The Broken Thumb of Fate, the Collapse of the ’64 Phillies
Frank Thomas and I have been faithful friends for nearly twenty years. I am referring to the “Original” Frank Thomas who was a rookie for the Pirates in 1951 and an original New York Met in 1962; not to confuse him with the White Sox slugger of the nineties.
I met Frank at a Pirates’ Dream Week Camp in 1993. He was my coach along with Kent Tekulve. We have visited in person a couple of times and have talked on the phone but the United States Post Office has been the guardian of our friendship for all of these years. We have exchanged close to one hundred and fifty cards and letters over that time. Together we have share news about our families, the status of health issues, and of course baseball past and present.
For the longest time I did not talk to him about the infamous collapse of the 1964 Phillies. You see Frank spent most of his career on non-contenders. He was a star on the awful Pittsburgh Pirates teams of the fifties. As fate would have it, he was traded to the 1959 Cincinnati Reds for three players: Harvey Haddix, Don Hoak, and Smokey Burgess. They proved to be the missing pieces of the puzzle for the 1960 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates. Then to rub more salt in his wounds, he ended up on the 1962 New York Mets, although, he did lead them with 34 homeruns.
So, when Frank was traded to the first-place Philadelphia Phillies it seemed like redemption!
He played his first game with the Phillies on August 7, 1964 and responded by hitting a two-run homer in a 9-4 victory over his former team. He made Art Mahaffey a winner. The newly acquired juggernaut went on to a .302 batting average, 7 homers and 27 runs batted in for thirty three games. The Philadelphia Phillies’ lead climbed from 1 ½ games to 6 ½ during that span.
Unfortunately fate can also become ugly. On September 8th, during the fourth inning of a game with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Frank Thomas hurt his thumb by sliding back head first while scrambling to second base. His hand slipped under the bag jamming into the anchoring pin. The thumb swelled up, but he continued to play. After the game, he went to the Temple University Hospital. The doctors diagnosed it as a cracked base of the thumb. Philadelphia papers declared that Frank was out for the rest of the season!
It is popular to blame Gene Mauch for “over pitching” Jim Bunning and Chris Short. In 1964, Bunning was 19-8 but the Phils lost three of his last five starts. Similarly, Short was 17-9 but failed to win in four of his last six starts. While Mauch was arguably thought to be a baseball genius he was not known as the best handler of pitching staffs. The latter was the opinion of some of his former pitchers.
Several years ago, a friend from work who was from Philadelphia blamed the Phillies demise on Frank’s broken thumb. I mentioned this to Frank in my next letter. His response was simply, “Bobby, your friend is absolutely right!” Not that I doubted Frank, but I decided to research some of the numbers.
Since Frank normally batted fourth or sixth that season, I researched the numbers for those places in the batting order. The players who batted there while Frank was injured were: Alex Johnson, Danny Cater, Richie Allen, tony Taylor, Wes Covington and Costen Shockley (played in 11 games in ’64).
The following are the batting statistics for September 9th until end of season:
Those who batted fourth:
AB- 82, H-25, RBIs-8 and HRs-1 with a batting average of .305
Those who batted sixth:
AB-76, H-18, RBIs-4, and HRs-0 with a batting average of .237
(The above is the 22 games without Frank Thomas)
Compare the above stats with the statistics for Frank before the injury:
Statistics from the clean-up position:
AB-56, H-19, RBIs-18, HR-3 with a batting average of .339
His numbers while batting sixth:
AB-60, H-18, RBIs-9, HR-4 with a batting average of .300
Since Frank played first base, he was replaced by Danny Cater, John Herrnstein, Vic Power and Costen Shockley. They combined for the following:
AB-72, H-14, RBIs-4, and HR-0 with a batting average of .194.
While it is easy to blame Mauch for pitching Bunning and Short with minimum res, the return of Thomas’ “hot bat” surely would have changed the outcome of the standings. Instead, the 1964 World Series would have been Phillies and Yankees.
In conclusion, the collapse of the Phillies was not due to a couple of tired arms but actually to a broken thumb!