The 1979 Philadelphia Phillies position player representative in this ‘Phillies 50’ series featuring players who made a minimal impact on that specific team and on MLB as a whole was a real head scratcher for me.
I was 17-years-old for most of that year and had been following the Phillies closely for most of the decade. And I have absolutely zero memory of a 26-year-old first baseman/outfielder who appeared in a dozen games with the team that year.
John Poff had signed with the Phillies as an amateur free agent just before the American bicentennial, on July 2, 1976. Poff described his experience in not being drafted out of college and catching on with the Phillies for Rory Costello at SABR:
“In hindsight my college career seems pretty blah. I look back on it this way: it’s not that I wasn’t serious about baseball, it’s that I didn’t know yet how to be serious. I was scouted by Wes Livengood, a Phillies scout in North Carolina, my senior year in college. He gave me a card, which I fortunately held onto. I didn’t have a very good game that day, or a very good senior season, even though I was voted second team All-ACC.
“So after the season was over, at the end of the school year at Duke and before the draft, I called Wes Livengood. I remember this well – I was at the apartment of my then-girlfriend…when I called him, said I knew my senior year hadn’t been so great, but that I still felt I could play. He actually responded with some enthusiasm, said that he would add my name to his list.
“Right after the draft, I was back in Findlay, falling in love pretty quickly with Patti, now my wife of nearly 40 years, when I got a call from the Phillies saying they needed a first baseman in Pulaski [Virginia], Rookie League. I signed as a free agent for a $500 bonus and reported to a team already pretty well set.”
Poff would rake in the Phillies minor league system. He hit .295 with 16 homers while splitting 1977 between Double-A Reading and Triple-A Oklahoma City. He then followed up with a full year at Triple-A in 1978 hitting .300 with 20 homers.
In 1979, Poff was back at Triple-A Oklahoma City and enjoyed yet another strong season, batting .293 with another 20 long balls and 34 doubles. That consistent performance earned him a first promotion to Major League Baseball when rosters expanded in September.
On September 8, 1979 new Phillies manager Dallas Green gave Poff his first plate appearance during a game at Wrigley Field against the host Chicago Cubs. Poff was sent to pinch-hit in the top of the 6th inning for right fielder Lonnie Smith, drawing a walk against Cubs’ reliever Dick Tidrow. Three batters later, Poff would score on a Mike Schmidt double. It was part of a four-run rally that tied the game up at 8-8, with the Phillies eventually pulling out a 9-8 victory.
It would take nearly three more weeks over which he made eight more appearances before Poff recorded his first big-league hit. That base hit would come in the first of three starts over four days.
On September 25, 1979 at Veterans Stadium, Poff played the whole game in left field and lined a two-out single to right off Saint Louis Cardinals starter John Fulgham in the bottom of the 1st inning. That first hit drove in Pete Rose, giving Poff his first and only RBI of the season as well.
In his dozen games with the Phillies that month, Poff was 2-for-19 with a walk in 20 plate appearances. “Dallas Green took over as manager [that] September,” he recalled in 1981 per Costello. “I think that was my shot with Dallas.” Costello wrote that the poor impression on Green seemed to carry into spring training 1980. “I didn’t play much my last 10 days. I just sat around waiting for something to happen. I got sent down with about a week to go.”
Poff returned to Oklahoma City for a fourth season at Triple-A in 1980, and once again he produced, hitting .282 with 13 homers and 90 RBIs. But even with the Phillies battling for a division crown, the team didn’t feel a need for his experience and left-handed bat. Instead, the Phillies exposed him to waivers and Poff was snatched up by the Milwaukee Brewers.
“I was really surprised because of the timing,” he said that October per Costello. “It was the last day of our season [in Oklahoma City]. I had heard that I wasn’t being called up by the Phillies. I was ready to go home for the winter.”
The Brew Crew promoted Poff and gave him one more shot in the big-leagues, using him for 19 games in September 1980. During that time he got to enjoy his lone MLB home run. On September 27, 1980 at Oakland-Alamdea County Coliseum, Poff took A’s starter Rick Langford out deep to right field in the top of the 2nd inning for that memorable blast.
At the end of spring training in 1981, Poff was dealt by the Brewers to the Chicago White Sox. After playing all of the 1981 season with Triple-A Edmonton in the Chisox system, which included a chance to play in Japan that fell apart, Poff played his last professional baseball in Mexico over the winter of 1981-82.
“The White Sox dropped me from the 40-man roster, nobody picked me up, and I got a big pay cut,” he told Costello. “It was still respectable for Triple-A, though, and as the winter went on I realized playing [in 1982] was my best option financially. Also, I thought it would be fun to try to have one more good Triple-A season. We spent that winter in northern Washington state, right on the Canadian border, on the east (dry) side of the mountains.
“But as I was packing up my stuff to head out the next day for the airport in Spokane, something just didn’t feel right. We’re driving the three hours or so to Spokane and about halfway there, I just had the clearest thought – ‘So what if you have one more fun year, this is not something you want to do.’ I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic, but it just so happened, we immediately came upon the Grand Coulee Dam. It was on the north side of the highway.
“Pulled into the parking lot, said it was time to quit, took a quick tour of the dam, turned right coming out of the parking lot, and I just wasn’t a ballplayer any more. I never revisited that decision…”