Dave Philley was born on May 16, 1920, in Garret’s Bluff, a suburb of Paris, Texas, in the northeastern part of the state. On many a summer day in the Red River Valley, young Dave could be found playing sandlot baseball. He generally played on Boys Club Field, where hitting one out of the park counted for only a double.
Dave threw right-handed and batted left until a fall from a tree cracked a bone in his left arm. The injury made it impossible for the 8-year-old to swing from his natural left side. To keep playing, he learned to hit right-handed and became adept enough to switch-hit after the arm healed. He was mostly a catcher, but was versatile enough to play several other positions, even taking the mound to pitch on occasion. He was a standout in football and track at Chicota High School, where he also excelled at boxing and became a local Golden Gloves champ..
The Chicago White Sox signed Philley in 1940 as a catcher. Farmed out to play for the Marshall Tigers in the Class C East Texas League, he was converted to an outfielder to take advantage of his fine speed and long, graceful strides.
Dave played in 1941 for the Monroe White Sox of the Class C Cotton States League, where he posted a .346 batting average, made a brief stop with Shreveport in the Texas League, then was brought up for a seven-game look-see with the Chicago White Sox in September.
He entered the Army after the 1941 season and except for a few early 1942 games with St. Paul in the American Association, he served until the end of World War II. Discharged from the service in 1946, Philley hit .329 with Triple-A Milwaukee and .363 in 17 games with the White Sox late in the season. On occasion, he’d showcase his strong throwing arm and overall versatility by competently filling in at third base.
He posted a .287 mark in 1948, followed by a consistent .286 average in 1949, then realized he hit about 100 points higher from the left side and decided to start the 1950 season solely as a left-handed batter.
Former White Sox skipper Jimmy Dykes was running the Philadelphia Athletics in 1951, when the A’s acquired him, along with outfielder Gus Zernial, in a seven-player deal also involving the Cleveland Indians. By now he had become an accomplished flyhawk and his old field boss had no qualms about his improved defensive skills or his defending ability.
Philley posted identical .263 averages in 1951 and 1952 and enjoyed his most productive offensive season with the A’s in 1953, when he hit .303. After his fine 1953 season, he held out for more salary than the Athletics offered in 1954. The A’s said they couldn’t meet his salary demands, and traded him to Cleveland before the start of the season.
Dave learned of the deal while negotiating a cattle sale in Oklahoma and couldn’t have been happier with the news. The 1954 Indians may have been pennant-bound, but Philley proceeded to have the worst season of his career, hitting only .226.
Further down in the 1954 standings, the former St. Louis Browns, in their inaugural season as the Baltimore Orioles, finished a dismal seventh. The O’s went from bad to worse as 1955 opened, going 20-53 under new manager Paul Richards. Desperate to add offensive punch, Richards was surprised to find the 35-year-old available and promptly plucked the big Texan off the waiver list. The Orioles improved to a 37-44 record after his arrival, earning him Most Valuable Oriole honors, as voted by the media.
In May of 1956 the Orioles traded the well-traveled Philley to the White Sox in a six-player deal. With Chicago he added first base to his growing résumé of defensive positions. He was next shuttled to the Detroit Tigers in 1957, where his .400 average as a pinch hitter was the highest in the major leagues. Dave enjoyed playing at Briggs Stadium, where, he said, he was able to see the ball very well.
Philley made his initial National League appearance when he was sold to the Philadelphia Phillies before the 1958 season. Acquired specifically as a pinch-hitting specialist, the 38-year-old veteran was still agile enough for outfield or first-base duties. He feasted on National League pitching to the tune of a .309 batting average in 91 games. .
After a productive .291 mark in 1959, he was sold to the San Francisco Giants in May of 1960. After hitting only .164 in 39 games, he was reunited with the Orioles and old manager Paul Richards in September. In 1961 the Baby Birds of Baltimore sprouted wings and started to fly, winning 95 games and finishing a very respectable third. A solid group of youngsters was supported by 41-year-old, coming off the bench. He laced 24 safeties, to establish an American League record.
By then old boss Paul Richards had been hired away from the Orioles to develop the expansion Houston Colt .45’s. Richards signed Philley as a free agent in March 1962 and on the same day traded him to the Red Sox, where he wrapped up his big-league career. He went on to manage in the Houston organization and also served as an instructor and scout in the Red Sox system.
Overall, Philley’s 1,700 hits in 6,296 at-bats produced a lifetime batting average of .270, with 84 home runs, in a career spanning World War II to the Kennedy administration. He was a competitor on the field and strived to improve every aspect of his game.
In retirement, he continued to run his expansive cattle ranch east of Paris, Texas. He also became an active community leader and held local elected posts, enjoying fishing and quall hunting. Often in demand as an after-dinner speaker, he would happily appear before youth and church groups.
Dave Philley was at his ranch on March 15, 2012, when he died from an apparent heart attack at 91 years old.