Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Men Manuel Is Chasing

Harry Wright and Gene Mauch are the two winningest managers in Phillies history. And the latter might be this city's most intriguing sports figure ever.

The Men Manuel Is Chasing

Charlie Manuel is 52 wins away from being the Phillies´ all-time winningest manager. (Paul Abell/AP)
Charlie Manuel is 52 wins away from being the Phillies' all-time winningest manager. (Paul Abell/AP)

  Charlie Manuel won his 594th game as the Phillies manager Tuesday night. By season’s end, the hayseed who conquered a hard-as-nails town could have more victories than any manager in franchise history. Only Harry Wright (636) and Gene Mauch (646) have more.

 Curiously, Wright and Mauch, one a respected baseball pioneer, the other a flawed baseball genius, each had ties to the two cities whose teams met in the game that produced Manuel’s milestone win – Philadelphia and Boston. Wright managed in both cities. Mauch played with the Braves and Red Sox.

  The two had personalities as the different as the styles of play in their eras. Wright, British-born, was refined, polite, a perfect exemplar of the gentlemanly nature baseball was desperate to portray. The hard-scrabble Mauch, meanwhile, was brooding, private, at times frighteningly intense.

 But more so than their lives, it was their deaths that better revealed their natures.

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 When Wright, the player-manager on the game’s first professional team, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, died in 1895, he was hailed by many as “The Father of Baseball”. All games stopped as the sport mourned him and honored his memory. His funeral was a Philadelphia-area happening. He was buried in a prominent plot at Bala Cynwyd’s West Laurel Hill Cemetery, where friends later topped his marble monument with a bronze likeness of the man.

  Mauch, one of the most cursed – in every sense of that word – men in baseball’s history, died in 2005. His funeral was private. His body was cremated. And no one outside his family knows where his ashes were stored or scattered.

 Wright’s players loved him, though his relationship with Philadelphia owners Al Reach and Col. John Rogers was often strained. Mauch’s players – many of them anyway – respected him. Love was a concept that wouldn’t have occurred to them.

 Both were innovators. Wright is credited with introducing knickered uniforms, spring training, batting practice and doubleheaders. While Mauch helped polularize double-switches and several other strateges still widely employed.

 Wright managed here between 1884 and 1893 and --- here he and Mauch have something in common – took an historically bad team and made it respectable. He never won a pennant here.

 Neither did Mauch, as, 43 years after his last Philadelphia game, any Delaware Valley fan can tell you. And in not doing so, he became one of the most indelible figure in Phily sports history.

 That history is overflowing with intriguing characters. Wilt Chamberlain was celestially blessed but maddeningly human. Bobby Clarke’s relentlessness was propelled by a ruthlessness. Dick Allen’s enigmatic nature eventually obscured his great talents. Andre Waters was compelling but deeply flawed. Allen Iverson was exasperating. Rube Waddell was mad. Steve Carlton was flaky. 

 But, for me, none can match Mauch. Fate toyed so cruelly with the longtime Phillies manager that after a while you almost had to divert your eyes from the badly scarred man.

 If you were among the many who despised Mauch, he got exactly what he deserved. But for those who liked him, he remains a figure worthy of enormous sympathy, a baseball Aaron (Moses’ brother, not Tommy’s) who was led to the edge of the Promised Land on several occasions only to be stranded there forever.

  In nine years as a player and 26 as a manager, Mauch never made it to a World Series. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever wanted it more, harder yet to conceive of anyone cheated more heartlessly.

 As infamous as his failure with the ’64 Phillies was, it wasn’t his lone tragic frustration. Mauch was one victory away from the Series in the 1982 ALCS, one out away in the 1986 ALCS. By the last of those, it was clear that the baseball gods had condemned him to a lifetime of unrequited yearning.

 You wonder what torment was careening through Mauch’s mind as, in the summer of 2005, he was dying of lung cancer in a California hospital. Did he finally regret overtaxing Jim Bunning and Chris Short in 1964? Pitching to Cecil Cooper in ’82? Summoning Donnie Moore from the bullpen that Sunday afternoon in ’86?

 As a young Phillies fan, I watched Mauch closely. I read eagerly as sportswriters like Bill Conlin and Frank Dolson portrayed his complexity – his temper, his profanity, his baseball knowledge and strategic daring. Later, as a sportswriter myself, I spoke with him a few times, though never in a context that allowed for any kind of psychic probe.

 It’s difficult even now, 24 years after the last of his 3,942 games as a major-league manager, to work up much sympathy for Mauch.

 He taunted and tormented opposing players. He could be a harsh martinet. He once gave a forearm to an opposing catcher reaching into the Phils dugout for a foul ball. He overturned a postgame buffet table in Houston as fiercely as he did baseball conventions. And time and again he sacrificed the future for the moment.

  But Mauch could outthink and outstrive most managers. "I don't know of a better strategist. He knew the rules better than umpires," Bobby Wine, a Phillies shortstop under Mauch and later one of his coaches. "One time, Jim Bunning was having trouble with a baseball. The umpires wouldn't give him a new one. Gene came out to the mound, dropped the ball on the ground and spiked it with his shoes. Bunning got a new baseball."

 Like John McGraw, the baseball figure who in temperament if not World Series titles most resembles Mauch, he was an advocate of small ball. He liked the bunt, the hit-and-run, solid defense. But he knew few boundaries in his quest to win.

 "You didn't feel sorry for Gene Mauch in those days," Joe Torre, who played against Mauch's teams with the Braves, Cardinals and Mets, said in 2001. "He'd scream at you from the dugout. I remember one time we were in Milwaukee. I'm in a slump and he's screaming, 'Knock this [expletive] down!' I got a base hit. I'm at first base screaming at him, and [Phils first-baseman John] Herrnstein, with his glove up over his mouth, is going, 'Give it to him.'"

 Right to the end, Mauch hated talking about 1964, or any of his near-misses.

 "Sometimes, when I can't sleep at night,” he once said, “I lie there in bed and relive some of those games. There were a few things I would do differently today, but many more things I would do exactly the same. Those were terrific teams to be around and they deserved to be in the World Series."

 But they never got there. And neither did Mauch. In the days ahead, as Manuel nears his victory total, it will be Mauch’s historic failures that are recalled and not his managerial gifts.

 He had 646 wins with the Phillies. If only, in those tortured September days in 1964, he’d gotten one more.

 A city’s sports psyche would have been altered forever.

 But Gene Mauch wouldn’t have been nearly so intriguing.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
About this blog
Reporter Frank Fitzpatrick, a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is covering his eighth Olympic Games and has yet to win a medal in anything except caffeine consumption. He has also been the beat writer for the Phillies, Eagles and Penn State football.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
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