September 21, 1964: Chico Ruiz steals home to begin Phillies' collapse
The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies were a formidable team. As the team developed during the early 1960s (climbing from eighth in the National League to seventh to fourth over the 1961, 1962, and 1963 seasons), the Phillies now presented a solid top-to-bottom lineup. Led by manager Gene Mauch, the team featured All-Star right fielder Johnny Callison (having a career year highlighted by a walk-off home run in the All-Star Game), All-Star pitchers Jim Bunning (who had pitched a perfect game in June vs. the New York Mets), Chris Short, and Rookie of the Year third baseman Dick Allen.
As the season went along, the Phillies were generally near or in first place, but beginning in early August, they built a substantial lead over a two-week period, going from 1½ games ahead on August 6 to 7½ games ahead on the 20th. (The Phillies went 12-4 during that stretch.)
As play began on Monday, September 21, 1964, the Phillies at 90-60 had a seemingly insurmountable 6½-game league lead with 12 games to play.
On this Monday evening in Philadelphia, the Phillies faced off against the Cincinnati Reds in front of a crowd of 20,067. The Reds were having an excellent season themselves, currently standing at 83-66, 17 games over .500. Led by manager Dick Sisler (who had taken over for the terminally ill Fred Hutchinson), the Reds featured right fielder Frank Robinson, center fielder Vada Pinson, second baseman Pete Rose, and pitchers Jim O’Toole and Jim Maloney. On this evening, the Reds pitted journeyman right-hander John Tsitouris against the Phillies’ Art Mahaffey.
The game was tightly played – the Reds had seven hits, the Phillies six; the Reds left seven men on base, the Phillies eight (going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position). Only one Phillies runner advanced as far as third base in the game.
The game turned the Reds’ way on a key play in the top of the sixth inning. After Pete Rose grounded out to second baseman Tony Taylor, Reds third baseman Chico Ruiz singled to right field. Center fielder Vada Pinson hit a long single to right field, with Ruiz advancing to third as Johnny Callison threw out Pinson trying to stretch his single into a double.
Now the Reds’ best hitter, Frank Robinson, was at the plate. Robinson, currently hitting .306 with 27 home runs, stood in against Mahaffey. With two outs, Robinson needed a base hit to put the Reds ahead.
Chico Ruiz had other ideas.
As Mahaffey went into his windup against Robinson, Ruiz broke for home. From the moment Ruiz took off with his team’s best hitter at the plate, the Phillies were never the same. Mahaffey threw a wild pitch, Ruiz scored, and the Reds won 1-0.
Ray Kelly of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin wrote, “It’s one of those things that simply isn’t done. Nobody tries to steal home with a slugging great like Frank Robinson at the plate. Not in the sixth inning of a scoreless game.”1
Art Mahaffey was incredulous. Years later, he would say “Chico Ruiz stole home with two outs and two strikes on Frank Robinson. Now you must realize that with two outs and two strikes, if you throw a strike Frank Robinson swings and knocks Chico Ruiz’s head off. It was just so stupid. Ruiz wasn’t even thinking. Robinson was so upset because he was one of the league’s leading hitters and near the lead in RBI and this guy’s stealing home with him hitting. It was just such a crazy thing. We didn’t know it was going to start a 10-game losing streak, but it couldn’t have started in more ridiculous way.”2
After the game, Phillies manager Mauch had the last word (or words): “Chico %$#@! Ruiz beats us on a bonehead play of the year. Chico %$#@! Ruiz steals home with Frank Robinson up! Can you believe it?”3
The game ended with the Phillies advancing the tying run to third base with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, but Shortstop Ruben Amaro struck out to end the game.
The Phillies still had a 5½-game lead, with only 11 games to play. At the time, it may have seemed like one of those things that the Phillies could look back on and laugh about later.
Except that it wasn’t.
Famously, the Phillies now went into a 10-game tailspin. Their lead over the Reds and St. Louis Cardinals dwindled. By Sunday, September 27, the lead had vanished as their losing streak had reached six games. They then lost three additional games before winning their final two games against the Reds.
Over the final 12 games of the season, the Phillies were 2-10, while the Reds were 8-4 and the Cardinals were 9-3. The Cardinals won the pennant on the season’s final day, defeating the New York Mets 11-5, while the Phillies were defeating the Reds 10-0. For the Phillies, that 10-0 win was too little, too late.
Now all the Phillies and their fans had were dreams of what could have been.
For a sabermetric analysis of why Ruiz's steal was actually not a bad percentage play, see In Defense of Chico Ruiz's Mad Dash.
The 1964 baseball season was the first I paid much attention to as a young fan. I can recall eagerly awaiting the afternoon delivery of the Bremerton (Washington) Sun to read the brief game stories, line scores and standings. And it amazed me then (as it does now) that so many games could be played and still have only a tissue-thin difference among teams in the standings at the end of a long season.
1 Bill Chuck and Jim Kaplan, Walkoffs, Last Licks, and Final Outs: Baseball’s Grand (and Not So Grand) Finales. (Chicago: Acta Sports, 2007).