Slide! – a kid’s-eye view of the 1964 Phillies – is everything I wanted it to be: a dramatic chronicle of one of the most unforgettable teams in MLB history and a sweet homage to baseball, family, and growing up in the early 1960s.
Just after Labor Day 1963, when I was 10, my family moved to South Jersey, just across the Ben Franklin Bridge from Philadelphia. I knew little about baseball, but my baptism came in short order and in thrilling fashion. At Connie Mack Stadium on September 13, I watched Chris Short outduel Sandy Koufax and Gene Mauch out-manage Walter Alston. Two runs in the bottom of the ninth sealed the 3-2 win – and I was hooked. Baseball would be my passion, and the Phillies would be my team.
Few experts picked the Phils to contend in 1964. And no one could imagine the high spirits and heartbreak that would possess our family, and all Phillies fans, for the next 162 games.
A mix of proven veterans (Jim Bunning, Gus Triandos, Wes Covington), rising stars (Johnny Callison, Ruben Amaro) and farm system phenoms (Richie Allen, Alex Johnson) paced the Phils to a 9-2 April and an unexpected perch atop the National League.
From then on, it was glorious.
On Father’s Day at Shea Stadium, Bunning pitched the first perfect game in the NL since 1880. Portland’s Rick Wise pitched the second game of that doubleheader, earning the first of his 188 career wins.
Sixteen days later, on the same field, Callison won the All- Star Game in the bottom of the ninth with a blast to deep right off the game’s dominant fastballer, Dick Radatz. I was just 11 years old and already had my own version of Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” or Maz’s 1960 curtain dropper. It was “The Swat That Slew the Monster.”
Winning became infectious. Whatever lineup Mauch scratched onto the scorecard seemed to deliver the magic. We even led the majors in triple plays.
On September 21, 1964, my dad and sister and I had prime field seats for the opening game of the final home stand. We were up by six and a half games with 12 to play. Dad, who, as the saying went, “was so cheap he invented the limbo trying to get into a pay toilet,” was so happy he flagged every treat vendor and even bought me a pennant that read: “Phillies – National League Champions 1964.”
Every Phillies fan knows what happened next. If you find yourself next to one, don’t utter the name “Chico Ruiz.”
The slide was worse than my brief Little League career (another 1964 calamity) where my abysmal efforts on offense and defense were surpassed in laughable rottenness only by my lack of speed, which quickly earned me the league-wide nickname, “Lead Bottom.”
Every other chapter of Slide! is a recollection of the final 12 games of the season, as my family and I (ridiculously) tried every trick to ward off the losing. The alternating chapters contain the back story of how we came to love baseball and the Phillies season up to the point of collapse.
As you might glean from the book’s subtitle, my story contains heavy doses of family humor, including my bickering parents (who put up Chinese symbols for “peace” and “happiness” and argued for years about which was which), my grandmother (who was so stubbornly Republican that she refused to carry a Roosevelt dime), and my blustery septuagenarian great aunt.
Decades before ESPN’s Chris Berman created his signature nicknames – John “I Am Not A” Kruk – Aunt Nelle painted the national pastime with churlish color. If shortstop Bobby Wine muffed a grounder, she would pronounce him “Bobby Wino.” Tony Taylor, who crossed himself before each at bat, was known as “The Pope.”
Aunt Nelle’s frequent letters to “the brass” at Shibe Park (as she still called it) contained specific instructions on who should pitch in relief, who should be benched, and who, receiving the ultimate penalty, “should be traded to the Cubs!” Her letters and calls to me during the slide were classic; she had all the answers – including “getting the boys liquored up and loose” – but no one would listen.
There have been two or three books written about the 1964 Phillies, but I made a deliberate decision not to read them. I always knew I was going to write this story and did not want my recollections influenced by other accounts.
In preparation, I first logged my most indelible memories: where I was when I heard that President Kennedy was assassinated, how I felt during the final outs of Bunning’s perfect game. Those sights and sounds and emotions never seem to fade. I read letters and sifted through mementoes like my Phillies yearbook and baseball paperbacks. I interviewed my parents and sisters.
As a kid, I lived religiously in the sports pages of our daily, The Philadelphia Bulletin, so I had the microfilm of those issues sent to the Multnomah Country Library. Seeing the photos, box scores, headlines, display ads, and once again reading my favorite beat writers, Ray Kelly and Sandy Grady, was a trip. It all came back. I was 11 again.
Memoir, or literary nonfiction, also allows you to step out of the narrative and add perspective. I realized, for instance, that baseball taught me a valuable lesson. Sport in 1964 played out against a backdrop of racial tension and summer riots in many cities, including Philadelphia. My dad explained to me what Richie Allen had gone through to brave segregation during his time with the Phillies AAA squad, the Arkansas Travelers. And we cheered equally for Johnny Briggs and Jack Baldschun and Tony Gonzalez. My heroes were not black or white or Hispanic, but just Phillies.
Slide! is both deeply personal and a universal story of hope and heart. It is, perhaps, the only retelling of the 1964 Phillies with a happy ending. And the final passage seems to stick with readers long after they close the book!
I hope you will pick up a copy.
In Portland, Slide! is in stock at Powell’s Burnside, Broadway Books, and Annie Bloom’s. Any bookstore can order it for you. It is available online at Amazon.com or at my publisher’s website, MascotBooks.com.