Retelling the story of the Phillies' collapse of 1964

Cookie Rojas (left) Johnny Callison, Dick Allen (then known as Richie) and Gene Mauch before the free fall, before Chico Ruiz, before the infamy.
Cookie Rojas (left) Johnny Callison, Dick Allen (then known as Richie) and Gene Mauch before the free fall, before Chico Ruiz, before the infamy.
Posted: July 21, 2014

THE NUMBERS live on, in infamy.

Whisper "6 1/2-game lead, 12 games to play," in Kensington or King of Prussia; after services at St. Paul's or Mishkan Shalom; in a gym; on a whim; in a park; in the dark; and you will hear an echo, groaning with sadness, "1964 Phillies!"

Everybody knows they lost the next 10 in a row, blew the National League pennant, turned those World Series tickets they'd printed into cheap, colorful, cardboard memorabilia. Broke some hearts that never mended. Left scars that will not heal. And if the sky is not falling when one of our teams loses two in a row down the stretch, why does it look so gray and lumpy and bleak?

Catcher Gus Triandos called it "the year of the blue snow" after Jim Bunning pitched a perfect game on Father's Day against the wretched Mets and Johnny Callison slammed the game-winning walkoff homer in the All-Star Game and Dick Allen kept pounding the ball over the Coca-Cola sign atop the roof at Connie Mack Stadium on his way to Rookie of the Year honors.

The blue snow turned to ash gray slush in September, 50 years ago. The Phillies marked the anniversary recently by getting swept by the Braves at home in a four-game series, first time that's happened since, you guessed it, September '64. They were the Milwaukee Braves back then, out of the race. The Phillies lost one of those games even though Callison hit three home runs that night. Lost another when Gene Mauch let Bobby Shantz, a 39-year-old lefthander, pitch to Rico Carty, a 25-year-old righthanded slugger in the ninth inning, and pow, Carty tripled off the wall, driving in the winning runs.

Whoa. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, let's try to set the tawdry record straight, debunk some myths along the way, solve some mysteries, create some new ones.

Mauch had become the Phillies manager one game into the 1960 season. Eddie Sawyer quit after an Opening Day loss in Cincinnati, saying, "I'm 49 and I want to live to be 50."

As awful as that '60 team was, it got worse in '61. Won 47, lost 107. Lost 23 in a row, a record for ineptitude that still stands today. Three years later, Mauch had his team at 90-60 before the shift hit the fans.

Go from 47-107 to 90-60, that should earn you a spot on the Phillies Wall of Fame. Nope! John Kruk is there, Charlie Manuel is about to be there, but no sign of Mauch's smug mug.

He went into every game thinking he was the smartest guy in the ballpark. Most nights he was. He went into that '64 season with a Game Plan, beat up on the Houston Colt 45s and the wretched Mets. Colt 45s, that's what they were called, named after a famous pistol. Wretched Mets, that's what everybody called them.

Did it work? The Phillies went 15-3 against New York, 13-5 against Houston. One of those losses came on Sept. 16, when Mauch started Jim Bunning against the Colt 45s on two days' rest.

What's that? You mean Mauch didn't wait for that nightmarish losing streak to start using Bunning and Chris Short on two days' rest? Nope. Went with his ace against the ninth-place 45s and it blew up in his face like a trick cigar.

You see, Mauch had another Game Plan! He had his own magic number. It was 95! Wanted to get to 95 wins, be six in front with five to play, spray the champagne around that snug clubhouse. Then he'd sit his regulars and juggle his pitching rotation so that it was rested and ready for the World Series.

There was a Frisco-Houston-Los Angeles road trip before that final homestand. You could buy guns in Houston. Some players bought guns, lugged them to L.A., played with them in the visiting clubhouse.

"We're spending the money before we've got it," grumbled Callison, who ordinarily wouldn't say "fire" with his shoelaces aflame. His warning went ignored.

Phillies won the first game, 4-3. Lost the next one, 4-3, then the next one, 4-3. Dennis Bennett started that one, with a shoulder so sore, he couldn't comb his hair. Lasted 2 2/3. Then came Bobby Locke, Ed Roebuck, Jack Baldschun. Which is why a lefthanded rookie named Morrie Steevens was out there when Willie Davis stole home to end the 16-inning game.

Bunning won the final game, 3-2, and they flew home 6 1/2 in front, with 12 to play, the first seven at home.

Art Mahaffey was pitching a shutout against the Reds when Chico Ruiz decided to steal home with Frank Robinson at bat in the sixth. It's a knucklehead play, stealing home against a righthanded pitcher with your best hitter at bat. Robinson was shocked, Ruiz was safe when a rattled Mahaffey threw wide.

