Gamer for Life

Dubbed baseball’s P.T. Barnum, Phillies chairman Bill Giles has a few more tricks up his sleeve, including a new book that celebrates his 70-year love affair with the sport.

Dubbed baseball’s P.T. Barnum, Phillies chairman Bill Giles has a few more tricks up his sleeve, including a new book that celebrates
his 70-year love affair with the sport.

IT’S THE WEEKLY noon luncheon of the Ardmore Rotary Club at Merion Cricket Club, and Bill Giles has heard it all before. Two weeks before spring training, the Phillies’ chairman has become a sounding board for a bevy of baseball banter.

First up, whether Pat Burrell will have a breakout season or need a sports psychologist. Then Andy Musser, who spent 26 years in the Phillies broadcast booth, asks Giles, who just returned home to Villanova from a week’s vacation in the Caribbean, what he thinks of Barry Bonds’ new one-year $16 million contract. Herb Clarke, the retired Philadelphia broadcast pioneer, tells Giles the team ought to be good enough to set attendance records.

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Giles remains stately and stoic. With measured words, finally, he says, “If we can only get off to a good start—but we usually have a hard time doing that.” Musser is wearing his 1980 World Championship ring. Not Giles, who innocently replicates the ageless dry wit of their longtime cohort Richie Ashburn when he jokes, “Andy, we’ve won so many championships, I wouldn’t know which ring to wear.” Then he gets serious: “No, I’ve never worn rings—except for this one.”

His wedding ring.

After lunch, the Rotary sings “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in his honor; only Giles audibly trades “Phillies” for “home team.” Then Clarke, who is pleased to have Giles on hand as the Phils are poised to have “a most exciting season,” introduces the speaker.

“I love that song,” Giles tells his audience, then immediately plugs his new book, Pouring Six Beers at a Time and Other Stories From a Lifetime in Baseball (Triumph Books, 336 pages). Released in mid-March, it chronicles his love affair with the game from the late 1930s to present.

The book, Giles admits, is mostly for his sons, Mike, Joe and Chris, all Episcopal Academy alums, and the eight grandchildren he and his wife, Nancy, share—and, of course, for Phillies fans, with whom he’s had a love-hate relationship over the years. Joe Giles, the Phillies director of business development, says it best: “For dad, it’s always been family, friends and the Phillies.”

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After four book signings in Clearwater, Fla., Giles will hit Philadelphia when the season starts in April. Then it’s on to Cincinnati and Houston, where his love of the game began then blossomed.

A concession to the publisher, the title originates from Giles’ first full-time baseball job. In 1959, he was business manager for the Nashville (Tenn.) Volunteers in the Southern Association. He ran the concession stands—and learned to “pour six beers at a time.” He’d stick cups between fingers on both hands and pour. “Now my arthritis is so bad I don’t think I could pour one,” Giles tells the rotary audience.

His fingers look like those of a career catcher, although he wasn’t one. They’re short, stubby and crooked. As a showman responsible for the game’s most marvelous marketing marvels and a wise baseball businessman who brought a classic baseball-only ballpark to Philadelphia in 2004, maybe Giles shook too many hands, distorting his own.

The book’s title also reflects a career balancing act between baseball the game and baseball the business. It begs comparison to Karl Wallenda, the infamous tightrope walker who twice crossed Veterans Stadium, leading Daily News sports department icon Bill Conlin to dub Giles baseball’s P.T. Barnum.

“That’s what it was,” Giles says. “As CEO, it was a balancing act between winning games and not losing money. But by 1994 I couldn’t do anything to make it work. We knew we needed a new park. It was tough when [fellow owners] asked me to turn it over to [Phillies president and CEO] Dave Montgomery, but I knew it before they asked.”

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THIS SPRING MARKS the 10th year since Bill Giles turned over the reigns of his beloved Phillies to Montgomery. As chairman, he no longer makes direct daily decisions regarding the team. He still owns a 10 percent interest. He’s a consultant. He’s at all home games. He’s active in civic and charitable work in the Phillies’ name and his own. He plays lots of golf, and sells and renews luxury suites at Citizens Bank Park in the process. And he’s written his book, which makes at least one controversial baseball prediction: George Walker Bush Jr., who owned the Texas Rangers from 1989 to 1994, will succeed Bud Selig as Major League Baseball’s commissioner.

