Saturday, September 20, 2014

Epic Collapse: Sept. 21, 1964--Bunting Dick Allen ... Bunting Dick Allen?

When the Phillies took the field against the second-place Cincinnati Reds at home in Connie Mack Stadium on September 21, they held a comfortable 6-1/2 game lead in the standings with 12 remaining. They lost 1-0, victimized for the second time in three days by the winning run against them scoring on a steal of home plate. All accounts of this game mention that both managers--Gene Mauch and Dick Sisler of the Reds--were shocked (shocked!) that Chico Ruiz stole home with Frank Robinson (Frank Robinson!), one of baseball's most accomplished and feared batsmen, at the plate. What they don't mention is that the Phillies' best chance for a run came in the very first inning with a runner on first and nobody out--and Mauch chose to have Dick Allen, his most dangerous and productive hitter, lay down a sacrifice bunt (Dick Allen! Bunt!?!) instead of trying to drive in the run.

Sept. 21, 1964: Bunting Dick Allen ... Bunting Dick Allen?

After Art Mahaffey, back in the starting rotation, retired the Reds in the top of the first, Tony Gonzalez led off for the Phillies with a single, bringing up Dick (then known as "Richie") Allen. As discussed in a previous post (see link at the end of this article), Allen was back to hitting second in Mauch's batting order against right-handed starting pitchers instead of in a power slot. The Phillies had all 27 outs remaining, but rather than have Allen hit away with the possibility of setting up a big first inning, Mauch asked him to lay down a sacrifice bunt. If Allen had failed to advance the runner by swinging away, Mauch would still have had two outs left in the inning (or there might have been a double play), and still eight more innings to go.  Allen's sacrifice was good, but Gonzalez wound up stranded on third--the closest any Phillie would come to scoring all evening.

This was actually the second time in three days that Mauch called for Allen to sacrifice himself for the Phillies' cause rather than use his most potent weapon in the way the baseball gods intended. In that 16-inning loss to the Dodgers on September 19 (see the previous post in this series, "Sending a Rook to do a Vet's Job"), the Phillies had the opportunity to win the game in the 14th inning when Johnny Callison led off with a single and Dick Allen--batting clean-up that day because a lefty started--was next up to bat. After Allen was the pitcher's spot (the result of an earlier double-switch). And, this being a long game in which he had already used seven position players off the bench, Mauch had limited options for a pinch hitter.  Specifically,he had the light-hitting Bobby Wine, who was batting .209 with only 4 home runs and 33 RBI and hadn't played in five days except in the field as a defensive replacement at shortstop.

In his three most recent previous trips to the plate in the game, Allen had two singles and been intentionally walked. Notwithstanding that it was the 14th inning in a tie game and knowing that Wine was to bat next, Mauch opted to play for one run rather than let the most dangerous batter in his line-up hit away with the possibility of driving in the could-be winning run. Allen was successful in his sacrifice attempt but that left Mauch with only two outs to work with and two weak hitters--Wine, followed by .238-hitting catcher Clay Dalrymple--to try to drive in Callison from second base. Trying to get a good jump, Callison was picked off. Wine flied out. The Phillies failed to score. And Willie Davis ultimately stole home on Morrie Steevens.

With Dick Allen on his way to 201 hits--29 of them home runs--an OPS of .939 (fifth best in the league) and 352 total bases, more than anyone else in the league (Willie Mays had 351), Mauch's decision to have him lay down a sacrifice bunt is open to legitimate question. Few other managers used their most powerful hitters to lay one down for lesser lights to try to drive the runner home. The two best hitters in the Phillies' lineup--Allen and Callison--who hit a combined total of 60 home runs in 1964--both laid down, during the course of the season, six sacrifice bunts with nobody out  to move a base runner into scoring position. In calling for them to do so in the interest of playing for one run, Mauch gave up as outs his two most likely batters to drive in runs. Of the NL's other premier hitters who also hit for power, Mays had one sac bunt for the Giants in 1964, Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey none; Frank Robinson did not have a sacrifice all year for the Reds; neither did Ken Boyer for the Cardinals; nor did Hank Aaron or Eddie Mathews for the Braves.

