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A most impressive league

March 10, 2019

This was my favorite league in my favorite decade, mainly because this was the crucible of my fandom. I entered the decade literally knowing nothing about MLB, and exited it a stone fanatical, lunatical obsessive encyclopedia of facts, stats, trivia, knowledge, rumors, impressions, anecdotes, as well as assorted falsehoods and useless misguided misinformation about MLB.  My two main sources of useless misinformation, aside from watching more games in that decade (or listening to them on the radio) than in any other, were the 1966 Strat-o-matic set, which I played constantly, and the backs of baseball cards, far from the most reliable source of information.

I did backfill my one true gap, the 1960 season ending with the Yankee-Pirate Series, by following the game intensely starting in 1961—most of the 1960s stars remained stellar through the early decade, so I was able to become aware of the pennant races and the World Series of 1960 after the games had taken place. That was the Pirates’ only appearance in the post-season through the 1960s, but I stayed aware of them as a dangerous team. In fact, now that I reflect upon their dangerousness, they were the subject of the only poem I ever managed to get published in SPITBALL magazine. (Winter of 1985, for those of you with thirty-four-year old SPITBALL magazines handy.) I must have it around here somewhere, though most of my books are boxed up now, so I can’t reproduce that poem for you. It concerned the almost mystical terrifying power the black sleeves of the Pirates’ uniforms had over me. I described Bob Veale’s black sleeves as the source of his strength, and I described an almost intimate knowledge of the Pirates’ ability to dominate their opponents. I’ll track it down and reprint it here. It was called "WHAT WE NEED" a nostalgic look back, as I recall, at the strange powers that seemed to exist only in childhood.

It occurs to me now how all eight teams in the NL in 1960 seemed almost equally dangerous to me throughout the entire decade. Some teams more dangerous than others, of course, and I can trace that sense of danger directly to my rooting for the Mets from their beginning, the doormats of the National League, the team that everybody loved to beat about the face and neck.  But even stepping back and regarding the NL of the 1960s as objectively as I can, each of the eight had their moments of particular strength.

Certain of these teams’ dominance is obvious—the Cardinals and the Dodgers won three pennants apiece in the 1960s, and the Giants, with one pennant in 1962 but multiple second-place finishes, seemed even stronger at times than LA or St. Louis. The Pirates’ lineup seemed stacked with fearsome hitters and powerful pitching throughout the decade, and the Reds, who won the season after the Pirates’ great year in 1960, were also loaded with great hitters—Robinson, Pinson, Rose, then Perez and Bench-- and dominating pitchers, Maloney, Sam Ellis, Nolan. The Braves won only one divisional championship at the end of the decade, but had perhaps the strongest offense of all, led by Aaron, Mathews and Joe Torre, throughout the 1960s—they were a scary star-led team, but the Cubs’ lineup had some of the strongest-seeming stars in a period before we knew anything about ballpark adjustments.

The team I’m interested in discussing here, though, is a team that won zero pennants, Series, or divisions, and (like the Cubs) had only one season in the 1960s that they dominated for much of the regular season, only to crash to earth disastrously at the end. I’m referring to the Phillies, and 1964, of course, and the quality of their ballclub throughout the 1960s.

The Phillies began the decade as a weak team, and ended it in the same fashion, but when I review their 1964 roster, it seems to me from this remove that it was a very strong ballclub that should have won (but didn’t) a pennant or two before they were done. I’d like to examine the 1964 Phillies roster closely.

They didn’t lack for stars, or even for superstars. They had that season’s Rookie of the Year playing third base: Richie Allen was a historic dominating force, even in that annus mirabilis of spectacular rookies, putting up Mays- or Aaron-like numbers, and until the pennant slipped out of the Phillies’ hands, they had an almost-sure shot for the league’s MVP award in Johnny Callison. These two were not only major talents but young (22 and 25, respectively) and potentially improving major talents, foretelling a very successful next few years. The Phillies also featured other young stars, less stellar than Allen and Callison, but solid players nonetheless, particularly numerous in the infield: it seemed that Cookie Rojas set them up nicely at second base with Tony Taylor as a good (and versatile) backup, while at shortstop they had two young glovemen, Bobby Wine and Ruben Amaro, who could field that position more than adequately. In centerfield, they had Tony Gonzalez, who was, again, solid and respectable both offensively and defensively, and Clay Dalrymple seemed one of the better defensive catchers in the game with a little pop in his bat. All of these players were 28 years old or younger in 1964.

