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september swoon

29 February 2004

Gene Mauch, manager of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, used to keep a demotivational sign in his office: "Isn't this a beautiful day? Just watch some bastard louse it up." After the Phillies had lost ten games in a row in late September to lose a pennant they had all but clinched, a lot of people assumed that Mauch was referring to himself. The collapse of the team in the '64 standings foreshadowed graver problems to come.

Mauch is one vortex of controversy in discussions of the 1960s Phillies. The other is Dick Allen. He was the first great black star for a long-segregated team, one of the most visible black men in a deeply racist city. Assailed by the Philly "Boo-Birds," Allen started drinking late in the decade, disappeared from his team at times, wrote cryptic messages in the infield dirt, and became a magnet for the ill-will of sportswriters.

Illustrations in William C. Kashatus's new book September Swoon point up the tensions of the decade. One photo, taken on 23 September 1964, shows sack upon sack of mail arriving at Connie Mack Stadium – orders for tickets for a World Series that would never be played there. Three Phillies employees greet the half-obscured mailman: an immense, unidentified official in a business suit, who directs traffic, and two wizened men in work fatigues, who will evidently have to drag the mail inside. The official is white, the workers black.

Another photo shows Allen in a hospital bed, just after the 1967 accident where he pushed his hand through the headlight of a stalled car. Holding his right arm in its cast up to Gene Mauch, Allen looks like he's about to slug the manager with it. Mauch, for his part, clutches a metal triangle suspended from the ceiling – there so the patient can pull himself up out of bed – and cradles Allen's cast in his other hand, his jaw set, poised as if he wants to swing down on the wounded arm and smash it still further.

Kashatus assembles many pages of interviews with the '60s Phillies and the sportswriters who covered the team, but never develops a coherent story – not because he's a bad writer, though. There is no center to the story; it's still a morass of equivocations, accusations, and interpersonal poisons. There was virulent racism in the Phillies' organization, and there wasn't any on the team, or vice versa, both, or neither. Mauch was a genius, a tyrant, a racist, or a colorblind leader. Allen was victim, manipulator, hero, or passive-aggressive: a prima donna to some, a Jackie Robinson to others.

Kashatus, in the end, admires Dick Allen, casting his antics as the reasoned response of someone powerless otherwise to change the situation. I wonder about that. Allen, at any time, had the same recourse that the late Curt Flood took when the Phillies finally traded Allen to the Cardinals for him, in 1969: he could simply have gone home. Flood is now universally admired; Allen is a figure who divides observers to this day.

Kashatus, William C. September Swoon: Richie Allen, the '64 Phillies, and Racial Integration. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004.