It is worth considering that Dick Allen batted .464 with runners on base during the 17 days of their epic collapse (dating back to Bunning's first start on short rest in Houston).  .464!  Had Allen been allowed to swing away in either of those plate appearances against the Dodgers and Reds, the outcome of either game, or of both games, might have been different. One more win at that point in the season, with so few games remaining, might have been all it would have taken to permanently deflate the hopes of the Reds and Cardinals before they began their surge upward.

Following their dispiriting 1-0 loss on September 21, Chris Short was roughed up the next day and the Reds completed a three-game sweep the day after that.  Of no small significance, Jim Bunning's regular turn in the rotation would have had him start the first game of this series, but because of Mauch's decision to start him on short rest in Houston when there was no compelling pennant-race reason for doing so (other than setting up Bunning to start Game 1 of the World Series, as I argued in a previous post), Bunning did not pitch against Cincinnati.

The failure to take even one game from the Reds (at home) cost the Phillies three games in the standings in three days. Had the Phillies won even just one, they would have had a 5-1/2 game lead over Cincinnati and been six ahead of both St. Louis and San Francisco. Instead, the Reds were now 3-1/2 games out, the Cardinals and Giants five back. With nine games remaining, it still seemed time was on Philadelphia's side. But the end of the season could not come soon enough.

See also, (August 7): Where Should Dick Allen Have Hit?: http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2014/08/august-7-64-phillies-continued-where.html

and (June 29): Mauch Loved to Sacrifice:  http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2014/06/50-years-ago-64-phillies-mauch-loved-to.html





Friday, September 19, 2014

Epic Collapse: September 20--The '64 Phillies Face the Perfect Storm

When the Phillies boarded their plane to return to Philadelphia for their final homestand of the season after Bunning, back on three days of rest, beat the Dodgers 3-2 on September 20, they had a 6-1/2 game lead over both the Reds and the Cardinals and were seven games ahead of the Giants. With twelve games remaining, it would take a nearly perfect storm for the Phillies not to win the pennant. As fate would have it, the remaining schedule conspired to make that perfect storm plausible.

The '64 Phillies Face the Perfect Storm

We are now where most accounts of the '64 Phillies' historic collapse begin. When the Phillies took the field at home against the Reds on September 21, their lead was so strong that even if the Reds or Cardinals won all of their remaining games, the Phillies needed to win only seven of their last twelve to win the pennant outright. If the Cardinals or Reds won 10 of their last 13 games--which, in fact, St. Louis did--the Phillies could have finished the season 4-8 and still gone to the World Series.

Despite their long-shot chances, the remaining schedule favored both Cincinnati and St. Louis. The Reds had five of their 13 games remaining against the Phillies and the Cardinals had three left against them, giving both teams the opportunity to make up significant ground against the first-place team they had to overtake. Also playing in the Cards' and Reds' favor: Cincinnati had five games against the awful Mets and three against the sixth-place Pirates, who were 10-8 so far in September, and St. Louis had five games each against both those teams. The Giants, who really should not have been in the discussion at this point as any combination of six Phillies' wins or six losses of their own would eliminate them from contention, had the advantage of playing all 12 of their remaining games against the eighth-place Cubs and ninth-place Colts.

The Phillies, however, did not have any of the National League's worst teams on their remaining schedule. In eight of their final twelve games they had to contend against their two closest competitors--the Reds and Cardinals--meaning they would lose ground in any game they lost. And Philadelphia's four other games were against the Milwaukee Braves, who may have been in fifth place but whose potent line-up was well able to do serious damage to Mauch's worn out pitching staff. With Ray Culp out of action with his painful elbow and Dennis Bennett pitching against a painful shoulder ... and with Art Mahaffey having for the most part struggled in his starts since the beginning of August ... and with Rick Wise just turned 19 years old and failing to pitch beyond the first inning in either of his last two starts ... Jim Bunning and Chris Short were the only pitchers Mauch had faith in.

