Phil Marchildon – The Best Canadian Pitcher You’ve Never Heard Of

by Douglas Fox | Posted on Monday, August 10th, 2015
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The town of Penetanguishene, Ontario, sits at the end of a long fjord off of Georgian Bay, which itself is a backpack-like extension of the fur trader-shaped Lake Huron.  The name of the town supposedly derives from the Ojibwa “Place of the White Rolling Sands,” but that beach-like landscape can be hard to find, as Penetanguishene Bay is ringed on all three sides by steep hills and red  pine forest.

Penetanguishene owes it origins to the British Navy, which was eager to avoid an attack on York, the tiny community that was the political and military headquarters of the fledgling colony of Upper Canada, like the one that took place in the War of 1812.  As early as 1793, British military officer John Graves Simcoe, the colony’s first Lieutenant Governor, had recommended the harbour as a strategic Upper Great Lakes port.

Situated almost 150 kilometres directly north of York, better known now as Toronto, Penetanguishene became the sight of a naval and military base that was designed to patrol the Upper Great Lakes and protect the northern flank of the capital from future attacks by the Americans.

The end of the War of 1812 and the subsequent signing of the Rush-Bagot treaty in 1817 put an end to the threat of hostilities between the two nations, and Britain’s navy withdrew from the base several years later, leaving the army to wait for an enemy who would never come.

As the army’s presence grew in the 1830s, then steadily declined until he base was closed in 1856, a small support community had formed to the south.  Populated mostly by French Canadians, the town took the name of Penetanguishene, and flourished after the closure as farmers from Quebec were lured to the area by the lumber trade, and the plentiful and arable farmland that was available.

A Quebecois by the name of Hector Marchildon came to the area in 1840, and purchased fifty acres of waterfront land, where he constructed a sawmill to process the giant white pine logs that were boomed down Georgian Bay from the forests on the north shore.

Marchildon prospered in the area, and long after the base had been shuttered and the last log floated into Penetanguishene Bay,  there were many Marchildon descendants in the area, and still are to this day.  One of them, a young boy by the name of Phil, made an improbable rise from a makeshift ball diamond in a farmer’s field at the edge of town to pitch in the major leagues for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s, and then overcame physical and emotional injuries suffered in World War II to return to the A’s.

Phil Marchildon was born in 1913, the 4th of 7 children born to Oliver and Elizabeth Marchildon.  Despite his French-Canadian background, Marchildon grew up speaking English only, which was not uncommon for the youth of Penetanguishene.  While Canada had been independent from Britain for almost a half century by the time of his birth, it was still very much a country with deep British roots and traditions (outside of Quebec), including language.  Quebecois who ventured outside of the confines of their home province found they had little choice but to assimilate.  There were no French-language schools in Ontario for young francophone descendants to attend. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Franco-Ontarian community in the area re-discovered their roots, and Penetanguishene now boasts French elementary schools and a high school, a French-language radio station, and a thriving bilingual community.

Oliver Marchildon was a plumber and volunteer with the local fire department.  Elizabeth, or Liza, as everyone called her, took in laundry from neighbours to help make ends meet, and young Phil delivered papers for the Toronto Star.  The Marchildons were not poor, but living so far away from Toronto meant that they were always on the fringes economically.

Penetanguishene has been a great sporting community for well over a century.  Natural rivalries grew in hockey, baseball, and lacrosse with nearby Midland, Orillia, and Collingwood.

Phil grew up playing all three sports, and hockey quickly became his favourite.  With no artificial ice available until Midland built an arena in 1932, Marchildon grew up playing on the frozen bay, which was usually covered in ice from December to March.

