Obituary: Tom Phoebus (1942-2019)

RIP to Tom Phoebus, a pitcher on the 1970 World Champion Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles announced before their game on September 5 that he had died earlier that day at the age of 77 and held a moment of silence for him. Phoebus played for the Orioles (1966-70), San Diego Padres (1971-72) and Chicago Cubs (1972).

(September 14 update: Tom Phoebus’ obituary has been published, and it was announced that he died unexpectedly in his home in Palm City, Fla.)

Tom Phoebus was born in Baltimore on April 7, 1942. He attended Mount St. Joseph High School and tossed a no-hitter in his senior year. He also pitched for an amateur team called the Leone’s, which was managed by Orioles scout Walter Youse. He signed the right-hander in June 1960, and Baltimore assigned him to Bluefield in the Class-D Appalachian League. Alternately referred to as “stocky” or “chunky” in the papers, the 5’8″, 185-pound teen struggled in his first few professional seasons. He went 6-5 with a 4.05 in his first season in Bluefield, but he dropped to 1-12 with a 5.53 ERA for the Leesburg Orioles of the Florida State League in 1961. He struck out 95 batters in 81-1/3 innings but walked 98. Phoebus was one of only two players on that team to eventually make the majors. The other was Cal Ripken Sr.

Phoebus performed much better for the Orioles in the Arizona Fall League. Manager Earl Weaver — then a manager in the Orioles farm system — called him the biggest surprise of the camp. Instructor Harry “The Cat” Brecheen worked with Phoebus to help tame his wildness. It was the first time Weaver would manage Phoebus, but far from the last.

Phoebus’ wildness followed him to the Aberdeen Pheasants of the Class-C Northern League in 1962. In one start on September 6, he walked 10 and struck out 8, all in 5 innings. He walked a total of 152 batters in 167 innings, ending the season with 13 wins, 10 losses and a 4.47 ERA. He started to turn things around the following season, when he joined Weaver’s Elmira Pioneers in the Eastern League. He still walked a sizable number of batters, but his walks per nine innings rate of 6.4 was the lowest of his career to date, and his strikeouts per nine innings rate of 10.9 was a career high. He fanned 16 batters in a game on June 15 and threw a 1-hitter against Reading on August 12. “Barrel-chested Tom Phoebus leveled both barrels of his shotgun right arm at the Reading Red Sox Monday night,” reported Elmira’s Star-Gazette.

(He never shook comments about his weight, no matter how well he pitched. He joked in 1998 that, “My problem is that, having grown up in an Italian neighborhood, I like all the wrong foods.”)

Phoebus joined the Rochester Red Wings in 1964 and spent most of the next three seasons rounding into form. The control issues continued to be an ongoing problem, but when he was on his game, the young fireballer could easily strikeout 10+ batters in a start. He finally earned a call to the majors in late 1966. His major-league debut was delayed a couple times because of rain, but when he faced the California Angels on September 15, 1966, he was brilliant. Phoebus shut out the Halos on four hits, striking out 8 and walking only 2 in a 4-0 win. He did it in front of a small Baltimore crowd, many of whom were his friends, family and neighbors. Five days later, he threw another shutout, this time a 7-strikeout, 5-hitter against the Athletics in Kansas City.. The Angels got their revenge on September 25, scoring 3 runs off him in 4 innings to hand Phoebus his first loss, but a 2-1 record, 1.23 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 22 innings was as good a first impression as anyone could make. The Orioles would win the World Series, but Phoebus was ineligible for the postseason, having debuted too late in the regular season.

From 1967 through 1969, Phoebus won 14, 15 and 14 games for the Orioles, with a combined 3.13 ERA. He struck out 179 in 1967 and 193 in 1968, and he walked fewer and fewer batters each season. He threw three straight shutouts in 1967 and lost a fourth shutout when he and left fielder Russ Snyder committed errors to give the Angels an unearned run in a 11-1 beatdown. Even with a 14-9 record and 3.33 ERA in ’67, Phoebus didn’t receive any Rookie of the Year votes; Rod Carew of the Twins got 19 votes, and Reggie Smith of the Red Sox got 1. The Sporting News did honor him as the 1967 AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year.

Tom Phoebus cools down after no-hitting the Boston Red Sox on April 27, 1968. AP Photo.

Phoebus always had no-hit stuff and had accomplished the feat in the minors and in high school, but his no-hitter of the Red Sox on April 27, 1968 was an unlikely event. For one thing, he was sick with a sore throat and was thought to be suffering from either a cold or mumps. He had to wait through a nearly 90-minute rain delay, and his batterymate was Curt Blefary, a converted infielder/outfielder who was catching Phoebus for the first time; it was just his 4th MLB game behind the plate. Still, Phoebus didn’t give up a single hit, walking 3 and striking out 9 on the way to a 6-0 win. The closest Boston came to a base hit was a ground ball by Mike Andrews that tipped off Phoebus’ glove and bounded toward shortstop Mark Belanger, who rifled the ball to first base. Andrews was called out on a bang-bang play and ended up getting ejected after arguing with umpire Bill Valentine about the call. Brooks Robinson also made a diving snag of a Rico Petrocelli line drive in the 8th inning to preserve the no-no.

