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




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