Watters

The defining moment of Ricky Watters career in Philadelphia came in his first game as an Eagle.  On September 3, 1995, the Eagles opened up the season at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. During the second-half, Ricky Watters alligator-armed not one, but two Randall Cunningham passes over the middle of the field.  It didn’t help that the Eagles lost 21-6, and Watters was held to 37 yards rushing with two fumbles.  Sure, Watters was booed by the hometown fans for not sacrificing himself for the team, but those boos were nothing compared to the aftermath of Watters’ postgame comments to the media.

Watters was honest, maybe too honest:

“Hey, I’m not going to trip up there and get knocked out.  For who? For what? I mean, there’s another day. I’m going to make a whole lot of plays. I made a whole lot of plays where I was at before. I’ve always made plays.”

“For who? For what?”   Those four words damned Ricky Watters in this town.  He had committed a cardinal sin.  The fans and the media jumped on Watters.  The Inquirer labeled it “Wattersgate.”  His words were spread in large print on the back cover of the Daily News.  No matter what Watters did from that point forward, he didn’t have a chance to be accepted in Philadelphia as one of our “Philly guys.”  And it’s a shame, because his on-the-field play stood in stark contrast to that comment.

His numbers are staggering.  After scoring three touchdowns in a winning-effort for San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIX, Watters came to Philadelphia as a free agent.  It didn’t take long for him to make an impact.  In 1995, he rushed 337 times for 1,273 yards and 11 touchdowns.  He also added 434 yards on 62 receptions.  In ’96 he amassed 1,855 yards from scrimmage with 13 total touchdowns. In ’97, he had 1,550 total yards and 7 touchdowns.  He never rushed for fewer than 1,110 yards and never caught fewer than 48 passes.  From ’95-’97, he carried the ball 975 times, more than any other player in the NFL.  In ’95 and ’96 he was selected to the Pro Bowl team and named All-Pro.

Even though he spent just three seasons in Philadelphia, Watters ranks 6th in franchise history in rushing and 5th in rushing touchdowns.  He is the Eagles all-time leader in rushing yards per game.

Based on his numbers, Watters is clearly one of the best running backs in Eagles history.  But he didn’t let his numbers speak for themselves, and so he lands on this list as the 4th Most Underrated Athlete in Philadelphia Sports History.

Previously:

#15- Byron Evans#14- John LeClair#13- Von Hayes#12- Freddy Leach#11- Brad McCrimmon#10- Del Ennis#9- Eddie Plank#8- Dick Allen#7- Kimmo Timonen#6- Bobby Abreu#5- Joe Frazier


Most Underrated Philly Athletes of All-Time: #8 Dick Allen

Our 8th Most Underrated Philadelphia Athlete of All-Time is Dick Allen.  Allen’s relationship with the fans of this City was unlike any other.  The picture above is definitely worth 1,000 words: you’ve got Dick Allen playing first base at Connie Mack Stadium for the hometown Phils, he’s traced “Boo” into the dirt in front of him in response to the crowd’s relentless booing, and he’s wearing his batting helmet in the field- not because he had suffered a head injury, but to protect himself from the batteries, pennies, fruit, and garbage thrown at him from the stands.  Merely calling Allen “underrated” doesn’t do any justice to how Philadelphia fans treated the star.

The Phillies signed the 18-year-old Allen as an amateur free agent in 1960.  He worked his way through the minor league system and by 1963 he was ready for AAA ball.  The Phillies AAA affiliate at time was the Arkansas Travelers, based in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Allen asked the organization to send him anywhere but Little Rock, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.  Obviously, with it’s history of violently fighting desegregation, Little Rock wasn’t the greatest place in the world for an African-American in the early 60’s.   Throw in the fact that Allen was the first black player in Little Rock’s minor-league history and you can imagine that his welcome wasn’t unlike Bart’s introduction as the new Sheriff of Rock Ridge (NSFW). Outside the stadium before his first game, Allen was greeting with a fan protest that included a picketing line and signs like “Don’t Negro-ize Baseball” and the ultra-created “Nigger Go Home.” During his time in Little Rock, he was chastised by the fans and the community.  His car was vandalized.  He received death threats.  Thankfully, his talent on the field made for a short-lived career in Little Rock and he was sent up to the majors as an everyday player in 1964.

