Friday, September 21, 2012

September 21, 1964: The Most Infamous Day in Philadelphia Sports History

Chico Ruiz stealing home, Connie Mack Stadium, Philadelphia, 21 September 1964

Fall is my favorite season.  Weather-wise, the turn from summer swelter to autumn crispness, with its attendant azure-blue skies and the Northeast's brilliant displays of leafy color, is one of the most highly anticipated events of my year.  Yet the approach of the autumnal equinox each September 22-24 is marked by an event that, for me, brings back painful memories of childhood disillusionment and has left an indelible mark on my sporting psyche—and not only on mine, but on millions of Philadelphians of my generation: The Phillies blew a seemingly insurmountable 6 1/2 game lead in the National League with only 12 games to go by losing an unthinkable 10 games in a row.  The way this streak began was so bizarre, and how the mounting losses seemed so inexorable, certainly (in my mind) justifies the pessimistic fatalism that has made Philadelphia fans infamous.

In the spring and early summer of 1964 I was 7 years old, a burgeoning sports fan who loved playing wiffle ball in the alley behind my row house apartment on Balwynne Park Road in the Wynnefield Heights section of West Philadelphia.  1964 was the first year I followed big league baseball in earnest, reading the box scores religiously, collecting the Topps baseball cards my dad bought from the Jack and Jill ice cream truck that made its nightly rounds in the neighborhood, listening to By Saam’s calls of Phillies games on WCAU radio, and going for the first time to see the Phils at old Connie Mack Stadium in North Philly. 

At the time, I obviously had no clue of the Phillies’ sad-sack history: only two pennants (and zero World Series victories) in their 81-year history, 17 last place finishes in the span of 29 years between 1919-1947, and a record 23-game losing streak in 1961.  All I knew was that in the months of April, May, and June of 1964 the Phillies were locked in a two-team battle with the Willie Mays-led San Francisco Giants for supremacy in the National League.  On June 15, when my family left for a summer at Deerfoot Lodge in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, the Phils and Giants were deadlocked in first place with 34-23 records.  The Giants, not surprisingly, were led by pitcher Juan Marichal, who on June 15 had an 8-2 record and a typically low 2.42 ERA, and the incomparable Willie Mays, by consensus baseball’s premier player.  In 1964 Mays was hitting .400 as late as May 23, and on June 15 was still hitting .360 with 18 homers (despite not having hit any in the previous 18 games) and 48 RBI in 57 games.  The Phils didn’t have the same level of star power as the Giants (or the Reds, Braves, or Cardinals for that matter).  Indeed, 38 year-old manager Gene Mauch utilized a platoon system for 5 of the 8 positions, with only second baseman Tony Taylor, rightfielder Johnny Callison, and 22 year-old rookie third baseman Richie (“call me Dick”) Allen playing every day.  Callison, though, had his best season in ’64 with 31 homers and 104 RBI.  And Allen was a revelation, running away with the NL’s Rookie of the Year award by hitting .318 with 29 homers while scoring 125 runs.  The “Wampum Walloper” remains the single most powerful (non-steroid using) hitter I have ever seen, and his torrid start in ’64 was a prime reason for the team’s quick start out of the gate.

Phillies 1964 World Series Tickets(photo @
tag/1964-world-series/ )
During my summer in New York, the Phillies pulled away from the Giants, who were hurt by the loss of Marichal due to back spasms for nearly a month in July and August.  When my family returned to Philly at the end of August and the Phils returned from a short, 6-game road trip to Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, we came back to a city reeling from the race riots that decimated Columbia Avenue in North Philadelphia just a mile south of Connie Mack Stadium.  But the Phillies were still in first place with a seemingly secure 5 ½ game lead over the Cincinnati Reds, 6 ½ over the Giants, and 7 over the surging St. Louis Cardinals, who had rejuvenated themselves by trading for speedy outfielder Lou Brock on June 15.  When, on September 20, ace Jim Bunning defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, 3-2, to run his record to 18-5 and lower his ERA to 2.33, the Phillies came home to North Philly with the aforementioned 6 ½ games lead with just 12 games left on the schedule.  Printing presses in Philadelphia proceeded to print World Series tickets for what appeared at the time to be inevitable, and 90,000 were sold within hours.  But, alas, it was not to be.

