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Mudville: April 13, 2024 6:02 pm PDT


Some very important and wonderful things happened to John Rossi in 1964.

He completed his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, which helped secure a promotion at the college where he was teaching, and he met his wife, Frances.

They almost helped him recover from one of Philadelphia’s greatest sports tragedies: the collapse of the 1964 Phillies. The team was in first place by 6.5 games with only 12 games left in the season. World Series tickets were printed and sent to season ticket holders. Then the unthinkable happened: the team lost 10 straight games, and the pennant. (Some people kept the World Series tickets as a rueful reminder. A friend of mine and Philadelphia native, Irv Slifkin, said “I remember a bar … near where I grew up had Phillie pictures and a row of those tickets in the window.”)

About 40 years later, Rossi tried to make sense of what happened by writing “The 1964 Phillies: The Story of Baseball’s Most Memorable Collapse.

Last year, the book’s publisher asked Rossi for a second edition, which will be available this month or March. “I think (the publisher) saw the popularity of the Phillies and decided to capitalize on it,” he said. “This year is the 60thanniversary of the collapse.”

The publishers also know Philadelphia fans love to suffer their losses more than rejoice in the few championships they’ve won.

Rossi said the trauma of ’64 created “Negadelphia,” which means Philly sport fans expect the worst.

“I don’t remember that negative attitude about Philadelphia sports before ’64. Other city sports teams did not have the broad following of Phillies baseball. Even the Eagles winning was minor compared to a baseball championship. Same for basketball,” he said.

“Any fan who lived through that season and the collapse will never forget it. As soon as I mention I wrote a book about 64 to older fans, they begin reminiscing about it. What games they saw, who were their favorite players, which games of the collapse they remember,” said Rossi.

Angelo Cataldi came to Philadelphia to cover the Eagles for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 1990, he switched media and became a hugely popular host on the city’s all-sports station.

“It’s safe to say 1964 left a scar that has outlasted most of the fans who experienced it first-hand. It is still present in the minds of every true Philadelphia sports fan, whether they were here for it or not,” said Cataldi.

“More than once, I even sensed a tiny bit of pride over it. The attitude seems to be: Well, if we’re going to suffer a calamity, it may as well be the worst calamity in sports history. If we can’t be the best, Philly fans have often preferred to be the worst. The worst crime a sports team can commit in Philly is mediocrity,” said Cataldi.

(I believe that if the Phils had won the pennant some of the more famous acts committed by Philadelphia fans – throwing snowballs at Santa Claus or cheering when Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin while he was carried off the field on a stretcher – would not have happened.)

A friend, Chuck Darrow, a huge Phillies fan, has this take on that collapse: “Asking Philadelphia to forget 1964 is like asking Chicago to forget Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.”

Recently, football fans and sportscasters were moaning about the Philadelphia Eagles collapse and comparing it to (and even believing it exceeded) the 1964 Phillies But for Rossi what happened to that squad is the granddaddy of failures: “That one stands alone. There is no comparison that is apt to 1964,” he said.

Richie Allen of the Philadelphia Phillies warms up during the 1964 season. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Cataldi said 1964 came up recently during “the demise of the 2023 Eagles, who lost six of their last seven games. Again, all I could think of was 1964 as the final games unraveled. I did a bunch of interviews in the final weeks of the season, referencing many times the best example I could think of, the 1964 Phillies.”

“From my first day in Philly in 1983 — 19 years after the epic collapse — it was a point of reference for every bad loss any Philly sports team experienced,” he said.

The beginning of the end for the 1964 Phillies was a 1-0 loss to the Cincinnati Reds when Chico Ruiz stole home — with Frank Robinson at the plate.

“The steal of home by Chico Ruiz was mentioned every single year I was on the air in Philadelphia (1990-2023), often more times than would seem logical,” said Cataldi. The best example, he said, was the NFL Conference Championship game in 2002 against Tampa Bay. The Eagles were favored, but the game turned when receiver “Joe Jurevicius of Tampa ruined the last Eagles game at Veterans Stadium by running free for a 72-yard gain that symbolized the Eagles’ futility that day. (That loss sent Tampa to the Super Bowl and the Eagles home.) Jurevicius became Chico Ruiz. So did many of our other athletes who failed in the big moments brought back memories of Ruiz.”

“Actually, I was very much engrossed in the drama in 1964, as a 13-year-old in Providence,” recalls Cataldi. “I can remember sitting in an eye doctor’s office — I had a bad infection that required daily visits for a couple of weeks — and reading the newspaper every day to see if the Phillies would survive. It was the first time I rooted for the Phillies, but hardly the last.”

Rossi believes the losing streak was a matter of percentages. Every team, every year, said Rossi, has a slump. For the Phillies, he said, the slump happened at the worst possible time.

Writing the book, says Rossi, was “definitely was an act of catharsis. I had been talking about the collapse ever since it happened partly because that team meant so much to me. It was a favorite of mine because they played the kind of inside baseball I liked and I really admired the manager, Gene Mauch.”

“I got sidetracked (finishing the Ph.D. thesis) because the season was so exciting,” he said. “Nothing like that had happened since 1950 when the Phillies beat the great Brooklyn Dodgers team on the final day of the season to win the pennant, but then lost the World Series to the New York Yankees in four games,” he said.

Manager Gene Mauch #4 of Philadelphia Phillies looks on from the dugout during an Major League Baseball game circa 1964. Mauch managed the Phillies from 1960-68. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

The Phillies slump almost cost Rossi professionally. He was a full-time “instructor” at then La Salle College (now university). “I was trying to finish the dissertation because if I did before January I would get a raise and be promoted to assistant professor (and that) meant the school was interested in keeping you around,” he said.

“I just couldn’t concentrate and lost two weeks of writing. When I started back to work I was still haunted by ‘How could that have happened?’ I really didn’t get back on the thesis for about a month,” said Rossi. “I just made the deadline by a couple of days.”

Rossi went on to teach a baseball history course at La Salle and authored four books on baseball.

“The country grew up with baseball, and baseball grew up with the country,” says Rossi. “Almost everything that happened in American history is reflected in baseball from one time or another. Baseball was also a way for immigrants to assimilate in society: first were the Irish, then the Germans, by the end of the 19th century the Poles and even American Indians were playing.”

The years from 1946 to ’60 — which were the basis of his first book, A Whole New Game — were crucial for the sport, as owners and players dealt with issues the country was facing: integration, westward expansion, television.

His passion for baseball, however, did not have a promising start. His uncle took him to Philadelphia’s Shibe Park to see the Phillies when he was 8, and Rossi asked to leave early. The same scenario happened when he was 9. But in 1946, when he was 10, his attitude changed.

“It was overcast, and we didn’t know if the game would be played, and it was very humid. My uncle and I got there early, and [the weather] started to clear, and something clicked,” Rossi says. “It was a doubleheader, and I think the Phillies won both games. Maybe it was seeing the homers the Phillies hit. After that, we went to ballgames all the time,” recalled Rossi.

(Rossi also collected autographs of many ballplayers, included two signed photographs of Joe DiMaggio. His grandfather inadvertently threw both out.)

Fittingly, Rossi remembers when he met Frances by recalling a baseball game played that day.

“I met Frances at a wedding reception on August 28 (when) the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Joe Gibbon beat Jim Bunning 4-2,” said Rossi. “I used to tease her by asking when we met and when she dawdled, I would spring the date and game information on her. She said I remembered more about the Phillies collapse than our first dates which by the way isn’t true. As soon as I met her I knew I wouldn’t let her get away. We were married January 22, 1966 and lived happily ever after.”

(Rossi dedicated the first edition of the book to his daughter and son-in-law who had recently married. He dedicated the second edition to his wife, who died last year. The dedication reads, “To Frances Quinn Rossi. Fifty-Six Years wasn’t enough.”)

But for Rossi, after 60 years and seeing the Phillies win its first World Series in 1980 and a second in 2008, does that September swoon still hurt?

“Hell, yeah!” he says.

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

  • Jack Seydow

    Excellent article. I, too, liked the ’64 Phillies and Gene Mauch. Rossi’s memories are invaluable; Caroulis’ reporting is exceptional.

    February 27, 2024
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