SABR

Art Mahaffey

This article was written by Ralph Berger and Mel Marmer.

On the evening of September 21, 1964, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Art Mahaffey was pitching a gem of a baseball game. In the top of the sixth inning it was a scoreless duel in between Mahaffey and the Cincinnati Reds’ John Tsitouris at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. With two outs, 25-year-old Reds rookie Chico Ruiz on third base, and Frank Robinson batting with a one-strike count, Ruiz suddenly broke for home. The tall, right-handed Mahaffey had an unusual three-quarter-arm delivery, and was in the most vulnerable part of a full windup. He threw wide to catcher Clay Dalrymple and Ruiz scored what turned out to be the only run of the game.

Going into the game the Phillies were in first place by 6½ games with 12 games remaining in the season. The difficult loss that night began a ten-game losing streak – the greatest collapse in baseball history up to that time. (Other memorable collapses since then: The 1995 California Angels, the 2007 New York Mets, and the 2011 Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox.)

Perhaps this game epitomized the misfortunes of the two-time All-Star Mahaffey’s career: A near-masterpiece, an improbable disaster, and lots of hard luck. Forty years later, Mahaffey described his career this way: “When I was good, I was very, very good. When I was bad, I was awful.”1

He wasn’t exaggerating. Within a won-loss record of 59-64, 46 complete games, and a 4.17 career earned-run average there were some masterpieces and an equal number of other games where Mahaffey, to put it bluntly, got his lunch handed to him before he’d barely worked up a sweat. Among the masterpieces were a one-hitter, three two-hitters, two three-hitters, and half a dozen games with ten or more strikeouts, including a 17-whiff masterpiece against the Chicago Cubs on April 23, 1961. More than 50 years later that game still stood as the Phillies’ team record for strikeouts in a nine-inning game.

Arthur Mahaffey, Jr. was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 4, 1938, to Arthur and Anna Ruth (Masters) Mahaffey. (His mother was known as Ruth.) Arthur Sr. worked as an elevator installer, played sandlot baseball, and fought professionally as a teenager.2 He instilled his love of the game into his son at an early age. Art Jr. had an older sister, Barbara, and a younger sister, Lucy.3

Art Sr. had a notable ancestor. His paternal grandmother, Anabell (Boone) Mahaffey, was from Kentucky and was a direct descendant of frontiersman Daniel Boone. Her husband, James A. Mahaffey, was a college graduate who worked for the Cleveland Railway Co., and later the US Postal Service in Cleveland.4

The family was a close one, even though Art Sr. spent time away from home supervising elevator-installation projects.5 When he was home he mentored his son, and advanced his career by moving the family across town so young Art could attend Western Hills High School and benefit from the tutelage of esteemed baseball coach Paul “Pappy” Nohr. Nohr’s squads won state titles in 1948 and 1951, and ten of his protégés reached the major leagues, among them Dick Drott, Russ Nixon, Pete Rose, and Don Zimmer.6

Art began high school “as thin as a rail” at 6 feet and 140 pounds. In the summer he played American Legion baseball, pitching for the Bentley Post, managed by another local legend, Joseph Hawk, winner of five national championships, nine regional championships, and 19 state titles. Fourteen players coached by Hawk made it to the major leagues. Practices were serious business, lasting four hours a day, six days a week.7

The hometown Redlegs, the New York Yankees, and the Philadelphia Phillies all wanted to sign Art, but he nixed the Redlegs because he didn’t care for the way they handled fellow Western Hills graduate Herm Wehmeier’s career, leaving the young pitcher in games to mop up and get shellacked until he was run out of town. Mahaffey figured that the Phillies needed pitching help the most, and would provide his shortest route to the majors. Art and his father signed with Phillies scout Bruce Connatser on June 29, 1956, for a $4,000 bonus.8 The Phillies sent him to the Mattoon, Illinois, Indians of the Class D Midwest League where in ten games he compiled a 4-4 record and a mediocre ERA of 5.28. In the offseason he was one of 17 pitchers invited to the Phillies’ instructional camp in Clearwater, Florida.9

Still three months shy of his 19th birthday, on March 10, 1957, Mahaffey married Kathryn Ann “Kathy” Hollenbach, whom he had met in high school. (They had two children, a son, Michael, born in 1958, and a daughter, Judy Lynne, born in 1961.)