Philadelphia was scheduled to close the season with three games in St. Louis and two in Cincinnati. But at this point, the dawn of play on September 21, the pennant chances were dim for both those teams, and Mauch had reason to hope--even to expect--that neither would be a pennant threat by then.

To put their remaining schedules in a different perspective: even including the first-place Phillies as their opponents, the Reds and Cardinals were playing teams with a combined .483 winning percentage, while the Phillies were going against teams (the Reds, Braves and Cardinals) with a combined winning percentage of .544--a very significant difference. (The Cubs and Colts, whom the Giants were up against, had a combined .433 winning percentage.) Philadelphia had a far tougher schedule, but still ... a 6-1/2 game lead with only 12 remaining should have been safe, almost impossible to lose. And the Phillies seemed to have the advantage of the first seven of their final games being at home.

With a 46-28 record at Connie Mack Stadium, the Phillies at this point had the best home record in the National League. Their first three games were against the Reds, who really needed to sweep the series to have any realistic chance to catch the Phillies. While there was nothing at the moment the Phillies could do about the Cardinals and Giants, just one win in the three games would leave the Reds 5-1/2 back--a gap that would be virtually impossible for Cincinnati to close with only 10 games left after that. How important would just one win at home against Cincinnati have been? Even if the Cardinals swept their upcoming two-game series against the Mets in New York, one Phillies win against the Reds would have left St. Louis five behind with 11 remaining, and with not very much hope.

But for a perfect storm ...




Thursday, September 18, 2014

Epic Collapse: Sept. 19, 1964--Sending a Rook to do a Vet's Job

After Bobby Shantz's brilliant 7.2 innings of relief to salvage Rick Wise's start on September 17, the 1964 Phillies' unraveling began the next two days with consecutive   4-3 losses in Los Angeles, the second of which was a 16-inning affair that ended on a walk-off steal of home plate with a rookie reliever just called in to make his very first major league appearance of the season. That outcome was the unanticipated (and certainly unintended) consequence of manager Gene Mauch using, in effect, two pitchers in one start just two days before, which made Shantz unavailable when he was badly needed to try to get the Phillies out of the 16th inning.   

Sept. 19, 1964:  Sending a Rook to do a Vet's Job

The Shantz victory in relief of Wise had boosted Philadelphia's lead to 6-1/2 games over second-place St. Louis. In third and fourth place were Cincinnati, 7-1/2 behind, and San Francisco, eight back. The next day--September 18--Chris Short, starting on normal rest, took a 3-0 lead into the last of the seventh, but surrendered a three-run home run to Frank Howard (still not the "Capital" Punisher, he having yet to play for Washington). The Dodgers went on to win, 4-3, on a walk-off two-out single off Phillies' relief ace Jack Baldschun.

Baldschun was back on the mound, out of the bullpen, the following day in the 16th inning of a game tied at 3-3. Having already worked two innings in the game, and six innings in the previous four days, Baldschun retired the first two Dodgers to bat as the game went past 5 hours, but then gave up a single to Willie Davis, intentionally walked Tommy Davis after Willie stole second, and unleashed a wild pitch that advanced Willie Davis to third.  The left-handed batting Ron Fairly, 2-for-4 on the day (having entered the game defensively in the eighth inning), was at the plate.

With the winning run now on third base, but with two outs, Mauch chose this moment to replace his relief ace with rookie southpaw Morrie Steevens, who was not only pitching in his first major league game of the season but had only 12 appearances in the Big Time before this. Mauch had only one other left-handed option available--the crafty veteran Bobby Shantz. But having pitched 7.2 innings two days before in first-inning relief of Rick Wise, Shantz was not sufficiently rested, apparently not even to face one batter to get the one out needed to end the inning.  Of course, that would have meant somebody on the Phillies having to pitch the seventeenth inning. But, remember, the Phillies still had a 6-game lead (even after the previous day's loss) with 13 games to go, pending the outcome of this one.