Growing up in Penetang was an ideal place to be.  In Marchildon’s biography, “Ace,” written with author Brian Kenney, Marchildon was a star athlete:

 When he got to Penetanguishene’s High School, Phil added track and field and football to his sporting repertoire.  It was the latter sport that helped further his athletic career.  While Penetanguishene Secondary was playing a home and home football series against St Michael’s College, a well-known private school in Toronto, the St Mike’s coach was so impressed with Marchildon that he offered him a football scholarship.  Marchildon moved to the big city for his final year of high school, and while he didn’t play much and later in life expressed regret for choosing to attend St Mike’s, he had the opportunity to play his final high school game at Maple Leaf Stadium, home of Toronto’s International League team.  Little did he know that he would be returning there to play another sport one day.

 

Marchildon returned home after graduation to find work, and to play for the local intermediate baseball team. He had only taken up pitching two years earlier, and at 5”11, 170 lbs hardly had a pitcher’s frame, but with his blazing fastball, he quickly became Penetanguishene’s ace, and led them to a North Simcoe County Intermediate (a step below the province’s top loop, Senior) title, and all the way to the Ontario Baseball Association finals, where they lost to the legendary Chatham Coloured All Stars.

To complete this tale, it would be nice to say that some bird dog watched Marchildon pitch in those playoffs, and had a major league scout come to see him, contract in hand  – but that’s not how it happened.  This was during the Great Depression, and there was less work than usual (which wasn’t a lot to begin with) available in the Midland-Penetanguishene area.  So, in order to support his family, Marchildon caught a train north for Sudbury, and took a job in the nickel mines.

The Nickel Belt had a very competitive semi-pro league for a number of years, and Marchildon was able to catch on in the town of Creighton, just outside of Sudbury, pitching for them in the short northern summers when he wasn’t underground.  Marchildon pitched in the league for three years, and pitched his team into the highly competitive OBA senior semi-finals.  This time, scouts were paying attention.  Marchildon’s Penetanguishene manager, Jim Shaw, was a fishing pal of Dan Howley, who was managing the baseball Toronto Maple Leafs  of the International League at the time.  He urged Phil to try out for the Leafs.  At 24, Marchildon had misgivings about giving up the security of a job and a few bucks on the side pitching during the summer, but Howley was persistent, and Marchildon agreed to attend a tryout camp in Barrie, about a three hour drive south of Sudbury.

Marchildon thought he had performed well at the tryout camp, but no one said anything to him, even after he had waited around for a while afterward.  Disappointed but not surprised, he packed up and headed back to the Nickel Belt.  Howley himself showed up at Creighton Mines a few days later with a contract offer, literally plucking Marchildon off of a lift as he prepared to descend into the mines.  “I put a half-nelson on him and forced a pen into his hand, and told him to write his signature,” said Howley later.  “I saved him from being a mole.”

Howley had offered a $500 signing bonus (which Marchildon later said he never received), and an invitation for the Leafs Florida spring training camp the following March.

Marchildon reported to Florida the following spring (1939), and even though he was hardly a bright-eyed young rookie, he was surprised by what he saw.  Howley had moved upstairs to become the Toronto GM, and Jack Burns, who had played for the St Louis Browns, was the player-manager.  Burns had little time for a shy, slight, and raw Canadian, and after a few sessions early on in training camp, Marchildon received little coaching or instruction.  The veterans of the club were wary of any newcomers who might take their jobs away, so Marchildon was left to his own devices for much of the camp.  There were few offers of tips or invitations to dinner later that night.  So far from home, it must have been a trying time for Marchildon, who had to have been wondering if he wouldn’t have been better off back in Creighton Mines.

By the end of camp, Marchildon had pitched well enough to earn a contract offer from Howley of $350 a month, which far surpassed his miner’s salary, so he jumped at the offer and headed north with the team.  After a couple of relief appearances on the road, management decided to start Phil in the team’s home opener.  About 100 friends and family made the trek to Toronto, thanks to a couple of buses chartered by some Penetanguishene businessmen. Marchildon went 8 innings and gave up 10 hits in taking the loss.

