Nail Clippings

May 28, 2017

 

I broke off "For Want of a Nail" with Bill Wakefield’s major league career ending on a Dal Maxvill "27-hop bleeder" driving in two runs on October 4, 1964, so I’ll finish up here with a few more loose ends I couldn’t jam into my "Nail" piece:

 

1)      Like Tim McCarver, Maxvill had been friendly with Wakefield when they were in the Cardinals’ system, and they too exchanged a few brief words just before that game. "Far from Tulsa, huh?", Maxvill had said to Wakefield, though St. Louis is just a few hundred miles from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the two had spent the 1962 season, making the Texas League playoffs. Maxvill was Wakefield’s shortstop, and there’s very little a right-handed sinkerball pitcher appreciates more than a Gold Glove-quality shortstop behind him.  

2)      It was fascinating to learn how many Cardinals Wakefield knew pretty well on a personal basis, either from the minor leagues or his time in the Cardinal’s Spring Training camps, mostly the younger players who would play key roles on their great championship teams of the 1960s:  McCarver, Maxvill, Ray Sadecki (whom he’d grown up competing against in Kansas City, even taking Sadecki’s job as an office boy for the KC A’s when Sadecki signed his bonus contract to pitch for the Cardinals, and then his personal advice when it came to signing with Cardinals himself.) A lot of these guys were much more than Wakefield’s opponents in this crucial game-- they were also in many cases his friends and recent ex-teammates.

3)      Wakefield also had played in his short professional career for a lot of managers whose names I recognized, mostly as former big league hitting stars: Whitey Kurowski at Tulsa in 1962, Harry Walker at Atlanta in 1963, Stan Hack at Salt Lake City in 1965, Bill Virdon in his last stop at Williamsport in 1966, not to mention Casey Stengel, of course. Wakefield also had a lot interesting coaches in his career:  Pepper Martin at Tulsa, Sal Maglie at Buffalo, Clyde King at Atlanta, even Jesse Owens at a Mets' training camp. And he was always looking to pick up an edge from these guys.

4)      His relationship with Casey Stengel was the most interesting bit of his biography to me. As I wrote last time, Casey was from K.C. (hence his nickname) and in fact had gone to the same high school, Central High, that Wakefield’s dad had graduated from (a few classes after Stengel). Stengel had followed Wakefield’s early pitching career, through friends in the K.C. area, for almost ten years before Wakefield pitched for him in 1964, and was fond of Wakefield. I thought about writing a book about the Wakefield-Stengel connection, called something like "Casey’s Last Pitching Pheenom," because Stengel had a trait of finding these young pitchers and getting a good season out of them unexpectedly: Wakefield and Wakefield’s predecessor as Mets’ relief ace Larry Bearnarth, and with the Yankees, Johnny Kucks and Bob Grim and Tom Sturdivant, guys who didn’t have long big league careers but who had a good year pitching for Stengel before fading into obscurity in their 20s. Stengel was a great nurturer of talent, though his greatest skill, it seems to me, was recognizing when that talent was gone. As with Wakefield, he could seem positively heartless in dropping a recent pheenom from his pitching staff, for almost no reason at all, and moving on to his next discovery. With Wakefield, he seemed almost to be practicing a kind of "tough love" approach, praising him as a top prospect even as he cut him from the major league roster in the spring of 1965, and hinting that if Wakefield showed him something in the minor leagues, he could earn his way back. Most managers, I’d suppose, would take the opposite tack, keeping a guy who’d pitched very well for you the year before and giving him chance after chance in the major leagues to prove that he could still pitch very well, but Stengel seemed to think that adversity builds character in young players, or something equally puzzling, and saw to it that they got plenty of adversity.

5)      Maybe the Mets didn’t have a lot of good young players during Stengel’s tenure (to understate the case), but Stengel didn’t have a strong record of developing talent there either. The only star the Mets developed during Stengel’s three and a half seasons was Ron Hunt, who’d been in the Braves’ minor league system and who’d played his way onto the Mets’ team as a backup infielder in the spring of 1963. Stengel gave the second-base starting position that spring to rookie Larry Burright over Hunt, and Burright demonstrated quickly that he couldn’t hit major league pitching while Hunt clearly showed he could. I just came across Rob Neyer’s take on Larry Burright (in his "Blunders" book) as a failed Dodger experiment who probably cost them the 1962 pennant, which you should see to question why Stengel just handed him the Mets’ second-base job the next spring.  Other than Hunt, who literally had to argue his way into a start a week into the 1963 season, Stengel favored other teams’ veterans and washouts on the early Mets, while talking up the "Youth of America," who would develop under Stengel’s successors. He gave Kranepool a shot, and Bearnarth and Wakefield, of course, but very little home-grown talent broke into Stengel’s lineups. Every year, the Mets seemed to get a different team’s reject in his mid-30s, off an off-season or two—Snider, Altman, Ken Boyer, Dick Stuart—and hope he’d find his former skills again. Not a wise strategy but they didn’t have a lot of better options, I suppose.

