Paging through race of '64 shows how book blew lead

August 10, 1994|By PHIL JACKMAN

With the strike moving in like one of those humidity fronts out of the south, it seemed like a pretty good idea to set the book aside for when we would all be bumbling around, bleary-eyed, looking for something to replace our summer lifeline called baseball.

Oh boy, "October 1964" by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam. Listen to some of the man's credits: "The Best and the Brightest," "The Fifties," "The Powers That Be," "The Next Century," and the tale-of-two-cities diamond classic "Summer of '49."

With the baseball season of 30 years ago as a focus, Halberstam couldn't help but come up with something to rival the splendid works of the duelling Rogers, Angell and Kahn: "The Boys of Summer," "The Summer Game," "Five Seasons" and "Season Ticket."

Without even benefit of cursory research, one could make a strong case for the season of 1964 being one of the most memorable, eventful and exciting since they decided to put numbers on the uniforms back in the '20s.

The lead story of the season came out of the National League, specifically Philadelphia, where the Phillies enjoyed a 6 1/2 -game lead with only a dozen to play. And blew sky high, losing 10 straight games and being out of the pennant chase come the last day of the regular season.

This fade was even more pronounced than the Dodgers' swoon in 1951 when the Giants made up a 13 1/2 -game deficit in mid-August and nipped their cross-town rivals in a three-game playoff.

Philadelphia was breezing with a 90-60 record until out of necessity, and perhaps panic, manager Gene Mauch started pitching his mound aces Jim Bunning and Chris Short on two days rest. Between them, they lost six straight games under this regimen.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals, ultimately the NL champs, were hardly heard from during the first four months of the season, slumbering in seventh place and still under .500 (47-48) in late July.

The American League had the far better race during the bulk of the season, the Orioles playing a major part in a race for the first time and, together with the White Sox, riding in first place into September.

Brooks Robinson had his greatest season, winning the MVP Award with a .317 batting average, 28 home runs and 118 runs batted in. A young pitcher, Wally Bunker, came out of nowhere in May and won 19 games. Sam Bowens had a terrific rookie season. The town was going wild.

What made Chicago outstanding was pitching, Gary Peters Juan Pizarro, Joel Horlen and Hoyt Wilhelm saving 37 games and winning a dozen with el flutterball.

The AL was loaded down with promising young stars, Tony Oliva showing up in Minnesota to lead the league in hitting, Tony Conigliaro smacking homers in Boston and Luis Tiant bamboozling hitters in Cleveland.

Everybody, it seems, had something to sell, except the Yankees, who had been swept by the Dodgers the year before in the World Series. Roger Maris was hurt all the time, the end was in sight for Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra was managing the team with something less than a reassuring hand.

This just scratches the surface. As the Cards began to make their push, Bing Devine was let go as team general manager and there was no doubt Johnny Keane was out as manager as soon as October arrived.

The Yankees, languishing in third place, were sold to CBS for $11 million and the quips started about Yogi joining Walter Cronkite behind the anchor's desk.

Phil Linz played a harmonica on a team bus heading for O'Hare Airport in Chicago after being swept four games and didn't hear when manager Berra yelled something from the front of the bus. "He says, 'Play it louder,' " Mickey Mantle said, helpful as ever.

Finally New York bolstered their inconsistent pitching by picking up Pedro Ramos, and the Yankees began to move.

On the same day Ramos was peddled to the Big Apple, Boog Powell, having a monster year, 39 home runs and 99 RBIs, XTC injured a wrist running into the wall in Boston. He was done and so were the O's and White Sox as the Bombers won 19 of their last 22.

Bob Gibson pitched three times in the last week for the Cards, including the last day when he had to beat the Mets. Cincinnati could have forced a playoff with a win in its finale, but the Phillies chose to wake up at that moment and they crushed the Reds, 10-0.

The Series was a back-and-forth dream, the Cardinals winning in seven, Gibson picking up three victories. Yogi Berra was canned. Johnny Keane quit and immediately took the Yankee job.

Things continued to happen fast and furiously, but, in his book, Halberstam covers little of it. Most of his effort deals with things from a Yankee perspective, and that's fine if you live in northern Jersey, the five boroughs of New York, Long Island or western Connecticut.

Hey, David, you could have had a good one here.

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