After a few rough outings, the Leafs decided to send Marchildon down a level to Cornwall, a town near the Ontario-Quebec border, to play in the Can-Am League.  He rediscovered his fastball command, and after reeling off six straight wins, was recalled to Toronto.  When he arrived back in Hogtown, things had changed.  Former Yankees 2nd baseman Tony Lazerri, of Murderers’ Row fame, had taken over as Manager.  With an improved team behind him, and Marchildon beat the Buffalo Bisons in front of a Canada Day crowd of 10 000 in Toronto, and began to attract the interest of several big league teams.

The following year, Connie Mack signed Marchildon to pitch for his Philadelphia Athletics, who had established a player development agreement with the Maple Leafs.  He was called up to the A’s in mid-September, and in his first game in a Philadelphia uniform watched Bob Feller of the Indians retire the first 22 hitters he faced en route to a 2-hit shutout.  Marchildon wondered if he even belonged in the same league after that performance.

Marchildon made his major league debut at home against the Senators after that, and was shelled for 6 runs on 7 hits over three innings.  He pitched again on the final weekend of the season, and while he took the loss against the Red Sox, he felt more comfortable on the mound.

Phil went home at the end of the 1940 season eager to resume his big league career the following spring.  With War having broken out in Europe, however, there was great uncertainty about whether or not there would even be a baseball season.  At home, there was considerable debate about Canada’s participation in the War, and even more debate about how a Canadian expeditionary force would be filled – through volunteers, or through some form of conscription, which was extremely unpopular in Quebec.

The 1941 season did get underway,  and turned out to be one of the most historic in major league history.  Joe DiMaggio had his 56 game hitting streak, and Ted Williams refused to rest on the final day of the season, and went 6 for 8 to preserve his batting title and record baseball’s last plus-.400 batting average.

Marchildon entered the spring training with a legitimate shot at a big league job, and with the help of some adjustments to his delivery, broke camp with the team and quickly established himself in the A’s rotation.  Despite his size, Marchildon threw heat.  He also had tremendous movement on his fastball, which became known around the American League as a “Johnny Jump Up.”  So, for a modern comparison, think of Marchildon as a Tim Lincecum-type of pitcher: not big for a pitcher, but with a dominating fastball.  Marchildon’s fastball had so much movement that he had trouble commanding it, issuing 118 walks (against 74 strikeouts) in his first full season.  Still, pitching for a bad Philadelphia team that lost 90 games, Marchildon had a respectable 10-15 won-loss record, with a 3.57 ERA.  Marchildon also did his part for history that season, giving up a home run to Di Maggio in his first at bat in game #46 of his hitting streak. And he didn’t pitch to Williams on the season’s final weekend, but had a front row seat to watch his incredible final day performance, as the A’s took on the Red Sox to close out the season.

Fighting overseas spread to North Africa after the 1941 season, culminating with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December.  As players readied themselves for spring training, there was considerable doubt that the 1942 season would even take place.  President Roosevelt gave Commissioner Landis the green light to go ahead with the season, reasoning that it was in the best interests of the public to keep the game going.  Many players had already decided to enlist, however, and Marchildon estimated that only 60% of big leaguers who had finished the previous season returned the following season.

As the Canadian government debated the extent to which they would become involved in the War, even greater controversy raged over how the government would fulfill its commitment.  When Canada declared War against Germany and its allies in 1939,  Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King pledged to limit Canada’s direct military involvement.  Most knew after the first year of the War that it wasn’t going to end anytime soon, and as the War spread and the pressure on King’s government to expand Canada’s effort grew, a referendum was held in April of 1942, asking the question, , “Are you in favour of releasing the Government from any obligations arising out of any past commitments restricting the methods of raising men for military service?”

The sentiment in Quebec for upping Canada’s involvement was tepid, at best.  Since English was the language of radio communications and most training, there were few French-only units beyond the 22nd Unit (the legendary Van Doos), and French Canadians were understandably reluctant to enlist as a result.

Across the nation, 63% of voters said yes, with over 80% in English-speaking Canada supporting the motion.  Soon, young Canadian men of eligible age were receiving their draft notice, including Marchildon,  a month later.  The A’s were headed to Washington for a series against the Senators, so he went to the Canadian Embassy to apply for an exemption, as he claimed he was the sole source of financial support for his family.  His request was initially denied, and then his reporting date was pushed back to the end of September, so that he could finish the season.

