Obituary: Tony Taylor (1935-2020)

RIP to Tony Taylor, a long-time Phillie and an All-Star second baseman. He died on July 17 from complication from a stroke suffered in 2019. He was 84 years old. Taylor played for the Chicago Cubs (1958-60), Philadelphia Phillies (1960-71, 1974-76) and Detroit Tigers (1971-73).

Taylor attended the annual Phillies alumni weekend event in August 2019. After participating in the team’s Wall of Fame ceremony on August 3, he suffered a series of strokes in his Philadelphia hotel room. He was later flown from Philadelphia to his Miami home; the Phillies paid for the medically equipped private jet and a team of nurses to get him home safety.

“The Phillies have done great,” his wife Clara told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “He’s doing therapy and progressing really slow but hopefully well.”

“Tony was undeniably one of the most popular Phillies of his or any other generation,” said Phillies’ managing partner John Middleton in a statement. “His baseball talent was second only to his warm and engaging personality, as he would always make time to talk with fans when he would visit Philadelphia for Alumni Weekend.”

Antonio Nemesio Taylor was born in Central Alava, Cuba, on December 19, 1935. He said that there was nothing to do in his quiet hometown except play baseball or swim in the river. “As a boy, I went to school and worked in my cousin’s butcher shop,” he said in a 1970 interview. “I liked chemistry. If I didn’t go into baseball, I would have become a chemist for a sugar company.”

According to his excellent SABR biography, Taylor played in the Pedro Betancourt Amateur League in Cuba for Estrellas de Colon — against his parents’ wishes, apparently. He was convinced by a ballplayer friend to go the U.S. to pursue a baseball career, and he signed with the Texas City Pilots of the Evangeline League in 1954.

Taylor took to professional baseball well, hitting .314 with the Pilots. He was left off the All-Star team, despite the fact that he was the League’s best-hitting shortstop. There could have been a good reason for that snub. The Evangeline League had operated under a loathsome “gentleman’s agreement” to remain segregated, and it remained so even in a post-Jackie Robinson world. Then Pilots manager Malone “Bones” Sanders announced he had signed Taylor and second baseman Julio Bonilla (and later, pitcher Pedro Naranjo) and was going to play them.

The Pilots drew large crowds on the road, as African-American fans flocked to see the trio play. Everywhere but Texas City, oddly enough; attendance was so poor that the team relocated to Thibodaux, La., in mid-season. The papers did not, of course, report anything on how the three were treated in the Deep South in the Jim Crow Era.

Taylor said the only English he knew at the time was “Okay,” and he would order meals by pointing at food. He was lonely, and the team’s relocation to the middle of South Louisiana was the low point for him. “I was so homesick,” he recalled. “The fare to Havana was $72. I looked in my pocket. I had only $62. So I stayed.”

Taylor signed with the New York Giants and hit .267 in 1955 for St. Cloud and 1956 for Danville. He was among the league leaders in the triples and stolen base categories, but he also had some pop. His 13 home runs for Danville were third-best on the team, behind future stars Leon Wagner (51) and Willie McCovey (29). He spent his offseasons in the Cuban Winter League.

Though Taylor struggled with a .217 average for the AA Dallas Eagles in 1957, he was drafted by the Cubs that winter. Bobby Bragan, who managed him in winter ball, raved about his play, and that was enough for the Cubs to take a chance on the infielder. He won the second baseman job and hit .235 in his first MLB season. His first home run came off the Braves’ Warren Spahn on June 19. He scored the Cubs first run of the game by stealing home and then homered in the ninth inning for a 5-4 win.

Taylor’s second career home run deserves an assist from the Chicago Cubs bullpen. On July 1, he smashed a line drive that rolled into the Cubs pen. The relievers peered behind the bench for the ball, and Giants left fielder Leon Wagner was convinced enough to look back there as well. The ball had actually rolled to a stop in a rain gutter 10 feet past the bullpen. By the time Wagner figured it out, Taylor had circled the bases. He hit a ball that cleared the fence later that same game.

A sequence of AP photos showing Tony Taylor saving Jim Bunning’s perfect game against the New York Mets in 1964. He dove for a Jesse Gonder grounder, recovered it and threw from his knees to retire Gonder.

Taylor’s play at second base was excellent, but his hitting left something to be desired. He had a “foot-in-the-bucket” batting stance, and the Cubs coaching staff showed him videos to correct it, because they couldn’t communicate with him verbally. The rookie had a lot of boosters on the team, most notably his roommate Ernie Banks.

“Tony has improved 100 percent since the season started, and he was a good player then,” Banks said. “And he’ll improve still more as we go along, particularly at the plate, for you can’t ask much more of him in the field than he showed from the start.

“Another thing, he’s a snorer, but he snores in Spanish, so I haven’t had a good sleep since he became my roomie,” Banks quipped.

Taylor later returned the compliment. “When I was with the Cubs, I was so lonesome Ernie Banks tried to talk Spanish with me. Good guy, Ernie Banks. Bad Spanish, but good guy.”

The work paid off in 1959, when Taylor slashed .280/.331/.393 with 8 homers, 38 RBIs and 23 stolen bases for the Cubs. Manager Bob Scheffing called him the most improved player in the league. Yet, the Cubs traded him on May 13, 1960, with catcher Cal Neeman to the Phillies for first baseman Ed Bouchee and pitcher Don Cardwell. Taylor promptly hit .287 for the Phillies and was selected to the All-Star Games (they played two) for the only time in his career. It was the start of a long relationship between Taylor and the Phillies.

One of the things that helped Taylor on his new team was the presence of another Cuban, first baseman Pancho Herrera. Herrera helped Taylor acclimate to the locker room and the city of Philadelphia.

From 1960 to 1970, Taylor averaged 135 games a season and had a .261/.321/.347 slash line. He never led the league in any offensive category aside from being hit by pitch 13 times in 1964, but he was an invaluable part of the Phillies lineup during that time. He was typically the starting second baseman, but he played every position in the infield at one point in time or another during his Phillies tenure.

Taylor received some MVP votes for his 1963 season, in which he hit .281 with 23 stolen bases and a career-high 10 triples. He rebounded from a couple of down seasons when he hit in the .250s. He had dropped some excess weight and adopted a more aggressive attitude at the plate. While his walks total dipped, the fact that he had 180 hits more than made up for it.

Taylor’s defense was also noteworthy, as he thrilled Phillie fans with plenty of “Taylor-made double plays” during his time. Even when his batting average would drop into the .250s, he stayed in the starting lineup because of his all-around skillset. His diving stop of a Jesse Gonder hard-hit grounder saved Jim Bunning’s perfect game against the Mets intact on June 21, 1964. He also scored twice in the 6-0 win. “You don’t realize how good he is, or how much he contributes to the team’s success until you get a good, long look at him,” said manager Gene Mauch.

Taylor struggled through the mid-’60s, as he lost playing time to the emerging Cookie Rojas. His playing time didn’t decrease all that much, but he became more of a super-sub/pinch-hitter than starter. In 1967, when he batted .238 and stole just 10 bases in 19 attempts, he actually played more games at first base (58) and third base (44) than second base (42). The versatility was a matter of necessity. With injuries or slumps to starters Bill White, Rojas and Dick Allen, Taylor was the one Mauch brought off the bench to fill the hole.

“You can’t replace Richie Allen. But if there’s any guy who can come close, he’s out there right now,” Mauch said after injuries put Allen on the shelf.

Taylor said he had been a starter going all the way back to his childhood in Cuba. “It was the first time in my life I wasn’t starting. I admit it shook me pretty good,” he said. “But I didn’t let it get to me. I just figured I’d keep in shape and be ready to get back in the starting lineup when the time came.”

At various times, there were rumors that Taylor would be traded or released, but he stayed with the Phillies long enough to see an offensive resurgence in 1968, at the age of 32. Taylor batted .250 that season as a third baseman, which was low compared to his peak years earlier in the decade but a noticeable improvement over his previous seasons. He also stole 22 bases, showing he still had the old quickness that made him so exciting to watch. Taylor had completed the difficult feat of going from a starter to a backup to a starter again, all while staying on the same team.

He attributed the turnaround to some tips from Roberto Clemente. Taylor was playing in the Puerto Rico Winter League in the 1967-68 offseason, and the Pirates legend told Taylor he shouldn’t try to hit home runs. “He told me not to swing too hard, and just to try and meet the ball,” Taylor explained. “He was very helpful. I concentrated on hitting the ball up the middle and to right field. My hitting improved tremendously,” he said. Taylor went on to hit over .340 in Puerto Rico win the league’s batting title.