 September 21, 1964 is the most infamous day in the infamous history of Philadelphia sports.  The Phils were at home against the second place Reds, with 12 game winner Art Mahaffey facing John Tsitouris, who had been a disappointment with a 7-11 record.  The game remained scoreless until the 6th inning when, with one out, rookie Chico “Bench Me or Trade Me” Ruiz (for more on Ruiz’s tragically short life, see here) singled and sped to third on a single to right by Vada Pinson, who was gunned down by the rifle-armed Callison at second trying to stretch it into a double.  That brought up Frank Robinson, one of the league’s most feared sluggers, with 2 outs.  Then Ruiz did the unthinkable — “the dumbest play I’ve ever seen,” according to teammate Pete Rose: he attempted a naked steal of home with the right-handed Robinson (!) at the plate, risking decapitation and the wrath of the irascible slugger at the same time.  But it worked.  Mahaffey, noting Ruiz’s break for home, was distracted enough to uncork a wild pitch outside the reach of catcher Clay Dalrymple, enabling Ruiz to score the game’s only run.  Amazingly, this was the second time in three games the Phils had been defeated by a steal of home, the Dodgers’ Willie Davis having performed the same feat in the 16th inning of the game that started on the 19th.

At first both the team and the fans took the loss in stride.  After all, they still had a 5 ½ game lead over the Reds.  But as the losses began to mount, the team tightened and, even worse, manager Gene Mauch, whose facility at small ball and strategic matchups had been instrumental in the team’s overachieving success that year, began to panic.  Most famously, Mauch used starters Jim Bunning and Chris Short multiple times on only 2 days’ rest, with predictably bad results (for detailed analysis of this and other of Mauch’s managerial failings contributing to the Phils’ demise in '64, see here).  When on September 28-30, the Phils were swept by the Cardinals in a 3-game series at Busch Stadium, they had amazingly lost 10 in a row, and fallen 2 ½ games behind the streaking Redbirds, who had won 8 in a row.  Even though they rallied to defeat the Reds in the final two games of the season, they fell one game short at the end when the Cardinals rallied from behind to defeat the lowly Mets on the strength of the bats of Bill White and Tim McCarver and the arm of Bob Gibson, who won his 19th game of the season in relief.

All these years later, I still recall these events, and the anguish they caused, as vividly as if they happened yesterday (actually, I could only wish to recall yesterday’s events so vividly!).  In moments of thoughtful reflection, I can see how they influenced my own fandom at a fundamental level.  For me, losing and choking are the expected results whenever my Philly teams play.  I am never surprised when a Philadelphia team snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, whether it is the 1968 Sixers losing three straight to the aging, and clearly inferior, Celtics, the 1977 Sixers losing four straight to Bill Walton’s Blazers after taking the first two games easily, or the 2000 Flyers losing three straight to the New Jersey Devils after taking a 3-1 series lead.  I am never surprised, but always angry, when clearly superior Philly teams fail to win championships, whether that team is the 1980 Eagles or the 2010-2011 Phillies.  I am likewise never surprised when Philadelphia players never seem to live up to their early promise or hype, whether it be Dick Allen, George McGinnis, Donovan McNabb, Eric Lindros, or Ryan Howard.  Frustration, in my experience, has been the norm, and we Philadelphians of the old school are known to voice that frustration in ways that more “refined” and less star-crossed fans of other cities rarely do.  But it is this very history of frustration that makes the city’s rare championships —the 1960 Eagles, the 1980 and 2008 Phillies, the 1967 and 1983 Sixers, and the 1974 and 1975 Flyers — all the sweeter because of their very unexpectedness.

Time heals all wounds, so the saying goes.  In a sense, I guess that’s true.  Today I look back at the 1964 Phillies, with names like Covington, Gonzalez, Taylor, Rojas, Wine, Baldschun, Dalrymple, Bennett, and especially Callison, Allen, Bunning, and Short, with more fondness than I do the more successful Phillies of 2007-2011.  To me, they remain bigger than life, despite their failure.  But that failure taught me a dubious “lesson” I wish I could unlearn, but deep down inside know I never will.


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