Although Allen’s stint with the Travelers lasted only a year, it affected him for the rest of his career. First, he started drinking for the first time in his life.  And second, it made him angry.  Angry at the Phillies brass that sent a 21-yr-old black kid into the racial powder keg that was Little Rock against his wishes.

Allen broke in with the Phillies in style.  The rookie batted .318 with 29 HR, 91 RBI, 13 triples, and 125 runs.  He led the majors in triples and runs and was the runaway winner for Rookie of the Year.  His offensive prowess continued and over the course of the next three seasons he was selected to the All-Star Team each year.  He played six years with the Phillies before being traded after the ’69 season. Over the course of that time in Philadelphia, he batted .300 while averaging 30 HR, 90 RBI and 98 runs per year.

Those numbers put him in the upper echelon of sluggers in Phillies history, and should put him in the upper echelon of fan favorites.  But that’s not where he sits.  Instead, partly due to things outside of his control and partly due to his own behavior, Allen drew much more of this town’s ire than its awe.

One of the things out of his control included the size of his contract.  In 1960, he signed with the organization for $70,000 and then in ’67 he was given $82,000 (making him the highest-paid 4th year player in baseball history).  With big contracts come big expectations.  Although Allen produced offensively, he also struck out…a lot.  He was no Ryan Howard, but he averaged 141 Ks a year.  He also wasn’t the best defensive player, committing 41 errors in his Rookie of the Year season. Strikeouts and errors aren’t what fans look for in a high-priced athlete and so the boos started early in Allen’s career.

During the next season, Allen’s relationship with the fans took a drastic turn for the worse.  Veteran Phils slugger Frank Thomas taunted Allen and his black teammate Johnny Briggs by calling them “boy” and referring to Allen as “Muhammed Clay.”  Things boiled over after Thomas called Allen a “Nigger SOB” at batting practice before a game.  Allen went after Thomas and the two fought, Richie Allen with his fists and Frank Thomas with a bat.  After the two were separated, then-manager Gene Mauch approached Allen and told him that he’d been looking for a reason to dump Thomas but that he’d fine Allen $1500 if he ever leaked that fact.  Mauch told the press that he had to choose between a 36-year-old and a 23-year-old.  Not surprisingly, the fans blamed Allen for the departure of the favored veteran.  Allen described the fans’ reaction to Life:

The next day, I stuck my head out of the dugout and I’d never heard such booing…People yelled ‘Nigger’ and ‘Go back to South Street with the monkeys’ and it hasn’t stopped yet.

While the fan’s mistreatment of Allen wasn’t justified, the slugger didn’t do anything to help the situation.  Always at the forefront of controversy, Allen was both the victim and the culprit.  He began showing up late for batting practice, not because he was stuck in traffic, but because he stopped at the bar first.  He was fined and benched a number of times for his tardiness (read: showing up to the park after batting practice was already over, and being hungover or drunk). Not that it affected him. One of his teammates was quoted as saying, “He’d be all glassy-eyed and still hit one 450 feet.”  He showed up to spring training in 1968 in a state described by reporters as “hopelessly drunk.” He missed team flights, was accused of faking injury to get out of playing, and became a divisive character in the locker room.  The media blamed Allen for the firings of consecutive managers Gene Mauch and Bob Skinner.  He dressed by himself in an equipment room separate from the rest of his teammates.  In 1969, he missed a double-header in New York and was suspended indefinitely. In retaliation, he held out for 26 games and returned only when he was promised a trade out of Philadelphia.  He said,  “I can play anywhere; First, Third, Left field, anywhere but Philadelphia.”

The press took whatever ammunition Allen supplied and buried him with it, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly.  He was painted as a trouble-maker, as a player with entitlement issues.  The stories wouldn’t have been as interesting if the reporters divulged that Phillies management granted the star certain privileges (driving to games, taking time off, etc.), so that never made it to print. And so with the blessing of the fan base, Allen was traded.  

