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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Whiz Kids

The team that we now lovingly know as the Phillies was born way back in 1883 as the Philadelphia Quakers. However, during that first season they also were called the 'Philadelphians', which was shortened to 'Phillies'. The club thus has the distinction of being the oldest, continuous, one nickname, one city franchise in all of pro sports. In 1887 they began to play regularly at 'The Philadelphia Baseball Grounds', which became 'National League Park' in 1895, and finally became known as the 'Baker Bowl' in 1914. After playing there for over a half century, the Phillies moved to 'Shibe Park' in 1937, which they shared with it's original tenants, the American League's Philadelphia Athletics. (The ballpark was renamed 'Connie Mack Stadium' in 1953 after the legendary A's owner/manager.) With the notable exception of the 1915 World Series season, the Phils were mostly losers on the field during that first half century, but new ownership during the 1940's began to put increased emphasis on the farm system, developing strong players who finally jelled in the 1950 season. Two of those players went on to become long term Phillies legends and baseball Hall of Famers. Centerfielder Richie 'Whitey' Ashburn was a Kansas farm boy who could run like the wind. One of the great Negro Leaguers of the time famously called Ashburn 'the fastest white man in the game.' Robin Roberts (pictured) was a bulldog of a starting pitcher who by the end of the century was recognized as one of the top 75 greatest players in the history of the game by The Sporting News. Together, Ashburn and Roberts helped fuel a young, exciting Phillies team that rose into contention, and that because of their youth were handed the nickname of 'The Whiz Kids'. By the final week of the season the club was battling the Brooklyn Dodgers for the pennant. Roberts started three times for the Phils that week, including the season finale showdown on the final day vs. those Dodgers. The two clubs battled into the bottom of the 9th, where a base hit saw the Dodgers winning run heading for home before a perfect throw to the plate by Ashburn nailed him to preserve the tie and send the game to extra innings. In the top of the 10th with two men on Dick Sisler stepped up to the plate in Ebbetts Field. The son of baseball Hall of Famer George Sisler delivered the biggest hit in Phillies history to that point, driving a 3-run opposite-field homerun that put the Phils out in front and led to their first pennant in 35 years. In the World Series the club that everyone was now calling 'The Whiz Kids' would take on the powerful New York Yankees. For Game #1 at Shibe Park, manager Eddie Sawyer was unable to call on his ace Roberts because of that pennant-stretch work load, and so he tapped reliever Jim Konstanty for the assignment in what seemed like a mismatch in favor of Yanks' 21-game winner Vic Raschi. Konstanty surprised most everyone by nearly matching Raschi pitch-for-pitch, but the Yanks scored a 4th inning run that held up for a 1-0 victory in the opener. For Game #2, Roberts was back on the hill facing Yanks' ace Allie Reynolds, and it resulted in yet another pitcher's duel. The Yanks again took the lead with a 2nd inning run, but Ashburn's rbi tied it up in the bottom of the 5th, and the two teams battled into extra innings. In the top of the 10th, the legendary Joe DiMaggio stepped to the plate and drove a solo homerun to left field that would stand up as the winning run in a 2-1 Yankees victory. Down 2-0 after a pair of dispiriting one-run losses on their home turf, the Phils moved on to Yankee Stadium where a 3rd consecutive pitchers duel took place. Phils' lefty Ken Heintzelman carried a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the 8th inning, but he finally tired, got wild, and loaded the bases. Konstanty relieved him to preserve the lead, but usually sure-handed Granny Hamner bobbled a ground ball that allowed the tying run to score. The tie went into the bottom of the 9th where Russ Meyer came on for the Phils and retired the first two batters, and the Series appeared headed for its 2nd straight extra inning tilt. But Meyer then allowed three consecutive singles, the final one to Joe Coleman knocking in the game-winning run. The 3-2 victory had the Yanks up by three games to none, and they looked to clinch their franchise' 13th World Series title in front of the home fans in Game #5. Yogi Berra's 1st inning homer and a 3-run 5th inning rally put the Yanks up 5-0, and they coasted into the 9th inning with two outs, apparently ready to end it easily. The Phils put two men on the bases, but with two outs catcher Andy Seminick hit an easy fly ball for what looked like the final out. Yankees left fielder Gene Woodling settled under it, it came down into his glove...and popped out, falling to the ground as two runs scored. Suddenly the Phils were down 5-2, and when the next batter got a hit they were miraculously bringing the tying run to the plate. But alas, there would be no miracle. Reynolds came on in relief and struck out pinch-hitter Stan Lopata. The Yanks celebrated their title, while the Phils walked off the field having fought a great dynasty to a near draw, yet still having been swept. The Phillies were young and talented, and it seemed that they had a bright future together as contenders. Even that was not to be as the team slowly faded back into mediocrity over the next few years. But for one glorious summer in Philadelphia, a young, talented, likeable bunch of ballplayers excited the town and battled the Yankees in the World Series. It would be years before many of those 'Whiz Kids' would ever again have to pick up a dinner check in the the City of Philadelphia, and they are still remembered fondly over a half-century later.

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