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
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
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
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 Schaffer