Tony Taylor: One of the Finest Human Beings on the Planet
by Peter Kravitz
Philadelphia sports fans are renowned for booing. But they never booed Tony Taylor. The fans always cheered him, especially on each of the three Tony Taylor Days—in 1963, 1970, and in 1975. Has anyone else been honored by his team so much in his playing career? Not many.
Taylor died on July 16, at the age of 84, from complications of a stroke he suffered in 2019. I got to know him in 1968. Every March, my grandparents used to travel to the Phillies spring training in Clearwater, Florida. I went with them that year. We spent a lot of time around the players, as my grandparents were friends with many of them.
I was eight years old, and despite my having little athletic ability, Taylor tossed a ball with me. Taylor’s patience with my poor glovework sparked my life-long passion for sports.
I went on to play varsity high school baseball and enjoyed a long career in teaching and coaching—at the collegiate, high school, and youth levels. Would my life have taken that turn towards athletics had it not been for Tony Taylor? Taylor called me “Pedrito” (little Pedro). When he batted in games at Connie Mack Stadium in Philly, my grandmother, Mae Flaxenburg, liked to yell “Arriba! Arriba, Antonio!”—her way of saying, “Hit it up and out of the ballpark!”
Now, as Major League Baseball returns after a four-month hiatus, every fan hopes that its COVID-19 protocols will get it through the summer. Even during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, baseball made it through a shortened season and then the World Series, which was won by the Red Sox, led by a young pitcher named George Herman Ruth—then recently nicknamed “Babe.” That year, while the flu killed 50 million people worldwide, Ruth overcame the virus twice.
When we think about baseball, the game’s history strides to the forefront—as do its records. Taylor had his share of impressive ones. Born and raised in Cuba, he joined the New York Giants’ minor-league system in 1954, at the age of 19. Three years later, he entered the majors with the Chicago Cubs, and, in 1960, he was traded to the Phillies.
His 1,003 games in a Phillies uniform at second base are the second-most in the Phillies’ 137-year history—only Chase Utley has played more games at that position. Taylor had over 2,000 career hits in 19 major-league seasons. In 1971 the Phillies traded him to Detroit, where he helped lead the Tigers to the playoffs, batting .287. He returned to the Phillies in 1974, and I spent time with him in Clearwater the next year, as my grandparents landed me a dream gig as a bat boy for the Phillies’ spring training.
Taylor was always upbeat, without a trace of bitterness, even though he hadn’t been able to return to his home and his family in Cuba since 1959, when Fidel Castro took over that island nation. Fortunately, in 1970 he somehow got his mother and other family members admitted to the United States.
Playing in the minor leagues and the major leagues in the 1950s was extremely difficult for minority players. It took the Phillies a decade to integrate after Jackie Robinson’s historic debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The Red Sox were the last team to integrate in 1959. A year later Taylor would be an All-Star for the Phillies.
In 2011, a Phillies teammate of Taylor’s, Bill White, an African American, wrote a book about his life in baseball, entitled Uppity. After his playing career, White became a broadcaster with the New York Yankees, and later served as the president of the National League. The inside jacket copy of Uppity states that White was chronicling “the struggles of starting out in the 1950s as a young minor-league player in the racially segregated American South, facing bigotry from fans and insiders . . . as a teenager sitting outside of a ‘Whites Only’ roadside diner alone while his white teammates enjoy a hot meal inside.”
Though I never heard Taylor discuss his experiences in the 1950s, he certainly faced similar racism. Again, it left no apparent impact on his demeanor. And while many of those Phillies players were also kind to me—like Larry Bowa, Dave Cash, and Greg Luzinski—none of them had the impact on my life that Taylor did.
Another Phillies Latino star player came close, however. During my spring-training batboy experience, Willie Montañez, a Puerto Rico native and a good friend of Taylor’s, also showed me great kindness. I was 14 years old and once, while I was shagging balls in the outfield during batting practice, I snagged a hard line drive on a short hop. I can still hear Montañez yell, “Way to pick it, Peter.” Can you see today’s multi-millionaire athletes caring about the batboy making a nice play? I don’t think so.
Yet, perhaps the best description of Taylor’s spirit comes from another teammate on those 1960s Phillies teams, one who didn’t fare as well as Taylor with the fans, but who was one of the greatest players of his era.
When he heard that Taylor had died, Dick Allen—a seven-time All Star and the 1972 American League MVP—tweeted: “Heartbroken today with the news of Tony Taylor’s passing. To me, he was more than a former teammate . . . he was my best friend and one of the finest human beings on the planet.”
Photo by Jose Francisco Morales (Valencia Venezuela) @franciscomorales
Peter Kravitz is the author of So You Wanna Be a Teacher, a former Philadelphia reporter and retired New York public high school Journalism teacher. He's a regular contributor to Silver Sage Magazine.