Friday, October 7, 2005

A Most Unusual Season – The 1964 Pennant Race

“I could see the fear in his eyes.” -- Gene Mauch

As long as we're talking about baseball...

Now that the White Sox have avoided an ignominious fate of blowing a huge divisional lead to the Indians, Gene Mauch's 1964 Philadelphia team's place in the Hall of Flops remains secure.

As World Series time rolls around, I tend to recall the olden days, when men were men and women were damn glad of it. And the Major Leagues consisted of the American League and National League, with no divisions, no funky playoffs. Two teams, the winner in each league met in the Series. No argument about who would have made it if they were in some weak-kneed division, no season running into Thanksgiving, no teams making with playoffs with .500 records. Yes, sometimes the pennant races were over by Labor Day, but more often at least one of the leagues had a barn-burner. In 1964, the National League had a remarkable race, featuring one of the most monumental collapses in sports history.

The Philadelphia Phillies had a long history of mediocrity, so it was only right that they were managed by the most spectacularly mediocre manager in baseball history: Gene Mauch. Mauch is revered as a managerial genius, having won 1902 games. Pretty good, except that he lost 2037; that's right, over 100 more losses than wins. This is a of genius? It took him 22 years to finally win a division title, but he never won a league pennant.

In '64, though, he actually did look like baseball's answer to Einstein (after finishing eighth, eighth, seventh, and fourth in his first four seasons). He was cruising through the season, with a comfortable enough lead on September 1 that he only needed to play .500 ball during the month to clinch his first league championship.

Philly's only competitors were the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds. St. Louis had already let it be known that they weren't going to rehire manager Johnny Keane after the season. The Reds were playing on emotion because of the illness of manager Fred Hutchinson, diagnosed with cancer (he died in October of that year). The Reds imploded into squabbling as September moved along, but the Cards kept plugging. And the Phillies hit the destruct button.

As the month progressed, Mauch's genius seemed to desert him as they lost game after game. Gradually the lead eroded, but with 2 weeks to go, they still held on to a 6 ½ game lead, which should have been a comfortable lead. But once Gene Mauch put his mighty intellect to the task, no lead was safe. The team proceeded to lose 10 straight games. Mauch mysteriously stopped using his best reliever as lead after lead was blown. Why? “I could see the fear in his eyes,” Mauch told a presumably stunned reporter.

Gene, if the guy can throw strikes, who cares if he's shaking like a leaf?

Thanks to such utterly brilliant insights, the Phillies ended up finishing second. And lame-duck manager Johnny Keane found himself in the World Series.

And now the story even gets a crazy postscript. The Cards, much to everyone's surprise, beat the Yankees, managed by Yogi Berra. So, after the Series, Gussie Busch swallowed his pride and prepared to announce a contract extension for Keane. It never happened because Keane handed Busch his letter of resignation first, because he had just been hired – by the Yankees! The loyal Berra had been given the boot so New York could hire a winner.

Unfortunately, for Keane, the team he inherited was over the hill with no young talent, more Bronx Bummers than Bombers. He was fired early in his second season, with a horrible losing record. Berra, meanwhile, went on to the Mets, where he won another pennant several years later. Berra ended his career where it began, coaching for the Yankees.

So Mauch is remembered as a genius while Berra and Keane's managerial careers are largely forgotten. Well, I just thought we ought to set the record straight.

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