Dick Sisler, filling in as manager for the cancer-riddled Fred Hutchinson, stuttered under stress. Asked what would have happened to Ruiz if he'd been thrown out, Sisler sputtered, "He c-c-c-coulda k-k-kept r-r-running to San Diego [Cincy's Triple A affiliate]."

Mauch blamed Mahaffey, waited five days before pitching him again. After that, it was Bunning and Short and hold the fort.

Bennett's shoulder was so sore, he couldn't comb his hair, so he stopped combing his hair, but he kept pitching. Mauch liked Bennett. He had hurtled face-first through a windshield in winter ball and Mauch liked toughness, personified by a faceful of scars.

He got rid of a reliever, Joe Verbanic, because Verbanic called him "Mr. Mauch" and that was too polite. He got rid of Gary Wagner because Wagner had a pituitary problem and didn't sweat, and how can you trust a pitcher who doesn't sweat?

The classic appraisal involved Ferguson Jenkins. Mauch thought Fergy was too timid to pitch inside and swapped him. Jenkins pitched his way into the Hall of Fame. And, oh, yeah, Mauch cut Curt Simmons one dark and stormy night in Frisco and Simmons went 16-9 against his old team after that.

Which brings us to Ray Culp. Things get murky here. Culp started on Aug. 15 against the wretched Mets. Pitched one inning, three hits, one run. Faced two hitters in the second inning before Mauch yanked him. Phillies won, 8-1.

Poof. Mauch made Culp vanish. Told some people Culp had a sore elbow. Told others that Culp "didn't want the ball." Told me, in a rare moment alone, that he had once handed the Texas righthander two tranquilizers before a start. Told Culp they were aspirin that would ease the postgame soreness.

I never used the quote, partly because I didn't believe Mauch and saw it as a trap. I use it, he denies saying it, threatens to sue for defamation, settles for getting me off the baseball beat.

You didn't have to be paranoid to deal with Mauch, but it helped.

That pretty much covers the available starters except for Rick Wise, who was 19, and Mauch wasn't going to send a teenager out there with the pennant jiggling in the balance.

He fell in and out of love with his bullpen warriors. Did something to Baldschun I'd never seen before and haven't seen since. Late innings, tight game, if Baldschun fell behind in the count, 2-1 or 3-1, here came Mauch storming out of the dugout, smoke billowing from his ears. He'd yank the ball from Baldschun and hand it to Roebuck or Locke or Shantz.

Mauch didn't believe in building confidence, he devoutly believed in getting to 95 wins.

He was cunning and devious and he didn't save his wizardry for pitchers. Allen hit .318 that year with 29 homers and 91 RBI. Led the league with 13 triples.

Was batting cleanup in that game in L.A. that lasted 16 innings. Fourteenth inning, tie game, Callison on first, nobody out, Mauch had Allen bunt! Did I mention that Allen was leading the league with 13 triples?

Mauch often played small ball early. "You'd be surprised," he would lecture, "how often you play for one and wind up with three."

A surprised Allen bunted Callison to second. The pitcher's spot was next, thanks to one of Mauch's trademark double switches. Bobby Wine, who was hitting .209 and hadn't been to the plate in 12 days, pinch-hit.

Callison got picked off, Wine flied out, the game trudged on until Davis stole home against Steevens, who was pitching in his first big-league game that season.

How did Mauch handle the 10-game losing streak? With tranquillity at first. Then he challenged his players, babbling about how if someone is robbing you, you might want to slug him. His players sneered at the idea that a fistfight would stop the free-fall.

Then his sarcastic side emerged. Some players grumbled at Mauch's micromanaging. Wes Covington grumbled loudest. "He pops off," Mauch countered, "and then he pops up!"

Just to prove '64 was no fluke, Mauch took two other teams to the doorstep of a World Series and toppled backward. Sure, the Phillies won their final two games against the Reds. But the Cardinals beat the wretched Mets on the last day to win the pennant.

Then Bob Gibson beat the Yankees and won the World Series. It was Gibson who once scowled at catcher Tim McCarver as he approached the mound. "The only thing you know about pitching," Gibson grumbled, "is that you can't hit it."

Maybe that was one of Mauch's problems, maybe that's what cost the Phillies a pennant they had in their sweaty grasp 50 years ago, 6 1/2 in front, 12 to play.

More '64: Cookie Rojas remembers.

Email Stan Hochman at  stanrhoch@comcast.net

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