Art was still “all arms and legs,” and at a shade under 6-feet-2 and 160 pounds was worried that he didn’t have enough stamina be a major-league pitcher. He believed that if he gained weight his stamina would increase, so Kathy put him on an Italian pasta diet that consisted mostly of homemade manicotti, and within a year he had gained 15 pounds.

In 1957 Mahaffey was promoted to Salt Lake City of the Class C Pioneer League, where he was the third youngest pitcher on the team. Almost lost in his 9-7 record with an ERA of 4.53 were two nice stretches of pitching, in which he retired 15 batters in a row each time. Later in the season he was moved up to High Point-Thomasville of the Class B Carolina League, where he started three games and was 3-4 with an ERA of 5.62. His poor showing there was blamed on “dental problems.” Then, in the offseason, Mahaffey contracted both the mumps and the measles and lost most of the weight he’d gained.

The Phillies major-league pitching staff in 1957 was led by an aging veteran ace, Robin Roberts; an excellent but sore-armed lefty, Curt Simmons; a surprise standout, 28-year-old-rookie Jack Sanford; a veteran lefty, Harvey Haddix; and a rookie, Don Cardwell. Most of the other pitchers were either journeymen or a hard-drinking band of youngsters nicknamed the Dalton Gang by the local writers after a gang of Wild West bandits. The Phillies’ Dalton Gang consisted of Dick “Turk” Farrell, Jack Meyer, Seth Morehead, and Jim “Bear” Owens, and they were reported to be as interested in drinking and rowdy behavior as they were in pitching baseball games. Too late the Phillies management realized its error in signing athletes of poor character, and the team, under manager Mayo Smith, was stuck with discipline problems. Clean-living young men like Mahaffey, Dallas Green, and Chris Short were therefore put on the fast track to the big leagues so the Phillies could unload the problem players.

The 1958 season found Mahaffey back at High Point, where he went 5-1 with an ERA of 2.12. Promoted late in the season to Williamsport in the Class A Eastern League, he pitched in three games with no decisions before being shut down to have surgery for a sports hernia. An uneven pattern was developing.

In 1959 at Williamsport, Mahaffey was 8-0 with an ERA of just 1.67 when, on July 1, he was promoted to the Phillies’ top farm team, the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons. There he went 8-5 with an ERA of 4.42. Between Williamsport and Buffalo he posted a 12-game winning streak – eight at Williamsport and four at Buffalo. He now bore the label of a “can’t-miss” prospect and had to live up to his expected potential. At Buffalo he first met and roomed with talented left-hander Chris Short, with whom he remained a close friend until Short died in 1991. In 1960 Mahaffey was invited to spring training with the Phillies. The pitching-starved team, which had finished last in 1958 and ’59, hoped Mahaffey would make the staff but he was hit hard and was sent off to Buffalo again, where he compiled an 11-9 record with a 3.74 ERA.

Despite his uneven career to this point, Mahaffey did not lack self-confidence. After teammate Dallas Green was summoned to the major-league team in June, Mahaffey telephoned Philadelphia general manager John Quinn and asked why he was not called up instead. Quinn told him that if he pitched well, he would be called up.10 Art did, and was called up on June 21, though he did not make his major-league debut until July 30, against the Cardinals in St. Louis. Mahaffey entered the game in the seventh inning and retired the side in order.

Before the game Mahaffey had predicted that he would pick off the first batter to reach first base on him in the major leagues.Mahaffey possessed an exceptionally quick – and borderline illegal – move to first.

