Link between '64 riot, Phillies' collapse?

Posted: August 28, 2014

AT 9:45 on Friday night, Aug. 28, 1964, the moment that the Columbia Avenue riot started, the Phillies were minutes away from doing what they've done more times than any pro franchise in sports history: losing a baseball game, 4-2, to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field.

That year, though, everything looked different. Even with the loss the Phils were leading the National League by 6 1/2 games and about to take ticket orders for what would be the first World Series at Connie Mack Stadium in 14 years.

But when the Phillies came home that following Tuesday night to begin a homestand against the Houston Colt .45s, they realized their ballpark was now on the edge of a war zone. Fifty police officers ringed the stadium with the iconic copula at 21st and Lehigh - roughly 10 short blocks from the intersection where the worst riot in modern Philadelphia had erupted four nights earlier - and hundreds more patrolled the tense neighborhood outside.

"We were worried about a brick getting thrown through the windshield of my car," Jack Baldschun, the Phillies' closer that season, later told William Kashatus, author of September Swoon: Richie Allen, the '64 Phillies and Racial Integration.

He may have had good reason to worry. Despite the pennant chase, many blacks in North Philadelphia bore ill will against the last franchise in the National League to integrate.

One anonymous black man who took part in the 1964 mayhem on Columbia Avenue told baseball writer Gerald Early: "The only thing I regret about the riot was that we didn't burn down that goddamned stadium. . . . Its history tells me that I'm nothing but a n-----."

Instead, it was the Phillies' pennant hopes that crashed and burned that September, as a 10-game losing streak in the final 12 games of the season led to one of the most epic late-season collapses in baseball history. It's remarkable that these two low moments in Philadelphia's psyche - the riot and the losing streak - happened weeks apart, separated by just over a mile. The question lingers like the late-summer haze: Are they connected?

Much of the speculation centers on the team's rising young slugger, Dick Allen, still called "Richie" by announcers and fans. Then-rookie Allen was the Phillies' first African-American star. Did the racial tension that infected North Philadelphia and leeched often into the bleachers at Connie Mack begin to weigh on him?

Allen, now 72, comments frequently on baseball from his Twitter feed, but is loath to discuss the racial issues of his playing days, including the protests he faced when he played minor-league ball in Little Rock, Ark. In one of his few remarks on the topic, he once said that being a high-profile black player on the Phillies then "made me a threat to white people, especially since I said what was on my mind. They weren't used to a black athlete like that."

But while Allen was booed occasionally down the stretch in 1964 for miscues at third base - hey, this is Philly, after all - the statistics show he had a solid stretch drive, and was even honored four weeks after the riot with a "Richie Allen Night" sponsored by the local business community. The team's September swoon had more to do with an injury to another slugger, Frank Thomas, and manager Gene Mauch's panic move to repeatedly pitch his exhausted aces Jim Bunning and Chris Short on two days' rest.

Kashatus pointed out in an email interview that the entire team slumped at the end of 1964. While the riot cast a karmic pall over the final games at Connie Mack that season, Kashatus and other observers have said, it didn't cause the Reds' Chico Ruiz to steal home against the Phillies, the play that came to symbolize the collapse.

Race relations didn't truly bottom out at the ballpark until 1965 - the aftermath of a widely reported fight between Allen and Thomas, who reportedly had hurled racial epithets at Allen - and later. By the time he was traded at the end of the decade, Allen occasionally wore a batting helmet in the field to protect himself from fans.

In August 1965 the Phillies flew to Los Angeles to begin a series at Dodger Stadium, and the pilot announced their plane would be "forced to make a steeper than normal approach" to avoid smoke and gunfire from the riots in Watts. The unforgettable fires of the 1960s were well underway.

The loop was closed when the Phillies played their final game ever at Connie Mack on Oct. 1, 1970, and fans staged a riot of their own, ripping out seats and even restroom fixtures with plumbing tools they'd smuggled into the game. Ten months later, the abandoned ballpark - spared during the 1964 riots - was gutted by fire.

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch


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