Taylor improved on his hitting in 1969, batting .262. He followed that up with perhaps his best offensive season in 1970. He had career highs in all three of his slash line averages with a .301 batting average, .374 on-base percentage and .462 slugging percentage. While he wasn’t trying for home runs, he hit a career-high 9 long balls and drove in 55 runs. Still, he was back to a super-sub role, playing second and third base and even a few games in left field.

The Phillies honored their veteran with a Tony Taylor Night at Connie Mack Stadium on May 23, 1970. By then, he had played in more than 1,300 games with the team and had become one of the longest-tenured players in team history. Unfortunately, the relationship between the player and the team was on the outs. The Phillies had finished as high as second place just once in his time, and he was the odd man out as the team worked toward yet another youth movement. He wanted the be traded, preferably to a contender.

The trade didn’t happen until June 12, 1971. Taylor had gotten off to a slow start with the Phillies, hitting in the .230s. He was traded to Detroit for a couple of minor league pitchers. It was a tearful goodbye to Philadelphia for Taylor, but once he arrived in Detroit, he started hitting again. He picked up 3 hits in his first game as a Tiger and then drove in the winning run in his second game. He hit .287 in 55 games as the Tigers won 91 games, finishing in second.

The Tigers dropped to 86 wins in 1972, but it was enough for a first-place finish in the AL East. Taylor hit .303 in 78 games, and by the end of the season had become the Tigers’ everyday second baseman. The pitcher who clinched the division championship for the Tigers was Woodie Fryman, a former Phillies teammate of Taylor. Before the game, he had pointed to Taylor in the clubhouse and told reporters he wanted to win the game for him.

“If anyone deserves to be in a World Series, he does,” Fryman said. “He’s my idea of a superstar. I don’t consider a superstar a man who hits 40 home runs or bats .350. To me, a superstar helps his teammates in every possible way, helps the young players on the club. That’s Tony.”

Detroit faced the Oakland A’s in the AL Championship Series and lost in five games. Taylor was 2-for-15 in four games. He had 2 doubles and grounded into 3 double plays.

Taylor spent one more season in Detroit, hitting .229 in 84 games. He was released and, despite being in his late 30s, signed with the Phillies. He spent three more seasons with the team, appearing primarily as a pinch hitter but also logging in time across the infield. He was also an unofficial coach, helping the young Phillies get better. “He’ll make a good manager some day,” exclaimed shortstop Larry Bowa. “But I’d just as soon he plays five more years.”

Tony Taylor congratulates Chase Utley for surpassing his Phillies record of playing 1,003 games at second base. Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 14, 2011.

The popular veteran was given frequent standing ovations whenever he came to bat. The Phillies also hosted a second Tony Taylor Night — this time at Veterans Stadium — on August 9, 1975. He picked up his 2,000th hit on September 27 of that year, beating out a bunt against the Mets’ George Stone. He retired after the 1976 season at the age of 40.

In Taylor’s 19 seasons, he had 2,007 hits, including 298 doubles, 86 triples and 75 home runs. Taylor slashed .261/.321/.352, scored 1,005 runs and stole 234 bases. According to Baseball Reference, he was worth 23.2 Wins Above Replacement. At the time of his retirement, Taylor was the Phillies leader in games played as a second baseman with 1,003. That record stood until Chase Utley surpassed it in 2011.

Despite many of his teammates and managers predicting he would become a major-league manager someday, it never happened. Taylor did serve as a coach for the Phillies after his retirement and spent five years managing minor-league teams in the organization. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, he was given a World Series ring when the Phillies became the champions in 1980. He was a minor-league instructor for the team that year. He also coached for the Giants and Marlins. While he wasn’t working for the Marlins in 2003 when the team won the World Series, he had spent time with them before and after. Marlins pitcher Brad Penny presented Taylor with a $4,500 ring anyway, for all his work with the team.

Taylor was added to the Phillies Wall of Fame in 2002. He also received the team’s Latino Legends Award, following the likes of Tony Perez and the Amaro family.

For more information: Philadelphia Inquirer

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9 thoughts on “Obituary: Tony Taylor (1935-2020)

  1. Recently discovered your site, which I think is terrific. Just a minor point, in the Tony Taylor article You obviously mean Bill White not Roy White

    Liked by 1 person

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