Remembering Phil Marchildon: Canadian pitching ace and war hero
Originally published on November 9, 2017
By Kevin Glew
Canadian Baseball Network
He came home from the Second World War a hero, but pitching ace Phil Marchildon certainly didn’t feel like one.
Like so many brave men and women who have served their countries, Marchildon returned anguished by what he had experienced. Yes, after acting as a tail-gunner in a Halifax bomber for 26 missions, he felt fortunate to have survived his aircraft being shot down, and the subsequent nine months in a German prison camp, but he was equally haunted by the deaths of his five crewmates.
After he returned to Toronto in the spring of 1945, he was jolted awake by nightmares, easily startled by noises and his hands, at times, shook involuntarily. Worst of all, when the Penetanguishene, Ont., native closed his eyes he sometimes saw the faces of his late crewmates.
Brian Kendall, who collaborated with Marchildon on his 1993 biography, Ace: Phil Marchildon, Canada’s Pitching Sensation and Wartime Hero, says the brave Canadian, who was the Philadelphia A’s top starter of the 1940s, almost certainly suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“He had a tough war,” said Kendall in a recent phone interview. “He ended up in a prison camp, then on the Death March in the last days of the war, when the Germans were herding all of the POWs through Germany to prevent them from being retaken by the advancing Allies. So he had a very difficult war. And being a tail-gunner, those guys had very little chance of surviving and he almost didn’t survive and that just came back to haunt him.”
Marchildon would later say that he never regretted his military service, but he couldn’t have envisioned the tragedies and hardships that he’d be forced to endure when he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force after the 1942 major league season.
But life had never been easy for Marchildon and it rarely went as he expected. Born in Penetanguishene, Ont., on October 25, 1913, Marchildon was one of seven children (four girls and three boys) raised by Oliver and Elizabeth Marchildon. His father was a tinsmith and plumber and his family scraped by financially.
As a kid, Marchildon excelled at several sports, but he didn’t play organized baseball until he was in high school and he eventually pitched for the town’s senior team.
When he was 21, he accepted a job with International Nickel in Creighton Mines, Ont., near Sudbury, and he evolved into a standout pitcher on the company team that competed in the Nickel Belt League. Marchildon had no concept of how good he was, but he was encouraged to attend a tryout for the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs club in Barrie, Ont., in July 1938. The hard-throwing right-hander struck out the side in both innings he pitched at the tryout and Leafs manager Dan Howley later tracked him down in Creighton Mines to sign him to a contract.
“Even as a young man, he had never imagined playing in the big leagues,” shared Kendall. “Even when he was a starter up in the northern leagues, he thought he was just a regular Joe from Penetang and he didn’t really know what he was going to do with his life . . . So it was all very uncalculating for him. He went to a tryout camp for the Maple Leafs and two years later he’s in the big leagues.”
At 25, Marchildon was old for a pitching prospect when he reported to the Leafs camp in 1939. The naive righty made the team and quickly impressed with his velocity, but struggled with his control. He was demoted to the club’s class-C affiliate in Cornwall, where he won all six of his starts before being recalled by Toronto.
He was far more effective in 1940, when he won 10 games and posted a 3.18 ERA in 41 appearances. At the start of that campaign, the Leafs had formed a working agreement with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s and Marchildon was called up by the A’s for the final two weeks of their season. In his first two major league appearances, Marchildon permitted eight runs and walked eight batters in 10 innings.
Fortunately A’s pitching coach Earle Brucker worked closely with Marchildon on his delivery the following spring, and armed with more confidence, as well as his mid-90s fastball and potent curveball, the Canadian hurler proceeded to register 10 wins and post a 3.57 ERA, while tossing 14 complete games for the last-place A’s in 1941.
Marchildon continued his improvement in 1942, notching 17 victories for a team that only won 55 games. With Canada now firmly immersed in the Second World War, Marchildon returned to Toronto at the end of the season and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). He was given options to remain in Canada during the war, but he declined, saying that he didn’t want any special treatment.
“That really says a lot about Phil that he said, ‘No, I’m going to go with the boys,’” noted Kendall. “And he knew that the mortality rates in the Air Force were sky high, but he went and he didn’t have to.”
An eye test indicated that Marchildon had excellent vision and depth perception, so he was made a tail-gunner whose role was to defend against attacks from the rear of the aircraft.
Marchildon was assigned to a seven-man crew that would staff a Halifax bomber. After extensive training, they flew their first mission over France in January 1944.
On the crew’s 26th mission, they were flying over northern Germany in the early morning hours of August 17, 1944, when Marchildon heard a loud clang and saw that one of the aircraft’s engines was on fire. The crew’s captain gave orders to bail out.
Marchildon readied his parachute and leapt into the darkness from 17,000 feet not knowing where he was going to touch down. He was fortunate that his gear also included a life jacket when he landed in the Sea of Denmark, approximately 20 miles from shore. While in the water, he heard the voice of crewmate George Gill in the distance. He knew Gill couldn’t swim so he coached him to stay calm.
After they had been in the water for approximately four hours, they were rescued by two Danish fishermen who brought them to shore where German soldiers were waiting to take them captive. Marchildon was separated from Gill and assigned to the Stalag Luft III prison camp where he was served a steady diet of watered down soup and bread largely comprised of sawdust. In close to nine months in camp, Marchildon would lose 30 pounds.
Finally, on May 2, 1945, British soldiers liberated the prisoners, five days before the war officially ended.