In the eighth inning the Cardinals’ Bill White led off with a single. Mahaffey picked him off at first base with what he termed his “shoot-from-the-hips slingshot motion” pickoff move.11 The next batter, Curt Flood, also singled and was likewise picked off. Mahaffey claimed to have nabbed 26 runners in one year in the minor leagues. Phillies right fielder Johnny Callison called his pickoff move “the best I had ever seen by a right-hander.”12

Cardinals manager Solly Hemus insisted that Mahaffey’s moves should have been called balks because he never came to a complete stop; his shoulders twitched. The umpires sided with Mahaffey. (In his career Mahaffey was called for four balks. Three of them came in April and May of 1963 when National League umpires overzealously enforced the balk rule. Mahaffey picked off 13 base runners during his career.)

Mahaffey’s next game was a start in Philadelphia on August 3, and again he picked off the first batter to reach first base on him, Jim Marshall of the San Francisco Giants, who had walked. Thus, Mahaffey had picked off the first three batters to reach base off him.

Inserted into the starting rotation that day, Mahaffey went seven innings against the San Francisco Giants, and but for a bullpen collapse he would have earned the victory. He won his second start, on August 15, and then four more games in a row against the top teams. He beat the Pirates (twice), Braves, Giants, and Cardinals, before losing 2-1 to Glen Hobbie of the Cubs, and 4-1 to Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers, then was knocked out of a game in the second inning by the Milwaukee Braves. In what would turn out to be in many ways the best season of his career, he finished with a 7-3 record and a 2.31 earned-run average in 93⅓ innings, along with the best WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of his career, 1.20.

In 1961 Mahaffey was still on the pasta diet and tipped the scales at 200 pounds. In spring training he experienced back problems, poor control, and bad luck. He missed his scheduled first start of the season because of soreness, then pitched eight innings and allowed just three hits to the San Francisco Giants in Candlestick Park but lost, 2-0, as the Giants’ Mike McCormick pitched a two-hitter.

Mahaffey missed his next scheduled start after he slipped and fell while running in the outfield. His next turn came April 23 in Philadelphia against the Chicago Cubs in the second game of a doubleheader. In the first game the Phillies’ Frank Sullivan pitched a 1-0 shutout. Sullivan said he was envisioning the nice headline he would receive in the next morning’s newspapers until Mahaffey pitched the second game.13 Art whitewashed the Cubs, too, winning 6-0, and struck out 17 Cubs, tying Dizzy Dean for the National League record of 17 strikeouts in a day game. Catcher Clay Dalrymple said Mahaffey threw all “heat,” nicely working the ball in and out, and up and down. When he tired in the eighth he went to his curve and came across his body so that the ball was difficult to pick up in the late-afternoon shadows.14

Phillies manager Gene Mauch called it the best-pitched game he had ever seen. Mauch began to start Mahaffey in the second game of an afternoon doubleheader hoping to duplicate the success. Mauch would soon be far less complimentary of Mahaffey.

Mahaffey was selected to the National League All-Star team, and pitched two hitless innings in that season’s second All-Star Game. Almost overnight, his name was mentioned with those of future immortals Drysdale, Gibson, and Koufax. Just as quickly Mahaffey went into free fall, losing six consecutive starts and ten straight games. Three came during the Phillies’ record 23-game losing streak, which began on July 29.

Once the jinx was broken (by another Phillies pitcher) on August 20, it was as if nothing, no losing streak, had ever happened. Mahaffey pitched superbly. He tossed consecutive shutouts, a one-hitter, and a three-hitter. On September 17, while shutting out the Reds at Crosley Field, Mahaffey singled in the ninth inning and while running to second base on a grounder, he was struck in the face by a ball thrown by shortstop Eddie Kasko. The ball struck him so hard that it caromed into left field. Mahaffey suffered a fractured cheekbone and a concussion. He got the victory but it was his last game of the season.

Mahaffey recovered quickly and after the season went to work as a salesman for the Foremost Kosher Beef Company. (In a few years, when his luck changed, his detractors would call him “the salami salesman.”) He also got favorable reviews in the newspapers for his bowling, and what was a potentially very serious injury was quickly forgotten.

Mahaffey’s 219 innings pitched and 11 wins led a shaky 1961 Phillies staff that won just 47 games and lost 107. Though Mahaffey led the National League with 19 losses, he was ninth in the league with 12 complete games, hurled three shutouts, and had a serviceable ERA of 4.10. In just his first full season, he had become the ace of the pitching staff, superseding future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, who was 1-10 that season.

In 1962 with an improving Phillies team, Mahaffey went 19-14. He pitched 274 innings, with a 3.94 ERA. He started 39 games and completed 20 (though that is considered good by 21st-century standards, Mahaffey was criticized for “not being able to finish games.”) Years later he said he hurt his arm early that season and “never felt right after that.”15 The day that did him in, he said, was April 14, a cold, windy Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia, when he shut out the Houston Colt .45’s, 3-0 before just 2,732 shivering fans. He allowed seven hits, struck out five, and did not walk a batter. Over his next seven starts his arm got worse. Mahaffey told the Philadelphia Inquirer he felt the need to complete games, “or else be shipped down.” He complained that the Phillies had let him down by neither advising nor caring for him properly. He criticized the lack of coaching, the lack of care for pitchers, and skimping on physical therapy, but praised Phillies trainer Frank Wiechec. Wiechec, he said, was the only person who could get rid of the pain and the “knots” in his arm. Soon Wiechec left the Phillies for a position with the University of Pittsburgh, and Mahaffey was unable to find any solution for his pain.16

Mahaffey was picked for the All-Star Game again in 1962 and replaced starter Johnny Podres on the mound in the second All-Star Game, July 30, in Wrigley Field. He was the losing pitcher, giving up home runs to Leon Wagner and Pete Runnels. For the season, Mahaffey led the National League in earned runs allowed, 130, and led the majors with 36 home runs allowed.

Mahaffey’s appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated on April 29, 1963, was the first ever for a Phillies player. A glowing story told readers, “At 24 he is nearly ready to challenge Don Drysdale of the Dodgers and Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals as the fastest pitcher in baseball.” Though folk wisdom considers appearances on the magazine’s cover to be a “curse,” Mahaffey’s career in fact was already headed on a steep downward slope.

During spring training in 1963, Phillies rookie broadcaster Richie Ashburn told Mahaffey he was tipping his pitches. “When you throw a fastball, you are winding up with your hands away from your body, and when you throw a curve, you keep your hands close to your chest,” Ashburn told him. Whether or not this was accurate, the 25-year-old Mahaffey’s fortunes began to plummet. On May 17, while the Phillies were playing at Houston, Mahaffey was visiting a doctor in Los Angeles. He had injured his shoulder in a basepath collision with Norm Larker of the Milwaukee Braves on the 11th, and the tightness in his back had returned. On July 30 Mahaffey dislocated his ankle while pitching in San Francisco. Whether because of a sore arm, some other injury, or tipping pitches, his record sank to 7-10 with a 3.99 ERA.

The Phillies had high hopes for 1964 because they had won 87 games in 1963 and had closed strongly. Four starters, Dennis Bennett (24 years old), Ray Culp (22), Chris Short (26), and Mahaffey (26), were young, good, and full of promise. With the acquisition of veteran Jim Bunning (32), the Phillies seemed to be legitimate pennant contenders. Publicly, manager Mauch spoke hopefully of Mahaffey. Privately, he had no time for Mahaffey, or any pitcher he regarded as less than an “iron man.”

The Phillies held first place for 150 days. The most integrated and likeable team in many years had created “Phillies mania.” There was a newly awakened sense of interest in baseball in the old Quaker City caused by this team that resulted in more blacks, whites, and Hispanics in the stands, despite summer racial rioting just around the corner from the stadium in North Philadelphia.

