Winning and losing are part of baseball. Losing 23 in a row is part of a legacy.
In the summer of 1961, the Philadelphia Phillies lost 23 consecutive games to establish a modern record. It’s something the participants don’t like to be remembered for.
But it’s there, like a rut in the outfield or a pebble in the infield.
Only a few teams in the history of professional baseball know the despair of going weeks without a victory or a handshake. The winless Baltimore Orioles have found out about life in the slow lane this year, matching the American League record with a 20 consecutive losses.
On Aug. 20, 1961, the Phillies played a doubleheader in Milwaukee having lost 22 straight.
Philadelphia dropped the first game 5-2 to the Braves and Warren Spahn to make it 23 straight. But the Phillies came back to win the second game 7-4 behind Johnny Buzhardt.
Buzhardt, 4-13 after the victory, broke the losing streak that began on July 28. He had been the last Philadelphia pitcher to win a game.
“I figured I was due. We all were due,” Buzhardt said. “I was beginning to forget what it was like to win.”
In the victory over the Braves, Buzhardt even had a run batted in.
Only two teams in the history of pro baseball had longer losing streaks than the 1961 Phillies.
In 1889, Louisville of the American Association lost 26 straight, and in 1899 Cleveland of the National League dropped 24 in a row. Louisville finished their season 27-111 and made 584 errors. Cleveland was 20-134.
“It was a good feeling in Milwaukee when we finally won,” second baseman Tony Taylor said. “It was like we won the World Series.”
And like a World Series victory, there was a crowd to welcome the Phillies when they got home.
Taylor, now a Phillies coach, said the players were told a crowd was waiting to greet them at the airport. But some of the Phillies were suspicious that 1,000 violins would not begin to play when they landed.
“Frank Sullivan (a pitcher) said ‘Their selling rocks for $1.50 a bushel so we better get out in single file,”’ Taylor said.
There was a 300-piece band at the airport and more than 2,000 fans to welcome the victorious Phillies.
“We were hesitant to get off the plane,” Taylor remembered. “But it was a good feeling. The band lifted (manager) Gene Mauch on their shoulders.”
Taylor says once the streak was over there was no problem forgetting it.
“Once we won in Milwaukee I forgot quickly,” he said. “We were a young team. A lot of players -- like Tony Gonzalez, Johnny Callison and Chris Short -- were only in the league two or three years. We knew there were better days ahead.”
But from July 28 to Aug. 20 the days were long, hard and frustrating.
“It’s tough to go to the park each day when all you’re doing is losing, losing, losing,” Taylor said. “We were looking for ways to lose the game.
“We knew we had to make the big play but we couldn’t make it. Everything went wrong.”
Mauch, only in his second year as a big league manager, had different ways to handle the losing and the pressures of losing 23 straight.
In a defeat to St. Louis, the Phillies had the tying run on second base with none out in the ninth and then made three straight outs without advancing the runner. When the game was over, Mauch kicked batting helmets all over the field.
Mauch also put his fist through an office door and broke the light bulbs in the dugout at Connie Mack Stadium. A protective device was placed over the bulbs but Mauch still broke them -- with a bat.
During another loss, Gonzalez was tagged hard at home plate by St. Louis catcher Hal Smith and a brawl ensued. Mauch, 36 years old at the time, led the charge and ended up with a black eye.
“Gene Mauch was outstanding,” Taylor said. “He never got down on us or made drastic changes. He was mad at losing but not mad at any individual. He knew we were trying.”
The games were also trying for Mauch.
On Aug. 17, the Phillies seemed poised to stop the streak at 19. They had a 6-4 lead over Milwaukee in the eighth inning when Hank Aaron walked and Joe Adcock homered to tie the score. The Phillies lost in the bottom of the 11th when Al Spangler singled in the winning run.
Although Mauch maintained a serious tone throughout the streak, he also tried a few unorthodox moves.
During one road swing, Mauch told his players there would be a bed check at 2 a.m. and anyone found in bed would be fined.
For a game in Chicago, Mauch told the Phillies to arrive at Wrigley Field at game time and not before.
“You try not to think about the losing but you can’t,” Mauch said. “Everyone keeps asking you about it and the fans at home and on the road know it.”
The Phillies’ losing streak also had a strange twist for utility outfielder Elmer Valo. Valo was a member of the 1943 Philadelphia Athletics team that lost 20 in a row.
Taylor says although he didn’t realize it as a 26-year-old in 1961, he knows now what went wrong.
“You have to play loose to play winning baseball. When you begin to play tight things go wrong.”
And lots of things went wrong for the 1961 Phillies.
They finished the season 47-107 and were last in batting (.243) and earned run average (4.61). Their best pitcher was Art Mahaffey at 11-19.
“It wasn’t fun,” Taylor said.