The 1964 Phillies had excellent young players, either offensively or defensively or both, at six positions, but they were elderly or deficient at the other two, LF and 1B. I’ll return to these two weak spots shortly, but first would like to discuss their much-discussed pitching staff in 1964: it was considered both very strong and very weak. Strong, in that two pitchers whom manager Gene Mauch relied on heavily in the season’s last two weeks, Jim Bunning and Chris Short, were almost universally looked upon as among the best starting pitchers in the league, and weak in that, well, Mauch felt the rest of the starters needed to have the ball out of their hands down the stretch. We all know how that decision worked out. Bill has dissected Mauch’s decision exhaustively and IMO brilliantly, and others have chimed in on it at length as well: Rob Neyer has devoted a chapter of  his BASEBALL BLUNDERS book to analyzing it, and I spent a chunk of my articles on Bill Wakefield last year taking it apart as well.

The odd part that few analysts have spent much attention on, however, is the quality of the pitchers whom Mauch chose to rest while pitching Bunning and Short to death. They were both young and good: Art Mahaffey was a 26-year-old righty who had won 19 games for Mauch two years earlier, and had a 12-9 record for the Phillies in 1964.  24-year-old Dennis Bennett had started 32 games for the 1964 Phillies, and had performed creditably, 12-14 with an ERA around the league average, while the fifth starter was 22-year-old sophomore Ray Culp, coming off a rookie year of 14-11 (third in the 1963 ROTY voting, as Mahaffey had been in 1960) and with a winning record in 1964. A sixth option was rookie Rick Wise, who had had eight starts in 1964, and had gone 5-3. Wise and Culp would go on to combine for 310 big league wins between them.

Not saying that any of the four pitchers Mauch ignored down the stretch were nearly as good as Bunning or Short were at the time, but in retrospect (considering that Bunning and Short took some losses anyway in the games they pitched) it’s hard to see how pitching any of these four young starters  more could have cost the Phillies very much, and it’s easy to see how not pitching them more cost Bunning and Short some valuable rest. But this isn’t yet another castigation of Mauch’s choice to rely on his two mainstays—I’m just establishing that the Phillies actually did have an impressive and young group of starting pitchers in 1964. Evaluating their team contemporaneously, most observers would have listed their starting pitching as a plus, and capable of much improvement on an already impressive body of work.

And their bullpen wasn’t too shabby either that year: Jack Baldschun was one of the better relievers in the league throughout the mid-1960s, and former Dodgers reliever Ed Roebuck had a particularly strong 1964. The Phillies’ bullpen led the league in saves that year, in fact, and was both effective and deep. Their pitching, overall, was surprisingly strong, and especially so in view of Mauch’s over-reliance on two men down the stretch, which leaves the overall mistaken impression of a mediocre staff outside of Bunning and Short.

The two spots on the field that I described above as neither manned by young players nor productive players, LF and 1B, were actually pretty strong as well: Wes Covington is listed as their starting LFer, and their 1B-man was a forgettable fellow named John Herrnstein. You will be forgiven for pointing out that LF and 1B are two positions where any contending teams must get a lot of offensive production—it won’t do to dismiss these positions as unimportant ones. But the 32-year-old Covington wasn’t a bad LFer when he had a bat in his hands, even in 1964. He was productive offensively into the next season as well. Playing part–time, Covington combined in 1964-5 for the Phillies to put up one pretty impressive full-time season of stats:  in 574 at bats, he hit 28 HRs and drove in 103 runs. His OPS in 1964 and 1965 was .807—it’s hard to ask much more out of a guy at ages 32 and 33 than that.

But the truly intriguing thing about the Phillies left fielders in 1964 was not Covington. (Who, I just learned, shared his Christian names with the Phillies’ star right-fielder: they were John Wesley Covington and John Wesley Callison, both named presumably in honor of the Methodist evangelist.) No, the Phillies had two young (20 and 21) outfielders who would go on to have extensive big-league careers: Johnny Briggs and Alex Johnson. Both would put up most of their stats for other teams, but it’s tempting to apply some retrospect and to speculate that they would have formed a strong platoon in left field for the Phillies after Covington was gone.  Not that they were unproductive, even at those early ages. Their OBPs in 1964 were .347 and .345 respectively, and it’s tempting to consider that between Covington, Johnson and Briggs, the Phillies could have struggled capably through the next few years with LF among their weaker positions.

