The time was 1964. The ‘60s revolution hadn’t quite hit, but the rumblings were audible – racial riots burned cities, the expanding war in Vietnam crept into headlines, and Beatlemania swept through the U.S. The nation was still reeling from the shock of a presidential assassination, and the cold war was in full force. Some people longed for simpler times. Nostalgic programs like Bonanza, Gomer Pyle, and The Andy Griffith Show dominated TV ratings, and Mary Poppins set box office records, even as darker movies like Dr. Strangelove gained audiences. Amid all this change, Americans had another place to retreat – the venerable institution of baseball, a symbol of constancy through the madness.
The place was Philadelphia. A Horatio Alger story in reverse, the city had started at the top and steadily worked its way down. It was once the second largest English-speaking city in the world, birthplace of democracy and the federal capital, but Philadelphia gradually lost influence in national affairs. By mid-century, it was a gritty working class metropolis with ethnic tensions and decaying neighborhoods. While many Americans looked to their local baseball teams for pride, unity and escape, Philadelphians were trained to look the other way.
And for good reason: Between 1919 and 1947, the Phillies finished in last place seventeen times, and next-to-last seven more. In ten separate seasons, the Phillies lost more than twice as many games as they won. After a brief reprieve, the team settled back into the cellar in 1958, beginning a stay of four grisly seasons. In the last of these, the team set an all-time record of 23 consecutive defeats, a mark that still stands.
Fortunately, Philadelphia had two major league teams for much of that time.
Unfortunately, the other one, the Athletics, was nearly as bad. Imagine how Philadelphia felt when both of its professional baseball teams finished at the bottom of their respective leagues’ standings in 1919, 1920, 1921, 1936, 1938, 1941, 1942, and 1945. The Athletics quietly packed up and left town in 1954, leaving the Phillies with a monopoly. But through the 1963 campaign, that club had never won a championship in eighty-two years of trying.
The 1964 Phillies thus began their season with modest expectations. The city was as surprised as the baseball world when the team seized first place in July and proceeded to amass a sizeable lead. Little known players like Johnny Callison, Richie Allen, Ruben Amaro, and Cookie Rojas became local heroes overnight. Manager Gene Mauch rose to deity status at the age of thirty-eight. By mid-September, the pennant was at hand, and Philadelphia glowed blissfully in anticipation of the rarest of events – a World Series appearance.
Then it all began to unravel. On September 21, the Phillies held a comfortable 6.5-game margin in the standings and faced the second-place Reds. In the sixth inning of a tie game, Cincinnati rookie Hiraldo “Chico” Ruiz inexplicably broke for home from third base with his team’s best hitter at bat. Philadelphia pitcher Art Mahaffey was spooked by the preposterous move, and threw the ball wildly. Ruiz had stolen home, scoring what proved to be the game’s only run.
The next day Ray Kelly of the 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.” He added, “Maybe that’s why Chico Ruiz got away with it.”
Locals didn’t think much of it at the time, but after Cincinnati won the next two games Philly fans began to boo the home team. A sense of doom turned to panic as the Braves came to town and swept four in a row. In seven days, the Phillies had lost seven times and fallen to second place. The city was in shock. The team went to St. Louis and lost three more, completing the most infamous ten-game losing streak in baseball history and cementing the wreckage of a once magical season. The Phillies’ fall was the steepest ever for a first place team so close to the finish line.
Philadelphia struggled to pick up the pieces. Since the Great Depression, nothing had energized the city more than the Phillies’ run, and nothing disappointed a wider cross-section of the population than the season’s ending. The collapse defied analysis, though people tried. Many claimed that Mauch mishandled his starting pitchers late in the season. Some believe that dissension caused the team to disintegrate. Others held the view that Ruiz somehow unleashed a pack of demons that consumed the Phillies and a city that desperately wanted a winner. Analysis of that fall’s events provides little support for any of the three explanations, though the Ruiz gambit has endured in Philadelphia folklore over the decades.