The Phillies had a 6½-game lead in late September with 12 games left. Their hold on first place seemed secure, for in the modern history of the game no team had ever relinquished a lead this large. The team printed World Series tickets. On Saturday night, September 19, in Los Angeles, they dueled with the Dodgers into early Sunday morning. In the bottom of the 16th inning the game was tied, 4-4. The Dodgers’ Willie Davis was on third base with two outs and Ron Fairly at bat against Phillies reliever Morrie Steevens. With two strikes on Fairly, Davis broke for home. Steevens’ pitch sailed wide, catcher Clay Dalrymple could not make the tag, and the Dodgers won. Catcher Dalrymple called a brief team meeting in which he told his pitchers “If that ever happens again just get the ball to me where I can make a tag.”17 It was an eerie harbinger of things to come.

The Phillies returned home to face the Cincinnati Reds on Monday, September 21. The Reds had started the year poorly, and the Phillies had handled them well. But Cincinnati had been coming on strong, and with a good series they would be right back in the race. The Giants and Cardinals had also been playing well. Meanwhile, the Phillies had suddenly found themselves in a slump, having lost three of their last five games. Mahaffey, with a 12-8 record, started for the Phillies and was charged with a difficult 1-0 loss on an ill-advised steal of home by the Reds’ Chico Ruiz with two outs in the sixth inning. Though Mahaffey threw wide of the plate, posterity will see that catcher Dalrymple was charged with a passed ball. Asked about the steal of home, interim Cincinnati manager Dick Sisler, filling in for the ailing Fred Hutchinson, told the press, “He went on his own. If he hadn’t made it, he could’ve kept running. I wouldn’t have played him after that.”18 Stan Hochman, a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News, wrote: Why wasn’t Robinson walked? Why didn’t Mahaffey pitch from the stretch to prevent Ruiz from stealing? And “Why hadn’t Mahaffey pitched in eight days?” These questions were soon lost in the nerve-wracking slide that was now in progress.

The next night (September 22) the Reds pounded the Phillies, 9-2. And on the 23rd Ruiz responded to taunts from Mauch in the dugout by hitting a home run in a 6-4 Reds’ win. Meanwhile, Mauch hardly used Mahaffey for the rest of the season. He started him twice during the ten-game losing streak. Chris Short and Jim Bunning each pitched three times and Dennis Bennett started twice despite being injured. Should Mahaffey have pitched more? Many teammates said yes, that Mahaffey should have been called on to pitch more because he was willing and able, while Bennett, Culp, and Jack Baldschun were injured. Meanwhile, the Cardinals won the pennant and the Phillies slipped to a tie with the Reds.

In 1965 Mahaffey developed a sore arm and pitched only 71 innings with a 2-5 record and an ERA of 6.21. The fans booed him on the field. On nonpitching days, the fans booed him sitting in the dugout. When he got up to get a drink at the water cooler, the booing grew so loud that he eventually stopped getting up from his seat.19 People who Mahaffey thought were his friends stopped calling.

After the season Mahaffey was traded to the Cardinals with catcher Pat Corrales and outfielder Alex Johnson for shortstop Dick Groat, catcher Bob Uecker, and first baseman Bill White. In 1966 Mahaffey pitched just 35 innings, was 1-4, and had a 6.43 ERA. On July 17 he started against the last-place Cubs and was knocked out of the box in the first inning. It turned out to be his last major-league game. He was sent to Triple-A Tulsa in the Pacific Coast League, where he went 4-4, with a 5.05 ERA.

In March 1967 Mahaffey was loaned to the San Francisco Giants for a look-see, but was returned to Tulsa. On April 1 he was traded by the Cardinals to the New York Mets, but never appeared in a game for the Mets; they sent him to Dallas-Fort Worth in the Double-A Texas League, where he was 2-7 with a 6.00 ERA. Later in the season he was sent to Jacksonville in the Triple-A International League where he was 1-1 with a 5.50 ERA. Then, at the age of 29, when some pitchers are just coming into their own, Mahaffey’s career was over. Many years later he hypothesized that the season his career ended prematurely was an undiagnosed tear in his right rotator cuff. In his seven major-league seasons he won 59 games, lost 64, pitched 999 innings, gave up 959 hits, 507 runs, and 463 earned runs, walked 368, struck out 639, and had an earned-run average of 4.17.

