Remembering 1961 Phillies' 23-game losing streak

Posted: August 05, 2011

RUBEN AMARO SR. was the shortstop on that 1961 Phillies team that lost 23 games in a row. Finished with the worst record in baseball, 47-107. Were dead last in attendance, luring 590,039 masochists into Connie Mack Stadium, a decrepit ballyard in North Philly.

Ruben Amaro Jr. is the general manager of this 2011 Phillies team that owns the best record in baseball. Has sold out its glitzy ballpark 182 times in a row, with no end in sight.

Same town, same team, same family. Fifty years apart. Only in America, only in baseball, only in Philadelphia.

Amaro Jr. swapped four minor leaguers to get Hunter Pence on July 29. Last year, he traded for Roy Oswalt on July 29. The year before, he got Cliff Lee on July 29. Karma? Coincidence? Redemption? That historic 23-game losing streak began on July 29. How woeful was that '61 team? Well, it lost five in a row before it won the second game of a doubleheader at home against the Giants on July 28. Lost the next 23, a record for futility that still stands. For those of you scoring in bed, as announcer By Saam once said, that's 28 out of 29 soul-sapping defeats.

Amaro Sr. scouts for Houston. He was checking out the Phillies' "baby aces" in Clearwater when we caught up with him, seeking memories of that nightmare losing streak.

"We went out there and played our asses off," Amaro Sr. recalled, "but we were overmatched. We were so young. It was like a kindergarten team playing a fourth- grade team."

Gene Mauch, the manager, was young, too. He just looked old. Got the job when Eddie Sawyer quit after the first game (and first loss) of the 1960 season saying he was "49 and wanted to live to be 50."

Mauch was named after Gene Tunney and he must have felt like he was fighting Jack Dempsey 6 days a week and twice on Sundays. Yep, they played doubleheaders back then and the Phillies lost three of those during the streak.

Check out the numbers. The Phillies lost 17 road games and six home games, were outscored 133-54, losing eight games by one run. They were shut out four times, three in a row at one point. Hit .248 during that nightmare stretch, were woeful with runners in scoring position.

Chris Short and Jim Owens lost four times apiece. Art Mahaffey, Don Ferrarese and Frank Sullivan lost three each. Desperate, Mauch tried using starters as relievers and relievers as starters. He used Robin Roberts sparingly, saying he was throwing like Molly Putz. The genteel Bulletin changed the quote to Betsy Ross, but the insult stung just the same. Yep, there was a paper named the Bulletin back then.

And yes, Roberts won 52 more big-league games after the Phillies sold their Whiz Kid hero to the Yankees for 25 grand.

Mauch juggled the lineup almost every day. Sometimes Amaro led off, sometimes it was second baseman Bobby Malkmus, who was very good at painting commemorative plates. Sometimes it was Johnny Callison, who died much too young.

"Mauch had so many guys from so many different teams," Amaro Sr. explained, "and he was trying to find out what they could do, who could play. Same with the pitchers.

"I remember one game vividly. We're playing the Braves and Mahaffey had struck out Joe Adcock three times on nine pitches in an earlier game. We've got the lead in the ninth inning and this is a game we're gonna win.

"Somebody walks and then Mahaffey gets two quick strikes on Adcock. Here comes Mauch, running out of the dugout. Our catcher was Gus Triandos and he's standing there, his mask on top of his head, wondering what the hell is going on?

"Mauch tells Mahaffey, 'If you're gonna waste a pitch, don't throw it high.' Twenty seconds later, bang, Adcock hits the next pitch into the centerfield bleachers and we lose . . . 17th game in a row. That was disheartening."

Fifty years will blur memories. Mahaffey held a 6-4 lead in the eighth inning when Adcock tied it with a two-run homer. Clay Dalrymple, who hit .220, was the catcher. Jack Baldschun lost it in the 11th when he struck out Henry Aaron and then gave up the game-winning hit to Al Spangler. Uh huh, Al Spangler. It was the 20th loss in a row, the streak ending that Sunday, second game of a doubleheader.

Johnny Buzhardt was the winning pitcher. And afterward, he told the media that we'd been mispronouncing his name all year. It wasn't "buzz-ARD" after all. It was "BUZZ-hard."

Whatever. The team flew home on a charter landing 6 minutes before midnight. Players glanced at the terminal and saw a huge crowd silhouetted near the gate, maybe 2,000 fans.

"Get off in 2- or 3-yard intervals," Sullivan warned. "That way they can't get us all with one burst." And then he yipped, "They're selling rocks for a dollar a bucket."

Wrong again. The fans clutched musical instruments and welcoming signs and had love in their hearts. Some beefy guys lifted Mauch on their shoulders.

"We were young and we tried hard," Amaro Sr. said. "They cared about us. I've been with a lot of teams in a lot of different cities and there are no baseball fans like Philadelphia fans. And now for the last 5 years they've gotten terrific baseball to watch, which is why they fill the ballpark every night."

Mauch, searching for rose petals in the pigsty of a season, said that the long losing streak would bond the players, and pay off down the road.

"Well, he was right in some ways," Amaro Sr. said. "Those guys, Callison, [Tony] Gonzalez, [Tony] Taylor, Short, they were the core of that 1964 team. And that team was fundamentally the best team in baseball. We were the best team in baseball for 150 games."

We all know what happened after that. Another losing streak, this one for 10 brutal games, a story for another time, another place.

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