Thursday, October 23, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Dear Dad: To avoid the Phold, please step away from your computer

MAYOR NUTTER has decided not to plop a giant Phillies hat on Billy Penn's statue atop City Hall during the World Series. That's good, since everyone knows that when the city did that during the 1993 series, it brought the Phillies bad luck and they lost.

Our jinx-ridden sports teams need all the help they can get. So I'm doing my part.

Yesterday, I phoned my 80-year-old father and told him to stay off the computer. Don't e-mail or anything, I told him. Don't even Google or Twitter.

I'm guessing that you've never heard of the Phillies-killing curse of Al Polaneczky Sr. and his Honeywell 1400 computer.

The year was 1964 and Dad was a statistician at the Franklin Institute. The Honeywell 1400 was the solid-state monster he worked on there. It was big as a garage, but with less than one-millionth the computing power of the cell phone in your pocket.

In those early, heady days of key-punch cards, though, the machine was a marvel, able to quickly tally sums and size up stats that formerly took hours of work with a slide rule, pad and pencil.

The whole town was excited that summer by the Phillies' unexpected run at the pennant. One day in September, with the team cruising toward a first-place finish in the National League, some genius at a local radio station thought it would be a kick to have the Franklin Institute use its fancy-pants Honeywell 1400 to calculate the Phils' odds of winning the pennant.

A pennant seemed all but assured at the time. With a stunning record of 90 wins and just 60 losses, the team was 6 1/2 games in first place with just 12 games left in the season.

Dad's ongoing assignment was to crunch the Phillies' odds of clinching the pennant and then share his findings with the radio deejay on the air.

It all should've been harmless fun. Nothing more than a clever radio stunt to capitalize on the pennant fever of 1964 and the public's growing fascination with space-age computers.

When the Phils lost the first of 10 straight games with 12 to go, Dad dutifully ran the numbers and reported how the team's chances of winning were still excellent, although they had slid just a bit.

The Phils lost the next game, too. Dad reported that the odds had slipped a little more.

Then the Phils lost again. And again. And again. The odds that once so favored the Phils flattened out a little more each day.

Distraught Phils fans started phoning the radio station and the Franklin Institute. The Phillies, they noticed, had been doing just fine until that guy with the computer started slinging around his fancy scientific calculations. Now he was jinxing their beloved team.

One barely literate fan wrote Dad a long, hate-filled letter. It threatened bad things, very bad things, if my dad didn't cease and desist with his smart-guy prognosticating.

My pop thought it was funny.

"I corrected his grammar and spelling and sent it back," he chuckles.

As the losses continued to mount, and the venomous calls grew in number, Dad's boss at the Franklin Institute invented a new scapegoat.

It was all the mayor's fault, he decided. Mayor James Tate, after all, had convened a committee to prepare for the World Series. That was too presumptuous for the baseball gods, who had angrily decided to smite the poor Phils in revenge.

The calls didn't end, but now irate fans were referred to the mayor's office.

All told, the Phillies lost 10 straight games, the most infamous collapse in baseball history: They lost the pennant by one single game, on the last day of the season, in a debacle now known as "The Phold."

"They nose-dived," sighs my dad, whose radio career ended that day. "They just tanked."

He stayed in the computer field until he retired, and today his trail-blazing use of computerized statistical analysis is commonplace on the diamond.

Now, each time Jimmy Rollins or Shane Victorino gets up to bat, we know to the tiniest percentage point how they've fared in the past against the pitcher they're staring down.

That's cold comfort for the fans who wrote my father hate mail in 1964 and still blame him and his computer for The Phold.

Unlike 1964, obviously, the Phillies are in the World Series. But they haven't won a championship in 28 years, and we can't take any chances.

So, Pop, I love you. But, in these jumpy days leading toward a championship title, please unplug your computer.

Play cards. Watch TV. Do it for the city. Or for the grandchildren who carry your name.

And remember, if the Phils lose this thing, I'll know what you've been up to. And I swear I'll rip your Internet connection right out of the wall. *

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/polaneczky

Ronnie Polaneczky Daily News Columnist
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