Marchildon’s soon-to-be wife, Irene, was waiting for him at Union Station when he returned to Toronto. But the courageous Canadian’s nerves were frayed. He jumped at the noises of downtown Toronto and at night, he suffered terrible nightmares.
Almost immediately after he returned, Mack began contacting him asking him to return to the A’s. Marchildon ignored Mack at first because he knew he wasn’t in mental or physical condition to pitch, but he eventually relented and on August 29, 1945, Mack held Phil Marchildon Night at Shibe Park. In between the first and second game of a doubleheader, with over 19,000 fans in attendance, Marchildon was honoured for his war service.
“My nerves were so raw I felt almost sick with apprehension. I’d been on edge since my return. Sometimes I felt like picking up a brick and throwing it through a window,” wrote Marchildon in his biography.
As Marchildon was being feted that night, he found himself thinking about lost crewmates.
“There I was receiving the applause of over 19,000 fans when I could have just as easily died that night with them,” wrote Marchildon. “None of it made a lot of sense.”
The Canadian righty managed to pitch five innings and hold the Washington Senators to one run in the second game of the doubleheader.
Marchildon returned to his pre-war form in 1946 when he won 13 games and registered a 3.49 ERA in 36 appearances, which set the stage for his finest big league season in 1947. After hurling a complete-game six hitter against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium in the club’s home opener, Marchildon would finish the campaign with 19 wins (tied for second in the league) and a 3.22 ERA in 35 starts. He also tossed 21 complete games, which ranked fourth in the league, and was now being recognized as one of the American League’s best pitchers.
Marchildon went 5-2 to begin the 1948 season, but one day in late May while warming up, he suddenly felt numb and dizzy. He recounts in his biography that the next pitch he threw only travelled about 20 feet and he told catcher Buddy Rosar that he was going home. Marchildon felt a little better at home, but he was nervous and irritable and began chain-smoking. With little known about mental health in those days, the team doctor dismissed this as a virus.
Marchildon quickly returned to the A’s rotation and completed the season with a 9-15 record and a 4.53 ERA. When he was still feeling anxious that December, he checked himself into Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital where he underwent a full examination and was told that he was suffering from the after-effects of stress from the war.
“Those days they were still working on the terminology of the disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” said Kendall. “By that point, they were seeing all kinds of veterans with similar issues, but the guys who really saw the war, like Phil, and the front line soldiers, came back and a lot of them were messed up. But they never talked about it back then. You were supposed to just keep going.”
Marchildon was feeling calmer heading into the 1949 season, but after walking eight batters in his first start he felt a shooting pain in his arm. He tried to pitch through it, but would appear in just seven games and finish with a 11.81 ERA. In his biography, he wrote that he believes that, in hindsight, his rotator cuff was torn.
Prior to the 1950 campaign, the former ace was sold to triple-A Buffalo Bisons where he went winless and posted a 7.43 ERA in five starts prior to being released. Later that season he’d pitch one final big league game with the Boston Red Sox.
In 1951, he was invited to camp by the International League’s Maple Leafs, but he was cut loose before appearing in a contest.
With his professional pitching career over, he returned home to his wife, Irene, depressed. In his biography, he recounts how rather than look for work, he sat and brooded and drank beer. Friends set up job interviews and he didn’t show up for them. Finally, a friend helped him get a job as an expeditor at the aviation company that worked on the Avro Arrow fighter. He later worked for a business that manufactured hospital furniture until his retirement at age 65.
In 1976, he was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. Seven years later, he was one of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s inaugural inductees.
In his biography, he wrote that he believed the physical and mental toll the war took on him shortened his pitching career, but he never regretted his service.
“On a personal level, the war had forced me into most of the worst experiences of my life and cut three prime years out of my baseball career. Yet I’ve never regretted joining the RCAF or refusing the chance to stay behind in Canada,” he wrote. “Like most vets, I’m proud of having done my duty when called.”
Kendall, who became good friends with Marchildon, said the former ace kept in touch with Gill, his only surviving crewmate, and never forgot his other crewmates that had perished.
“He didn’t hesitate to talk about his crewmates,” said Kendall. “He had fond memories of their times together and he thought they were really great guys. He missed them.”
As a retiree, Marchildon lived with his wife, Irene, in a three-bedroom bungalow in Etobicoke, Ont., and remained a formidable athlete.
“Even in the last couple of years of his life before he got sick, I’d go outside and play catch with him on the streets, I know we did that for a publicity shot, and he was throwing curves and he still had real zip on his ball,” said Kendall. “He was not one of those old guys who you see throw out the ceremonial balls and they barely reach the plate, he would throw it with something on the ball. He still had some zip on it and that was when he was 80 years old.”
Marchildon died of prostate cancer on January 10, 1997 at the age of 83.
“He was proud of his record,” said Kendall. “He knew that winning 17 games for a last-place club (in 1942) and 19 for a fourth-place club (in 1947) was a helluva accomplishment. So I guess he’d like to be remembered as a guy who did his best and had success at the highest level, but he was also a modest fellow. As Phil would’ve said about one of his crewmates in the war, he’d like to be remembered as a ‘regular Canadian guy.’”
*Writer’s Note: I recently read Phil Marchildon’s biography, Ace: Phil Marchildon, Canada’s Pitching Sensation and Wartime Hero, which was co-written by Brian Kendall, for a third time. I consider this to be a must-read for Canadian baseball fans.