Column by The Post's Lonnie Wheeler
Forty years later, Jim O'Toole can still see the whole scene from the on-deck circle at Crosley Field, where he waited to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning.
It was Friday night, the final weekend of the 1964 season, and the Reds led the Philadelphia Phillies 3-0, ready to reassume first place in one of the greatest pennant races the National League has ever seen. The Phillies, meanwhile, were two days from disappearing deep into some distant woods to blast away their miseries with the hunting rifles they had bought in foolish anticipation of World Series checks.
The race had been theirs all summer. Jim Bunning had pitched a perfect game on Father's Day. Johnny Callison was looking like a Most Valuable Player. Gene Mauch was making all the right moves as manager. With a dozen games to play, Philadelphia led by 6 ½, leaving the Reds, Cardinals and Giants to jostle for second place.
Cincinnati and St. Louis, however, were not yet in surrender modes, even in late September. The Cardinals were determined to win the pennant for Bing Devine, the popular general manager who had traded for Lou Brock just before the June 15 deadline but was fired in August, replaced by Bob Howsam. The Reds, meanwhile, wanted dearly to do something special for Fred Hutchinson, the intrepid manager who was overtaken that year by lung cancer and supplanted on Aug. 13 by Dick Sisler, the son of Hall of Famer George Sisler and the former Whiz Kid whose final-day home run had brought the Phillies their memorable pennant in 1950.
Of the two, the Reds seemed to attack the final weeks with a more inspired vengeance. When the teams met in a Sept. 19 doubleheader at Crosley Field -- where, in Pete Rose's second season, attendance averaged just over 10,000 a game -- Bob Gibson held a 5-0 lead in the opener, only to lose on Frank Robinson's 3-run, ninth-inning homer. The next day, the Reds came back from a 6-0 deficit to beat the Cardinals 9-6 and wrest second place from St. Louis.
But the Phillies still led by 6 ½ games when Cincinnati moved on to Philadelphia for a three-game series beginning Sept. 21. The home team's pitcher that night was Art Mahaffey of Western Hills High School. The Reds went with spot-starter John Tsitouris. The two toiled scorelessly into the sixth inning, when, with two outs and the great Robinson at bat, Chico ("bench me or trade me") Ruiz had the cockeyed idea to steal home. He made it. The game ended 1-0, and so, effectively, did Philadelphia's season.
Beginning with that unforgettable night, the Phillies would go on to lose 10 straight games, pulling off the most ignominious collapse in major-league history. Cincinnati almost simultaneously won nine in a row, taking over first place in New York by sweeping a doubleheader with the Mets for the second time in three days.
When they returned home for their final five games, the Reds were met at the airport by a happy throng of thousands, including Hutchinson, the raging, revered skipper who by then was fearfully thin. The Reds had watched their bearish leader deteriorate over the long summer, which was particularly hard for O'Toole.
"I had a special feeling for Hutch," the lefty said. "He was the one who really pulled us all together. When he became the manager, he gave me the ball every four days. From the middle of 1959 to the day he died, I was about 86-60.
"But halfway through the '64 season, he just couldn't do it anymore. One eye sagged down. His boy always wore the number 1 uniform like his dad, and he started limping just like his dad. How Hutch ever got to the airport to congratulate us was unbelievable."
The Pirates were in town, and on the next two nights, in front of crowds not much bigger than that which had stormed the airport, the Reds were shut out by first Bob Friend and then Bob Veale, who outlasted Jim Maloney in a 1-0, 16-inning struggle. But Cincinnati won the finale, starting the final weekend -- strangely, there was no game scheduled for Saturday -- a half-game behind St. Louis and two ahead of both San Francisco and Philadelphia. It was such a tangle that a four-way tie was conceivable.
The Reds, though, had grander ideas. "I think everybody felt like we had it done," said Joe Nuxhall. "The Phillies, in all honesty, were just saying, 'Hey, let's get it over with.' ''
And they played like it; at least for seven innings. O'Toole, the Reds' best pitcher and biggest winner that year, had them totally silenced with only six more outs to get, and as he knelt in the on-deck circle, was hoping his team would pad its three-run lead against Phillies left-hander Chris Short. That was when Short hit Leo Cardenas in the thigh with a slider.
With his bat still gripped, Cardenas took off, seething, toward the mound, at which point the anger shifted to the Philadelphia side. "That just lit them up," said Nuxhall. "After that, things went haywire for us."
O'Toole was uneasy about what Cardenas did, but it wasn't until the top of the eighth that his pique was directed squarely at the Cincinnati shortstop, who didn't bother to take ground balls while the club warmed up. Then, with one out, Frank Thomas hit an infield bloop that Cardenas made little attempt to catch.
"I don't know where he was at," O'Toole said, "but I was so frustrated to see that happen with so much on the line."
The frustration mounted when Sisler went to the bullpen for Billy McCool, leaving the lefty in to face right-handed rookie slugger Richie Allen. Allen's triple gave the Phillies a 4-3 lead that stood up.
In the clubhouse after the game, O'Toole had harsh words for Cardenas and shoved him up against a wall. Cardenas responded by pulling an ice pick on the Cincinnati pitcher. The Reds were unraveling.
In St. Louis, however, the Mets' Alvin Jackson was besting Gibson 1-0. New York won again Saturday, leaving the Reds and Cardinals tied heading into the final game, with the Phillies one back. The Giants had been eliminated Saturday.
Bunning started Sunday on two days' rest, but Maloney was still worn out from the 11 hard innings he had pitched against Pittsburgh. Sisler went instead with Tsitouris, who was not up to the occasion. The revitalized Phillies were all over Cincinnati, 10-0.
Even so, a three-way tie remained possible when the Cardinals trailed the Mets 3-2 in the middle innings. But after Gibson -- who hadn't slept after Friday's defeat -- rallied his team with four innings of gutsy, scoreless relief, St. Louis had won the pennant.
Or the Reds had lost it, perhaps needlessly. "When you wake up the sleeping dog, that's what happens," reflected O'Toole. "It was terrible that we couldn't win."
It was worse that, on November 12, Hutchinson died at the age of 45. The following year, his number was the first that the Reds retired.
On that day, much like this one and every final Friday for the past 40 baseball seasons, O'Toole was visited by the melancholy memory of 1964. He feels now what he felt then.
"We should have won it for Hutch," he said.
Publication Date: 10-01-2004