Instead of staying with Baldschun to get one more out to escape the inning, Mauch went with Steevens. To recap: there were two out and the would-be winning run edged off third in the person of Willie Davis. As a left-hander, whether pitching from the stretch or a full windup, Steevens on his delivery would have had his back to the runner at third. Steevens was apparently so focused on Fairly, as well he should have been, that he was inattentive to Davis, which he should not have been.  Willie Davis took advantage and stole home, scoring the winning run.

The Phillies' lead was now 5-1/2 games--large enough that it would still take a perfect storm for them not to win the pennant, and that is the subject of my next post.



Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Epic Collapse: Sept. 17, 1964--Quick Hook, Unintended Consequences

The Phillies lost Bunning's first game on short rest, but won the next day in the first of four games in LA, beating Don Drysdale, against whom Bunning would have pitched on normal rest.  The win bumped their lead up to 6-1/2 games with 15 remaining, but manager Gene Mauch made another pitching decision that would have unanticipated bad consequences down the road: burning two pitchers in one start at a time when his starting rotation was hurt by injuries to Ray Culp and Dennis Bennett and his team had a comfortable lead in the standings.

Sept. 17, 1964--Quick Hook, Unintended Consequences

It was Art Mahaffey's turn to take the mound, but his two previous starts had gone badly. Mahaffey had given up three runs while getting only two outs in the first inning before being summarily removed by Mauch against these very same Dodgers in a 3-2 loss in Philadelphia on September 8, and lasted only two innings (giving up two runs) in his next start on September 12 in a 9-1 loss to the Giants in San Francisco.

Having lost confidence in Mahaffey, Mauch decided to start rookie Rick Wise in his stead in the first of a four-game series in Los Angeles. Having turned all of 19 just days before, Wise was making only the eighth start of his career. In August, Wise had pitched effectively into the eighth inning in back-to-back starts, but he had not pitched well in his two previous starts.  In his most recent start, ten days earlier in Philadelphia against these same Dodgers, Mauch yanked him out after he surrendered two walks and a single to the first three batters he faced; all three scored as Wise's successors on the mound had to get all of the requisite 27 outs.

So here was Wise again against the Dodgers, and he already had a 3-0 lead when he took the mound for the bottom of the first, but his day began much the same as his last start. Two singles, a walk and ground out resulting in two runs convinced Mauch he had seen enough of the young rookie. With left-handed batters Johnny Roseboro and Ron Fairly up next for LA, Mauch called on veteran southpaw Bobby Shantz to get out of the inning rather than let Wise try to work his way out of trouble and see if he might settle down. Managing every game to win, it appears not to have mattered to Mauch that he had a depleted starting rotation, but also still the lead in the game and a six-game lead in the middle of the final month that had most people thinking--1964 World Series in Philadelphia.

It seemed like a brilliant move at the time. Shantz pitched into the eighth inning and gave up only one run of his own while the Phillies held on for the win. However, with Bunning and Chris Short his only two healthy starting pitchers, Mauch had no pitchers to spare. Instead of showing commitment to the decision he made to start a young rookie in a late-season game during a pennant drive, Mauch replaced him in the very first inning--in effect, using two pitchers in one "starting role" that day.

The unintended bad consequence was that Bobby Shantz, who faced 25 batters in relief of Wise, was unavailable to pitch in dire circumstances two days later--the subject of my next post on the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies.



Sunday, September 14, 2014

Epic Collapse of the '64 Phillies (Sept 16): Was Mauch's Greatest Blunder Looking Ahead to the World Series?

The standard narrative of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies' epic collapse always begins on September 21, when the Phillies had a seemingly safe 6-1/2 game lead with only 12 remaining on their schedule. On that day began a 10-game losing streak that famously included  manager Gene Mauch starting his two best pitchers--Jim Bunning and Chris Short--twice each on only two days of rest in desperation to salvage the pennant. This Insight makes the case that the unraveling actually began five days earlier--on September 16 in Houston--when Mauch decided to start Bunning for the first time on short rest, a decision the Baseball Prospectus pennant race book, It Ain't Over 'Til Its Over, calls "inexplicable." An examination of the calendar suggests Mauch's decision was hardly that. It seems quite likely instead that he was trying to line up Bunning, his ace, to start Game 1 of the World Series that seemed a certainty to include Philadelphia as the National League participant.

