Cy Malis: The best friend we dope fiends have
Cy’s single game for the 1934 Phillies earned him place in all the books on Jewish ballplayers, but it is the rest of his story that makes him so much more interesting. Plus, digging into Cy’s career was for me a researchers delight, as I found that the extent of his pro career that can be found in record books and online is quite incomplete. Old box scores and creative searching enabled me to fill out Cy’s minor league career quite a bit more than any other source that I’ve been able to find. And then, from an artistic point of view, the uniforms worn by one of Cy’s semi-pro teams were so visually stunning that I couldn’t wait to depict Cy in full color.
So, with that teaser, I’ll get right into Cy’s story…
Cy Malis was born in Philadelphia, the second son of Frank and Anna (called “Ray”) Malis. Both Frank’s parents were from Russia while Ray’s father immigrated from Jerusalem and her mother from Russia. Frank worked an an inspector for the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company and Ray kept house in the family’s apartment on 10th Street. Ray and Frank were married around 1905 and their son Charles was born shortly afterward. The Malis’ second son, Cyrus came along on February 26, 1907. Both boys played baseball, working their way up the sandlot ranks. Charles was an infielder while Cyrus – who was now going by “Cy” – was, appropriately enough, a pitcher. While Charles played for Central High, Cy starred for Brown Prep School, lettering in basketball and football as well as baseball. In his sophomore season with Brown, Cy posted a 15-4 record and struck out 22 in a game against Villanova Prep. It appears that Cy left school after his second year, joining the vibrant semi-pro baseball circuit around Philadelphia.
Like other large eastern cities, Philly boasted many top-rank semi-pro clubs. Youngsters began playing for their local neighborhood athletic clubs, then, if they were good enough, were either hired by a large company who sponsored a team or was invited to join one of the semi-pro traveling clubs who were just a step below the minor leagues.
Cy Malis’ first stop was with the Waco Athletic Club. His brother Charles may have preceded him on the team, for both their names frequently appear in box scores at this time. Waco played other medium-level teams in Philadelphia and South Jersey. Then, in mid-August, Cy began pitching for the formidable Hebrews club.
The Hebrews, also known as the Sphas (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association), were one of the better semi-pro clubs in the Philly-Trenton area. The South Philadelphia Hebrew Association began sponsoring athletic teams around World War I, and by the early 1920’s had become known not only for baseball, but for their basketball team as well. In fact, the basketball team actually turned pro, first joining the Eastern League in 1929, then the American Basketball League in 1933. When the NBA was formed after World War II, the Sphas best players splintered off to form the nucleus of the Philadelphia Warriors.
With the baseball Sphas, Cy not only had a first rate ball club backing him up, but he also had good press coverage with would help further his career. His competition was also of a higher class, playing against the various traveling teams that criss-crossed the country before World War II, such as Jim Thorpe’s Indians and various Negro League clubs.
Cy’s half season with the Sphas earned him an invitation to spring training with the minor league Wilkes-Barre Barons in 1925. The April 24 edition of the Scranton Republican said the Malis “has shown plenty of form in the preliminary workouts”, but just two days later he was back in Philly pitching for the Waco A..A. and later the Sphas again. Still only a teenager, Cy had plenty of time to develop into professional material.
Malis’ second chance at organized ball came along the following spring when he was signed by Petersburg Broncos of the Virginia League. In his professional debut on April 14, 1927, Malis was sent in to relieve Petersburg starter Lefty Fowlkes, pitching an inning and third, allowing a hit and two walks plus a balk. Richmond scored a run, but it was charged as an error since the outfielder dropped the ball. Soon both Cy and Lefty Fowlkes were shipped to the Northampton Red Sox of the Eastern Shore League. Malis started off the season well, winning five consecutive games, but overuse took a toll on his arm. When Cy asked management for some time off to rest his tired flinger, the Red Sox handed their ace pitcher his release. 1920’s baseball was a cruel and impersonal sport, and back then a pitcher, especially a young one, was expected to pitch a complete game every time he took the mound. With minor league rosters consisting of only 15-18 players, clubs couldn’t afford to carry too many pitchers, so the ones they had were used as often as possible. When Cy raised an issue about over use, it was only natural that the club would choose to jettison their ace instead of working with him, the reason probably being that if his arm is feeling fatigue now at this low level, how could he make it all the way to the majors? Minor league teams back then made their payroll by selling off their good players to higher level clubs – thus, a sore arm pitcher was of no monetary value to them. Sound front office reasoning in 1927. Fortunately for Cy, one other team in the league, the Cambridge Canners, were willing to take a chance with him. Working out of the bullpen, he finished out 1927 with a 5-6 record.
