This article was written by William G. Nicholson
This article was published in the 1984 Baseball Research Journal
A number of apparently pennant-bound teams have collapsed in the closing weeks of a season, most recently the 1978 Red Sox, but the most dramatic nosedive in recent decades was that of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies. By losing ten straight games in the season’s final two weeks, Gene Mauch’s Phils blew a 6½-game lead and ended in a tie for second place. The man most responsible for the death of Philadelphia’s pennant hopes in 1964 was none other than Joe Torre, who managed Atlanta the last several years.
Then in his fourth major league season, the Milwaukee Braves’ star catcher was enjoying one of the best seasons of his 17-year career. Torre, only 24 in 1964, batted .321, hit 20 home runs and drove in 109 runs while leading the league’s receivers with a .994 fielding average.
Although the 1964 Phillies were not an outstanding team, general manager John Quinn and field manager Gene Mauch had over a period of several years carefully brought together a number of good players who that season jelled into a solid, winning combination, including several stars.
The Phillies had two of the National League’s most feared hitters in 1964. Outfielder Johnny Callison hit 31 homers and drove in 104 runs, while rookie Richie Allen smashed 29 homers and compiled a .318 batting average. Pitcher Jim
Bunning, obtained the previous winter from the Tigers, won 19 games while losing only eight. Chris Short, a relief pitcher the first part of the season, posted a 17-9 record with a 2.20 ERA, third best in the league.
Only ten of the 232 members of the Baseball Writers’ Association in a pre-season poll picked Philadelphia to win the pennant, but the Phillies and Giants dominated first place during the first half of the season. At the All-Star break, the surprising Phils held first place with a 1½-game lead over San Francisco. Losing the lead temporarily, Philadelphia regained first place on July 16 and remained there for 73 consecutive days until September 27.
Although St. Louis had started poorly, the Cardinals began a drive on July 25 during which they played at a .687 pace, winning 46 games against 21 defeats. In spite of the Cardinals’ surge, the Phils continued to lengthen their lead, winning 19 out of 26 games at one stretch. On September 21 Philadelphia led the red-hot second-place Reds by 6½ games.
With Bunning and Short continuing to pitch well and Dennis Bennett apparently back at his best, the Phils’ pitching rotation appeared in good shape for the stretch drive. But then Bennett developed a sore shoulder. In desperation, Mauch felt he had to start both Bunning and Short three times each with just two days’ rest during the season’s final three weeks.
On September21, the Phillies began their final home stand of seven games, three against Cincinnati and four against Milwaukee. Art Mahaffey lost a heartbreaking 1-0 decision to the Reds’ John Tsitouris in the first contest. The Reds went on to win the next two games, 9-2 and 6-4, to sweep the series. And then Joe Torre and the Milwaukee Braves arrived in town.
The Braves were the most potent offensive team in the National League with four of the league’s top 11 hitters – Rico Carty .330, Hank Aaron .328, Tone .321 and Lee Maye .304. Milwaukee led the circuit in batting average, runs, total bases and doubles. Moreover they had five players who hit 20 or more home runs. What Milwaukee lacked that year was pitching, ranking ninth in a ten-team league with a 4.12 ERA.
Bunning, who had won his last six starts at home, opened for the Phillies in the first game on September 24. Torre drove home Eddie Mathews with a triple in the second inning to put the Braves ahead, 1-0, and later hit another triple to drive in two more runs. Bunning was chased from the mound in the sixth as the Phils lost, 5-3.
Short pitched well enough in the second game before a huge Friday night crowd of 30,447 in old Shibe Park. He left in the eighth inning, and at the end of nine it was a 3-3 deadlock. But in the top of the tenth Torre hit a two-run homer to put the Braves on top, 5-3. The Phils came back to tie the score in their half of the tenth inning, but the Braves won it in the eleventh, 7-5. Tone had three hits in the contest and once again drove in three runs.
The Phils led the Braves, 4-3, going into the ninth inning of the third game but once again lost, 6-4, when Carty hit a three-run triple in the top of the ninth. Veteran Bobby Shantz had come on in relief of Art Mahaffey and was tagged with the loss. Although he did not drive in any runs in the game, Torre once again had three hits, all singles. The loss cut Philadelphia’s lead to a half-game over Cincinnati.
Bunning, who had pitched a long six innings in the Thursday night defeat, was nominated by Mauch to start the Sunday game. Clubbed by the Braves for ten hits and seven runs, the durable Bunning left in the fourth inning with no one out. The Braves, led by Tone’s twentieth home run and two hits, emerged 14-8 victors, dropping the Phils into second place behind the Reds.
The crowd of 20,569 sat in stunned silence at the game’s conclusion. Although Callison had hit three home runs, the Phillies were never in contention. A cloth sign, lettered “HELP,” fluttering from the right-field stands appeared to voice the fans’ thoughts.
During the four-game series, Torre had 11 hits in 19 plate appearances for a .579 average. The burly Milwaukee catcher’s 11 hits included two triples and two home runs; he also drove in seven runs.
The Phillies then journeyed to St. Louis, where, playing in a daze after their weekend pummeling by Torre and the Braves, they lost three straight games to the Cardinals. This extended their losing streak to ten games.
The Phils received some meager joy in defeating the Reds in their two final games of the season, but by then it was too late. The Cardinals, winning eight straight games during the closing weeks of the season, captured the pennant, finishing a game ahead of both Philadelphia and Cincinnati in a race that was not decided until the final day of the season. With the fourth-place Giants only three games out, the 1964 National League race proved to be one of the tightest pennant chases of all time.
Although the final two weeks of the season were truly disastrous for the Phillies, they did have the satisfaction of a number of solid accomplishments. They finished higher in the standings than they had in 14 years and their 92 victories constituted a club record at that time, surpassing the 91 wins of both the 1916 second-place team and the 1950 pennant-winner.
Torre went on to play thirteen more years in the National League, enjoying perhaps his greatest season with the 1971 Cardinals when he batted .363, drove in 137 runs and gained the MVP award. Certainly one of the highlights of his long career, however, has to be the weekend when he destroyed Philadelphia’s pennant hopes.