Marchildon had become the ace of the Athletics’ pitching staff that season, posting 17 wins for a team that lost 99 games.  He led the AL in walks, but posted an impressive ERA+ of 91.  Mack didn’t say goodbye to Marchildon before he left to fulfill his service obligation.  Marchildon had a love-hate relationship with Mack, but that rankled him for many years afterward.

Canada’s forces were united for the War effort, so new recruits had to indicate which branch they wanted to serve in, or soldiers were automatically enlisted in the Army.  Marchildon chose the Air Force, and as a high profile athlete, was given the opportunity to stay in Canada and serve as a fitness instructor.  Staying at home while others were fighting overseas wasn’t for Phil, however:

….once I joined the RCAF, an all-volunteer force, they could send me wherever they wanted and give me their choice of duty.  Call me crazy, but that’s exactly the way I wanted it.  I didn’t want people saying that Phil Marchildon, the big-league ballplayer, had taken the easy way out.

He had hoped to become a pilot, but given his age, he was made a gunner.  Marchildon was sent to Souris, MB for training, and was then sent to Halifax, NS to complete his training.  Stopping along the way in Toronto, he met a friend for coffee, who brought along his stunning younger sister Irene.  They only had a few days together, and promised to stay in touch as Marchildon prepared to ship overseas in July, 1943.

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Marchildon got an early taste of War shortly after arriving in the English port city of Bournemouth.  While he was waiting to be assigned to his unit, Marchildon was walking the streets of Bournemouth one day when a German fighter plane swooped down from the clouds and began strafing the street ahead of him.  People scurried for cover, and Marchildon ducked into a doorway just as a hail of machine gun fire rained down on the sidewalk he had been standing on only seconds earlier.

Phil was assigned to a crew that was to fly the Handley Page Halifax bomber, a big and slow four-engined, multi-purpose beast.  The Halifax could take a lot of punishment, which was a good thing, since it was a moving target.  Marchildon and his crew were to take part in pre-Normandy invasion runs, softening up German targets for an eventual (but officially unknown) land invasion.  On one run, while flying over the English Channel days before the June 5, 1944 assault, Marchildon marvelled at the sight that lay below his plane:

I don’t think anyone has ever seen a more awesome sight. There were so many transports, destroyers, battleships, barges, corvettes and other ships that you almost couldn’t see the water between them. I called out through my headset to the other guys to have a look at history in the making.

After Normandy, Phil and his crew began to fly missions over France.  Each one seemed to become more hazardous.  The Germans had developed powerful searchlights to detect enemy aircraft, and fewer crews were returning after each sortie. On a July 18 run over Caen, they encountered heavy shrapnel, and the Halifax took a pounding, barely making it back over the Channel safely back to England.  The crew had flown 25 missions, and was only 5 away from being sent home when they again ran into heavy artillery fire on an August 16th mission.  They had been assigned to drop mines at the entrance to Kiel Harbour in Northern Germany.  The crew felt that the mission was fairly routine, but they came under fire 50 miles away from their target.  The barrage seemed to come out of nowhere, but in seconds the Halifax was disabled, and dead in the air.  The Captain gave the order to bail at 17 000 feet.  Marchildon scrambled to get his parachute on and leaped out the turret door into the darkness.  He had no idea if he was over land or sea.  Phil splashed down a few minutes later into the Baltic Sea, somewhere near the Denmark-Germany border.  He had to partially inflate his lifejacket (which should have done so on its own), and was catching his breath when he heard a voice crying for help.  The voice belonged to his navigator, who couldn’t swim.  Marchildon made his way over to the panic-stricken flyer, and the pair drifted for several hours with the current.  Numb with cold, and unable to swim against that current, Marchildon heard a boat engine in the distance, and using the whistle on his life jacket, began calling for help – not knowing if it was a friendly boat approaching or not.  It turned out to be a Danish fishing trawler, and the fishermen on board scooped the pair out of the water.  When they arrived at the closest port, however, German soldiers were waiting, and took Marchildon and the navigator prisoner. Marchildon later learned that the rest of the crew had perished in the crash.