Despite a mediocre record, a team quite a bit higher up the food chain than the Cambridge Canners became interested in Cy – his hometown Philadelphia Phillies.
Like most big league teams, the Phillies were always on the look out for home grown talent, a native son that could blossom into a star that would in turn put more fans in the stands. As the Phils were perennially mired in last place, it would take something or someone interesting to get fans to shell out the money to watch a lousy team. With his well publicized mound exploits with Brown Prep and the Sphas, Cy Malis was a perfect candidate to be that someone interesting. The Phils signed him for 1928 and shipped him off to their Lynn Papooses farm team in the New England League. From the skeleton of statistics it looks like control was Cy’s biggest obstacle – for instance in the June 1, 1928 game against Salem, Cy pitched the first 3 2/3 innings, giving up 4 bases on balls and a hit batter, taking the loss. On June 12 Cy lasted 5 1/3 inning against Brockton, issuing five free passes and 12 hits for another loss. By mid-June his record was no wins and four losses in 12 innings pitched. The Papooses released him, and Cy went back to the Philly semi-pro circuit.
Every source I found on Cy Malis has no professional record for him in 1929, but I dug up some newspaper articles that say otherwise. A small article written about Cy a year after his death in 1971 states that he had played in the Philadelphia A’s farm system. I thought that perhaps this was a misprint, mistaking the Philadelphia Phillies for the Philadelphia A’s. Or, I thought it might have been Cy or a relative of his doing a little creative remembering, switching out the last place Phillies for the 1929 World Champion A’s. Much to my relief (I don’t relish debunking little white myths held dearly by old ball players and their descendents), the article actually held up to my research.
Seems that Cy had attracted the eye of his hometown’s other big league team, Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. The A’s were right at the beginning of what would be an incredible three pennants and two World Championships, a team thought to be the greatest ever assembled in Major League history. The A’s signed Cy to a minor league contract, sending him to their Martinsville White Elephants team in the Blue Ridge League. I found several box scores that record his record with Martinsville. On April 25, 1929, Cy pitched 4 innings, giving up 6 hits, 2 walks and striking out 2 against Hagerstown. On May 11 he gave up 5 hits in 5 1/3 innings of relief, walking no one and picking up the win over Chambersburg. Cy pitched one more game before he was released, his final 1929 record set at 13 hits, 6 runs, 13 walks, 3 strike outs and a wild pitch in 16 innings.
Once again Cy returned to the Philadelphia scene where he was now a much sought after arm for hire. Besides his regular gig with the mighty Sphas, box scores show Cy appearing for several other teams in the area. The Jersey Shore was a particularly lucrative spot for semi-pro ball, as all the beach communities competed against one another to field the best ball team. Not content to hire just a few ringers to supplement their team, some town hired complete semi-pro outfits to represent them. Cy was with the Trenton Club when they were rented out to represent the town of Bradley Beach.
In 1933 Cy was hired by the Berlin, Maryland team to help them beat rival Dagsboro in the five-game Eastern Shore Championship Series. Malis pitched Game 2, shutting out Dagsboro on six hits. The “Quaker City speedball artist” was tabbed to pitch the deciding Game 5, but served up three home runs early on which gave Dagsboro the game and championship.
In 1934 he was back with the Sphas. On July 29, Malis pitched and won a 14 inning marathon at Paterson, N.J., then came back to Philly where the next night he pitched a one-hitter for the Bartram club. Cy’s continued good press inevitably was noticed by the moribund Phillies. For the second time, Philadelphia signed Cy Malis to a contract, but where as back in 1927 he was farmed out to the sticks, this time he was issued a uniform with number 49 on the back and sent to join the big club.
On Friday, August 17, 1934 Cy Malis made his major league debut against the Cardinals at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. The Gas House Gang Cardinals were on their way to a World Championship with a line up that featured future Hall of Famers Joe Medwick, Frankie Frisch, Pepper Martin and sluggers Ernie Orsatti and Ripper Collins. Their mound corps was led by the Dean Brothers, Dizzy and Paul, who would collectively win 49 games that summer. In the bottom of the 5th, the Cards were up 7-2 with Phillies reliever Reggie Grabowski on the mound. Burgess Whitehead led off with a single and with one out, advanced to second when Frankie Frisch got a base on balls. Joe Medwick smashed a long single to center, scoring Whitehead and moving Frisch to third. Medwick then stole second, sending Grabowski to the showers.