Was Mauch's Greatest Blunder Looking Ahead to the World Series?

At the start of day on September 16, 1964, the Phillies had a six-game lead over the second-place Cardinals with only 17 games remaining; the Giants were 7-1/2 games back and the Reds 8-1/2 back. Despite such a commanding lead, manager Gene Mauch made his biggest strategic blunder of the season: he decided to start Jim Bunning, his ace, in Houston on only two days' rest. But why? The ninth-place Colts (as the team in Houston was than called) were certainly not contenders. Moreover, in his previous start--just three days before--Bunning had pitched and won a 10-inning complete game. Pitch counts were not much (if at all) in managers' minds back then and were not recorded for posterity, but clearly with nine strikeouts and having surrendered two walks and seven hits, Bunning threw well over 100 pitches in his 10-inning effort. So, why?

A look at the calendar suggests that the most plausible reason is that Mauch was trying to set up Bunning--whose record was now 17-4 with an excellent 2.13 ERA--to start the first game of the World Series, for which the Phillies were beginning to print tickets, scheduled to start on Wednesday, October 7. Ironically, Bunning would have been perfectly lined up to start the World Series by making his last five regular-season starts on normal rest except for one thing: a quirk of the schedule had the Phillies and Reds concluding the season in Cincinnati with games on Friday, October 2, and Sunday, October 4, but with an off-day on Saturday, between the two games.

This scheduling presented Mauch with a fraught dilemma. If Bunning continued to pitch on his normal schedule--every fourth day, which was the standard at the time--his last start before the World Series would have been on Tuesday, September 29, giving him a full week off before the Fall Classic began. Starting pitchers establish a rhythm for pitching during the season, and Mauch probably assumed (rightly) that seven days between starts was too long for a workhorse like Bunning, who might lose his edge with so much downtime.

Mauch could have decided to pitch his ace every fifth day for the rest of the season, which would have had Bunning making his final start on Friday, October 2, giving him another four days of rest before taking the mound for Game 1 of the Series. But this would not have been a viable solution for Mauch even if he had been willing to buck the then-conventional practice of three days of rest between starts for top pitchers. With Ray Culp out because of his chronically sore elbow and Dennis Bennett pitching in pain with a bad shoulder, Mauch really had no option to go to a five-man rotation until the start of the World Series.

Instead, if this analysis is correct, Mauch appears to have decided that keeping to the rhythm of three days between starts was preferable and took the gamble of starting Bunning--presumably just this once--on short rest against a very bad team in order to set him up to have proper rest before his final start of the regular season, which would now be on Friday, October 2. That would have given Bunning an extra fourth day off before pitching in Game 1 of the World Series.

At least, that seems likely to have been the plan. With such a comfortable lead, what could go wrong?

It probably didn't matter to Mauch that Bunning on short rest surrendered six runs to the Colts in less than five innings. But the decision ultimately had huge implications for the Phillies' historic unraveling of 1964. For one thing, it meant Bunning was no longer in line to pitch in any of the three games from September 21 to 23 when the Reds came to town; of course, with 8-1/2 games separating the two teams on September 16, who would think any of those games would be important ... but, the Cincinnati Reds were still in play in the pennant chase--even if with virtually no margin to spare.

For an earlier post on the Phillies' pitching problems, see "Pitching Problems on the Horizon" (May 29); http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2014/05/back-to-64-phillies-pitching-problems.html

The following is a link to the previous post in this series on the 1964 Phillies, which includes links to those before that: http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2014/09/the-64-phillies-and-whiz-kids-precedent.html




Monday, September 8, 2014

How Major League Owners Justified Opposition to Integration in 1946

Sixty-eight years ago, even as Jackie Robinson was clearly demonstrating he belonged in the major leagues while playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate in Montreal, major league owners marshaled the same argument expressed in an internal e-mail by the owner of the NBA Atlanta Hawks--that black fans at his arena were hurting his team's bottom line--to oppose the integration of major league baseball. 

How Major League Owners Justified Opposition to Integration in 1946

The owner of the Atlanta Hawks has decided to sell his controlling stake of the NBA team because of the terrible optic from an e-mail to his general manager in which he complained that the Hawks were drawing an "overwhelmingly black audience" and that black crowds "scared away whites" from buying ticket-packages, to the financial detriment of the franchise. The same sentiment was expressed as the primary reason for opposing integration  in a consensus report delivered to Commissioner Albert "Happy" Chandler in August 1946 by major league club owners, who were universally against Branch Rickey's decision to integrate the Brooklyn Dodgers, although there may have been one or two who were privately open-minded but not willing to take any lead in bucking the segregationist history of the major league game.

The junior Senator from Kentucky, who would have been up for re-election to his Senate seat in 1946, Chandler had been elected Baseball Commissioner as a dark horse candidate in a contentious vote of owners in April 1945, five months after the death of Kenesaw Mountain Landis (who most assuredly did not support the idea of integrating the major leagues, even if there was supposedly no official policy). Chandler did not, however, assume full-time the burdens of being Commissioner until finally resigning from the Senate in November 1945, meaning he was still quite new on the job when a subcommittee of owners that included the presidents and two franchise owners in each league presented him with their report addressing the fundamental issues facing Major League Baseball.

Best known as "The MacPhail Report" for its principal author, Larry MacPhail, who was part of the new ownership group of the New York Yankees, the committee tackled head-on the "people who charge that baseball is flying a Jim Crow flag at its masthead--or think that racial discrimination is the basic reason for failure of the major leagues to give employment to Negroes" by accusing them of "simply talking through their collective hats." In addressing the "Race Question" the report set as its foundation premise that "professional baseball is a private business enterprise [that] depends on profits for its existence, just like any other business."

Written in the same summer that Jackie Robinson was tearing up the International League with 40 stolen bases, 113 runs scored and an ultimately league-leading .349 batting average, the report observed that there was a tremendous increase in black attendance at all the games in which he played, and that in two Triple-A cities--Newark and Baltimore--blacks accounted for more than half the attendance when Robinson's team, the Montreal Royals, came to town. As paying customers, they were surely contributing to club coffers, but the MacPhail Report warned that such levels of black attendance in ballparks such as Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds in New York City and Comiskey Park in Chicago "could conceivably threaten the value of the Major League franchises owned by these Clubs." The report did not specify Ebbets Field, which all concerned certainly knew was Jackie's ultimate destination.

Once that very pregnant point was made--and it was certainly one that motivated the Yankees well into the integration era--the MacPhail Report went on to assert that if the best black players left to play in the major leagues, then the "Negro leagues will eventually fold up" and, back to the issue of money, major league teams would lose out on substantial revenue from renting out their stadiums to Negro League teams featuring star players. All of this, the drafting committee concluded, "is not racial discrimination." Instead, "it's simply respecting the contractual relationship between the Negro leagues and their players."

The MacPhail Report made no specific recommendations, but went "on record" asserting that the problem "vitally affects each and every one of us" and that any "fair and just solution" should be compatible "with good business judgment and the principles of good sportsmanship." Notwithstanding his fellow owners' concerns about the presumed negative financial impact on "each and every one of us," Branch Rickey did not hesitate to promote Jackie Robinson to the major leagues the next year.

The rest is history, and history certainly bears out not only that Branch Rickey was on the right side of a fundamentally moral issue, but that the "bad for business" argument that was the centerpiece justification for opposing integration was not just wrong, it was cynical and bogus. Attendance did not suffer as more teams began to integrate, except insofar as competitiveness--or lack thereof--was concerned. From the end of World War II until 1952, the American League attracted more fans to their ballparks than the National League every year except for in Jackie's rookie season of 1947. But beginning in 1953, with its greater preponderance of black stars, the National League outpaced the junior circuit in attendance every year until 1977 with the exceptions of only 1955 and 1961 (when the AL expanded to ten teams while the NL remained at eight).