Phil was sent by train to Stalag Luft 1, and a few weeks later to Stalag Luft III, one of the largest prison camps in Germany.  It housed over 10 000 POWs, and six months before he arrived,  a massive breakout that would later be re-enacted in the Steve McQueen movie The Great Escape, had taken place.  Marchildon was held there for nine months, and lost 40 pounds as a result of the meagre rations the Germans allowed them.  His body was covered in flea bites, and he had developed two large boils on the side of his face.

The soldiers at the camp had managed to build a shortwave radio with parts smuggled in by guards, in exchange for the prisoners’ Red Cross packages and cigarettes.  Through the radio, they learned that the War was not going well for the Germans.  One report said that the Russians were within 150 miles of the camp.  Soon, they could hear the Russian guns to the east, and knew that their freedom was drawing closer.

One cold January day, without warning, the POWs were ordered to evacuate the camp, and forced to march, sometimes as many as 30 miles a day.  This continued on to April, by which time the prisoners were a broken down, dispirited lot.  Marchildon came down with dysentery, and lost even more weight off of his already emaciated frame. Finally, early in May, their captors simply ran away, and British soldiers emerged from the forest to liberate them. A week later, the War in Europe was over.  But for Marchildon, it would be a long time before he was over the War.

Arriving in Toronto a few months later, Phil was met at Union Station by Irene, who had written him while he was held captive to tell him that she would wait for him.  But adjusting to civilian life again was difficult for him.  Today, he would have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder;  while the current Canadian government has come under heavy criticism for its handling of soldiers disabled while serving their country in Afghanistan, it seems as if little has changed.

Severely underweight, and dealing with what we would term anxiety attacks,  Phil returned to the peace and quiet of Penetanguishene in the hopes that the serenity and waters of Georgian Bay would help him return to normal.  Marchildon knew he had changed, though.  Even in the comfort of his childhood home, nightmares woke him every night.  And after being home for only two weeks, telegrams from Mack arrived, trying to convince Phil to return to the A’s.  Finally, Mack called and convinced him that while he might not be ready to pitch again that year, being back with his teammates and training were the best way, in his opinion, for Marchildon to get on with his life and career.

Flattered, Phil joined the A’s in Chicago in early July of 1945, just weeks after returning home  The team was solidly in last place, so he thought that he might actually have some time to slowly recuperate and gain his old form.  But it was going to be a long process.  He was winded after a few minutes in his first workout sessions, and the emotional wounds weren’t healing so well, either:

My hands shook as if I had palsy, and I was constantly on edge.  My biggest struggle was overcoming the leftover fear that something terrible was going to happen… On every  mission I’d spent hours scanning the sky for night fighters, always fearing the worst.  During the march I never knew what to expect. One of our own planes could swoop down at any moment and strafe our column. Or a guard might shoot me because he was in a bad mood that day. ……No one around me seemed to understand the emotions I was experiencing.                              

 

Marchildon’s physical and mental rehab was coming along slowly.  By early August, he knew he wasn’t ready to pitch again that season.  Mack, of course, had other ideas.

Struggling at the box office (as the A’s often were – Mack often cried poor, and he was usually right.  The A’s were one of the poorest franchises in the majors), Mack told Marchildon that he would be hosting a night for him at Shibe Park on August 29th, and that he wanted Phil to pitch.

He made his return to competition on August 17th in Cleveland – a year to the day he had been shot down.  Marchildon struggled through that appearance, but regained enough of his old form that he was able to pitch five solid innings in front of a crowd of 19 000 on his night.  The evening didn’t end well, however, as Phil badly strained his right groin which ended his outing.  He could barely walk the next day, but still took his regular turn in the rotation four days later.  After two innings, he couldn’t continue, and Mack lifted him from the game and shut him down for the season.

