Time to exorcise memories of Phils' 1964 collapse

Phillies manager Gene Mauch (standing) in August 1964, before a magical season went horribly wrong.
Phillies manager Gene Mauch (standing) in August 1964, before a magical season went horribly wrong. (File photograph)
Posted: March 17, 2014

John Updike, a Southeastern Pennsylvanian - who unlike his most famous fictional creation, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, was not a Phillies fan - wrote that the past is a "vast sheet of darkness" on which only a few random moments are illuminated.

Sports fans know what he meant.

Why, for example, do some sports memories fade so quickly and easily into the darkness while others continue to shine 50 years later?

Maybe they're like visits to the dentist. I recall none of the boyhood checkups and cleanings I had, but half-a-century later the shriek of Dr. Lucas' drill still echoes like a fresh scream.

Pain, both physical and psychic, implants itself in our psyches in ways that other feelings can't. Which brings me to the 1964 Phillies.

The looming 2014 baseball season will mark the 50th anniversary of the '64 Phils' infamous collapse, one of those rare sporting occasions when the trauma outstripped the drama.

For half a century, it has occupied a prominent spot in my mind. And it's not just me. Mention 1964 to any Philadelphia-area baby boomer and you've committed yourself to another retelling of that familiar litany of laments:

Gene Mauch. Art Mahaffey. Chico Ruiz. Bunning and Short. Short and Bunning. The 10-game losing streak. The unused World Series tickets. The unrequited passion. Tears on transistors.

That great civic disappointment, which robbed our generation of not only a pennant but also of its youthful innocence, informed Philadelphia's sports narrative for the second half of the 20th century and beyond.

The fatal 10-game losing streak - a wound that, from Sept. 21 through Sept. 30, increased daily in severity - transformed Philadelphia sports fans into a stereotype. Suddenly, we had a face that was recognizable to the nation. And it wasn't pretty.

Negative, profane, cynical, we were capable of going from blind optimism to bitter disillusionment in a heartbeat. Soon, whenever anyone thought of Philadelphia, they thought of us and the darkness we carried inside.

No matter the sport, the lack of faith that was born in 1964 shadowed any encouraging development. We became convinced that the higher our hopes soared, the more cruelly they'd crash. So whenever we sensed a looming disappointment, no matter how insignificant, we short-circuited it with a boo.

It was our Ginsbergian Howl, the best instincts of our generation destroyed by madness.

Even the few bright spots that subsequently managed to peek through the clouds - most notably 1980 and 2008 - couldn't fully redeem us.

As we aged and our collective attention spans continued to shrink, that season refused to be diminished or forgotten.

But there's got to be a statute of limitations on suffering. And it seems to me 50 years is long enough.

Most of those who endured it either won't be around or won't be sufficiently cogent when the next noteworthy anniversary arrives, the 75th in 2039. So let's remember 1964 one more time this milestone summer and then confine it to history's scrap heap.

It's time for Gen-Xers and millennials to superimpose their own memories, their own passion and paranoia on the city's sports consciousness. For them, 1964 has no more relevance than the 1914 A's stunning World Series loss to the miracle Braves had for us.

This 11-month stretch of 50th anniversaries we're experiencing - from the JFK assassination in November 1963 to the Beatles' U.S. debut in February to the Phils' official elimination on Oct. 4, 1964 - has reminded me of just how deep and unique Philadelphia's pain was that autumn.

According to the popular narrative in all the recent 50th-anniversary commemorations - a kind of fond farewell to the baby boomers - the Beatles' arrival helped us recover from Kennedy's untimely slaying.

Philadelphians, too, were giddy with Beatlemania that winter and spring. And when that was followed by a baseball season in which the Phillies unexpectedly climbed into first place and stayed there all summer, our lives were a joyful, magical mystery tour.

But we should have known better.

By October, Mauch's Phillies had unexpectedly collapsed, and here, there, and everywhere Philadelphians fell back into a depression. The rest of the country may still have been joyfully "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah"-ing in that fall of 1964, but we were just beginning to carry that weight. We carry it still.

It won't be easy to jettison 1964. It's deeply embedded here. While there's one part of me that can't wait to see those memories exorcised, there's another that cherishes them.

Having survived such a catastrophe, we wear the experience proudly, like an indelible tattoo. Unable to get rid of it, we show it off.

But it's time to forget.

And so, in what promises to be another grim Phillies summer, I'll remember one more time one of the few intimate moments my taciturn grandfather and I ever shared, sitting in the kitchen of a North Wildwood apartment in August 1964 listening to Ed Roebuck save a win against the Reds.

I'll remember the shock at Connie Mack Stadium that Sept. 21 when Chico Ruiz triggered the 10-game slide by stealing home with Frank Robinson at bat and, six days later, the growing gloom there when, despite three Johnny Callison home runs, the Braves thumped the Phils, 14-8.

I'll remember hitchhiking with Dave Miller to a Cardinal O'Hara football game on the season's penultimate day and rejoicing when someone with a transistor radio informed us that because they'd beaten Cincinnati and St. Louis had lost to the Mets, the Phillies were still alive.

And I'll remember that the final loss in the 10-game streak came to the Cardinals' Curt Simmons, a Philadelphia-area pitcher whom the Phillies had so callously released.

Someone asked Simmons if he took any pleasure from beating the Phillies, all but ensuring their doom.

He said he did not. In fact, Simmons said: "I feel for them a little bit. I just hope it never happens to us like that. It would stay with you for the rest of your life."

It's stayed with their fans too, Curt.

But 2014 seems a good time to part ways with those memories.

Fifty years is long enough to hear that dentist's drill.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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