The MacPhail Report singled out the Giants, Yankees and White Sox as franchises whose value might decline if integration resulted in a boost of blacks in attendance at their stadiums, presumably causing many white fans to stay away. The Giants and White Sox were both early to integrate, became much better teams on the field of play and did not suffer at the gate. The figures show that the cardinal determinant in attendance fluctuations was competitiveness, as well as the increasing physical deterioration of stadiums approaching fifty years old and with limited parking options at a time when Americans were falling in love with their cars and suburban lifestyles. Similarly, the Yankees' attendance did not suffer after they integrated with Elston Howard in 1955 or because they had Howard, Hector Lopez and Al Downing as key players when they were winning pennants in the early 1960s. Not until the Yankees plunged into the depths of the second division in the second half of the 1960s did their attendance plunge as well.

See the following related post from last year: "More Reflections on '42': The Moral Failure of AL Patriarchs.
http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2013/04/more-reflections-on-42-moral-failure-of.html

Monday, September 1, 2014

The '64 Phillies and the Whiz Kids Precedent: Beware the Big Mid-September Lead

The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies are, of course, famous for blowing a 6-1/2 game lead with only 12 games remaining. Fourteen years earlier, the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies--known as the "Whiz Kids" because of their relative youth and inexperience at the big league level--held an even bigger 7-1/2 game advantage with only 11 games remaining and wound up facing the prospect on the final day of the season of squandering the entirety of that lead. 

The '64 Phillies and the Whiz Kids Precedent: Beware the Big Mid-September Lead

When the 1964 season turned to September, the Philadelphia Phillies had a 5-1/2 game lead in the standings over the second-place Reds, 6-1/2 over the third-place Giants and 7 over the fourth-place Cardinals. With a 78-51 record, this was a comfortable lead that was widely assumed sufficient for them to nurse to the City of Brotherly Love's first pennant since 1950. It was not a commanding lead because they still had 33 games to play--and a lot can happen in 33 games. However, even if they went 16-17 down the stretch, the Reds would have needed to go 22-10 to beat out the Phillies. So, commanding?--perhaps not--but certainly pretty darn comfortable.

Back in 1950, the Phillies' Whiz Kids had a similarly comfortable lead when they began the month of September, up by six games over the defending NL-champion Brooklyn Dodgers. They were the surprise team in major league baseball. After having finished a distant third in 1949, the Phillies were no longer a team that for most of three decades was the doormat of the National League. But neither were they assumed to be ready to compete with the powerhouse Dodgers, or even the Cardinals or Braves, for top of the heap. What the '50 Phillies had was the best pitching in the league--paced by 23-year-old Robin Roberts in only his third season, 21-year-old Curt Simmons also in his third season and Jim Konstanty in the bullpen--and a core of youthful gamers, including 23-year-old center fielder Richie Ashburn (a future Hall of Fame guy) in his third season; 23-year-old Granny Hamner in his third season at shortstop; 24-year-old third baseman Willie Jones in only his second full season; and power-hitting right fielder Del Ennis, who was only 25 but an established big league veteran with five years on his resume.

Having just completed a 20-8 month of August that seemed to have broken open the pennant race, the '50 Phillies with a 78-47 record had 29 games remaining. Their 6-1/2 game advantage at the start of September may not have been commanding, but it should have been reasonably comfortable. The Dodgers, however, owing to rainouts earlier in the season, still had 35 games left to play and--with the likes of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo--a far more formidable team. Making a statement that this thing ain't over yet, the Dodgers came into town for four games on September 6 and won the first three, which extended a Phillies losing streak to five games--equaling their longest of the season to that point. Still, after salvaging the final game of the series, Philadelphia's lead in the standings had diminished by only half-a-game since the start of the month. And the Phillies won five of their next six to up their lead to 7-1/2 games--their largest margin of the season, with time rapidly running out on Brooklyn.