Phillies manager Jimmy Wilson waved Cy Malis in from the bullpen. With men on second and third, Malis faced Ripper Collins who quickly hit a double to riht field, scoring Frisch and Medwick. Cy got Bill Delancey to fly out to center field but then lost Chick Fullis to a base on balls. Now with two on and two away, Leo Durocher stepped in and hit a flyball to right which was caught to end the inning. Wilson left Malis in to pitch the 6th, during which he gave up a single to lead off hitter Paul Dean, then got two quick pop outs. Frankie Frisch reached base on an error but Malis got Medwick to fly out to left, ending the 6th. Cy Malis’ spot was first up in the top of the 7th and he reached base when he was drilled by a Paul Dean pitch. Malis watched Dean expertly dispose of the next three Phillie batters and was left standing on second base when the inning ended. In the bottom of the 7th Malis gave a lead off walk to Ripper Collins who was then caught stealing second. A fly ball out and a strike out ended the seventh. The Phils failed to score in the top of the 8th and the score remained 10-2. In the Cards half, Mailis gave up a single to Durocher, followed by a Paul Dean fly out. Burgess Whitehead ripped a triple to left-center, scoring Durocher. Whitehead scored on a long fly out to right field but an infield pop fly by Pat Crawford ended the inning. All the Phillies could manage in their last frame was a harmless single as St. Louis clobbered Philadelphia 12-2. Paul Dean picked up his 13th win of the year and Phillies starter Cy Moore took the loss.
All told, Cy’s big league debut wasn’t a disaster, but it wasn’t lights out either: 3 2/3 innings, 4 hits, 2 runs, 2 walks and a strikeout. Remember, he was facing the eventual World Champions with a lineup overflowing with powerful bats. Still, that single game was to be the extent of Cy Malis’ major league career. The Phillies released him shortly afterward.
Now a free agent, Malis was invited to spring training with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. Despite reporting to camp overweight, Malis worked hard and lost twenty pounds in three weeks. Sportswriters were impressed with the hard work he put in, as were the Angels, especially after he held the team’s veterans to a measly three hits in an intramural game. At this time the Angels were the top farm club of the Chicago Cubs and usually finished at, or near the top of the PCL each season. The Angels pitching staff boasted future Brooklyn Dodgers ace Hugh Casey, 28 game winner Fay Thomas, 20 game winner Mike Meola and future journeyman major leaguer Newt Kimball, but Cy’s hard work gained him a spot as a reliever when the 1935 season started.
On March 28, Malis relieved Hugh Casey in the sixth inning when the Padres jumped on him for 6 runs. and pitched three innings, giving up three runs on three hits. In the April 3 game against Oakland, Malis was thrown in to stop an Oaks rally, but quickly got knocked off the mound himself as Oakland bulldozed two other Angels pitchers on the way to a 12-3 win. Malis then came down with the flu, which sidelined him for a few games. He pitched 1 1/3 inning of relief on April 12, giving up a hit and two walks. Two days later threw three innings against Portland, relinquishing 5 hits and 2 runs in the 10-4 loss. On April 16, the Angels handed Malis his walking papers. As he had back in Philly, Malis fell back on the semi-pro scene to make a living. In Los Angeles, Cy was eagerly picked up by Twentieth Century-Fox, which played in a league made up of all the major Hollywood movie studios.
Being recruited by a film studio not only let Cy keep a foot in baseball, but also opened up the door to his second career – acting. Malis made his celluloid debut in the MGM boxing picture “The Crowd Roars”, as an uncredited extra. At this time dozens of studios were filming in the Los Angeles area and Cy found plenty of work. By 1940, he was married to an Alabama native named Lucile (and known to family as “Aunt Ozzie”), and the couple were living in a residential enclave of movie people on North Argyle Street in LA. Cy listed his occupation as “actor” and was recorded in the 1940 census and pulling in the nice yearly salary of $1500, a nice bump above the average worker at that time.
In 1942, a 35 year-old Cy enlisted in the Navy. It was during his short stint in the service that his life took an unexpected, and what could have been a tragic, turn. While undergoing gunnery training, one of the massive gun turrets swung around and slammed into Cy, breaking his neck and back. The accident landed him in the hospital for what would be a long, painful recovery period. From the start, the pain was so intense that Cy was unable to help loudly thrashing around in his bed and gnashing his teeth. To save both Cy’s teeth and let the other patients get an undisturbed night’s sleep, doctors prescribed morphine, the highly addictive opiate commonly used at the time for pain management. In small doses, under strict observance and over a short period of time, morphine was perfect for the job. However, in a crowded Naval hospital in wartime, Cy’s use of morphine went unchecked.