Unlike returning vets like Bob Feller and fellow A’s (and fellow Canadian) pitcher Dick Fowler, who threw a no-hitter in September of that year, 1945 was no the year of a miracle comeback for Marchildon.  But he had made significant progress in his emotional issues that he was looking forward to the following season.  He and Irene were married in November, and they split the winter between Irene’s mother’s house in Toronto, and Phil’s brother Pivot’s house in Penetanguishene.  During the winter, he cross-country skied almost every day to build his leg strength back up, and when Irene told him she was expecting, “I added an extra mile to my route.”

Marchildon’s 1946 season was late getting started.  When he sat down to negotiate his contract, Mack offered him $7500, a $3000 raise over his pre-war salary.  Phil rightfully figured he was worth more.  The old man refused to budge, citing Phil’s age, his three years away from the game, and his bad leg as reasons not to offer a higher salary.  Marchildon stayed away from spring training for three weeks, until Mack agreed to re-visit the contract situation in June.

Phil continued to get stronger as the season progressed.  The same could not be said for the A’s, who finished the season with 105 losses, 55 games behind the pennant-winning Red Sox.  Marchildon topped the staff with 13 wins, and a respectable 3.49 ERA.  The A’s beat writers pestered Phil at mid-season about Mack’s promise to review his contract, and after finally telling the reporters to ask Mack about it themselves, Mack called Phil into his office the next day to give him a $1000 raise.  The reporters had always been huge supporters of Phil, nicknaming him “Connie’s Canadian Curveballer,” and “Froggy Phil,” which, understandably, he was less than enamoured of.

The Cardinals and Dodgers finished the season in a tie for first place, setting up a play-off to determine the National League pennant.  With some down time on their hands, the Red Sox decided to set up an exhibition series against a team of American League selects, and Phil was asked to join them.  Rumours were flying throughout the series that the cash-strapped Mack would deal Phil to the Sox or Yankees, but no deal materialized.

1947 was the year that everything came together for Phil.  Adding a forkball to his repertoire, he beat the Yankees at Yankee Stadium on Opening Day, and he won four starts in a row in May, as the A’s surprisingly stayed in contention as spring gave way to summer.  Marchildon was also witness to baseball’s integration, with Jackie Robinison’s debut.  He had heard some players in spring training saying that they wouldn’t play with a black player, and he was puzzled by it:

Having played in games against blacks as an amateur back home in Ontario, I had trouble understanding what all the fuss was about….the majority of us felt everyone deserved a fair chance. Many players had just finished fighting in a war that was supposed to be about preserving democracy.  Well, didn’t blacks….deserve those rights, too?

 

As the calendar rolled over into July, the A’s were still within sight of first place, and Marchildon kept on winning, although the forkball was taking its toll on his arm, and he stopped using it.  In late August, he was working on a perfect game (there had not been one for almost a quarter century) with two out in the 8th.  Indians 3rd Baseman Ken Keltner worked the count full, and then Marchildon threw a fastball on the outside corner.  He had walked off the mound, and was half way to the dugout, when he realized that umpire Bill McKinley had called it a ball, ending Phil’s perfection bid.  In his own words, Phil went ballistic, firing his glove at McKinley as he ran in to debate the call – to no avail, of course.  Somehow, Marchildon was not tossed from the game, but he sat fuming on the bench between innings, and with his concentration already wavering, gave up a one-out single to lose the no-hit bid, and with the A’s only leading by a run, gave up another hit and a sacrifice fly, allowing the Indians to tie the game.  Marchildon stayed in as the game went to extra innings, and doubled in the game-winning run in the 12th inning, picking up his 16th win.

With a full month to go in the season, Phil had a reasonable shot at his first 20-win season, but it was not to be.  A blister limited two of his starts in September, and even though he won his last four starts (all complete games), and was ready to come out of the bullpen against the Yankees if need be on the season’s final weekend, he ended the season with 19 wins.  He finished in the Top 5 in many American League pitching categories.  He did lead the AL in walks for a second time, but that was easily overlooked – he truly was the Ace on an overachieving team.