Giles, 72, is a baseball lifer. And with his bold—almost stubborn—proclamation last season that he’ll never sell his share, he dug in his heels even deeper. “A lot of people still think I run the Phillies,” he says.

That’s a compliment. He’s left his mark. “It’s my lifeline,” Giles says of baseball. “I’d like to do the few things I do as long as I’m physically able. My insurance policy says I’m good for another 20 years. It says I’ll die at 92.”

When he does, he’s already given thought to having his funeral at Citizens Bank Park. During the seventh inning stretch of a game, everyone will sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” followed by a short ceremony. Then the play on the field will resume.

However, by not divesting his interest in—or title with—the team, it leaves Giles ineligible for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Executives have to be retired for five years, unless they’re 65; then the waiting period accelerates to six months for consideration by the veterans committee. “The way the rules are set up, he would have to sell,” says Jeff Idelson, vice president of communications and education at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

So right now, Giles is keeping himself out of the Hall of Fame.

Giles says he’s never sought out such recognition, only ever thinking about it once (“I said, ‘No way!’”) outside the context of his father’s and godfather’s inductions. Warren Giles was the president and general manager of the Cincinnati Reds from 1937 to 1951 and then the president of the National League until his retirement in 1970. Bill’s godfather, Branch Rickey, was the pioneering executive who integrated baseball by signing Jackie Robinson in 1946. On Aug. 5, 1979, Bill gave the touching acceptance speech for his father, who’d died six months earlier. He ends the book with a transcript of the speech—the day he “pinch hit for dad.”

“Maybe if I live to be 100, I’d be so old they’d have to put me in,” Giles concedes. “I just never, ever said it was a goal of mine to be in the Hall of Fame, and I don’t think I have any chance. Let my dad have that one.”

That’s humility talking, according to Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas, himself a 2002 Hall of Fame inductee. “There’s no doubt in my mind Bill belongs in the Hall of Fame,” he says. “He should already be in, but he loves coming to the park and he loves his association with the team.”

THOUGH WILLIAM YALE Giles was born into baseball, he’s made a memorable mark distinctive from that of his father. Not unlike his only child, Warren Giles was a stickler for upholding the game’s traditions and integrity, but he wasn’t a fan of promotions or flamboyance—some of Bill’s trademarks. His father’s Reds were content to simply put out a sign: “Game Tonight.”

Giles was raised at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. He’d have been close to his father regardless, but it was a certainty after his mother, Jane Skinner Giles, died from a blood clot when he was away at summer camp. Bill was just 7 years old at the time.

Growing up, Bill played baseball for a boys club. He couldn’t make his high school team, and tennis was his best sport. He was conference doubles champion freshman year at Denison College in Ohio. Always baseball-driven, Bill pitched his sophomore year at Denison before returning to tennis. From 1957 to 1959, he played baseball for the Air Force Base team during his stint as a navigator for Strategic Air Command.

As a boy, Bill traveled with the Reds as soon as school let out. At 12, he became a radio sound effects man. Back then, announcers who didn’t travel read from ticker tapes and inserted inventive color commentary. Giles would strike a two-by-four with a mallet to simulate the sound of a base hit. “I was far better at hitting that block of wood than I was at hitting a baseball,” he recalls. “I wasn’t very good.”

Instead, he’d find his niche in baseball’s front office. Giles’ first stop in the major leagues was Houston, where in 1962 he was publicity director for the expansion Colt .45s. The team became the Astros in 1965, and Giles helped them open the Astrodome. He unofficially named it the Eighth Wonder of the World, then treated it that way.

For its opener, Giles invited 28 U.S. astronauts to simultaneously throw out the first pitch to the team’s 25 players and three coaches. When grass wouldn’t grow under the dome, AstroTurf was born, as were the game’s original skyboxes. There was a pervasive Space Age theme: Usherettes, who dressed in space suits and boots, were “Spacettes”; grounds crew were “Earthmen”; concessions were “Countdown Cafeterias.”

Giles hired Harry Kalas, now 71, who says Bill’s love of the game has never wavered. “He’s seen every up and down in the game, and remained one of its most staunch supporters—especially for what it means to the average fan,” he says. “Baseball has to be his middle name.”

