What is a phantom ballplayer? Here are 5 from MLB history

May 13th, 2023

As you’ve likely heard, the 2023 season has been an eventful one for .

In April, the 33-year-old was called up to the big leagues with the Pirates after a Minor League career that had reached 13 seasons and 1,155 games to that point. Maggi made his MLB debut when he struck out as a pinch-hitter in a win over the Dodgers, becoming the ninth-oldest player to make his debut in MLB’s Expansion Era (since 1961). He later secured his first MLB start, first MLB hit and first MLB RBI before being sent back down to Double-A Altoona.

But, as odd as it might sound, there’s one title that Maggi actually lost during his week of glory. From this point onward, no matter what else happens in the remainder of his career, Maggi will never again be saddled with the "phantom ballplayer" label.

What exactly is a phantom ballplayer? The definition is quite simple: anyone who has been on an MLB roster but has never appeared in a game. To clarify, this means that of “Field of Dreams” fame is not a phantom ballplayer, because he appeared in a game, even if he didn’t record an out or step up to the plate. The same goes for more than 30 other known players who appeared in MLB games without having any plate appearances.

How, then, did Maggi get that title? Maggi’s stint in Pittsburgh was actually not his first time on an MLB roster. Late in the 2021 season, Maggi, then a member of the Twins organization, was promoted to the big league club when an injury opened up a roster spot. He had been waiting for his moment for more than a decade, but the moment didn’t come, because he did not appear in either of his two games with Minnesota before being optioned to Triple-A St. Paul on Sept. 20.

As such, he spent nearly two years with that phantom status before his Pirates debut. But the fraternity of phantom ballplayers is still more than 500 deep. While there is nothing official in the MLB record books regarding phantom ballplayers, the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) has independently been logging all known instances, the results of which can be seen here.

While each of these players has his own unique story of how he almost had his chance at glory, let's look at five notable ones who have a particularly unconventional place in baseball history (sorted in reverse chronological order).

Clayton Blackburn (2016, '17)
Blackburn has a rare status that Maggi avoided: double phantom ballplayer, or a player who was on the active roster of more than one Major League team without ever getting into a game.

While Maggi finally got his shot, Blackburn, a pitcher, was not so lucky. Drafted by the Giants out of high school in 2011, Blackburn worked his way up the Minor League system, having a career year in 2015 with a 10-4 record and 2.85 ERA at Triple-A Sacramento. This led to him briefly being called up to the Giants in May 2016, but he did not appear in a game before being sent back down.

After being traded to the Rangers in 2017, he had his second near-taste of the Majors in as many years, getting called up in July but not appearing in a game before returning to Triple-A Round Rock. Blackburn went on to tear his ulnar collateral ligament in spring 2018 and underwent Tommy John surgery. He formally announced his retirement in July 2019. Blackburn is now a graduate assistant baseball coach at the University of Central Oklahoma.

Brian Jeroloman (2011)
The typical phantom ballplayer might have been called up to the big leagues for a couple of days, seen a pair of games go by without getting in, and then returned to the Minors for good. So a 37-day stint with a Major League club without appearing in a game is unusual, to say the least.

Such was life for Jeroloman with the 2011 Blue Jays, but the story wasn’t as simple as the coaches not giving the kid a chance. Jeroloman, then a 26-year-old catcher, was called up to the Blue Jays on Aug. 23, but the team did not know that he fractured his hand while sliding into third base during a Triple-A game the previous night. Still, the Blue Jays figured that Jeroloman could still come to Toronto as the third-string catcher, get used to the Major League environment and potentially prepare for a stint as the team's main backup the following season.

As such, Jeroloman spent more than a month with the big league team, studying pitchers and rehabbing his hand with the trainers, but not appearing in any games as starter and backup José Molina finished out the season. The ensuing offseason, Toronto traded for to be Arencibia’s backup, and Jeroloman never reached an MLB roster (in Toronto, or elsewhere) again.

Jeroloman, now 38, serves as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for FIU baseball.

Chet Trail (1964)
The core, defining trait that each of the phantom ballplayers share is simple: They all came inches away from stepping on a big league field, only to watch the games go by from the dugout (or bullpen). But what if those games in question came during the World Series? That’s what separates Trail from the rest.

Trail, a middle infielder, was only 20 years old during the 1964 season, which he primarily spent with the Yankees' Single-A Greensboro farm team. Meanwhile, , and the big league Yankees were making their fifth straight World Series appearance -- still MLB’s most recent instance of a team having five such consecutive seasons.

Ahead of that year’s World Series against the Cardinals, the Yankees made Trail an eligible player, with the Minor League season having wrapped up. But Trail did not appear in the Fall Classic, which the Cardinals won in seven games. Trail played five more Minor League seasons before retiring after the 1969 season, and he is thought to be the only player who has been on a World Series eligibility list but has never played in a regular season or playoff MLB game. He went on to be a clergyman in his home state of Ohio.

Though Trail himself did not accomplish this feat, a few players have had their MLB debuts come in the postseason, including in the 2015 World Series and in the 2020 ALDS. Another fun tidbit of MLB history is that infielder ’s only career MLB action came in the playoffs, with the 2006 A’s.

Bill Sharman (1951)
Sharman is pretty inarguably the most famous phantom ballplayer to exist. After all, there’s a reason SABR referred to its list as “the Bill Sharman Society.” And that reason is that Sharman is a Hall of Famer -- in a different sport. If you don’t recognize his name, Sharman was one of several Hall of Famers to grace the court for the dynastic Boston Celtics of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was teammates with the likes of Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, "Mr. Celtic" Tom Heinsohn and more, and he earned four championships in his 11 NBA seasons (10 with Boston). Sharman was an eight-time NBA All-Star and one of 76 players to make the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team. After his playing days, Sharman went on to the other side of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, winning an additional six NBA championships as a head coach and executive with Los Angeles. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach.

Where did baseball come into the picture? Sharman played collegiately at USC, graduating in 1950, and he was in the Dodgers’ Minor League system from 1950-55 (this overlapped with his NBA career; he was drafted by the Washington Capitols in 1950). Sharman was called up from Double-A Fort Worth to the Dodgers squad late in the 1951 season, but did not appear in a game. Sharman stuck around in the Minors for a few more years, having a pretty impressive .812 OPS with Triple-A St. Paul in 1952, before hanging up his cleats for his sneakers.

Al Olsen (1951)
According to SABR research, Olsen achieved phantom status when he was added to Cleveland's roster in 1951 without getting into a game. But what makes his case interesting is that it was long thought that he was no phantom at all. Olsen, a left-handed pitcher, was in MLB’s record books for decades as having appeared in a game as a pinch-hitter for the Red Sox in 1943, but later research indicated that Olsen was actually with the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League (a now-defunct Minor League team with no affiliation to MLB’s current Padres) at the time of the game in question. This was further verified by none other than Olsen himself, who told the New York Times in 1990, “It wasn't me. I was a left-handed pitcher. I couldn't hit my hat. Besides, I never played a game in the Major Leagues.''

So who was actually responsible for the pinch-hit walk and stolen base that were originally credited to Olsen? It may never be a complete certainty, but Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference now show outfielder Leon Culberson as the player in question. The New York Times postulated that it also could have been outfielder John Lazor, who wore No. 14 during the regular season with Boston (the number that Olsen wore with the team in Spring Training before being sent down).

With Olsen, Culberson and Lazor all having been deceased for more than 20 years, this will likely always remain a mystery. But what’s not a mystery is that, after his baseball career, Olsen went on to have a fine tenure working in various roles in the San Diego State University athletic department, including as athletic director as well as head tennis coach.