6)      Stengel seems, from this distance, to have valued toughness and character above all in his players, and it seems to be something he tried very hard to build. Hunt certainly was a tough kid, far from popular, even with his teammates, and certainly not with players on the other teams in the league, which Stengel admired. Early in 1964, Hunt started a brawl by crash-sliding into Braves’ catcher Ed Bailey on a play at the plate, of which Stengel said, "Sure, he ran into the catcher. What did you want him to do, get tagged like a goddamn fairy? We’ve got enough guys on this team who’ll tippy-toe up to the catcher and say, ‘Ooh, pardon me, I’m out,’" a speech quoted in Vecsey’s Joy in Mudville, p. 112 that is inconceivable on so many levels today (anti-gay, promoting violence, blasphemy, cussing, etc.) . One of Stengel’s bobos (and Wakefield’s buddy) was Rod Kanehl, whom Stengel brought along from the Yankees’ minor league system, where his talent-level was plainly inadequate to rise above the competition, to the Mets, where it barely sufficed. Kanehl, the ultimate utility player, had very little going for him other than moxie, guts, effort,  eagerness, character, and toughness but he turned those traits into a career, such as it was, with Stengel’s Mets. When Stengel broke his hip and was forced to retire in mid-1965, he was by far the oldest manager in the major leagues, and his retirement ended the era in managerial styles that valued toughness as a virtue above all other virtues.

7)     Although an educated young man from a solid, stable upper middle-class background (his father was a surgeon, his mother a nurse), Wakefield projected a kind of toughness, at least to judge from the photo on his baseball-reference.com page:  http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/w/wakefbi01.shtml, which will also link you to his day-to-day major- and minor- league performance, if you want to follow his story further. His smile is very nearly a smirk, a very confident expression, almost cocky, that reminds me of the typical expression on the faces of two of my favorite big-league pitchers, Whitey Ford and David Cone. The first time I ever saw David Cone pitch, very early in 1987, probably a spring training game, with no idea he’d develop into anything at all, the TV camera zoomed into his serious stare-- assessing the batter, plotting his strategy against him, confident and ultra-competitive-- and I remember thinking "A killer’s eyes! Pure Whitey Ford," and that’s the same expression I see in the thumbnail photo of Bill Wakefield, though I doubt I noted it at the time.

8)     I turned 11 years old in the late spring of 1964, and I was a nutty little Mets fan, but I don’t have any particular first-hand memories of Wakefield’s actual pitching. I’ve reassembled his career highlights 53 springs after they happened, and I’ve interviewed him personally, largely by e-mail, several times more over the last few years. I met him once (if I can figure out how, I'll post a photo I took of him in the lobby of the Holiday Inn, just across the Grand Central Parkway from Citifield) but I might never have even seen him play—I think I got out to Shea Stadium in 1964 ( I certainly remember several visits to the World’s Fair just across Roosevelt Avenue), but it might not have been until the next season that I first attended a Mets game in person, and I mostly followed the team on radio rather than TV. So I might very well never have seen Wakefield pitch. I had my favorite Mets to be sure—Ron Hunt, and Charley Smith, their power-hitting 3bman—and I was excited by the play of that year’s star, Joe Christopher, a smiling outfielder from the Virgin Islands who was having a fluke Clemente-esque season for the Mets, but Wakefield didn’t make that much of an impression on me, nor did his absence from the next year’s roster stir up any outrage in me, not until the early 2000s, when I realized "Holy Cow! They had a really good young pitcher in this Wakefield dude—how’d they drop that card?"

9)     And speaking of dropping cards, why did the Cards drop him, so early in his career? This one has an answer, but raises a further question: Plainly, in the trade mentioned above that brought him to the Mets, the Cardinals were looking immediately to shore up their pitching staff, trading the prospect Wakefield for the veteran Roger Craig, who proved to be a cog in their pennant drive in 1964, shuttling between the bullpen and the back of their rotation. (The unknown Wakefield was mentioned as a throw-in, actually, in the trade of Craig for veteran outfielder George Altman, who had been a St. Louis outfielder in 1963—Altman played only in 1964 for the Mets, who swapped him out again after that year for a centerfield prospect, Billy Cowan, from the Cubs. Altman’s place being cleared on the Cardinals’ 1964 roster created a gap that they’d fill with a few OF candidates until June of 1964 when they’d trade, also with the Cubs, for a young Lou Brock.)  So Wakefield-to-the-Mets was a classical youth-for-experience kind of deal, which further raises the question of how the Mets let Wakefield go so lightly after 1964. After all, they’d given up their most prominent pitcher in Roger Craig to get him, so you’d think that would motivate them to squeeze the most benefit out of the deal, but no. Wakefield was gone.

10) Wakefield didn’t even stay in the Mets’ organization though the 1965 season in the minors. After a month in Buffalo, they lent him to the Cubs’ top AAA-team in Salt Lake City, and then he played his final season in Williamsport in the Eastern League, an AA classification, where he could see the downward trajectory of his playing career—at 25 years old, with a fresh Stanford diploma minted in June of 1966, he decided to quit baseball, fading from my consciousness as much as if he’d never been there.

11)  "It was a different time," he recalled in his seventies, on the subject of toughness and managers’ expectations, citing among other changes the complete lack of distinction between starting pitchers and relievers lasting until the mid-1960s. Not only did Stengel seem incapable of figuring out whether Wakefield was a starter or a reliever or what, he really never seemed to have given much thought to the distinction in general, nor did other old-time managers. Roger Craig, as noted above, was valuable to the Cardinals for his ability to move in and out of the starting rotation and the bullpen easily, as he had under Stengel, and as most of Stengel’s pitchers had. Every decent starter, especially on Stengel’s teams, shuttled in and out of the bullpen without the slightest care for their workload, or the regular predictability of their work-schedules, or their comfort in warming up, or anything at all. A pitcher was a pitcher, and when his manager needed him to pitch, he did. 

12)  Or when a manager wanted a pitcher to pinch-hit or pinch-run, he did as well. A few weeks ago, on the Mets’ broadcast, their trivia question of the game concerned the pitcher in Mets’ history who held the team record for "Most pinch-running appearances, pitcher, lifetime." The second, third, and fourth pinchrunners-up totaled out to 51 games, which was the exact total of the all-time team leader: Al Jackson, almost exclusively for Stengel.  I see this philosophy as a 19th -century vestige, still in practice the lower you go on the professionalism scale today, of thinking of pitchers just like any other player, filling in at other positions, pinchrunning, batting anywhere in the lineup, etc.,  Stengel’s retirement marking one of the final nails in the coffin of this outlook at the MLB level. Now when a guy like Bartolo Colon hits a HR, it’s almost literally "Stop the Presses!!!" news, but Bob Gibson, who also did a hell of a lot of pinch-running, notes that he hit five home-runs in two separate seasons and was never considered the best-hitting pitcher in the NL.

13)  Of the many practices common in 1964 that are now horrifyingly obsolete (zero attention paid to barbarically high pitch-counts, four-man rotations that easily morph into three-man rotations if one game gets rained out, starters used regularly in relief between starts—all sorts of stuff that’s pretty much inconceivable today, classified under "abuse" and subject to criminal prosecution) perhaps the scariest is the frequency of starters being yanked early from games, usually for getting hit for only a few runs in the first few innings.

14)  The idea was "Looks like he just doesn’t have it today." The benefit of yanking a starter getting belted around early in Tuesday’s game was that you could start him again on Thursday or Friday instead of having to wait for the weekend. Current managers no longer believe that giving up a few early runs is statistically or otherwise significant, and they no longer adjust their rotations on the fly any more, but they do remove pitchers sometimes who have thrown over a certain number of pitches in a given inning, even if a whole bunch of runs hasn’t resulted. The pitch-count-removals somewhat countervail the early removals for giving up an early couple of runs. Pitchers can still get yanked early, but for different reasons than they did in 1964.

15) Two scenarios: in the first one, a pitcher is cruising along in the early innings when suddenly he faces a batter who works him for a full count, and fouls off several pitches, and then walks. Same thing with the next batter, and the pitcher gets the next guy out, but he also throws a lot of pitches in the process. In the old days, this was nothing, because the decision to remove pitchers rested on results. In this case, the pitcher has runners on first and second and one out—no problem. But the contemporary manager, looking at a pitcher who’s thrown close to 30 pitches in this inning and still needs two more outs, is very nervous at this point. He might even go to his bullpen right now, before the pitcher’s arm tires out and he gives up a three-run homer. Those 30 pitches in an inning are much more important than the fact that he hasn’t actually given up any runs yet.

16) In the second scenario, imagine a pitcher who has given up two or three runs in an early inning, but without getting hit hard or throwing very many pitches. The 1950s manager might well yank him, even if (as we will see soon) the runs are mostly due to bad fielding and seeing-eye hits, where a contemporary manager will leave him in the game as long as his pitch count (especially in that inning) is low enough. In both eras, pitchers are sometimes removed from games in the early going, but for almost entirely different reasons.

17)  And of course today’s managers are far more sensitive to pitchers’ injuries, which also introduces another rationale for early removals.  A starter today starts pitching funny, or grimacing, or giving any other sign that he might be hurt, his manager is probably going to take him out of the game, no questions asked, no answers accepted, regardless of the inning or the score or the pitch-count, whereas a 1960s manager seeing his pitcher suffering is probably going to think "Good. Suffering builds character" or some other macho shit.

18)  I hope you realize that I am going on my opinions here, rather than any heavy-duty analysis, formed by my researching 1964 in the last few weeks through a variety of books, Gibson’s two biographies, Halberstam’s October 1964 (about which, more later), Vecsey’s and other accounts of Stengel’s career with the Mets, contemporary newspaper accounts, and my interviews with Wakefield, all of which point strongly to a severe change in managerial treatment of starting pitchers soon after Stengel’s retirement.

19)  I also listened to Harry Caray’s broadcast of the 10/4/64 game, which was a real treat for someone who hadn’t heard Caray much when I was growing up. A link to the game is here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4YMU_5PmD8

though I don’t recommend opening that link unless you have two hours to spare. For some reason, only the first 7 innings of the game were recorded, but that’s really all you need—certainly all I needed to clear up my questions about the final game of Bill Wakefield, who was long gone by the seventh inning.  It opens up with a surprisingly coherent interview with Stengel, not obfuscating or meandering much at all, basically answering the questions put to him in a straightforward and incisive manner, plus many other bonuses besides.

20) Check out Caray’s blasé tone when he describes workhorse starters Gibson and Jack Fisher of the Mets warming up for relief appearances in the early going of the game.  In the top of the fifth, for example, Curt Simmons is throwing a 4-hitter, two of them infield hits, and has given up exactly one run in the first four innings. He gives up a single to George Altman and the pitcher sacrifice-bunts Altman to second base. The leadoff hitter then hits a pop-up that the Cardinals’ second-baseman and right-fielder, both rookies, miscommunicate on and allow to drop. At this point, would you say that Simmons was getting hit hard, or even getting hit at all?  Of course not. The next batter, however, hits a double off Simmons, scoring both runners, and—Simmons is taken out of the game.  Listen to Harry Caray’s tone of voice as he describes the following: "Bob Gibson is down in the bullpen.  And Gibson in relief—you don‘t know. Here comes the manager Johnny Keane out, and Gibson’s going to be brought in here." He could be describing the weather, or a flock of birds flying over the outfield, for all the shock in his voice at a starting pitcher who just threw eight innings two nights earlier coming into the game in relief at this juncture.  (This utterance is at the 1:33:50 mark of the broadcast.)  Caray is much more excited—much, much more—by the windblown popup that caused all the trouble than he is at who is coming into the ballgame.  I mean, not only is this Bob Gibson, and not only has Gibson been driven harder than a rented car over the last few days (more on Gibson’s over-use later), and not only is Simmons still pitching a pretty fair game at this point, but this is the Cardinals’ ace being used in middle relief, and Caray describes it as a routine everyday occurrence. Actually, it’s more like a routine monthly occurrence, as Caray goes to note: "We’re losing 3-2 here and Bob Gibson comes in in relief. Let’s see, for Gibson, this is only the fourth, the fifth time, that he’s relieved. Comes into the ballgame trailing, 3 to 2." This tone tells you all you need to know about the commonness of the practice. Today’s announcers would be screaming about this going on, wondering out loud—and I do mean "loud"—about what this is going to do to the rotation, when the last time this ever happened was, nominating the pitcher for bravery above and beyond, but in 1964 it was just ho hum, "Gibson is down in the bullpen." Same with Jack Fisher later in the game, just totally routine, folks, we’re going to have a pitching change.

21) One of the realizations that came to me as I was researching the fifth inning of the October 4th game was how quickly everyone’s perceptions of Bob Gibson were just about to change, big time. Gibson ended that regular season as a very good starting/relieving pitcher and then, in the World Series beginning that Wednesday, embarked on the "unstoppable monster" phase of his career that he still enjoys.

22) As of that final game of the regular season, Bob Gibson was not Bob Gibson yet. His peak seasons were all in the future. On October 4, 1964 Gibson had, for example, won zero World Series games, and had in fact appeared in none, so no one knew whether he was an exceptional clutch pitcher, or a terrible clutch pitcher, or anything in between. If you put a whole lot of stock in the idea that there are huge big-game pitchers and very tiny big-game pitchers (as opposed to huge sample sizes and tiny sample sizes) you might even think that the little evidence that existed at that point suggested Gibson’s clutchiness was suspect:  for example the previous Friday, in the first game of this three-game series with the Mets, you’ll recall, Gibson faced Alvin Jackson, and he pitched very well, but the victor in that 1-0 game was not Gibson, who gave up a clutch hit to the fearsome Eddie Kranepool, driving in that game’s only run, but little Al Jackson, who certainly has no reputation as a big game pitcher, a clutch performer, or a pressure specialist.  Gibson was one of a few excellent pitchers in the NL, but well behind in reputation such aces as Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, or Don Drysdale. During the 1964 season, he got to climb a rung because Warren Spahn had his first off-year since the Roosevelt administration, but Gibson was on a level with (and probably just a hair behind) such other excellent young star pitchers as Jim Maloney or Dick Ellsworth. All of the above-named pitching stars had already crashed through the barrier of excellence that was the 20-wins mark, which Gibson was promising to break someday. In potential, he was certainly one of the ten or twelve best pitchers in the National League but in actual performance as of that day, he did not belong at or very near the top of that list.

23) In only a few more days, of course, he would begin his climb to the top of Mount Ever-Best, an ascent that would take four more years. By 1968, he would stand alone at the peak—Spahn and Koufax would have long since retired, Drysdale would blow out his arm the next June, and Marichal was beginning his decline, while Ellsworth, Maloney and other potential super-stars of 1964 like Bob Veale and Tony Cloninger would have faded from the running, and future superstars like Tom Seaver and Don Sutton and Gaylord Perry and Ferguson Jenkins hadn’t yet reached their own peak performances.  Before the World Series of 1964, Gibson was not yet primus inter pares, the first among equals. He was just another very good NL pitcher.

24)  As of late August of 1964, in fact, he was having a pretty lousy season.  The Cardinals would get very hot starting August 24th, winning 28 out of their last 39 games, and Gibson would get hottest of all, but that also meant that up until that point the Cards were playing poorly (65-58) and Gibson was having a very disappointing season. On the evening flight home from San Francisco on August 23rd, he had a .500 record, 10-10, and a 3.59 ERA in a league whose ERA was 3.54.  The Cardinals had just finished a road trip and they appeared hopeless: they were in fourth place, deep into fourth place, 3½ games behind the third-place Giants, who had just taken two out of three from them, and a full eleven games behind the first-place Phillies, who seemed destined to win the NL easily.  How would this young untested team and this young untested pitcher do?  It’s easy to forget how dicey Gibson’s reputation stood, not only on August 23rd, but on October 4, 1964, and actually for the week following that final game.

25)  To call Gibson’s 1964 season up to late August a disappointment is kinda a polite understatement. To be impolite, he was having a miserable year.  But down the stretch, when he got hot, he was abused by modern standards as badly as Jim Bunning was allegedly abused by Gene Mauch, and almost as badly as Nicole Simpson by O.J.  Bill has made this point, convincingly, that Mauch’s abuse of Bunning is evident only in retrospect, given the prevailing use of starting pitchers as of 1964, but let me offer some specifics of Johnny Keane’s over-use of Gibson by comparison, a key difference, of course, being that Gibson had terrific results the final six weeks of the 1964 season while Bunning did not:  in his last 10 starts, from August 24th on, Gibson went 8-2 with a 1.64 E.R.A.. Going into that final relief appearance, he writes in From Ghetto to Glory, "I had pitched in four of the last nine games, and I was tired mentally and physically." During the 8-2 stretch, he had pitched 87 and 2/3rds innings, throwing 8 straight complete games followed by 8 innings in each of the final two games, pitching on three days’ rest six times.

26)  It seems to me that if Gibson had faltered in this stretch, Johnny Keane would be subjected to harsher accusations than Gene Mauch received for his misuse of Bunning. (Which means, I think, that Keane would have been burnt in effigy, if not in person, in Gaslight Square.)   In ten starts dating from August 23rd through September 27th, Bunning went 5-5 with a 3.89 ERA over that stretch, pitching on three days’ rest seven times. Bunning started twice in this stretch on two days’ rest, which is mostly what Mauch is faulted for, but he pitched only 71+ innings as opposed to Gibson’s 87+ innings, so which is the greater strain? Most people would say Gibson was worked harder than Bunning was, with the key difference being that Gibson was more effective than Bunning. But Bunning was hardly ineffective in this period: he won 5 out of his first 6 decisions.

27)  There’s really only a single game in this 10-start stretch that I would even question Mauch’s judgment, a game against the Astros on September 16th following Bunning’s only extra-inning game in this stretch, a 10-inning victory over the Giants on September 13th. Despite Bunning’s extra-inning complete game victory, which would seem to have earned him an extra day of rest, Mauch picked this Astros game to start him instead on very short rest, and Bunning lost this game, though again, he didn’t pitch terribly. He was actually beating Houston, 3-2, in the fifth inning when he seemed to lose effectiveness, walking in the tying run. Bunning came out of the game at that point, and he was relieved by Bobby (Who The Hell?) Locke, who promptly gave up two more runs, handing Bunning the loss. Other than this one game, Mauch’s use of Bunning seems pretty standard to me.

28)  A parallel to Bunning’s 10-inning win followed by a start two days afterwards, though, is Johnny Keane’s much-praised use of Gibson almost exactly a month later, in game seven (or Game Seven) of the World Series. Like Bunning, Gibson had thrown a 10-inning victory two days earlier, in game five, and then was tapped to start game seven, to which he famously responded with a gutty complete-game win.  Gibson was voted the MVP of the series, and Keane was proclaimed a genius for replicating exactly the same move that got Bunning labeled a victim of the idiot Mauch’s abuse. Just sayin’. 

29)  Of course, since Bunning’s 10-game stretch began on August 23rd, a day before Gibson’s did on August 24th, and since Gibson started some games on four days’ rest (and Bunning none) while Bunning started some games on two days’ rest (and Gibson none), that works out to exactly one extra start for Bunning at the end, and that was again another two-day’s-rest start that Bunning lost, this one to the Cardinals on the last day of September.  He started that September 30th game on two days’ rest, and he lasted only into the fourth inning, so you can say Mauch screwed that up, but if you look at the game, Bunning again pitched pretty well. His problem was that in 3 and 1/3 innings, the Phillies committed 3 official errors, and Bunning’s relief (again Bobby F. Locke) allowed Bunning’s runners to score. Two of the errors the Phillies made came in Bunning’s last full inning, so he had to get five men out to get through the inning, which is not exactly Bunning pitching ineffectively. That’s a grand total of two starts, maybe three, where Mauch drove Bunning extra-hard, but a lot of starts where driving Bunning extra-hard worked out well for Bunning and for the Phils.

30) Oh, yeah, one other thing.  While Gibson was beating the Mets in long relief that final game, the other game that the Cards needed to win the pennant outright was the Reds-Phils game that Philadelphia won by a 10-0 score. Remember who the Phillies’ pitcher was in that crucial final game? Yep, none other than Jim Bunning, again on three days’ rest.  Nine innings, 0 runs, with the season on the line—not exactly a sign of a burnt-out arm, is it?

31)  Bunning and Gibson each won his 19th game on that last day of the year, and they finished with similar records for 1964: 19 wins, 8 losses for Bunning and 19-12 for Gibson, a 2.63 ERA for Bunning and 3.01 for Gibson; Bunning 284 IP and 39 starts, Gibson 287 IP and 36 starts; 219 strikeouts for Bunning and 245 K for Gibson. Both men went on to pitch superbly for the next few years, so there was certainly no lasting damage done to either pitcher’s arm, and both demonstrated by a fantastic final start in the regular season how little all the innings and all the pressure affected in the short run their ability to throw a baseball.

32)  In that World Series (Bunning never got to pitch in one), Gibson earned the first of his legendary post-season accomplishments. In each of three Series, Gibson started three games, pitching exactly 27 innings in each Series, with 8 complete games in his 9 starts, and a 1.89 ERA against the 1964 Yankees, 1967 Red Sox and 1968 Tigers.

33)  Gibson’s unparalleled reputation as a post-season clutch superstar (well, maybe paralleled by Mathewson, Koufax and Bumgarner) didn’t even begin until over a week after October 4, 1964. Of his nine post-season starts, his first one was easily his worst. He lost his first World Series start, evening up the Series 1-1, giving up 4 runs in 8 innings, and failing for the only time to pitch a complete game. He made up for that shortfall in his second start on October 12th by pitching 10 innings and beginning his streak of eight consecutive World Series complete games, winning the MVP award in 1964 and in 1967.

34) This subject has been covered extensively, most notedly in David Halberstam’s book October 1964, so no need to repeat, though I’m not a big fan of Halberstam’s baseball books. (Bill savaged his Summer of ’49 book, and I’ve got all sorts of errors and misunderstandings in this one to point out for you, though maybe not here.) The title October 1964 is a kind of metonymy, the kind we call a synecdoche, in which the part stands for the whole—the book is actually about the two pennant-winners’ struggles the whole year long—so you can’t really fault Halberstam for devoting a mere sentence to the one game I found so fascinating, the one on October 4, 1964.

35)  But it is amazing to me how little coverage that game actually got, in Halberstam’s book and also in other books, and even in the contemporary newspaper accounts. The reason for this lack of coverage is easy to understand: the baseball world was buzzing with the big story, the Phils’ blowing a huge lead with almost the whole season gone. The Cardinals’ victory was secondary, almost, to Gene Mauch’s Phillies managing to blow the unblowable lead, and also to the Reds coming oh-so-close to the pennant, and also to the World Series coming up in just a few more days. To the extent that this game got covered at all, it was the Cardinals’ story, and not that of the Mets who had fought them so hard, nearly swiping the pennant from beneath their feet over the first two and two-thirds games of this three-game series. 