After his trade, he didn’t stop producing.  He earned 4 more All-Star selections.  He was awarded the MVP in 1972, a year in which he batted .308, with 37 HRs, 90 runs scored, 113 RBI, and 19 steals for the Chicago White Sox.  He did return to Philadelphia in 1975 for two more seasons with the Phillies before finishing his career in Oakland in 1977.  

Instead of going down in history with the likes of Schmidt, Roberts, and Carlton, Dick Allen is remembered more for being controversial than for being talented.  Because Philadelphia couldn’t look past his off-the-field issues and see his on-the-field skills, he remains one of the most underrated athletes to play in Philadelphia.


Anyone for Ennis? Philly’s 10th Most Underrated Athlete

Del Ennis’s treatment at the hands of Philadelphia fans has never quite made sense, other than the fact that this city has always had a very strange relationship with its power hitters. The city never warmed to Mike Schmidt, jeered Richie Allen, and booed Pat Burrell. Even so, the city’s treatment of Ennis is particularly hard to understand, because he was a hometown kid who made good.

After he broke Ennis’s RBI record last May, Ryan Howard was given a note from Liz Ennis, Del’s widow, congratulating him on his feat. Howard handled it classily, but it made you wonder if he even knew who Ennis was. If not, he wouldn’t be alone. Ennis is the guy whose name is in the Top 10 of pretty much every Phillie career category, and yet every time I stumble across Phils career stats, I find myself thinking, “Who in the hell is this Ennis guy?” I figured it was time to find out.

Ennis was born in North Philly in 1925. He was signed by the Phils out of high school but instead went into the Navy, where he fought in the Pacific Theater. After the War, he joined the Phils and made an immediate impact, batting .313 with 17 HRs and 73 RBIs. The left fielder was also known to have a cannon of an arm, and was named the Sporting News Rookie of the Year. In 1950, he propelled the Whiz Kids to the World Series with a remarkable season in which his numbers were .311-31-126, the latter of which led baseball. And yet despite being Philly’s first bonified batting star since Chuck Klein, he was routinely booed by Philly fans. In 2003, Frank Fitzpatrick wrote an excellent piece called, “Why Did They Boo Del Ennis?

Talk to aging Phillies fans and they all seem to have a different reason: Ennis was a clumsy outfielder; Ennis struck out too often (though his season high was 65); Ennis didn’t hit in the clutch (though he drove in 100 runs in each of six seasons between 1949 and 1955 – excluding 1951 – in an era of relatively subdued offense); Ennis didn’t hustle.

“Del lumbered in from the outfield. He wasn’t dashing like Richie Ashburn,” said Phillies scout Maje McDonnell, a coach with the team in the 1950s. “But he bore down every play, every day. On balls hit back to the pitcher, he ran harder than anyone I’ve ever seen. I saw him drive second basemen into center field breaking up double plays. He hustled all the time.”

And so not only was it classy of his wife to send the note to Howard, it was remarkable that she still pays attention to the Phillies. In the Fitzpatrick article, it is obvious that the pain of Del’s treatment is still with her.

“The booing was hurtful to him. It really was,” said Liz Ennis, surrounded by a basement full of photos, newspaper clippings and memorabilia from her husband’s playing days. “Every time he was interviewed, the very first question everybody would ask is, ‘Why did the fans boo you like they did?’

“He always said that as long as they paid money to get into the ballpark, they were entitled to boo. But the fact of the matter was, he didn’t understand it. He really didn’t understand it. And I don’t either.”

Incredibly, only one player over the 9 year period from 1948-1957 had more RBIs than Ennis. That would be Stan Musial, who is a demi-God in St. Louis. Ennis, meanwhile, has all but been forgotten in the town he not only played in, but was born in. The more I read about him, the only thing that makes sense is the Bobby Abreu charge…that he didn’t hustle in the field. Even if so (and he was known to be a slow runner), he more than made up for it with his rifle arm, as he recorded 14 or more assists 5 different seasons.