After baseball Mahaffey briefly worked for the Food Fair supermarket chain before learning the ropes of the insurance business. Within a few years he owned his own brokerage.

The losses did not stop piling up, however. In 1972 Mahaffey got food poisoning, spent a month in the hospital, and was severely ill for two years. His son, Michael, died in a car accident on his 16th birthday, July 6, 1974. Later, he was divorced from his wife, Kathy, and there was an inexplicable period of lapsed communication with his daughter, Judy, an All-American lacrosse player, with whom he had been very close.20

Slowly, however, things began to turn around. Mahaffey worked hard and built up his insurance business. On October 20, 1988, his friend and former roommate Chris Short suffered a ruptured cerebral aneurysm and went into a coma. Mahaffey arranged an annual golf tournament that raised money to help pay Short’s medical bills. Short never regained consciousness and died on August 1, 1991.

Mahaffey’s insurance business continued to prosper. He re-established ties with his daughter and came back into the fold and began attending Phillies alumni events. On April 20, 2011, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his 17-strikeout performance, the Phillies invited Mahaffey to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before a game with the Milwaukee Brewers. He appeared to be in perfect shape, held his head high, apparently able to forgive the rough treatment Philadelphia fans had showered on him decades earlier, and delivered a “perfect strike at the knees” in the shadows over home plate.

Last revised: August 27, 2014

 

This biography is included in the book "The Year of the Blue Snow: The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies" (SABR, 2013), edited by Mel Marmer and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.

 

Sources

Interview by telephone with Kathy Rhodes, cousin of Art Mahaffey, by Mel Marmer, January 1, 2010

Gary R. Blodgett, “At 71, a legendary coach (Joseph Hawk),” Deseret News, Salt Lake City, Utah, July 3, 1976, 8A.

Joseph J. Dittmar, The Baseball Records Registry: The Best and Worst Single-Day Performances and the Stories Behind Them (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1997), 82-85.

Frank Dolson, Jim Bunning, Baseball and Beyond (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), 14-19.

Robert Gordon, Legends of the Philadelphia Phillies (Chicago: Sports Publishing LLC, 2005).

Stan Hochman. “The Survivors of ’64 Part Two: Art Mahaffey,” Philadelphia Daily News, July 17, 1989.

Mark Kram, “Look at me, Chris; After 19 months Chris Short’s wife still clings to hope,” Philadelphia Daily News, May 31, 1990.

Lloyd Larson, “Art Mahaffey Provides Phils With Ray of Bright Sunshine,” Milwaukee Sentinel, September 10, 1960.

Edgar Williams, “Poised for Strikeouts,” Baseball Digest, July 1961, 5-11.

I am indebted to SABR member Bill Mortell for his genealogical research of the Mahaffey, and Boone families.

In addition to sources noted in this biography, the authors also accessed Art Mahaffey’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the online SABR Encyclopedia, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

1 Robert Gordon. Legends of the Philadelphia Phillies, 97.

2 Research by Bill Mortell.

3 Edgar Williams, “Poised for Strikeouts,” Baseball Digest, July 1961, 7.

4 Rhodes interview, genealogical research by Bill Mortell.

5 Williams, op. cit.

6 Ibid.

7 Gary R. Blodgett, Deseret News, 8A.

8 The Sporting News.

9 The Sporting News.

10 Lloyd Larson, Milwaukee Sentinel.

11 Williams, op. cit.

12 Gordon, op. cit., 97.

13 Philadelphia Inquirer, April 24, 1961.

14 Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, April 24, 1961.

15 Gordon, op. cit., 98.

16 Ibid.

17 Stan Hochman, “The Survivors of ’64. Part Two: Art Mahaffey,” Philadelphia Daily News, July 17, 1989.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

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