Sunday, March 23, 2014

Fifty Years Ago: Introducing the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies (First in a Series)

2014 is the 50th season since the Philadelphia Phillies' remarkable run for the pennant in 1964, which ended with perhaps the most colossal, calamitous collapse in baseball history. Even fans beyond a certain age, especially in the City of Brotherly Love, know the sordid story about the Phillies' blowing a 6-1/2 game lead with only 12 games left on the schedule.  This is the first of a series of Insights this season--which will be occasional until September, when the pace of my '64 Phillies posts will pick up dramatically--reconstructing what happened with, and ultimately to, the 1964 Phillies.

Fifty Years Ago:  Introducing the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies (First in a Series)

The Sports Illustrated issue previewing the 1964 season was explicit in saying (in its segment on the defending 1963 World Champion Dodgers) that "there are six teams with a good shot at the National League pennant this year."  One of those teams was the Philadelphia Phillies, who were showing promise for the first time in more than a decade of being competitive again.

With the exception of the St. Louis Browns (before they became the Baltimore Orioles), the Phillies entering that season had the sorriest team history in major league baseball.  They won their first pennant in 1915 and were summarily dispatched in the World Series in five games by the Red Sox.  They then did not win another pennant until 1950, when the "Whiz Kids" ambushed the powerful Brooklyn Dodgers to seize the National League pennant, their reward for which was being swept in the World Series by the Yankees.  In the 35 years in between, the Phillies finished last or next to last 24 times, including one stretch of 13 straight years as one of the two worst teams in the league. The 1950 Whiz Kids quickly proved to be one-year wonders; the Phillies were a middle-of-the-pack team for most of the rest of the decade and finished up the pre-expansion modern history of the National League with four consecutive eighth (that would be last)-place finishes.  In 1961, the last year before expansion, the Phillies lost 107 games.

But the future was already looking brighter.  The Phillies went from 47 wins in 1961 to 81 in 1962. Even accounting for NL expansion adding two teams--the Mets and Astros (then known as the Colt .45s)--against which Philadelphia won 31 games, accounting for 38 percent of their total wins; the truly awful Cubs also playing like an expansion team; and the schedule increasing from 154 to 162 games, 34 more victories in a single season is a fairly significant marker of improvement.  In 1963, the Phillies not only further improved to 87 wins to finish fourth, but from the beginning of July till the end of the season had the third-best record of the twenty teams in major league baseball; only the two pennant-winners--the Yankees and Dodgers--played better than the Phillies after July 1. Furthermore, Philadelphia made a statement by getting the best of the Dodgers in their season series, winning 11 of 18 games.  Still, with the Dodgers and Giants dominating the league, and the Cincinnati Reds a dangerous team, it did not seem likely the Phillies would make a serious run for the pennant in 1964.

Two significant management changes had helped the Phillies dramatically change direction from their decline to mediocrity and doormat of the National League after their Whiz Kids year.  In the dugout, the guiding mind belonged to Gene Mauch.  A seldom-used utility infielder for six different teams during a nine-year major league playing career, Mauch spent his time on the bench observing and mastering the art of the game. As a manager, Mauch was carefully cultivating the image of a brilliant baseball strategist and tactician always out-thinking whoever was in the dugout for the other team.  His intensity level, however, could sometimes be counterproductive.      

It was the arrival of John Quinn to be General Manager in 1959, however, that arguably did the most to change the toxic competitive environment that enveloped Connie Mack Stadium.  Quinn had been the architect of the Milwaukee Braves teams that were a National League power in the second half of the 1950s, in part because of their willingness to sign and promote promising black players--most notably one Mr. Hank Aaron.  Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the Phillies--who had viciously persecuted Jackie Robinson in his rookie season--were the very last major league team to sign a black player for their minor league system (in 1955), and were the last National League team to integrate at the big league level in 1957.  Being the last bastion of segregation in the National League was certainly not helpful to their competitiveness.

Just as his investment in black players paid off for Milwaukee with back-to-back pennants in 1957 and 1958, the same would be true in 1964 when the Phillies unexpectedly competed for the pennant with five black players in key roles.  This by itself would have been a terrific story, given Philadelphia's noxious history on the integration front, had it not been for the team's epic collapse in the last two weeks of the season.  In 1960 and 1961, Quinn traded for second baseman Tony Taylor and outfielders Tony Gonzalez and Wes Covington; in 1961 he promoted Ruben Amaro to play shortstop; and in 1964, Dick Allen (then known as "Richie")--originally signed by the Quinn regime in 1960--was named the Phillies' starting third baseman from day one.  SI was sufficiently impressed in its 1964 preview issue to posit that Allen could "be the top-hitting rookie in the major leagues this season."

In addition to his trades for Taylor, Gonzalez and Covington, Quinn pulled one over on the White Sox in December of 1959 by surrendering third baseman Gene Freese to Chicago, a team that had been struggling to fill that position since the end of the Second World War, in a trade for Johnny Callison, a promising 20-year old outfield prospect with limited big league experience. Callison broke into the Phillies' starting line-up for good in August 1960 and by now was one of the best young outfielders in baseball.  In 1963, Callison had the third-highest player value for a position player in the major leagues (after Mays and Aaron) as measured by wins above replacement.  The SI preview projected Callison to be the "hitting star" of the team, and they were right about that, even though it would be Dick Allen who was the Phillies' dominant hitter that year. Johnny Callison played in every game for the 1964 Phillies and, with 31 home runs, 104 RBI, and a .274 batting average, would likely have been voted the league MVP were it not for Philadelphia's almost incomprehensible implosion.

But the biggest impact trade made by John Quinn was in December 1963 with the Detroit Tigers for Jim Bunning.  Perhaps after his 12-13 record with a relatively high ERA of 3.88 in 1963, the Tigers may have thought the 31-year old right-hander had begun sliding down the slope of the far side of his career.  Bunning, however, had been one of the American League's best pitchers since winning 20 games in his first full season in the big leagues in 1957.  He had won 118 games while losing 87 for the Tigers, who were mostly not competitive in his years with the team.  Noting his exceptional performances in All-Star games against the National League's best hitters, SI predicted that "Bunning will be tough the first time around the league and should help the Phils get off to a good start."  They were right about that, too: Jim Bunning was 8-2 with six complete games, three shutouts (including a perfect game against the Mets on Father's Day), and a 2.17 ERA in his first 16 starts for the Phillies through the end of June.  Philadelphia began July only half-a-game back of San Francisco in what looked at the time to be shaping up as a two-team race.

With a strong starting rotation that included more than Jim Bunning--SI projected southpaw Dennis Bennett and right-hander Art Mahaffey to win 35 games between then; Dick Allen and Johnny Callison in the batting order; better than average hitting and speed; and speculating that the outfield might be shored up "by a late trade," Sports Illustrated concluded, whether objectively or optimistically:  "This could bring the start of a winning tradition to Philadelphia."

Stay tuned to this blog for continuing posts through the current baseball season on what happened, and why, to the Philadelphia Phillies of fifty years ago.

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