'64 Phillies: The sad tale of Chris Short

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Beneath the pertinent facts on Chris Short's baseball-shaped headstone at Union Cemetery in Georgetown, Del., beneath the image of him unleashing a pitch, is his nickname, "Styles."

Perhaps the moniker earned such posthumous prominence because, both ironically and literally, it was so fitting.

On the mound, the Phillies lefthander was as stylish as any National League pitcher. Away from it, he was anything but.

Short's Phillies teammates called him "Styles" because he sometimes carried the mismatched clothes he wore in a paper bag and didn't change them for weeks.

And his clothes weren't all that didn't seem to fit.

Affable, beer-bellied, countrified, and seemingly oblivious to social customs, Short was in fact the son of a University of Pennsylvania-educated lawyer who became a respected Delaware judge.

And though Isaac Short sent him to an elementary prep school and later Bordentown Military School, Short's life would be largely undisciplined.

"His father was a judge," said Art Mahaffey, Short's Phillies roommate, "but you would never know it. Chris was a wonderful guy, but he was different. Different in a harmless way."

A half-century has passed since Short became half a mantra of Philadelphia sporting pain - Bunning-and-Short, Short-and-Bunning. The 1964 Phillies' fatal 10-game losing streak has long been blamed on manager Gene Mauch's decision to twice start his two best pitchers, Short and Jim Bunning, on two days' rest.

Short did not appear to be dead-armed in his two losses. Against Milwaukee, exactly 50 years ago Thursday, he allowed just two earned runs in 71/3 innings. Then on Sept. 28, facing St. Louis' Bob Gibson, he yielded three in 51/3 innings.

After their historic fall, the 1964 Phillies scattered like leaves, blown by fate in all directions.

Jim Bunning would make the Hall of Fame. Dick Allen would win an American League MVP award, Alex Johnson an AL batting title. Mahaffey would tear a rotator cuff and win just three more games. Lymphoma would kill John Boozer at 47. When Ryne Duren's career ended in 1965, he sank into an alcoholic fog.

Few of their stories, though, were as odd or as sad as Short's.

The pitcher who once threw 15 shutout innings during an 18-strikeout performance against the Mets would manage just 20 victories over his final five seasons, 1969-73.

Done at 36, he developed diabetes and drifted in and out of various jobs, trying to support three sons and two ex-wives. He wed a third time in 1978. A decade later, a near-fatal aneurysm sent him into a coma from which he never returned.

Short's resources were exhausted by 13 months in a Delaware hospital and even more time in rehab facilities. The Phillies raised money for him by selling autographed hats at Veterans Stadium. Mahaffey ran a charity golf tournament for years.

"I even got Larry Bird to play in one," Mahaffey said.

As the coma lingered, few former teammates visited. In time, even his sons stopped coming. "I'm too emotional," Rhawn Short, who now works as a physical-education teacher in Wilmington, said then. "I can't see him like that."

Finally, on Aug. 2, 1991, Short died. He was 53.

"There were very few players at his funeral," Mahaffey recalled. "Very few people, really."

A hard thrower signed as a Bordentown senior, Short reached the big leagues in 1959. Initially, he lacked a consistent out pitch and he struggled with some awful Phillies teams.

Through five seasons, he was 32-42, so frustrating his manager that Mauch once told writers he'd "trade him for a bale of hay."

Going into 1964, though, Short developed a change-up.

"He had a good fastball and a curve," Mahaffey said. "But once he got that change-up he was really tough. He got lefthanders and righthanders out."

Short and the newly acquired Bunning became the backbone of Mauch's '64 rotation. Despite beginning that season in the bullpen, he started 31 times, threw 2202/3 innings, won 17 games.

"He was a really fine pitcher," Bunning said. "That year we had a little competition going to see who could pitch better, and, believe me, it wasn't easy keeping up with Shorty."

His 17th and last victory came on Sept. 14, a four-hitter in Houston.

A day later, with a 61/2-game lead, the Phillies announced they'd be accepting World Series ticket applications. Short visited a Texas gun shop and spent some of his anticipated bonus on a pair of shotguns.

"That's how he was," Bunning said, "happy-go-lucky."

For the next four seasons, though 1967 would be truncated by injury, Short was one of baseball's best lefthanders. He won 18 more games in 1965 and in '66 became the first Phillies lefthander since Eppa Rixey in 1916 to record 20 victories. In 1968, Short won 19.

But he hurt his back in 1969, underwent surgery, and was never the same.

He lingered with the Phillies until 1972, then finished his career in '73 as a Brewers spot starter and reliever.

Though he never made more than $50,000 a year as a ballplayer, he didn't negotiate hard. After Short's 20-victory '66 season, Bunning said, he persuaded his teammate to stage a joint holdout, as the Dodgers' Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale had done.

"He lasted a day, maybe two," Bunning recalled. "Then he signed the first contract he was offered."

In later years, some who knew him said, Short drank heavily and ran up debts. And, as always, he didn't worry much about what he wore.

"He'd come in wearing one of these John Travolta suits and he'd look like the Good Humor man," said Allen Cook, a West Chester barber who cut Short's hair. "He seemed like a guy with problems, like he wasn't happy with how his life turned out."

Short was working for a Wilmington insurance agency when the aneurysm hit. Alone in the office, he would not be discovered for three hours.

"I played with a lot of people," Mahaffey said. "A lot of them didn't like me and there were many I didn't like. But I never met anyone who didn't like Chris Short. He was unique."

 


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz