Remembering Bob McPhail: a true renaissance man
Time’s passage clouds the lens a bit, but the memory of Robert Brown McPhail remains lucid enough: Fantasy baseball draft day, a holy day of obligation for many of us at the time, some unremarkable room at the Groton Motor Inn, with all the thunderous voices, personalities and personas permeating the airspace.
And there would be Bob, sitting inconspicuously, his papers neatly arranged in front of him. Old friend Heineken by his side. Glasses halfway down the brim of the nose, looking far too professorial to bid fake money on a fake team.
Yes, this: Bob McPhail was dignity and grace even amid an atmosphere where hip boots were required.
“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace,” novelist Anne Lamott once wrote. “Only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”
Bob McPhail: The mystery of grace. He always met us where we were. He did not leave us where he found us. Rather, he left us more educated.
McPhail, a middle of the order hitter on any list of Norwich Free Academy lore and legend, died late last month at 91. New London native. Amherst and UConn educated. Computer whiz before computers were cool. NFA coach. NFA athletic director. Grace personified.
“First of all,” said longtime friend Jim O’Neill, the former athletic director at New London and Waterford, “Bob was brilliant. That’s not lost on most people, who know Bob was smart. But he was brilliant. I’d known him since I was a little boy. I actually worked with him at EB. Bob really helped build EB into what we know now. He was part of opening one of the most advanced computer installations in America.”
And we begin there with McPhail, who used his intelligence to belong in any conversation, ping-ponging seamlessly among the vagaries of Impressionism, differential equations and why the one-out bunt isn’t recommended. He could unite, much like the way he brought the occasionally antagonistic factions of Norwich and New London together.
Bob grew up in New London, a different New London. This was back in the day when the parents of the now late, great Rollie Pier ran a grinder shop called The Subway on Pequot Ave., near where the old Stash's sits today. And the “Subway Gang” would be there at its home base, otherwise known as The Wall in front of Butler's Beach, laughing away the days.
Al Sitty would do Sid Caesar. Babe Pier do everyone else. There was George Pugsley, Bill Burke, Bob McPhail, Hank Secchiaroli, Dick Ballestrini, Nick Ballestrini, Jake Nobrega, Louie Casimono, Louie Nascetta, Steve Campagna, Frog Mei, Ace Parker, Patsy Cannamela. They were New London.
“Of his peers and contemporaries in the Subway Gang, Bob was easily one of two most respected guys in that whole thing,” O’Neill said. “Bob and George Pugsley (who became a Superior Court judge in California.) Bob commanded a certain level of respect you generally don’t see.
“I don’t ever recall Bob doing anything out of line. He was gentleman. But he had this way about him, where he knew how to be of the guys and be an intellectual, too. I tried to model myself after him, although I don’t have quite the gentleman thing down. He was in many ways the touchstone to that whole experience and community. One of the most respected men I ever knew.”
McPhail and O’Neill later began what is among the oldest running fantasy baseball leagues in the country: The Professional Baseball League. It began somewhere in the late 70s or early 80s, melding mostly teachers from NFA and New London. Lest we forget that NFA and New London once fostered quite the rivalry, whose residual effects last into today.
“A New London-Norwich connection that lasted for a long time,” O’Neill said. “If it weren’t for Bob, you couldn’t have put that kind of group together. He could relate to everybody on some level.”
Bob’s team, ever successful: The Rio Frio Frozen Ropes. But the contributions of Al Driscoll, Frank Bean, Charlie Hamblen, Kenny Lamothe, Duke Campbell, Craig Sylvia and many others produced utter comedy wrapped in their team names. The rule: Pick an actual city/state and give it a baseball-themed nickname. What actually happened?
The Shoreham Ugly. Boise Stupid. Jamaica Boo Boo. Rutherford Haze. Athol Buddies. Iowa Bundle. New Delhi Sandwiches. Tusa Crowd. Pisa Cake. Augusta Wind. Canso Corn. Poncas Pilots.
Bob’s other contributions were less amusing, but no less noteworthy. He was conscience of NFA and a pioneer among state golf coaches.
Those of us who knew and appreciated him are sure going to miss the guy we affectionately called “McFox.” His grace made our space a better place.
“A true renaissance man,” O’Neill said. “Part of that fabric of the old New London that are one at a time hitting the sunset trail. The fabric of a city so interesting in its time. He was a vibrant part of it.”
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro