Philadelphia Phillies Owners: The Phantom Five

The Phillies may finally be serious ­contenders, but the franchise is still the losingest in sports history. For that we can blame a group of people we never see and never hear: the team’s (very) silent owners

IF THE OWNERS are content to sit back and let their baseball people make the decisions — and if they insist on remaining completely out of the public spotlight — it’s because that’s the deal they signed on for when they bought the team decades ago.

Since his first job with the Cincinnati Reds as a 14-year-old, Bill Giles dreamed of running a ballclub, and when Ruly Carpenter announced he was selling after the team’s first and only World Series victory in 1980, Giles — then the Phils’ executive vice president — saw an opportunity. But with his own net worth of $50,000, Giles needed to sell more than just the Phillies to prospective buyers — he had to sell himself. Along with the team’s lawyer, Webb, and his confidant, director of sales and marketing Dave Montgomery, Giles crafted his pitch. He’d own 10 percent of the team and oversee its day-to-day operations. He would also become the public face of the Phillies, taking heat from the press and shielding his investors from the spotlight. In exchange for their money, this elite club of multimillionaires would get their own suite, all the catered food they could eat, trips to Clearwater for spring training, two reserved parking spaces each, and, in Giles’s words, “the fun of owning a piece of a major league baseball team without the headaches of being the general partner.” With that, the die was cast, and the Phillies would become a team ruled by cabal, with only the front man feeling pressure from the public for management’s errors.

Giles wasn’t successful in recruiting anyone as passionate as he was about the Phillies. The Buck brothers were longtime season ticket-holders and ponied up $5 million, but as Jim Buck would later tell the Daily News in the middle of a dreadful 67-95 season in 1996, it wasn’t an easy decision. “My first reaction when the opportunity [to buy the team] was presented to me was, ‘Hell, no,’” Buck said. “Why would I want to get into something like that and run the risk of being dragged down around the community? Like now.”

Next on board were Widener family heir Fitz Dixon and horse-racing magnate Bob Levy, who pledged a combined $3.5 million. Both were experienced owners — Dixon of the Sixers, Levy of Thoroughbreds — but neither ranked baseball as his favorite sport. Then Giles approached Jack Betz, whose family-owned water-purifying company, Betz Laboratories, enjoyed annual sales of around $500 million. Betz wasn’t interested at first — he was a football guy. But the Eagles weren’t for sale, and his wife, Claire, had a thing for Tug McGraw and the Phanatic. She also wanted the parking passes Giles was offering — for Eagles games. “We’ve invested $5 million in dumber things,” she said.

With Taft Broadcasting on board for $15 million, Giles and his party of six bought the Phillies in 1981 for $30 million. From the start, the owners were content to let Giles call the shots. “We had great faith in management,” Bob Levy says today. Like Jack Betz, Levy was a football fan at heart, and he already knew Montgomery, having coached him as a lineman at Penn Charter. “Football, I might have gotten involved,” says Levy. “But baseball is a scientific game, and you leave it to the people who have been in it for years. None of us had a say, and we didn’t want to.” The owners’ silence seemed to indicate what these baseball hobbyists really valued — when attendance declined, they simply spent less, literally setting the team payroll to match ticket sales. The business, it seemed, literally ran itself.