“I thought that was a base hit — the no-hitter was gone — but there was Brooks, as usual,” Phoebus told The Baltimore Sun after the game. “And Mark Belanger made a great play on Andrews and a good one on LaHoud. I thought Andrews was out, but it was real close.”

Boston manager Dick Williams offered a curt “no comment” when asked about Andrews’ grounder before a reporter said that it could be construed as taking away from Phoebus’ achievement. “OK, make it just ‘comment’ — not ‘no comment,’ just ‘comment.’ Go give him the ink he deserves,” Williams replied.

Phoebus was part of an outstanding pitching rotation with Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer and Dave McNally. With that formidable pitching staff and the likes of Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell and Paul Blair in the lineup, the Orioles shook off a 6th place finish in 1967 to finish 2nd in ’68 and 1st in ’69. Baltimore swept the Twins in the AL championship Series before losing to the Miracle Mets in the World Series. Phoebus missed the entire postseason. Orioles skipper Weaver went with a 3-man postseason rotation of Cuellar, McNally and Palmer, with Phoebus as the long reliever. However, he was never used as the Mets beat Baltimore 4 games to 1.

Weaver continued with the 3-man rotation starting in 1970, which limited Phoebus to an occasional spot start, much to the pitcher’s displeasure. “I have my doubts of keeping my rhythm with so much time off between starts,” he told The Daily Times in mid-April. “I’m worried about my control. I may lose it during all this time.”

Phoebus soon found himself in Earl Weaver’s doghouse and was pulled from the starting rotation into the bullpen in mid-July. His record was pretty poor (3-5 at the time and 5-5 by the end of the season) and his strikeout totals were dropping at an alarming rate, but his peripherals were as good as they ever were. His WHIP in 1970 was a career low 1.255, and his ERA+ was a career-high 119. His ERA of 3.07 was better than any other starter, save for Palmer’s 2.71. The Orioles made the playoffs, and Phoebus was once again left out of the AL Championship Series win over Minnesota. He got 1 appearance in the World Series against Cincinnati. He relieved Cuellar in Game Two after the starter was knocked out of the game in the 3rd inning. Phoebus threw 1-2/3 of scoreless ball and picked up the win after the Orioles scored 5 runs in the 5th inning. Baltimore won the Series in five games.

Source: The Daily Times, June 3, 1967.

Phoebus was traded to San Diego on December 1 in a 6-player deal that brought pitcher Pat Dobson to Baltimore. In explaining the trade, Weaver said that Dobson was a more versatile pitcher than Phoebus was. “I think he had a hard time adjusting to the way he was being used and it hurt his control,” Weaver said. “He’ll get the ball every fourth day in San Diego and those National Leaguers are going to be in for a surprise.”

While he was going to be used regularly as a starter, Phoebus was also moving from the World Champs to a team that would lose 100 games in 1971. He started the season as the Opening Day starter (a 4-0 loss to the Giants) and ended it in the bullpen, accumulating a 3-11 record in 29 games (21 starts). His ERA of 4.46 marked the first time it had strayed above 4 in his career. After one bad start with the Padres in 1972, he was sold to the Cubs. The Cubs kept him in the bullpen aside from one spot start, and he turned into an effective reliever. At one point, he allowed 1 earned run over 22-2/3 innings and finished the year with a 3.78 ERA for Chicago, with 6 saves.

Phoebus was pretty happy with his role, too. When asked by a reporter if he’d prefer to work as a starter, he replied, “Not the way I have been going in the bullpen. Why make a change when I’m doing this well? If you get greedy, you just foul up yourself.”

The Cubs traded Phoebus to Atlanta after the season for Tony LaRussa. He spent one season in AAA Richmond before calling it a career. In his seven seasons in the majors, Phoebus had a 56-52 record with a 3.33 ERA in 201 games, 149 of which were starts. He struck out 725 batters and walked 489 and had a WHIP of 1.337 and a ERA+ of exactly 100.

Following his baseball career, Phoebus was a salesman for Churchill Liquors, where his boss was former Dodgers pitcher Rex Barney. He later got a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of South Florida in 1985, and he later called his decision to go back to school in his 40s one of his proudest accomplishments. He became a physical education teacher for elementary schools in Florida for 18 years before retiring. Phoebus was inducted into the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame in 1991.

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