Ennis is not only one of the greatest Phillies of all time (Phillies Nation has him ranked 16th), I think that he is certainly on of the most underrated Phillies in the history of the team. 3rd in Home Runs, 3rd in RBIs, 4th in hits, 3rd in total bases, 7th in doubles, 5th in games played, 9th in runs scored, the list goes on and on. Del, for what it’s worth, we here at Philly Sports History tip our cap to you.

You can see PSH’s full list of Philly’s 15 Most Underrated Athletes here.


#13 Most Underrated Philly Athlete of All Time: Von Hayes

(6 points) You know who Von Hayes reminds me a lot of? Andre Iguodala. He does a lot of things well but nothing great, the team overvalued his talents, and he’s never compared against other players but against his own expectations. That said, one day I think we’ll look back and say that Iguodala is better than we give him credit for. Now is the time to look back and say that Von Hayes was better than we give him credit for.

From 1984 to 1990, only 17 players played in 100 games each season with an OPS+ (On-base plus slugging) of at least 100 each year.

Rk  Player
1 Robin Yount
2 Lou Whitaker
3 Darryl Strawberry
4 Cal Ripken
5 Tim Raines
6 Eddie Murray
7 Kent Hrbek
8 VON HAYES
9 Tony Gwynn
10 Dwight Evans
11 Andre Dawson
12 Chili Davis
13 Alvin Davis
14 George Brett
15 Wade Boggs
16 Jesse Barfield
17 Harold Baines
Provided by Baseball-Reference.comView Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/10/2012 courtesy of Highheatstats.com
Pretty decent company, eh? Furthermore, the trade really wasn’t that bad. The only person of consequence the Phillies gave up was Julio Franco. Yeah, he turned out to be about as good as Von Hayes, though for a hell of a lot longer. But over the 6 years after the trade was made (as long as Franco was in Cleveland), Hayes was the slightly better player. So this was hardly Moses Malone for Jeff Ruland. But the 5-for-1 tag haunted Hayes’s entire career. It was an unfair way to assess what was an absolutely stellar career in Philadelphia. Hayes is 20th in team history in career doubles, 24th in career hits, 10th in career steals, and 17th in career home runs (despite playing during a dead ball era).
But pretty much every old article you find online starts with the words 5-for-1. Von got ripped in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He somehow made it into Jayson Stark’s excellent Overrated/Underrated book as overrated. That’s like saying that Rodney Dangerfield gets too much respect. Von Hayes deserves to be seen as a very good player on some very bad Phillies teams, not as the “one” part of a 5-for-1 deal that never lived up to expectations.
Hayes currently coaches the Camden Riversharks.
PREVIOUSLY: #14 John LeClair
PREVIOUSLY: #15 Byron Evans

Most Underrated Philly Athletes of All-Time: #15 Byron Evans

(6 points) Just how underrated is Byron Evans? His wikipedia entry contains exactly 2 sentences about his career with the Eagles, and one of those talks about how he was overlooked as a defender. But his value is best summed up in this article by Reuben Frank last year about (what else?) how underrated Byron Evans was:

He didn’t pile up sacks like Reggie. He didn’t shut down tight ends like Seth. He didn’t fly across the field and obliterate wideouts who dared venture across the middle like Wes and Andre. And he didn’t make historic interceptions like E.A. All he did was effectively stuff running backs and clog up the middle, which let all the other guys roam around and make all those big plays.

And unlike teammates like Jerome Brown, Allen and Joyner, who had ebullient personalities, Byron was very, very quiet. He was the one guy on that defense that preferred to let his play do the talking.

From 1989-1992, Evans was a beast on defense, averaging 145.5 tackles per year. He was the signal caller and defensive captain of a defense that included Clyde Simmons, Jerome Brown, and Reggie White. He was smart enough to not only play the most demanding position of Buddy Ryan’s complex 46 defense, but to master it. And lastly, you have to give him points for the Beanie Wiggle.

Evans now teaches high school and coaches football in Arizona. Here he is interviewed a few months ago, talking about how much he enjoys coaching and teaching.