BART BOATWRIGHT / Staff
Originally published in The Greenville News on Sunday, July 1, 2012.
Johnny Phillips was reading his uncle's obituary in April when he was reminded that Bill Phillips is in the Greater Greenville Baseball Hall of Fame.
That led Johnny Phillips to wonder: Whatever became of the Greater Greenville Baseball Hall of Fame? He recalled seeing the plaques at Municipal Stadium when he attended Greenville Braves games.
That led Johnny Phillips, a 43-year-old Greenville resident, to do some research. He discovered that 14 plaques hang at the suite level of Fluor Field. The first members were inducted in 1989, the last in 1993.
Since then, the Hall has been stagnant, not to mention a secret to many people.
"Actually, it was sitting there with nobody in charge, and I took charge of it," he said. "I had some counsel with some other people, and then I looked at it with some attorneys, and I just decided to pick it up and run with it. There's a whole bunch of people who should be in there."
For starters, he figured, if Bill Phillips is in there, surely Bill's brother, Alva, a former professional player and a long-time American Legion coach, deserves a spot. Likewise Alva's son, Randy, a hitting instructor in professional baseball for 20 years.
And what about Wade Hampton graduates Bob Patterson and Doug Strange, both of whom had lengthy careers in the major leagues?
Johnny Phillips' personal crusade created the Class of 2012, but he realizes there is more work to be done.
"A Hall of Fame is an ongoing venture," he said. "I started thinking about all the people who should be in there, a lot more than the four people here."
He's in the process of re-establishing the Greater Greenville Baseball Hall of Fame as a nonprofit organization and gathering members for a committee to look into future classes.
"There's a lot of baseball heritage there," said Strange, who lives in the Pittsburgh area and serves as director of player personnel for the Pirates. "I think it's kind of neat that it's being revived."
Randy Phillips, 55, was driving past Holmes Park in Greenville earlier this week, the place "where it all got started." He and a bunch of friends – enough for two teams – would play baseball for hours.
"Catchers would umpire, pitchers would throw whatever they want, no adults in sight," he said.
When he wasn't playing, Randy Phillips was digging for information.
"My father and my uncle Bill, I picked their brains like crazy about the past in Greenville when I was growing up," he said.
He could have done worse in searching for answers. They knew baseball, and they knew history. They, too, inherited the baseball gene.
"I use a quote from (former big league manager) Whitey Herzog, something like, 'Baseball's been very good to me since I quit trying to play it.' " – Randy Phillips
John Phillips Sr., the grandfather of Randy and Johnny, came to Greenville from North Carolina. He came to Camp Sevier during World War I.
"He passed along the love of baseball to his kids and got everything cranked up," Randy Phillips said.
John Phillips Sr. and wife Docia had two daughters and four sons. John Jr., Johnny's father, was the oldest of the boys. The other three – Alva, Bill and Jack – played pro ball.
Alva, Randy said, was "Mr. Everything" at Greenville High -- a highly recruited quarterback on a state championship football team, a member of a state championship basketball team and an exceptional baseball player.
"He got all the talent," Randy Phillips said. "He was a two-way guy, which was real rare even back then. He pitched and played outfield and first base."
Alva Phillips was a player-manager in textile league ball, an American Legion and youth baseball coach and a referee, as well as the operator of a sporting goods store. He assisted as the pitching coach at Wade Hampton High School until the age of 75.
Today, at 86, he suffers from dementia, but he still has his moments.
"He watches games on TV," Randy Phillips said. "(Recently) somebody was doing an interview. My mother said, 'Who's that?' And he looked up and said, 'Dave Justice.' Sounds like me. Can't remember anything else but baseball."
Randy Phillips is baseball, through and through. In his words, "a blessed baseball bum."
"I use a quote from (former big league manager) Whitey Herzog," he said, "something like, 'Baseball's been very good to me since I quit trying to play it.' "
Johnny Phillips begs to differ with his cousin when it comes to his ability to play the game.
"He could hit," Johnny Phillips said, raising his eyebrows for emphasis.
Randy Phillips, an Eastside High graduate, played 13 years with the independent/semi-pro Greenville Cardinals, including seven as player-manager.
