Art Mahaffey: What Might Have Been

Art Mahaffey is one of those names that brings a smile to Phillies fans faces. He didn't turn out to be quite the pitcher that so many thought he would be, or to have the major league longevity that he and others hoped for. Still, Mahaffey became a part of Phillies legend, playing on some of the most celebrated teams in Phillies history. Mahaffey's career ended with unfulfilled wishes, but he will forever be a part of Phillies fans hearts and memories.

A date with destiny is a funny thing, often you do not know you have had a date with destiny until AFTER the event has occurred. As the Phils plane soared eastward from Los Angeles to Philadelphia the evening of September 20, 1964, one can imagine Art Mahaffey, starting pitcher for the pennant bound Phillies hoping for two more baseball wishes. One, the date with destiny that Mahaffey thought would see him as the starting pitcher in the third game of the ‘64 World Series at Yankee Stadium against the vaunted Bronx Bombers. How exciting to be facing Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris after Bunning and Short had disposed of the hated Yankees at Connie Mack Stadium in Games one and two. And his other wish was for two more regular season wins as a Phillie starter. You see, Mahaffey knew the situation and did the math. Certainly, Mahaffey who was scheduled to pitch the next evening against the second place Cincinnati Reds and later in the week against the Milwaukee Braves, would be traded in the offseason and would probably not start the final week of the season. After all, the Phils would undoubtedly clinch the pennant on this seven game homestand and the final week would see the teams try to get Bunning and Short their 20 wins and maybe give Ray Culp some work. So, his two baseball wishes were undoubtedly to have his date with destiny....and two more wins as a member of the Phillies. And Mahaffey would accomplish BOTH goals....but never in the way that he imagined. You see, Mahaffey's date with destiny was less than 24 hours away and his two wins would come, but not in 1964.

There have been few pitchers developed in the Phils minor league system over the past 40 years who came up with greater fanfare than Art Mahaffey. Certainly Larry Christenson and probably Dick Ruthven, but the handful gets very small after that. Mahaffey was good and he knew it. In fact he was so good that when he made his major league debut in 1960 he made a promise to pick off the first batter that got on base against him. He was wrong, of course. He actually picked off the first two. But if ever the word bittersweet applied to a player it was Mahaffey. Bitter in the 19 games he lost as a second year player for the dreadful 1961 Phillies. Sweet in that he not only had an April game that year in which he struck out 17 Chicago Cubs but he managed to win 11 games for the gosh awful team. Bitter in that he failed in his final three starts in 1962 to win his 20th game. Sweet in that his 19 wins were not only a team high but promised to vault Mahaffey into the Gibson-Drysdale-Marichal right-hander class soon. Bitter in that arm problems and an ankle sprain basically ruined his 1963 season and saw him win only 7 games for a very good Phillies team. Sweet in that he returned for the final week of the season and won a game in relief and appeared healthy as the 1964 season arrived. And oh what a season it would be! As Mahaffey sat back in his seat on that flight home from Los Angeles he had to again be feeling bittersweet about his ‘64 season. Bitter in that he had failed to regain his dominating fastball and had won, for him, a modest 12 games. Yet sweet in that he was completely healthy and pitching regularly for a team that was headed for the World Series. If he could finish the season with two more wins, his date with destiny would arrive in two weeks.

Instead, it occurred on the night of September 21, 1964 at about 9 pm Eastern time. For at that moment Mahaffey and his Phillie teammates were about to enter the Twilight Zone, a zone of which they would never truly escape, even to this day.

The situation was of the sixth inning, scored tied 0-0 against the Reds and Chico Ruiz dancing off third base with two outs and the great Frank Robinson at the plate. The count was 0-1 when Mahaffey's date with destiny would take place. As Mahaffey looked on in horror as he took his windup, Ruiz broke for the plate. Reds Manager Dick Sisler yelled "No!" Phils Manager Gene Mauch yelled "No!" Mahaffey must have been thinking "No!" But it was "yes" as a stunned Mahaffey threw a wild pitch and Ruiz scored the only run in a 1-0 loss for the Phils, a loss that would begin the greatest downward slide in Major League history, a ten game losing streak that would cost the Phils a pennant and would give Mahaffey and his teammates their date with destiny.

Mahaffey would get one more start that infamous year, a Saturday afternoon game against the Braves. Again, fate played its fickle hand as Mahaffey pitched well, and left with a 4-2 lead in the eighth inning. But the Braves scored one in the eighth and three in the ninth to defeat the Phils, 6-4. This would be their last day in first place. It was all only a week. Mahaffey finished the ‘64 season with a 12-9 record and was sure he would be traded in the off season. Instead it was Dennis Bennett who was dealt and as Mahaffey prepared for his ‘65 season, the memories of his two baseball wishes that long ago evening on the flight from Los Angeles were probably forgotten. But not by the baseball gods. They had given Mahaffey his first wish...a date with destiny, though not as he had imagined. Remember, his other baseball wish was to win two more games as a Phillie. Of course, he had hoped for those wins in 1964. But the baseball gods are capricious characters and they do have their ways.

Mahaffey began the 1965 season in spectacular form, winning his first two starts, 4-2 and 5-2. He seemed all the way back, his fastball crackling, his curveball dipping, his change up masterful. There is a famous saying and it applies to sports careful what you wish for as you may get it! Mahaffey had wished for two more wins and he had received them. Mahaffey was never to win another game as a Phillie. Indeed, he would only win one more game as an active player. He finished the ‘65 season with a sore arm and a 2-5 record and received his expected trade.... a year later than he thought. Traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in the Bill White-Dick Groat trade, Mahaffey never regained his effectiveness and retired after his 1-4 record in 1966.

Art Mahaffey had a relatively short but meaningful big league career. His record as a Phillie was 58-60 and he pitched on some of the most popular Phillie teams of the last 50 years. Though fate played a cruel joke on Mahaffey's hoped for date with destiny he will always be remembered as a pitcher with talent, class and dignity.

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