The 1B situation is possibly even more intriguing.  The nominal guy, Herrnstein, was a bust, plain and simple, and they had lots of veterans on the 1964 roster who filled in at 1B without particular distinction, Roy Sievers and Vic Power and Frank Thomas among them. Even shortstop Ruben Amaro was tapped to play 1B in 58 ballgames in 1964, presumably as a late-inning defensive replacement for some of these aging 1B-men. But they had another rookie on their 1964 roster whom they played mainly in LF who would go on to have, again, a pretty solid career with the bat as a 1B-man. Like Alex Johnson and Johnny Briggs, Danny Cater would be mostly known as an American Leaguer. The three would combine for 3601 big league hits—not an especially impressive number for three men to accumulate, but not the work of pikers either. If the Phillies had decided to entrust their LF work to Johnson and Briggs and to stick Danny Cater at 1B, they would have done okay at both positions. (Today, btw, is Johnny Briggs’ 75th birthday.)

My overall point being that the 1964 Phillies had an impressive roster—some of these players fulfilled their promise, Allen, Short, Wise (who turned into Steve Carlton), Rojas, Gonzales, while others fizzled out (Callison, who had only a few more good years, and Bennett, who turned into Dick Stuart,  and Mahaffey)  but they were loaded with talent, especially for a team who didn’t win a goddamn thing. From my first awareness of the Phillies roster, they seemed far more dangerous a squad than they proved to be.

Most of this is due, I suppose, to getting my information from the backs of baseball cards, where even unimpressive players are made out to be demi-gods and impressive ones made out to be super-gods. Over the last half of the 1960s, as I feared the super-strong teams—the Dodgers, the Cardinals, the Giants—who came into Shea to play the Mets, and I feared the other strong offenses in the league—the Braves, the Reds, the Pirates, the Cubs—even the weakest team among them, the Phillies, seemed at times quite capable of dominating the league.  I can’t think of a more exciting league to watch as I became a baseball fan, or a more evenly balanced one, unless it was the American League in the latter half of that same decade.


COMMENTS (22 Comments, most recent shown first)

1964 baseball season
5:29 PM Mar 29th
Steven Goldleaf
I disagree as to "stomp," patzeram. Aside from the 1969 9-3 victory for the NL, most of those NL wins in the 1960s were razor-thin: two went 2-1 (one of them took 15 innings), one went 1-0 (the sole run scoring on a DP), even the 7-4 victory in 1964 was tied up 4-4 in the bottom of the ninth, with two men out when Callison hit his bomb off Dick Radatz, etc. The NL may well have been the stronger league, but I think the All-Star game shows the leagues to be pretty evenly matched, with the NL maybe slightly better but mostly luckier. You could re-play those All-Star games a few hundred times and emerge with .500 records for each side pretty frequently.
7:17 AM Mar 23rd
Steve, as a person who watched the NL stomp the AL in almost every All Star Game in that period in the 1960s I truly wondered how much of the concentration of top talent was in the NL. Was the AL truly that inferior to the NL? I remember people wondering if an American League player could play in the National League.

As an American League fan I can't believe that the AL is actually finally leading in the All Star series.

The NL versus the AL in those days seemed like a Heavyweight boxer versus a Lightweight.
9:30 AM Mar 22nd
Brock Hanke
those - Thanks for the info. I'm old enough to have forgotten things like the Angels getting into the postseason in 1982. The team I was thinking of was the 1986 one. There is no starter, or really any significant player, either position or pitcher, between the ages of 26 and 30. If you go to 31, you get Gary Pettis. So, I do have a point, but it's only for 1986, not 1982.

Fred Haney, in 1959, gave almost 300 IP each to Burdette and to Spahn. No other pitcher on the team had as many as 200 (Buhl was just under 200). It's true that this holds throughout the season, and is not concentrated in September, but I doubt that anyone since 1920 has ever given any pitcher over 100 IP in September. Haney is actually (in)famous for 1959 - he had other good pitchers, but worked Warren and Lew to death, and finished second.

I remembered Bruton, although obviously not which years he played. I started paying attention to how much leadoff men were getting on base, as opposed to how fast they ran, at about the time that Bruton made the Braves. Bruton was, if my childhood memories are right, a very good defensive CF, and could hit .280+, but never walked. People kept saying how good a leadoff man he was, because he could really fly. When he got on base, that is.
3:18 AM Mar 22nd
Steven Goldleaf
It's unfortunate (for Mauch) that several of his unused options (notably Culp and Wise) went on to have the solid MLB careers they did. If both of those very young men (Wise was just 18) fizzled out, we might look back at 1964 and ask "Well, what choices did Mauch have?" So history (or the future from Mauch's 1964 perspective) doesn't make him look good, which is one of the reasons people pile on him. He rolled the dice and came up snake-eyes.

those, excellent corrections! Thank you.​
7:20 AM Mar 21st
Brock, a couple corrections:

Mauch made the postseason twice, with the Angels in 1982 and 1986. The 1982 team was not a collection of veterans and good young kids; it was a collection of veterans. Their youngest player with more than 200 PA was Fred Lynn, a 30-year-old in his eighth season. They did have 21-year-old Mike Witt, but their top three starters in terms of wins were 36, 35, and 37. They added 39-year-old Tommy John down the stretch; he started twice in the ALCS.

Bill Bruton was not with the Braves in 1964, when they led the majors in runs scored by a healthy margin. Bruton's last year with the Braves was 1960. He led the league in runs scored (112) for a team that missed leading the league in runs scored by 10. He wasn't an outstanding player or anything, but I think not being able to get more out of Juan Pizarro and Joey Jay was a bigger factor in their second-place finish.

Haney in 1959 handled his staff differently than Mauch in 1964. The whole point was that Mauch kept starting his two best pitchers on short rest, and the Phillies kept losing those games. In contrast, Spahn and Burdette each started on 3 or 4 days rest all through September. Same thing with Buhl.

In fact, Haney was so intent on keeping his big three on regular rest that he started Carl Willey in the first playoff game against Los Angeles. Burdette had pitched 2.1 innings three days earlier, and some managers definitely would have gone with him.

If you want to see someone who managed like Mauch in 1964, look at Bill Rigney in 1959. Sam Jones pitched complete games on September 7th and 12th. Then he pitched 8 innings on the 16th, relieved on the 17th, started on the 20th, relieved on the 22nd, then pitched seven innings on the 26th.

Meanwhile, Mike McCormick started and went 6.1 innings on the 19th, then relieved on the 20th, 22nd, and 23rd!

Like Mauch, Rigney clearly felt he didn't have any better options. The Giants entered the September 27th doubleheader against the Cardinals 1.5 games back with two games left. After they were eliminated in the opener, Rigney gave Marshall Renfroe his only major league start in the nightcap. Renfroe faced 12 batters, and gave up six runs.

The Giants led by two games with 10 left on their schedule, and finished four games back. Rigney was fired the next season, and was replaced by 66-year-old Tom Sheehan.
1:57 PM Mar 20th
To answer evanecurb re the 60s Braves:

Awesome offense (check out the 1964 lineup, top to bottom) but the pitching relied too much on Spahn, and fell apart after 1963. Also, they seemed to have managing issues -- too many changes, and the quality (Bobby Bragan? Billy Hitchcock? Lum Harris?).​
12:30 AM Mar 16th
Thanks for the entertaining article. I, too, rank the 1960's NL as my favorite decade of baseball. As a Cubs fan of that era, I was filled with hope every season that the Cubs would finally find the right combination of players to supplement the trio of Williams, Santo and Banks that held down the 3-4-5 spots in the batting order from 1961-69.