An added highlight of the season for Phil had to be Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium on that final weekend:

I saw Ty Cobb lay down a bunt, and Tris Speaker chase in center field.  I also shook hands with eighty year old Cy Young, as well as Chief Bender, Frank “Home Run” Baker, Duffy Lewis, and Harry Hooper.  And for the only time in my life, I saw Babe Ruth.  I walked around the field like awestruck kid asking the game’s immortals to autograph a ball that became one of my proudest possessions.  

 

When Marchildon opened Mack’s contract offer after receiving it in the mail that off-season, he did a double take.  It was for $17 500.  He showed Irene the offer, and after a quick celebratory dance in their living room, he signed it and returned it, in case the old man changed his mind.

His success of the previous season would be difficult to duplicate, and 1948 proved to be challenging for Phil.  Mack wanted one last shot at a pennant, and after a solid start to the season, things began to unravel for both.  Warming up on June 1st prior to a start against Boston, Phil suddenly felt dizzy and numb.  The ball felt like a lead weight in his hands, and when he tried to throw it, the ball barely went twenty feet.  Mack immediately sent Marchildon home to rest, but he still felt weak and edgy for weeks.  The team doctor diagnosed it as after effects from the dysentery he had suffered during the war, but Marchildon had his doubts.  Whatever it was, he wasn’t the same pitcher after he returned, and both he and the A’s limped home to a disappointing finish, the A’s ending up in 4th despite and 84-70 record, and Marchildon finishing 9-15, with a 4.95 ERA.  There were whispers that his problems were more than physical (which, of course, they were, but this was 1948), and that he was a malingerer.

In the off season, his mood progressively darkened, to the point that he checked himself into Sunnybrook Hospital, a Toronto veteran’s hospital.  He was told to “lighten up,” and consider all the blessings in his life.  Marchildon took this suggestion to heart, and was feeling like he was on the road to physical and emotional recovery, when a local reporter called to tell him that Mack was cutting his salary by 25% after his sub-par season.

All were pulling for a comeback by the 35 year-old Marchildon during spring training in 1949.  His first start came April 21st against the Red Sox, and after pitching 8 shutout innings in a scoreless tie, but after giving up a pair of runs in the top of the 9th, Mack pulled him from the game.  Phil left to a chorus of boos from the Shibe Park faithful, which both shocked and saddened him, and marked the beginning of the end of a fabulous career:

 Although I refused to admit it for a long time afterward, that game finished me.  When I got out of bed the next morning following a sleepless night, there was a shooting pain in my arm.  I couldn’t raise it above my shoulder.  Something must have snapped in that ninth inning, but I’d been too pumped with adrenalin to notice.

 

    The treatment for a sore shoulder in those days was rest, followed by trying to grit through it.  Phil thinks that he may have torn his rotator cuff, but a diagnosis and recovery regimen for that was still decades away.  He missed all of May, June, and July, and when he came back in late August, he was a shell of his former self.  His 0-3, 11.81 record was easily the worst of his career.

The 1950 season proved to be the last in the majors for both Marchildon and Mack.  The A’s let Phil go before the end of spring training.  He found out about his release from a teammate. After growing fond of Mack over the past few years, the way in which this was handled left him bitter:

After all my years with the Athletics I deserved better treatment than that.  Mack could have at least come over to shake my hand and say goodbye.  For the previous two or three seasons he’d been more than fair with me about money and I’d actually started to grow fond of him.  I thought my feelings of resentment were all in the past.  But I was wrong.  I’ve never been able to forgive the Old Man for the way he handled my release.  

 

   The A’s sold Phil to their AAA team in Buffalo, but pitching closer to home proved to be no miracle cure.  The Bisons released him after five straight losses, and after a brief trial with the Red Sox in July, his major league career was over.  The local Maple Leafs tried to talk him into a comeback the following year, but he realized he was finished.

