Fifty years ago, the Phillies gave their fans a glorious summer of baseball.
And then, summer turned to fall, a utility infielder crossed the Phils’ path, and the 1964 Phillies became a team that lives in infamy.
The Phillies had been playing baseball for 82 seasons, usually with a unique ineptness. They had won not a single World Series, but they had rung up more losses than any team in professional sports.
They had made all of two appearances in the Fall Classic, playing neither in classic form. They won their first-ever Series game, on Oct. 8, 1915, when Grover Cleveland Alexander outdueled Ernie Shore of the Red Sox, 3-1. They then proceeded to lose four in a row.
The streak continued 35 years later, when the Whiz Kids of 1950 were swept by the Yankees.
By 1958, the Phils had sunk back into their customary position in last place. They remained there in 1959. In 1960, when they lost on Opening Day, their manager, Eddie Sawyer, promptly resigned, declaring, "I’m 49 years old, and I want to live to be 50."
Gene Mauch took over, and guided the Phillies to another last place finish. Things bottomed out in 1961, when the Phils lost 107 games, including 23 in a row, still the record for consecutive futility.
Thanks to expansion in 1962, the Phils slipped into a winning record (81-80), and in 1963 they improved to 87-75, reaching the first division with their fourth place finish.
The modest improvement left no one prepared for what occurred in 1964. The Phils acquired Jim Bunning in the offseason. He became the ace of the staff, winning 19 games, including a perfect game thrown on Father’s Day.
Outfielder Johnny Callison had a career year, hitting .274 with 31 homers, 101 runs scored and 104 RBIs. He also hit a walk-off three-run homer off the Red Sox’s Dick "The Monstah" Radatz to win the All-Star game, 7-4.
Dick Allen, known then as Richie, won Rookie of the Year honors, playing every game at third base and leading the league with 125 runs scored and 13 triples.
The Phils flew out of the gate, winning 10 of their first 12 games. A 19-7 spurt lifted them to 48-28 on July 9, and virtually every car along the Main Line sported a "Go, Phillies, Go!" bumper sticker.
On Sept. 20, the Phils flew home from Los Angeles and were met at the airport by a flock of thousands. They had a 90-60 record and a 6 1/2 game lead with only 12 to play. They had already printed World Series tickets and had taken over 90,000 orders.
The entire season had been so incredible, yet so unexpected, that catcher Gus Triandos dubbed it The Year of the Blue Snow.
And then, incredibly, the unexpected really happened.
On Sept. 21, the second-place Reds arrived for a three game series. The first game was scoreless in the top of the sixth inning. Pete Rose grounded out, but Chico Ruiz followed with a single. Vada Pinson followed with a hard single off the glove of pitcher Art Mahaffey. Ruiz sped around to third, but Pinson was thrown out at second.
Ruiz, born Giraldo Ruiz Sablon, a native of Santo Domingo, Cuba, was a 26-year-old rookie, hitting .236 at the time of his single. He would garner 311 at bats in 1964, the only time in his eight-year career that he amassed more than 250 at bats in any season.
He averaged 144 at bats per year in his career, compiled a lifetime average of .240, hit two homers and scored 133 runs. But he could play every position, except pitcher. In fact, his 1965 Topps baseball card listed his position as "infield."
In 1968, Ruiz would find himself in the lineup five days in a row. Outraged at this circumstance, he came off the field in the middle of the fifth game, slammed down his glove and told manager Dave Bristol, "I’ve had this playing regular up to here. I am sick and tired of it. Either bench me or trade me!"
Another time, his wife brought their two daughters to see daddy at the stadium. Mrs. Ruiz became worried when she couldn’t spot Chico anywhere in the dugout. A helpful fan intervened. "Somebody had to show her I was out at shortstop. She never thought to look for me out on the field!" Chico explained.
This was the man who was leading off third base as Frank Robinson stepped in to hit. The future Hall-of-Famer swung and missed Mahaffey’s first pitch. But Ruiz had noticed something. Mahaffey used a full windup and was so intent on Robinson that he barely acknowledged Ruiz at third.
Mahaffey went into the same deliberate windup on the second pitch, and Ruiz took off for home. From the Reds dugout, manager Dick Sisler hollered, "No! No!" Mahaffey, rushing his delivery, threw high and outside. Robinson, spying Ruiz on his way, held out his bat. "I did what I could to protect him," he told reporters after the game.
Ruiz slid home, under catcher Clay Dalrymple’s tag, with the only run in a 1-0 game.
"It was the dumbest play I’ve ever seen," Rose said years later, "except that it worked."
Mauch was beside himself. "Chico Ruiz! I can’t believe it! If he had been thrown out, he would be sent back to the minors where he belongs."
That began a 10 game losing streak for the Phils. They wouldn’t win again until the season’s final two games, when they knocked the Reds out of first place. The Reds and Phils finished tied for second, one game behind the Cardinals.
There were other factors at work during the Phils great collapse, but talk to vintage Phillies fans, and they retain a vivid memory from 1964.
It was Chico Ruiz’s steal of home that derailed the Phillies pennant express.