That explains why Giles left Texas for Philadelphia. After arranging a worldwide attention-getting publicity stunt with a lion cub at Rome’s Coliseum for Judge Roy Hofheinz, Houston’s former mayor and the key player in bringing both Major League Baseball and the Astrodome to the city, Giles’ day-to-day work began drifting away from baseball. And that wouldn’t fly.

Giles’ first year with the Phillies—1969—was Connie Mack Stadium’s last. Eighteen months after owner Bob Carpenter hired him as director of business operations, he helped open a second arena. At Veterans Stadium, Giles’ circus-like opening day acts became legendary: There was Kiteman, Cannon Man, a high-wire motorcycle act, duck and ostrich races, and a helicopter ball drop. In 1976, he hired a man on horseback to ride from Boston to Philadelphia to deliver a game ball to “Rocket Man,” who flew 150 feet to the mound, where Phillies legend Robin Roberts threw out the first pitch.

In an era when topping one million in attendance was the gold standard, the Phillies drew 1,350,000 in 1972 to watch a 59-97 team.

“It helped that the Phillies had a new stadium,” says Dan Baker, the team’s PA announcer since the Vet’s second season. “But baseball fans will only come out if you have a good team—unless you have special attractions. Bill certainly provided those.”

The Vet drew 1 million fans every year of its 33-year existence and 66,700,288 million baseball fans in its history. No wonder Giles says he cried at 7 a.m. March 21, 2004, when in 58 seconds the Vet was imploded. Appropriately, he writes in his book, the wind blew its debris to the site of Citizens Bank Park.

“My only philosophy was to make people happy,” he says, pointing out his favorite photo in his book, an upper-deck banner that reads, “Bill Giles makes smiles.” In 1976, Giles began the now-traditional fan-oriented festivities at the All-Star Break. In 1977, the last time the National League almost added the designated hitter, Giles abstained, the Pirates followed and the NL remained pure.

In 1978, Giles solved the ego of Pete Rose, the era’s top free agent and the No. 1 reason the Phillies won their only World Championship in 1980. He sweet-talked Rose into taking less than the $1 million Kansas City (our World Series opponent in 1980) offered. The Phillies sold $3 million worth of tickets in the 30 days that followed, and in 1979 topped the three million mark in attendance for the first time.

A year later, the Daily News cover read “We Win.” A year after that, on Oct. 28, 1981, Ruly Carpenter sold the team to the Bill Giles Group. Giles’ own investment, $50,000, was his net worth at the time. The rest of the $30 million purchase price he solicited from several of the region’s wealthiest investors. He became general partner and gained control of a team now worth an estimated $450 million.

In 1982, as one of three members of the league’s television committee, Giles settled a $1 billion broadcast rights deal, then urged commissioner Bowie Kuhn to buy into a fledgling cable network. Just $30 million would’ve paid for half of ESPN. Kuhn declined.

In 1989, when commissioner Fay Vincent decided to continue the earthquake-riddled World Series 10 days later in San Francisco, Giles was by his side. When the owners ousted Vincent, Giles became part of a 12-owner governing council that incorporated inter-league play, added the wildcard slot and expanded the league from 26 to 30 teams.

For those who say Giles didn’t do enough locally—in other words, win—Bill’s Phils made three World Series appearances in 1980, 1983 and 1993, as opposed to just two in the previous 77 years. In his book, Giles calls 1974-’83 “The Golden Decade,” a time when the Phils were in 36 postseason games. Of late, credit Giles with Citizens Bank Park, a city-state-team partnership Phillies ownership sunk $235 million into. Joe Giles, a third-generation baseball man, worked side by side with his dad in planning and building it. “If [former NFL commissioner] Pete Rozelle brought football out of the dark ages and into the modern ages, my dad brought baseball out of its dark ages and into the modern ages,” he says.

TO COME FULL circle, Bill Giles wants to win another championship. In spring training this season, there’s optimism. “And it’s well-founded,” says his son, Joe. If Giles’ book makes anything clear, it’s how similar the Phillies’ approach to success was in the Pennant-winning years and in the seasons prior. Talented youth matured, key veterans were acquired, superstars were loyally paid and two managers were fired.