Things did not go well for Phil in his first few post-baseball months.  He admits that his depression returned, and he began drinking heavily.  Friends tried to arrange job interviews for him, but he often wouldn’t even show up.  Finally, someone encouraged him to appy for a job at A.V. Roe, an aircraft manufacturer in the Toronto suburbs which would later go on to fame as the maker of the supersonic Avro Arrow.  To his surprise, he got the job, and enjoyed it tremendously.  When the Diefenbaker government cancelled the Arrow and Marchildon found himself out of work, he hired on at a Toronto furniture factory, where he worked until he was 65.

Marchildon was named to the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1976, and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.  He passed away in 1997.

The war and his birthplace meant that Marchildon’s career was shorter than it might otherwise have been.  He finished with a 68-75 record for a mostly second-division team.  He overcame injuries caused by being a POW in World War II to pitch successfully again in the major leagues.

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I want to add a postscript to this story, because it’s very personal for me.  I grew up in Midland, Penetanguishene’s neighbour and arch rival.  The rivalry that existed in Phil’s day was alive and well when I was growing up.  Penetang tended to be more blue collar, while Midland was more prosperous, with at one time factories, the railway, and grain elevators to provide employment and a higher standard of living.  That may have been the genesis of the rivalry between the two.

When I was in high school, the annual meeting between the two senior football teams was a huge event, and usually some sort of prank was played on the host school by the visitors prior to the game.  The rivalry extended, naturally, to the ball diamond and to the hockey rink.  When I was a teenager, both communities boasted Junior C Hockey teams – Junior C would be equivalent to the lowest ranks of minor league baseball.  Jr C players (like myself) were not big enough, fast enough, or generally good enough to catch on with teams at higher levels.  Penetang’s team was very successful through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, largely because many of their players stayed on until they had exhausted their eligibility; many of Midland’s players (again, like myself), left town at 18 after completing high school in order to complete their education.  Nonetheless, the success of the team was a huge source of pride for the locals.

That a boy from Penetang made it to the big leagues is almost inconceivable to me.  Scouts never came to Canada during his time, and they didn’t visit all that frequently during mine.  Growing up, I was aware of Phil, but I didn’t know about his success with a poor Athletics team, nor did I know that he was a POW in World War II, yet came back to pitch again.  Reading his biography was a welcome and rewarding experience.  When he talked about rowing out to Whiskey Island, a small outcrop at the mouth of Penetanguishene Bay, to drink beer with his cousins, I thought to myself – I’ve done that!

I also played ball with a couple of his relatives – I’m not sure the exact relation, because there was and still to this day are a lot of Marchildons in the area.  His story almost reads like fiction, given the long odds he had to conquer on more than once occasion.  Even though he pitched over 7 decades ago, he still is very deserving of a spot in Canadian baseball lore.

“Ace: Canada’s Pitching Sensation and Wartime Hero,” written by Marchildon and Brian Kendall, is available on Amazon, and is a worthy addition to any serious baseball fan’s bookcase.

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Douglas Fox
About the Author

Doug Fox has played, watched, studied, and generally obsessed about baseball for decades, and once played in the Toronto Star Pee-Wee Baseball tournament. He writes about Blue Jays prospects and minor league baseball at clutchlings.blogspot.ca Follow him on Twitter @Clutchlings77.

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  1. […] Baseball Hot Corner brought us the story of Phil Marchildon. […]

  2. terry jolliffe says:

    A number of years ago I read about Marchildon in another article ….maybe by late Toronto writer Paul Rimstead . Knowing that my step father Gerry Hawrysh played ball while serving in the Canadian air force , I asked Gerry if he had ever heard of Phil Marchildon . I was floored when Gerry said ” Yeah , I caught him at an air force ball game ( I think Gerry said in Halifax ) .My step dad was apparently a pretty good catcher in his day but he would never admit it , it was told to me by others . Gerry’s only other comment was ” Phil was REALLY good ” and that was it .







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