One of those important in starting the team was Al Phillips, Randy's older brother. Al played in the Cincinnati Reds organization, played 13 years for the Greenville Cardinals and was a long-time American Legion coach.
Patterson and Strange were teammates with Randy Phillips on the Cardinals at one time or another. Johnny Phillips recalled watching a game in which Randy Phillips hit three home runs at Artillery Field.
"I took all that playing and turned it into experience for the coaching," Randy Phillips said. "If somebody was talking about infield play or catching, I would listen in. The bottom line is that if you work as hard as you can, you may not get what you want originally, but you may end up with something better."
Randy Phillips coached the team at Wade Hampton High School, and during that time, he began working as a hitting instructor in pro ball. He worked for the Toronto Blue Jays, the Atlanta Braves and the Boston Red Sox. He also served as hitting coordinator for Major League Baseball's Australian Academy.
Another of his favorite quotes comes from Rocky Balboa: "I'm just a ham-and-egger."
"I'm just a baseball bum as a player who was blessed with the opportunity to coach for a long time and turned that into a whole different career," he said.
Strange, too, has made a transition, from the field to the front office. But at least one thing hasn't changed.
"My roots are in the South," he said, "and I kind of miss it."
Strange, 48, came to Greenville toward the end of his sophomore year of high school. He wound up at Wade Hampton because Bill Phillips was the Generals' baseball coach.
"When we were moving down, my dad spent some time talking to the coaches," Strange said. "He knew Bill's background, and Bill was very straightforward and honest with what was going on, so I went to Wade Hampton because of him, and it went well."
Strange earned a scholarship to North Carolina State, played three years for the Wolfpack and was inducted into the N.C. State Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010.
Strange was a seventh-round draft pick of the Detroit Tigers in 1985, and the switch-hitting infielder played for six teams in his nine-year major league career. In 1993 with Texas, he had seven home runs and 60 RBIs. He had 12 homers with the Montreal Expos in 1993.
"You always wanted to be maybe a better player," Strange said, "but I think there's some satisfaction in knowing that I had longevity, and survived, and had some decent years here and there and did some good things as far as the major leagues go."
Upon his retirement as a player following the 1998 season, Strange worked as a scout for the Florida Marlins. He joined the Pirates organization in 2002.
"To be recognized is kind of neat, especially because I might be trying to move back to the area, and I've got boys in the game," he said. "There have been a lot of people come through who are talented people, so it's great."
Strange and Patterson have crossed paths a few times. Strange grew up in Hickory, N.C., and moved to Greenville. Patterson grew up in Greenville and now resides in Hickory. The two were once teammates with the Texas Rangers.
The left-handed Patterson played at Wade Hampton, then East Carolina and then made 538 relief appearances during a big-league career that spanned from 1985 through 1998. He played a key role on Pittsburgh teams that made the playoffs from 1990 through 1992.
Yet it's the earlier days that provide the best memories for the 53-year-old Patterson, who has a couple of rental properties and a small car lot that he operates in Hickory.
His first year in pro ball, Patterson moved to Reno, Nev., with a month left in the season. He was one of seven players living in a two-bedroom apartment.
"Two were married, so they had the bedrooms. The others slept on the floor and in sleeping bags," he said. "What else do you do when you're making $233.33 every two weeks?
"My memories are more vivid of those times than they are of the big leagues. I can never remember fishing in the big leagues. But I did when I was in Beaumont, Texas."
He stretched his memory even further, back to Wade Hampton. He talked about making the playoffs his senior year and about former teammates Todd Hendley, Ken Atwood and Neil Estes.
"You have fond memories of those relationships even now," Patterson said. "I guess pitchers always have a good rapport with catchers, and Neil Estes was always a class act.
"Ken and I would take turns throwing to each other and hitting. It was a little bit simpler back then, but I guess we really loved it. We didn't think about any money or anything. It was just the game of baseball."
Johnny Phillips hopes to honor those who made the game of baseball special in this area.
He works in environmental health and safety at General Electric in Greenville, but, like the others, he has a passion for baseball. He enjoyed talking to them about the Hall of Fame and was energized by their response.
"They know what Greenville has produced," he said. "They're glad to be able to play a part. It's not up to speed, but they know they're part of that group, and somebody is going to be following up, step by step."
Source: BART BOATWRIGHT / Staff