Before 1993, G.M. Lee Thomas traded pitchers who won four games elsewhere for pitchers who won 57 games for the Phils. In the 1993 World Series, the Phillies faced Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick, who began his tenure as the Phils’ G.M. last season. Gillick started tinkering with the Blue Jays in 1992, adding 11 new faces to the team that won two World Series in a row.

Giles says the last few years have been exactly like the mid-1970s, when the Phillies were “good, but not quite there.”

“Now we’re at the same point we were in 1980,” he says. “On paper, we have the best team we’ve ever had. That’s a reality, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to win anything.”

The pitching staff is as deep as the Steve Carlton years, but better balanced with the acquisitions of Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton, and steadied by crafty veterans like Jamie Moyer, who will keep the wraps on young guns like Cole Hamels and Brett Myers, who signed a three-year $25.75 million contract extension. Giles only worries about a common thus-far-missing ingredient, a bullpen closer. There’s no Tug McGraw, Al Holland or Mitch Williams.

As for position players, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley—who Giles calls outstanding players, hitters and role models—lead the list. Last month, Howard agreed to a one-year deal worth $900,000, which matches the highest base salary in a one-year contract for a player not eligible for arbitration. Utley has been rewarded with a seven-year, $85 million deal.

As Giles starts talking to the Ardmore Rotary Club about Howard, he knocks the bell president Mike Silver uses to start and end each meeting off the podium. “Ryan’s a heck of a hitter, but I didn’t know that was going to hit the floor,” Giles quips.

In his book, Giles addresses baseball’s revenue sharing and other money matters, plus his hope for minimum and maximum team payroll caps, three-year limits on guaranteed contracts and more compensatory kickbacks for lost free agents.

Total baseball revenue is up—in 2001, the industry lost $400 million but made $400 million last year (and average attendance grew from 18,000 to 32,000)—so salaries are up, too. Owners, Giles says, are overly generous. “Every buck we get from ESPN, we spend $1.10 on a player,” he says.

A WEEK AFTER the Ardmore Rotary luncheon, Giles is dressed in Phillies colors—a white shirt, red tie, and blue sweater and suit coat—and spinning variations of the stories in his book for a third-year sports law class at Villanova. Pouring beer, he says in reference to the title, is a moot point. With the money it costs to play the game today, he drinks vodka.

“People ask me if I’ve been in baseball all my life,” he says. “Not yet.”

The irony of the day’s newspaper headlines is too stark to ignore. Sen. Vince Fumo—who helped keep Citizens Bank Park from being built downtown, Giles’ strong preference—is indicted on a host of alleged federal violations. It’s the only story that could possibly top the legal woes of Eagles coach Andy Reid’s two sons. The Reids, by the way, live two miles from Giles.

The worst thing a young Giles ever did to his famous father was inadvertently take Reds Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi’s mitt home during the 1939 Pennant race. Lombardi refused to play without it, so Warren Giles hired a detective agency and called the FBI—then found it two days later in his own backyard. “It’s the only time my father ever spanked me,” Bill says.

Later in life, there was the time in Houston when Giles was operating one of baseball’s first electronic video boards. After umpire John Kibler ejected a home player for the fourth straight game, Giles posted, “Kibler did it again,” which drew a call from dear old dad and the offices of the National League. Warren threatened to cut off the allowance of the unnamed person responsible. The next day, Bill felt compelled to write, “I shall not write messages about the umpires” 50 times on the video board.

All in the name of the game—just like Giles’ basement shrine at home, accessible through a pair of louvered shutter doors under a wood sign that reads “The Dug Out.” Walking across home plate, between walls and shelves of memorabilia and onto a green-as-grass carpet, Giles takes off his law-school tie and lets his ongoing baseball dreams resonate.

One dream in particular becomes clear. Since 2001, Giles has been honorary chairman of the National League. As such, he’s the NL representative at the All-Star Game and the World Series, where he presents the National League trophy named for his father to the Pennant winner.

“People kid me,” Giles says. “They say, ‘Will you give it to yourself?’ No, I’ll give it—but I’ll give it to Dave Montgomery and Pat Gillick. It’ll be quite a story.

“I hope it happens.”

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