The Phillies' lead was still 7-1/2 games over both the Dodgers and the Braves after they beat the Cubs on September 20. With only 11 games left on their schedule, now their lead did seem commanding if not outright secure. But four of their remaining games were against Brooklyn, three against Boston and the other four against the New York Giants, who had the best record in the National League since the Fourth of July. And their last nine games of the season would all be on the road. Plus, the United States was again at war--this time in Korea--which called into duty the National Guard unit on which Curt Simmons served.

While Roberts posted the first of six straight 20-win seasons in 1950, the southpaw Simmons was on his own way to 20 with a 17-8 record and 3.40 earned run average when he was called into service. His three starts in September gave no indication that having already pitched over 40 innings more than his previous career high was diminishing his effectiveness; he allowed only 4 earned runs in 24 September innings--the last of which, sadly for Philadelphia--was on September 9.

 Rookie right-hander Bob Miller, who had not been a regular in the starting rotation since early August, and veteran right-hander Ken Heintzelman, who had not started a game since July, essentially took Simmons' spot in the rotation alongside Roberts (20-11 on the season), Russ Meyer (9-11) and Bubba Church (8-6) for the final weeks of the schedule. Miller lost two of his three starts after Simmons answered his call to duty, surrendering 9 earned runs in 17 innings, and Heintzelman won one and lost one of his two starts. Jim Konstanty, who at the end of the season became the first reliever in history to win the MVP on the strength of a 16-7 record and 16 saves, was overworked and ineffective as the season drew to a close. Pitching in six of the final 11 games--four times working at least 2 innings and twice at least 3--Konstanty lost twice, blew a save, allowed three of five inherited runners to score after he came in, and had a 6.23 ERA in 13 innings.

The Dodgers came into town, a two-day stand, on September 23 and 24, won both and sent the Phillies on the road with their lead down to five games. Philadelphia's first stop was Boston, where winning two of three eliminated the Braves from the pennant race. Only the Dodgers had a chance, and the Phillies played their part by losing all four of their next games in New York at the Polo Grounds.

When the Phillies came into Ebbets Field to close out the season, however, the Dodgers were the team with momentum, having won 12 of their last 15 games. But being up by two games, all the Phillies needed was one win to escape Brooklyn with the pennant. One win. In the first game, Miller failed to make it out of the fifth; Jim Konstanty in relief was ineffective; the Dodgers won; and the two teams went into the final game of the season one game apart. Should Philadelphia lose, the National League pennant would be decided in a best-of-three playoff.

Game 154 for both teams was a classic. Ten innings, both team's aces--Roberts and Don Newcombe--going the distance; Richie Ashburn cutting down the would-be walk-off winning run at the plate trying to score from second on a single up the middle in the bottom of the ninth; Dick Sisler hitting a three-run home run off Newk in the tenth to send the Phillies to their first World Series since 1915. And thus did the Phillies avert what would have been, at the time, the most epic collapse in history: losing a 7-1/2 game lead with only 11 left on the schedule. They would leave it to a later Phillies team to have that distinction.

The '50 Phillies went on to lose the Series in four straight to the Yankees, thus ending their season by losing nine of the last ten games they played (September stretch and post-season included). Despite two Hall of Famers on their roster--Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn--and their pennant, the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies were a tease. They were not in the same competitive class as the Dodgers and the up-and-coming Giants (who would add Willie Mays in 1951), and Philadelphia did not factor into any pennant race until 1964. If the Whiz Kids were going to win, 1950 was going to have to be their year. The same could be said of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies.

The remaining posts of this extended series on the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies will focus on key managerial decisions by Gene Mauch in the final weeks of September that resonate even now ... fifty years later.

The following is a link to the previous post in this series, which includes links to those before that--going back to pre-season prognostications: http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2014/08/august-7-64-phillies-continued-where.html