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Gene Mauch's "Biggest Mistake" in '64

Updated: Mar 27, 2020

“It was then that Gene Mauch made perhaps his biggest mistake of the season. He decided to start Bunning, his ace, in Houston on September 16, on only two days’ rest.”

“Why start Bunning on short rest? When we consider the calendar and that the Phillies were beginning to print World Series tickets, what emerges as the most plausible reason for this decision is that Mauch was trying to set up his best pitcher, Jim Bunning, to start the first game of the World Series.”

“…..this decision of his (Mauch) had a devastating cascading effect as the Phillies went into their 10-game losing streak, because Bunning turned out not to be available to pitch against one of the remaining contending clubs, the Reds. In trying to prepare for the World Series, Mauch forgot the importance of starting his best pitchers in their appropriate turn. Baseball has a way of punishing hubris.”

The words above are those of Bryan Soderholm-Difatte’s, taken from his “Beyond Bunning and Short Rest: An Analysis of Managerial Decisions That Led to the Phillies’ Epic Phillies Collapse of 1964” article that appeared in the SABR Fall 2010 Baseball Research Journal. That article also appeared in the book The Year of the Blue Snow: The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies.

In his article Soderholm-Difatte discussed several managerial errors that Phillies manager Gene Mauch committed during the latter half of September ’64 that led to the Phillies’ historic collapse. Those errors have been widely discussed in the past. In addition to those errors though, Soderholm-Difatte writes at length about Mauch’s decision to start his ace Jim Bunning on two days rest in Houston on September 16, 1964. Soderholm-Difatte concluded that Mauch started Bunning against a weak Houston team on short rest because Mauch was trying to line up Bunning for the first game of the World Series on regular rest. Soderholm-Difatte’s theory is certainly an original take as to why Mauch started Bunning on that day. The lining up of Bunning by Mauch for Game One of the World Series in the middle of September 1964 to ensure Bunning was on regular rest heading into the World Series as a reason to start Bunning against Houston on only two days’ rest was certainly plausible, but was it probable?

Gene Mauch and Jim Bunning in '64

According to the Philadelphia News Journal, when asked at the time about Bunning starting on two days’ rest Mauch answered by saying, “Jim Bunning wanted to pitch and I wanted him to pitch.” The question is why did Mauch want Bunning to pitch i.e. make that start against Houston? Was it because of what Soderholm-Difatte claimed i.e. Mauch wanting to line up Bunning for Game 1 of the World Series? Probably not. An article appearing on September 16 in the Philadelphia News Journal titled: “Pitching Depth Fading for Phils” suggested quite a different reason. The article’s headline is a good indication as to what Mauch was dealing with heading into that final game of the Phillies’ three game series in Houston.

At the time and in terms of starting pitching, Mauch was working with the following: Jim Bunning, Chris Short, Dennis Bennett, Rick Wise, Art Mahaffey and Ray Culp. Mauch may have also had reliever John Boozer at his disposal given that Boozer had made three starts in ’64. Short and Bennett were scheduled to start on September 18 and 19 respectively, their natural turns in the rotation so they were out of the equation for that September 16 match-up versus Houston. That left Mauch with Wise, Culp, Mahaffey, Boozer and Bunning, who as we know would have had to pitch on two days’ rest.

Phillies' Rick Wise 1964

Wise was out of the equation since Mauch had elected to start the then 18 year-old hurler on September 17 which was the Phillies’ opening game in their four-game set versus the Dodgers in Los Angeles. Wise had last pitched on September 12 which meant that Wise was certainly an option for Mauch for the start against Houston on the 16th. Mauch explained his reasoning to the Philadelphia News for choosing to start Wise in LA on the 17th. Mauch: “It was like this, as far as starting him (Wise) tonight. Rick Wise once upon a time, beat Los Angeles with six innings of relief. Six innings is what I had in mind for him tonight.” Mauch’s recollection of Wise’s performance versus the Dodgers was not completely accurate. Wise did not throw six innings of relief for the Phillies against the Dodgers in 1964. What Mauch was probably referring to was Wise’s 4.1 innings of relief versus LA on August 1. In that game Wise relieved Jim Bunning, who was only able to complete two innings. Bunning had given up four runs (two earned) before Wise entered the game. The Phillies ended up winning that game 10-6 over Dodger pitching great Don Drysdale with Wise being awarded the win for his 4.1 innings of work. He gave up two runs on three hits and walked three.

Phillies' Ray Culp

Ray Culp’s arm issues further limited Mauch’s choices. Culp’s ERA in August ‘64 was 7.78. He was shut down for 12 days on August 30 after a relief appearance in Pittsburgh in which he gave up two earned runs in just one inning pitched. Culp returned on September 12 in a game versus the Giants and gave up three runs (two earned) in 1.1 innings pitched. Given Culp’s arm issues and ineffectiveness, he was obviously not a viable option for Mauch to make that September 16 start versus Houston.

That left Mauch with Bunning, Mahaffey and Boozer. Boozer hadn’t made a start since August 2. As a starter Boozer was 1-2 with a 4.30 ERA. The National League average ERA in 1964 was 3.54. Just two weeks prior on September 3, Boozer appeared in a game versus Houston. Boozer threw one third of an inning and gave up two earned runs on three hits.

Art Mahaffey was coming off two poor starts of his own, both of which were losses. On September 8, Mahaffey lasted two thirds of an inning versus the Dodgers and gave up three earned runs. On September 12 Mahaffey lasted two innings against the Giants and gave up two earned runs. He also walked three batters. According to the Lancaster New Era newspaper, Mahaffey was also dealing with a sore arm in the late stages of the ’64 season: “When their sore arms have permitted, Art Mahaffey and Ray Cup have come through,” the paper opined. It is very possible that Mahaffey had been experiencing a sore arm in those two starts versus Los Angeles and San Francisco making Mahaffey at best, a very iffy option for Mauch.

Art Mahaffey

Mauch’s final option was Phillies ace Jim Bunning who was coming off a 10 inning complete game performance versus the Giants just three days prior on September 13. Bunning gave up only one earned run and collected his 17th win of the season. Using Tom Tango’s pitch count estimate formula, Bunning threw approximately 144 pitches in that start. If Mauch chose Bunning to make the Houston start he would be doing so knowing that Bunning would be pitching on two days rest after his ace may have thrown in excess of 140 pitches. What made the choice appealing to Mauch though was that Bunning had completely dominated Houston in 1964.

In his previous five starts versus the Colt .45s, Bunning had a 4-0 record with a 1.59 ERA in 39.2 innings pitched including three complete games. Mauch’s other option, Art Mahaffey, on the other hand, in his last start versus Houston, lasted just one inning. The right-hander gave up three hits and five earned runs with the big blow being a grand slam homerun by Houston catcher Bob Aspromonte. According to the Philadelphia Daily News, Mauch was furious with Mahaffey after the game. “Since the year one you don’t give the batter an 0-2 pitch that he can hit out of the park” barked Mauch. Apparently the Mahffey offering was a cookie pitch. “I wasn’t going to take that pitch uh-huh” is what Aspromonte was quoted as saying when interviewed after the game. Mauch was so enraged after that Houston game that again, according to the Philadelphia Daily News, a guard at the Phillies’ dressing room gate was quoted as saying, “I’ve never seen a manager madder.”

An Angry Gene Mauch During the Summer of '64

So to review, Mauch had at the most a choice of three pitchers to start against Houston on September 16, 1964 excluding Rick Wise whom Mauch elected to start against Los Angeles the following day. Mauch had John Boozer who wasn’t really a starter and who had been blown up by the Colt .45s in his previous appearance against the team just two weeks prior. He had Art Mahaffey who was coming off two consecutive starts in which he was unable to last longer than two innings, perhaps due to arm issues and who had also been hit hard by Houston in his previous start versus the Colt .45s. Lastly Mauch had his horse, Jim Bunning, who had owned the Colt .45s all season long but would be making the start on only two days’ rest.

Bunning Pitching a Perfect Game vs. Mets

It should be noted that Bunning had made two starts on two days’ rest in 1964 but both of those were following relief appearances including his start versus the Mets on June 21, 1964 in which Bunning fired a perfect game.

Mauch decided to go with Bunning. In terms of Mauch’s reasoning for electing to start Bunning, it was probably due to the uncertainty of his two other options, Boozer and Mahaffey. With the 18 year-old Rick Wise scheduled to start in Los Angeles on September 17 and an ailing Dennis Bennett (shoulder) scheduled to start on September 19, Mauch may have felt that his bullpen needed to be completely rested for the Phillies’ series heading into LA. Bunning, Mauch may have thought, was a surer thing when it came to eating up innings. Moreover, a Bunning start against Houston was almost a sure win for the Phillies given Bunning’s dominance of the Colt .45s in ‘64. With a win the Phillies would leave Houston with a three game sweep of the Colt .45s and a completely rested bullpen heading into LA. Unfortunately for Mauch and the Phillies, Bunning wasn’t his usual dominating self. He was roughed up by Houston to the tune of six runs in just over four innings of work with the Phillies losing the game 6-5.

Phillies Ace Jim Bunning

However, looking ahead to the Phillies’ four game series in Los Angeles and the following three-game set versus the Reds at home, the Phillies’ rotation was still in good shape. Starting Bunning versus Houston though as Soderhom-Dilfatte rightly pointed out in his article, did cost Mauch an opportunity to start Bunning versus the Reds who were chasing the Phillies for the NL Pennant. However, given how the Phillies’ rotation lined up for both the Dodger series and then the Reds series, Bunning starting in Houston wasn’t much of a sacrifice.

With Bunning starting in Houston on September 16, Mauch’s rotation was as follows:

Sept 16- Bunning vs Houston

Sept 17- Wise vs Los Angeles

Sept 18- Short vs Los Angeles

Sept 19- Bennett vs Los Angeles

Sept 20- Bunning vs Los Angeles

Sept 21- Mahaffey vs Cincinnati

Sept 22- Short vs. Cincinnati

Sept 23- Bennett vs Cincinnati

If Mauch had elected to start Mahaffey who was clearly his second option for that final game in Houston, the Phillies’ rotation would have been as follows:

Sept 16- Mahaffey vs Houston

Sept 17- Bunning vs Los Angeles

Sept 18- Wise vs Los Angeles

Sept 19- Short vs Los Angeles

Sept 20- Bennett vs Los Angeles

Sept 21- Mahaffey vs Cincinnati

Sept 22- Bunning vs Cincinnati

Sept 23- Short vs Cincinnati

To put it simply, by Bunning pitching in Houston on September 16, Mauch cost the Phillies a Bunning start versus the Reds. Rick Wise’s one start vs. LA would not have changed. Mauch wanted Wise to start against the Dodgers. Had Wise started versus Houston, he would have been unable to start against the Dodgers. Chris Short’s starts would not have changed (one vs. LA, one vs. CIN). Dennis Bennett would have gone from making starts against both LA and Cincinnati to just one against LA. Mahaffey’s starts would not have changed. He still would have started against Cincinnati.

In short, Mauch’s decision to start Bunning in Houston meant that Bunning would start against Houston and Los Angeles and Bennett would start against Los Angeles and Cincinnati rather than Bunning vs. Los Angeles and Cincinnati and Bennett vs. just Los Angeles.

Bunning vs Houston in ’64: 4 W, 0 L, 39.2 IP, 7 ER, 1.59 ERA

Bunning vs. Cincinnati ’64 (coming into that series): 0 W, 1 L, 19.1 IP, 8 ER, 3.72 ERA

Bennett vs. Cincinnati ’64 (coming into that series): 2 W, 2 L, 28.1 IP, 9 ER, 2.86 ERA

Mauch Making a Mound Visit to Dennis Bennett

Bennett was actually better than Bunning against the Reds in ’64 heading into that series versus Cincinnati that was to be played on September 21, 22 and 23 which may have also factored into Mauch’s decision.

Given Mauch’s limited choices in the rotation, his stated plan to start Rick Wise in an attempt to get six innings out of the youngster against Los Angeles on September 17, the arm troubles that both Mahaffey and Culp were experiencing as well as the uncertainty of Dennis Bennett’s shoulder issues, Mauch elected to go with Jim Bunning. Bunning had dominated Houston all year and had averaged just less than eight innings per start versus the Colt .45s. Mauch’s reasoning was most likely that with Bunning starting, despite on only two days’ rest, his club stood an excellent chance of winning the final game of the Houston series to complete the three-game sweep. He may have also been banking on having a very well rested bullpen heading into Los Angeles.

Mauch echoed some of that reasoning for starting his ace when he barked the following after the loss to Houston: “Criticize it if you want to. I’m going to kick them (Houston) just like I’ve been kicking them all year” (The News Journal, September 17, 1964). On the day of that final game against Houston (Sept 16) Mauch was quoted as saying: “Relax? How can anybody relax in a NL race? Failures are made through relaxation. Only a fool relaxes in this league. This isn’t a relaxing game the way we play it.” Mauch certainly did not sound like a manager who was looking ahead to the World Series as Soderholm-Difatte had claimed in his article.

It is clear that Mauch wasn’t taking anything for granted despite his Phillies being up six games at the time. Mauch went further when asked about the World Series and his team’s comfort level: “I saw New York (Giants) catch Brooklyn one year when they were 13.5 games down around the 15th of August. The Giants just went berserk….you don’t like to think of things like that but when you’ve seen it happen you just can’t get it out of your mind. You just can’t count on anything in baseball.”

Mauch had several reasons to start Jim Bunning on two days' rest on September 16, 1964. Given what Mauch was dealing with at the time, he had limited options for that Houston start in large part because his pitching was beginning to show signs of a complete break down. It doesn’t appear that lining up Bunning to start Game One of the World Series on his regular rest was one of the reasons why Mauch had elected to start Bunning against Houston. There is no evidence to suggest otherwise and is simply an oversimplification. A lifetime baseball man like Gene Mauch deserves much better.

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