Dick Ellsworth, Larry Jackson, Bob Buhl and Lindy McDaniel gave me hope in 1963, when the Cubs miraculously finished above . 500 at 82-80. But, Ellsworth never again pitched that well and age caught up with Jackson and Buhl. McDaniel was traded for Bill Hands and Randy Hundley at the end of 1965 setting the stage for the rebuild that also brought Fergie Jenkins, Glenn Beckert and Adolfo Phillips. Young homegrown pitchers Kenny Holtzman, Joe Niekro and Rich Nye were added around that time, as well as homegrown shortstop Don Kessinger. To my pleasant surprise, those players joined the aforementioned Williams/Santo/Banks trio to make the summer of 1967 a magical time when the Cubs got hot in June and moved into a first place tie with the Cardinals in early July. Popular Chicago teen radio disc jockey Larry Lujack coined the phrase "Addison Street Miracle" to describe the season.

Alas, we all know all too well how that team built us Cub fans up for the heartbreaking collapse of 1969. But, the Williams/Santo/Banks era will live in my mind for the rest of my life.

Even though the Cubs weren't involved in the pennant race in 1964, I followed it as closely as possible. I rooted for the Cardinals because they had ex-Cub Lou Brock igniting them in midseason. I was happy when the Phillies collapsed. I was ecstatic when the Cards knocked off the hated Yankees in the World Series.

In any case, thanks for the article. It brought back some wonderful memories of my teenage years.
6:02 PM Mar 15th
John Herrnstein’s flop ultimately had greater ramifications than could have been imagined.

It’s not his fault, of course, that the Phillies decided the answer at first was Frank Thomas and not his fault that Thomas subsequently got in that nasty fight with Dick Allen, but those things certainly changed the trajectory of Allen’s career and quite possibly the way the 1960s played out for the Phillies.

11:02 AM Mar 15th
Brock Hanke
I was 16 years old, and living in St. Louis, in 1964. It was a fun ride - for us. A couple of quick notes, just for flavor text:

Between 1962 and 1966, the Dodgers won the pennant every year that Koufax stayed healthy, and lost every year that he didn't. The Cardinals, who ended up on top in '64, won 93 games. People think that they must have improved radically because they added Lou Brock, but the previous year, 1963, they had also won 93 games. But Koufax was healthy in 63. He was also healthy in 1965-66. As soon as he retired, the Cards promptly won two more pennants.

Gene Mauch's problem as a manager was that, aware of how much he knew, he micromanaged too much, instead of letting the talent win games. The one year that he did get into the postseason, he had a team that was comprised almost entirely of good veterans and good young kids. This was a perfect team for Mauch. The veterans had enough confidence and standing in the game that they could ignore Mauch if they needed to without worrying about their jobs, while the kids listened to him all the time because it was obvious how much he knew.

Callison would CERTAINLY have won the MVP if the Phillies had won the pennant. This was a big topic of discussion in St. Louis, much less Philly. Boyer wasn't a bad choice, if you leave out the Phillies, but he was essentially given the award for being the best player on the team that did win the pennant. The deserving MVP that year was Dick Allen, by a serious margin.

Mauch's pitcher usage panic was the exact same thing that Fred Haney had done in 1959, preventing his Braves from winning. And, like Mauch, Haney had good kid pitchers. He just panicked.

The Cardinals, during all of September 1964, and especially at the very end, used a similar tactic - Pitch Bob Gibson every inning he can take. The difference was that neither Bunning nor Short was the young Bob Gibson. Gibson could handle that large a late-season load. That's probably the key as to how the Cards won.

Wes Covington's problems were 1) he had no idea of where the strike zone might be, so he never walked, and 2) he was a bad defensive outfielder. They also had Billy Bruton in center, I think still in 64, and hit him leadoff because he could really run.But he, too, had no idea of how to take a walk, so he wasn't the best leadoff man. He was a good center fielder, but hitting him leadoff really hurt the Braves.