36)  One of the reasons the Mets got so little coverage, in addition to the sports reporters being spread thin covering the Cardinals’, Reds’, Phillies’, and Yankees’ angles, is that the Mets players wanted to get the hell out of Dodge. This was, after all, the ultimate getaway game. The Mets had all booked tickets home, and were eager to get there, so if a reporter couldn’t get them to sit down for a post-game interview that afternoon, between their showers and their cabs to the airport, there was no shot at interviewing any Mets that evening, the next day, or any time over the next five months.  I searched for descriptions of key plays of the day from the Mets players’ points-of-view, but if there were stories written containing such stuff, I couldn’t find them.

37)  Luckily, though, I had Bill Wakefield, who has a terrific clear memory and the inclination to share his memories with me, including what he would have said, if he’d been asked, in post-game interviews. Wakefield was one of the few Mets who was actually headed towards Dodge after the game—his parents were driving him home on I-70 following the game—but first his pal Rod Kanehl decided the two Mets should congratulate the Cardinals in person. Wakefield remembers walking into his ex-teammates’ clubhouse, right next door to the Mets’ lockerroom, shaking hands with old buddies, congratulating them. Both he and Kanehl had just played their final games in the major leagues, though Kanehl, 30 years old, knew he was finished while the 23-year old Wakefield didn’t have a clue he was done, nor should he have. The two Mets visitors each had friends in the Cardinals’ raucous clubhouse, the minor league veteran Kanehl with the older Cardinals, Ken Boyer, Barney Schultz, Curt Flood, and Wakefield with his buddies from his minor league days with the club, Maxvill, McCarver, Phil Gagliano, Sadecki, Mike Shannon, Jerry Buchek.  By Wednesday, Wakefield and his dad were playing golf on a deserted Swope Park public course in Kansas City as the Series opened up, a transistor radio on his golf cart, playing the radio broadcast to them between the holes, with Wakefield marveling that he had just been competing against these same guys, trying to keep them from the World Series only a few days earlier.

38)  Compare the final game of the 1964 season to other memorable games that helped decide a pennant. A lot of details have been written about the ending of the tight 1967 AL race between the Red Sox, Tigers, Twins, and White Sox,  and the 1949 Yankees-Sox playoff, and the Dodger-Giants playoffs of 1951 and 1962, and I always hear about the "Dick Nen" game. But very few people know when the Dick Nen game took place, or even what year it took place in. Most people assume it happened in 1964, but it took place on September 23, 1963, between the Cardinal and the Dodgers, and it didn’t even clinch the 1963 pennant. It just broke Cardinals fans’ hearts, and didn’t even win the game for LA: an unknown rookie, Nen hit a solo HR in the ninth that tied up the game, which the Dodgers went on to win. The 1963 pennant was decided a week later, with the Dodgers finishing in front of the second-place Cards by 6 games. The Mets-Cards finale in 1964, on the other hand, decided the NL then and there, and it hardly got any ink at all, comparatively. Weird.

39)  That final game of the 1964 season, by the way, almost marked the last relief appearance Bob Gibson would make for a decade. It’s purely coincidental and a little hokey as a symbol but just a few games after Casey Stengel retired in the middle of the 1965 season, Gibson would begin a record streak, 260 consecutive starting games without a relief appearance. Of course, the sharper distinction we have between starters and relievers is a much broader phenomenon than just Casey Stengel’s retirement, but there it is: after he left the game, managers stopped thinking of mixing and matching their pitchers quite so much on whim, and started notifying their pitchers more precisely what their roles would be on the ball club.

40)  I’ll break this off here, though I have a few more disjointed reflections after immersing myself in 1964 for the past week or so. Jim Bunning passed away yesterday, so I may as well put this out there, since it’s far more respectful than not of Bunning’s ability and somewhat defends his reputation (and Mauch’s) for screwing up the 1964 pennant, I think.  Bunning and Gibson did some amazing work under conditions that we today would regard as incredible if not actually barbaric, and which were enough to snuff out careers of lesser men. You have to respect that.

 
 

COMMENTS (12 Comments, most recent shown first)

billsizer
i'm very slow in commenting, partly because the site refused to accept my original comment. This is a great article; thank you, Steven. I was a fervent Cardinal fan in 1964. My only criticism is that in my view the 64 Cards were an aging team, not a young one, so much so that they fell apart in 1965. The entire infield got old except for Javier. My memory of the 64 final series with the Mets is that it was weirdly anticlimatic since the pennant seemed almost assured going into the series. It wasn't, of course. How many times have both Series managers changed jobs after the season? I don't know but am sure the answer is very few.
10:20 AM Jun 13th
 
Cypher
This guy could turn an invitation to a child's birthday party into 1,500 words. I'm a big Cards fan, and '64 was their first pennant during the period in which I could read, but there's a whole lot of drivel here, separating the good parts. And the reference to Nicole Brown Simpson is abhorrent.
12:05 PM May 30th
 
DavidTodd
this is great stuff
thanks for the effort
9:43 PM May 29th
 
wilbur
This is the second Harry Caray Cardinal game I've listened to on YouTube (I've gotten through about half of it). The other is a 1962 game that I linked to on a HeyBill some time ago.

