From the What-If Files: The Urgent Telegram that May Have Cost the Phillies a Dynasty

The funnest part about running this website is coming across crazy ass stories I’ve never heard of before, and odds are 99% of Philly has never heard of them either. This is one of those stories.

The 1913 Phillies were undoubtedly a team on the rise They went 88-63, finishing 2nd in the NL, though they were nowhere near the Giants, who won 101 games that year. Gavvy Cravath had a monster year for the Phils that year, hitting .341 with 19 Homers and 128 RBIs. (You can read more about good ol’ Gravvy, and the former MLB record he held, here.) Furthermore, they had a promising new ownership group, led by 42-year old President William Locke, who had served with distinction as a secretary in Pittsburgh for the Pirates for the previous ten years.

The pitching staff was led, of course, by Grover Cleveland Alexander. But there was a righty on the team who had a monster season, a guy I had never heard of until today, Tom Seaton. Seaton had a breakout year in 1913, going 27-12 that year with a 2.60 ERA, and he led the league with 168 strikeouts. Like Alexander, he had been born in Nebraska in 1887, and the city must have been thrilled by the prospect of the two young cornhuskers leading the previously moribund Phillies to the Series many times in the years to come.

It was not to be. On August 7th, Seaton took the hill in Chicago to pitch against the Cubs. Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, his wife Rene was going into a difficult labor, and both her health and the health of the baby were in doubt. An urgent telegram was sent to the Phillies. What happened next is in dispute. Seaton claimed that he was never given the telegram until after the game. Phillies manager Red Dooin claimed that he gave the telegram to Seaton before the game but that Seaton wanted to pitch anyway and leave afterwards. Regardless, by the time he arrived in Philadelphia, his newborn was dead and his wife was on death’s doorstep. Rene survived, and was furious at the Phillies for not giving her husband the telegram so that he could be by her side.

A week after that debacle, William Locke passed away, and the leadership of the team passed from his able hands to the hands of his idiotic and incompetent cousin, William Baker. These two events, occurring within a week of each other, doomed the team.

The belligerent Baker began showing his incompetence the moment the season ended. He sent Seaton a contract offer that would only be honored if he played in 35 games and won 60% of his starts. Seaton and his wife were outraged. That spring, he signed a contract with Chicago of the new Federal League (essentailly the 1914 version of the USFL), then was moved by Federal League execs to the Brooklyn squad. He had a terrific season in the Federal League in 1914, but was overused, and his arm went dead in 1915. After the Federal League folded, he returned to the majors, and had some minor success with the Cubs. But by 1918 he was out of the Majors for good. After bouncing around the Minors for awhile, he was kicked out of baseball for befriending some shady characters following the Black Sox hysteria, and worked for a smelting company in El Paso for the remainder of his life.

The Phillies struggled without him in 1914, but went all the way to the World Series in 1915. You have to wonder: if Seaton had gotten that telegram before the game against the Cubs, would he and Alexander have dominated NL hitters for the next several years, and perhaps won a World Series or two? Or would his arm have burned out anyway? Did Seaton receive the telegram before the Chicago game and not understand the urgency of it, thus staying on the field to pitch, then covering his ass afterwards? Would Superidiot Bill Baker have screwed the whole thing up anyway?

PREVIOUSLY IN THE WHAT-IF FILES: Ferguson Jenkins.