The Phillies weren't in denial about their two holes. They didn't start the year with Frank Thomas; they traded for him to fix their first base problem. He promptly got hurt, leaving the same hole still open. They would probably have won had Thomas stayed healthy.
1:28 PM Mar 14th
Steven Goldleaf
By the way, did anyone ever before come across the fact that 2/3s of the Phillies outfield was named after the same guy? I thought that was weird.
2:08 PM Mar 12th
I should have said they picked up Jackson and Buhl for Jenkins and Phillips. Phillips looked like he would be good until he got into Leo Durocher's dog house, like a lot of other players.
10:44 AM Mar 12th
After 1964 the Phillies were on the fringe of contention. They made some bad deals to get over the top. Most noteworthy, was trading Ferguson Jenkins. Ray Culp struggled in 1966, so they needed pitching depth. They picked up Larry Jackson and Buhl for Jenkins and Buhl. In 1967 it was obviously a bad trade. After 1967 they threw in the towel and traded Jim Bunning for Don Money, getting Woody Fryman and others as a throw-in.
10:42 AM Mar 12th
Steven Goldleaf
Yes, Dave, it is worth mentioning. I didn't get into a lot of digressive stuff here, like Jenkins in the Phillies' pipeline and Adolpho Phillips on their 1964 roster, mainly because I wasn't very clear on what my point was here. I'd say it was mostly to show how the Phillies were probably the weakest team of all the pre-expansion team in this 1960s (maybe tied with the Cubs) and, with that said, what a good ballclub they had.

After the season they acquired Dick Stuart, who had been a major power slugger (at the end of his useful career, almost in time for the Mets for pick up his contract, not quite washed-up enough yet) and so felt free to deal off Danny Cater. They had a lot of talent on their roster at any point in the decade, with so very little to show for it. I didn't include every decent player who passed through the Phillies' roster.

Looking over the Pythagorean W-L records during the 1960s, which tend to take wins off the winning teams and give them to the losing teams, it seems to me that many ballclubs were basically in the 85-90 wins range, and it was a crapshoot who would get lucky and who would finish in sixth or even seventh place in the NL. Of the original 8, there really weren't any who couldn't have won the pennant in a given year. Arguably the Phillies or Cubs were weak for a year or two but I wouldn't be too sure of that. it was a highly competitive league. I guess that was my point.
7:35 AM Mar 12th
I was a college senior in the fall of 1964, and as a Cardinal fan whose team hadn't won since I was just short of my third birthday, with all sincere sympathy for Phils Phans, I was in a state of euphoria throughout September and October.
7:20 AM Mar 12th
Is it worth mentioning that the 1965 Phillies added another young arm, Ferguson Jenkins?
9:11 PM Mar 11th
The 1964 NL was one of the most interesting leagues ever to me, along with the 1966 NL. Great players having great years.

I was ten years old in 1964; I had begun to seriously follow baseball (mostly the National League) the year before. You are correct that Johnny Callison would've won the MVP had the Phillies won the pennant, I remember that being the prevailing sentiment among the sports media, both wire service and local, and radio and TV. Instead they gave the award to the NL's third-best player at his position, third baseman Ken Boyer.

I love your 1960s retrospectives. Thanks.

3:13 PM Mar 11th
1964 NL LEAGUE average team OBP





Thinkgs looking up, .313
2:31 PM Mar 11th
After1965 Callison sufferer a leg injury that affected his ability to drive the ball.

I’m under the impression that Mahaffey and Bennett had arm injuries. Still, Mauch should have kept Bunning and Short in normal rotation. Phillies had a 6.5 game lead with 12 left.
2:29 PM Mar 11th
Gene Mauch.... I could never see how this guy could manage for years. Not only the '64 mega-choke. He managed to keep a good Twins team from the playoffs. He had Carew, Hisle, Wynegar, Smalley, Bostock .... Even against the very good Royals the Twins should have scraped out at least one division championship. We got tired in Minnesota hearing about Mauch and how great a baseball mind he possessed. Now Mauch did have early ties to the Twin Cities, managing the Minneapolis Millers prior to the Twins making the Twin Cities Major League instead of just a cold Omaha-like minor league burg. The Twins were good in the '60s: 2nd place in '62, making the World Series in '65, just barely failing to win pennant in '67 and winning the division in '69 and '70. So the Twins fans still had expectations of winning when Mauch came in. But for all the accolades Mauch seemed to garner from the press, he sure didn't deliver October baseball.
11:22 AM Mar 11th
Steven Goldleaf
The Phillies were phutile for shorter than I'd thought at the start of the decade: they won only 59 games for a last place finish in 1960 and 47 games in '61 for the same results, but by the next year they were over .500, 81-80, which was good for 7th place--only possible if you've got the Mets racking up 120 losses.
9:49 AM Mar 11th
Great NL pennant races in 62, 64, 65, 66, and 2 in 69. Braves are the team I can’t figure out. Should have been better.
9:31 AM Mar 11th
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