Months later, when he finally was able to get his broken body out of bed, Cy came to the realization he could not function without morphine. He was hooked. Like shell shock (now called PTSD), morphine addiction was one of those little-talked about side effects of war. Thousands of wounded soldiers were treated and released back to their civilian lives with a dependence on the morphine that was supposed to heal them. Addiction to drugs and alcohol was something not fully understood during this time, yet Cy somehow recognized that his dependence was something he needed to get control of. With no program or treatment readily available to him, Cy began the difficult process of weening himself off the drug. However, behind Cy’s morphine dependence was the still crushing pain of his injured neck and back. To make this constant pain manageable, the old ballplayer turned to alcohol. Looking back from the 21st century, we know that this was just substituting one evil for another, but in 1943 being alcohol dependent was much more acceptable than being a junkie. In the spring of 1943 the Navy gave Cy his discharge and he returned to civilian life. While his back and neck gradually healed, Cy went to work ratcheting down his intake of alcohol as a pain killer. It must have been unbelievably hard work, taking almost superhuman inner strength, but somehow he managed to do it.
With his part in the war through and his addiction under control, Cy threw himself back into Hollywood. He quickly became an often used extra, working with famed directors John Ford, William Wellman and Robert Wise. The list of actors he shared the screen with reads like a who’s who of Hollywood’s Golden Age: Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall (Designing Woman), Lucille Ball (The Fuller Brush Girl), Cary Grant and John Garfield (Destination Tokyo), John Wayne and Richard Widmark (The Alamo), even Shirley Temple (The Story of Seabiscuit). Malis is even credited with being a stand in in for two different Stooges, Larry and Shemp. Besides his work in front of the camera, Cy was able to leverage his pro baseball experience into a couple technical advisor rolls on the baseball pictures “It Happened in Flatbush” and “Flashing Spikes”.
Through all this Hollywood work, Cy still had to deal with his morphine and alcohol withdrawal. In 1953, a forward thinking LA Sheriff’s narcotics detective approached an Alcoholic Anonymous member with the idea that a similar organization focusing on drugs might help the growing number of heroin and speed addicts in his city. In mid-July, the very first meeting of what would become Narcotics Anonymous was held in a church in the Moore Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Among the handful of people present was Cy Malis and Jimmy Kinnon. The small group hashed out the pillars of the budding organization and in a few weeks Kinnon would be elected Narcotics Annonymous’ first leader and accepted “founder”.
Despite being present at the very beginning and taking part in its initial program, Cy charted his own course separate from NA. In his spare time he appeared before groups telling the story of his own addiction and the long, painful route he traveled in order to kick it. In the 1950’s this was a very brave thing to do as drug addicts were considered the lowest of the low, and to admit to being one took an awful lot of guts. By the late 1950’s Cy realized that while groups such as Narcotics Anonymous helped people out on the streets, nothing was being done for addicts behind bars. It was in the prison system that Cy Malis found his calling.
Cy Malis now became the main driving force behind helping convicts overcome their addiction and subsequent withdrawal. So successful was Cy that when the assistant warden of San Quentin was being interviewed about drug addiction problems in his prison, the jailer responded “they have improved vastly since Mr. Malis started his program. But perhaps the greatest compliment came from a former inmate and admitted addict who, when introduced to Cy called him “the best friend we dope fiends have”. This wasn’t a hollow compliment – back in the 1960’s when this took place, dope addicts were an ignored and disparaged part of society, one for which good people did not consort with, let alone try to help. In this hostile atmosphere, Cy Malis bravely stepped forward to offer a hand to those who needed it, and he in turn was revered for it.
In between acting and technical advising in Hollywood and offering a lifeline to thousands of addicts behind bars, Cy also found time to coach Little League. The old ballplayer even managed his club to the league championship in his first summer as skipper. A kick by a horse on the set of a movie injured Cy to the point that it effectively ended his movie career and his health deteriorated. Cy’s brother told a sports writer that shortly before Cy’s death in 1971, the two brothers were visiting New York when a friend showed Cy a copy of the 1970 Philadelphia Phillies yearbook. Inside was a list of all the players who appeared in a Phillies uniform over the course of the team’s history. There, under the M’s was Cy Malis. Charles told the sports writer that his brother was quite pleased at the remembrance of his one day as big leaguer.
Cy passed away on January 12, 1971, just 63 years old.
Cy Malis’ big league career might have lasted but a single afternoon and takes up no more than a single line of statistics, yet his life can not be measured in stats or amount of space in a record book. Cy’s personal experience of taking a tragic turn of events and making it mean something helped thousands of people. With them, Cy Malis’ winning percentage was 1.000, no matter what the record book shows.