The previously anonymous infielder earned the wrath that fateful night not only of Philadelphia manager Gene Mauch, but also his own boss, Dick Sisler, and several teammates who saw his move as reckless. The next night Mauch hounded Ruiz mercilessly from the opposing dugout, and a Phillies pitcher planted a fastball in his ribs. Ruiz responded with a home run. Even though Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Allen Lewis eerily foreshadowed a link between the stolen base and the Phillies’ demise in the next morning’s paper, the play was largely forgotten just two days later. The Phillies uncovered many ways to lose games later that week, and each catastrophe supplanted the previous one in short-term memory. (Further, a bizarre and long-forgotten detail is that the Phillies actually lost two games on consecutive days by way of a steal of home – the other came at the hands of the Dodgers’ Willie Davis in the wee hours of September 20.) The October post-mortem gave Ruiz a bit part in the drama, but the stolen base provided concise and convenient imagery of an otherwise incomprehensible sequence.
The legend gained traction as the Phillies immediately fell into another dreary epoch. A deep bitterness took hold among jilted townsfolk who, to paraphrase the words of devastated backup catcher Gus Triandos, didn’t need to guzzle the champagne that nearly every other major league city had tasted, but rather just wanted a sip.
Philadelphia fans have since shown their vitriol on numerous occasions. They’ve become known for mercilessly jeering their own players, chasing more than a few promising but imperfect stars out of town in the process. They’ve assaulted opposing players and coaches. They once pelted Santa Claus with snowballs in prime time.
After a blip of sports success in the late-‘70s and early ‘80s, the fans’ frustrations have risen with a steady crescendo of failures. The Phillies have flopped. The hockey Flyers have come close, but stumbled. The basketball ‘76ers have ranged from awful to near-miss, and the football Eagles have consistently tantalized before decomposing. Whenever disaster strikes, local media invoke the legend of Chico Ruiz. In one such occasion, after a postseason Eagles meltdown in January of 2002, Philadelphia Daily News reporter William Bunch put it all in context in an article titled “Lets face it, losing is our forte.” He started with two simple words – “Chico Ruiz,” and wrote that Philadelphia “has now refined the art of defeat the same way we once set standards for locomotives and Stetson hats.”
Reflecting on the ’64 debacle in 1996, author Joe Queenan explained a common feeling among Phillies fans: “This was the pivotal event in my life. Nothing good that has ever happened to me since then can make up for the disappointment of that ruined season, and nothing bad that has happened since then can even vaguely compare with the emotional devastation wrought by that monstrous collapse.”
The sense of failure has spread beyond sports. Philadelphia has struggled with ineptitude in other areas, as illustrated by the city’s most prominent modern-day entry into national headlines – a botched 1983 police operation that resulted in the burning of an entire neighborhood. Surrealist filmmaker David Lynch drew his inspiration from his days as a student in Philadelphia, and called it “the sickest, most corrupt, decaying, fear-ridden city imaginable.” That might be a bit strong (after all, the city also has a well of urban riches that make it the envy of many a sprawling American community), but it reflects real and deeply rooted self-image problems. Billboards peppering the city in the ‘70s bore this out, declaring, “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.”
More than most places, Philadelphia is defined by its history, and the events of 1964 are a bigger part of it than most realize. Four decades later, the city still bears the scars of a September nightmare.
Ironically, Chico Ruiz stole only two bases over the next two seasons and never hit another home run. He played in the major leagues for eight years, amassing a mediocre .240 average. He made the news twice more – first when he allegedly brandished a gun at a teammate during a 1971 clubhouse argument and finally when he died in a 1972 car accident at the age of thirty-three. He achieved immortality in one spontaneous moment, however, and remains better known on the streets of Philadelphia than in his native Cuba.
As long as his memory lingers on those streets, a piece of a city will be stuck in 1964.
From guest contributor Scott Schaff
NOTA : February 9 of 1972