It's a true pleasure for me to hear him when he was at his best, the voice of the Cardinal network. Although I grew up a Cub fan, it's the voice that takes me back to my childhood summer nights.

The NL 1964 was the first pennant race I remember being aware of. I didn't realize until years later that the American League race wasn't too shabby that year either.
6:08 PM May 29th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Sure thing, Wilbur, though I may jam a few into that Halberstam article I threatened you with. I looked up McCarver's error, and found several people had caught the reference to Tim Wakefield as "Bill" throughout the NLCS. McCarver-haters (and lovers, I suppose) may enjoy this sample:

www.newspaperalum.com/2013/10/tim-mccarver-preparing-for-one-last-hurrah.html

The thing I find funny about the whole error is that the name McCarver keeps messing up is, of course, his own. Tim's got a player named "Tim" who he keeps calling "Bill." It's like me writing about someone called "Steven" only I keep calling him "Mordecai."

If you listen to the broadcast I linked to, it not only describes Maxvill's hit as Wakefield described it, one that barely got through the Mets' infield, but also fumbled in the outfield, though not scored as an E-9. Here's Harry Caray, at exactly the two-hour mark: "Here’s the pitch, a groundball, to the right, a base hit, here’s the runner going to try to score, Christopher fumbles the ball and the Cardinals have another run." By calling it "a groundball" at first and then correcting it to "a base hit" Carey is confirming Wakefield's description of it as an eminently catchable 4-3, and then he adds how Joe Christopher doesn't field it cleanly either, allowing at least one extra run to score.

By the way, earlier in the game, Christopher bunts for a hit, but the retrosheet description has it a single to LF. Anyone know how I can get that corrected? It's not like it's judgment call or anything. Caray describes as a perfect bunt several times, and I'm sure from listening to the recording that the leftfielder didn't get within 200 feet of it.


4:14 PM May 29th
 
wilbur
Please give us more of the little anecdotes you're finding hard to jam in there.
3:30 PM May 29th
 
Steven Goldleaf
The "permission" was to take an afternoon off baseball to go to a nearby library to take the exam Stanford had arranged to be proctored there. You can sort of see where Wakefield's priorities were heading.​
10:34 AM May 29th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Quite true. Pretty sure that applies to Stuart as well. But Stengel was pretty active in the Mets organization over the 1965-6 winter. In fact (another little anecdote I've found hard to jam in here) when Wakefield had to take a final exam by mail in Spring Training 1966 to graduate Stanford, he told me, he asked Casey if it was okay, and Casey said Yeah, sure, Edna [Mrs. Stengel] likes Stanford, ya go right ahead, etc. I wrote back to him, saying that Casey had retired in mid-65, Westrum was now the manager, and so on, and he sent me clips of Casey (in a suit) very active in the Mets spring training, photos of Wes and Casey in consultation, specific anecdotes of Casey bustling around St. Petersburg camp offering advice. Wakefield said that after he'd gotten Casey's permission, he asked Westrum, too, as a kind of afterthought.
10:19 AM May 29th
 
pgaskill
One EXTREMELY tiny nit to pick in such a wonderful article, Steven: Ken Boyer didn't play an inning for the Mets until 1966, and you say Casey had to retire at midseason 1965, which means Boyer doesn't quite fit the scenario under which you mention him—although I'll grant you that that might have been a METS proclivity rather than just a STENGEL one.
9:58 AM May 29th
 
steve161
Excellent follow-up, and as it happens we agree in all particulars about the Phillies collapse. More often than not, it seems to me, fans and the press search for someone to blame for such failures and identify the wrong goat.
12:24 AM May 29th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Your mention of Wakefield's line for that year reminded me of one of the pieces I omitted (mostly because it seemed a little dumb and pointless, but not entirely misleading), comparing his stats to those of Tug McGraw in 1973, which I looked up because I wanted to see how closely some Mets relievers before Skip Lockwood in 1977 came to breaking Wakefield's record for game appearances.

1973 wasn't Tug's best year as a Met (1971 and 1972 are those, I think) but it was his most appearances and IP, and the best Tug ever did in MVP voting, and in many ways his 1973 (the year of "Ya Gotta Believe!") was representative, so looky here:

TM BW
G 60 62
IP 118.2 119.2
H 106 103
HR 11 10
ERA 3.87 3.61
8:36 PM May 28th
 
Manushfan
Its so odd looking over his line from that year, that he was a one year wonder. Pitched a lot of innings, had a decent ERA, this for a bad team. Strange thinking on the Mets' parts. Am sure he could have lasted a number of years afterwards.

Bunning was a really good pitcher, to my thinking a legit HOF. Nice to see him getting remembered for that.
6:43 PM May 28th
 
 
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