September 21st is, quite simply, the darkest day in Philly Sports History. It was on this date, in 1964, that a mediocre utility infielder born with the name Hiraldo Sablon Ruiz did one of the stupidest things a baseball player can do, and in so doing started a chain of events that resulted in one of the most monumental collapses in the history of sports.
Born to a cigar maker in Cuba in 1938, at the time of the events in question he was a 25-year old rookie known as Chico. He is today more famous in Philadelphia than he is in his native city of Santo Domingo. If you don’t know who he is, ask your father. Or better yet, don’t. He seems happy. You’d hate to ruin his day. If your father is the salty sort, he’d probably just utter, “Chico F***ing Ruiz…I don’t want to talk about it.”
Ruiz is the gut punch in Philly that Bartman is in Chicago, and nearly as unlikely. He was a utility infielder with a .236 batting average when the Reds faced off with the Phillies that afternoon in 1964. The Phillies had Art Mahaffey on the mound, and a 6.5 game lead in the National League with 12 games to play. At 2:30 that afternoon, a young second baseman by the name of Pete Rose stepped into the batters box at Connie Mack Stadium, and the darkest day in Phils history began.
The 1964 Phils were a team whose whole was greater than the sum of its parts. The Giants had Mays, the Reds had Robinson, the Pirates had Clemente, the Braves had Aaron, the Phils had…Cookie Rojas. But it was a gritty team, the kind that Philadelphia falls madly in love with (see ’93 Phillies, 2001 Sixers). Go Phillies Go! bumper stickers started appearing on cars, and when World Series tickets went on sale in September, 90,000 were sold within hours. When their plane landed in Philly on September 19th after a West Coast swing, 2,000 fans had greeted them at the airport.
Mahaffey had his best stuff that day, and the game went into the 6th inning at double nil. With one out, Chico Ruiz got a single. Vada Pinson lined a screamer off of Mahaffey’s glove and into right field. Pinson tried to stretch it into a double, but Johnny Callison nailed him at 2nd with a perfect throw. And so, with two outs and Chico on 3rd, up to the plate stepped the dangerous Frank Robinson. Mahaffey quickly ran up two strikes on the right handed slugger, paying little attention to the Cuban dancing off of third base. Mahaffey wound up to deliver the pitch that he hoped would quell the Reds rally…and inexplicably Chico Ruiz broke for home.
If there is anything in baseball that is stupider than stealing home with 2 outs, 2 strikes, and a right hander at the plate, I can’t think of it off the top of my head. Mahaffey would explain why years later. “Chico Ruiz stole home with two outs and two strikes on Frank Robinson. Now you must realize that with two outs and two strikes, if you throw a strike Frank Robinson swings and knocks Chico Ruiz’s head off. It was just so stupid. Ruiz wasn’t even thinking. Robinson was so upset because he was one of the league’s leading hitters and near the lead in RBI and this guy’s stealing home with him hitting. It was just such a crazy thing. We didn’t know it was going to start a 10-game losing streak, but it couldn’t have started in more ridiculous way.”
Mahaffey was shaken by Rico’s brazen stupidity, perhaps scared that if he threw a strike he would be an accessory to an involuntary manslaughter. The ball went flying out of his hands, far outside of catcher Clay Dalrymple’s reach. Ruiz slid safely into home. There was a stone silence, as Phillies fans shook their heads in shock, and the Reds bench was dumbfounded by the stupidity of their 3rd basemen. “It was,” said Pete Rose years later, “The dumbest play I’ve ever seen. Except that it worked.” The Reds took a 1-0 lead, and they held it. The Phillies went 0-8 with runners in scoring position, and the game ended 1-0 in the Reds favor.
After the game, Phils manager Mauch would scream in the clubhouse, “Chico Fucking Ruiz beats us on a bonehead play of the year. Chico Fucking Ruiz steals home with Frank Robinson up! Can you believe it?” The next night, Mauch ordered his pitcher to drill him in the ribs. Ruiz smiled as he walked to first.
The “bonehead play of the year” started the monumental collapse of 1964. The Phils would lose their next 9 games as well, manager Gene Mauch would panic and start his two best pitchers (Bunning and Short) on two days rest 6 times, despite having Ray Culp waiting in the wings. The rest of the collapse is another story for another day. But today is a dark anniversary of the steal that started it all.
As for Chico Fucking Ruiz? In 1967, he became the first and only player to ever pinch hit for Johnny Bench. In 1969, he would utter one of the most hilarious sentences in baseball history. After starting for two straight weeks for injured shortstop Leo Cardenas, Ruiz stormed into the managers office with an ultimatum. “Bench me or trade me!” He was traded to the Angels, where he had a Gilbert Arenas moment with teammate Alex Johnson, allegedly pulling a gun on Johnson in the clubhouse. In 1972, he died in a car accident in San Diego. He was 33-years old. In his 8-year career, he stole home one time.
On May 24th, 1935, President Roosevelt turned a golden telegraph key. That lit up a signal light on a table at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. Reds GM Larry MacPhail then flipped a switch, and 632 Mazda lamps, 1500 watts each, lit up the night sky. The major leagues kicked off the Age of Light, something some historians say saved the sport in smaller towns.
Night baseball was not a new concept. The minor leagues had started hosting night games in the 1920s. The Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues started barnstorming with lights, carrying lights from venue to venue on the team bus, in 1930. But there were plenty in the Majors who did not want night baseball. Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith famously said, “There is no chance of night baseball ever being popular in the bigger cities. High class baseball cannot be played at night under artificial light.”
But the Great Depression had rocked the Reds, who were floundering the standings and averaging under 2000 fans per game by the mid 1930s. Their owner, Sidney Weil, was on the verge of bankruptcy when the Central Trust Bank took control of the team. Powel Crosley (A humble man who quickly named the stadium after himself) bought the team from the bank in 1934, and signed on Larry MacPhail as his GM. MacPhail had been GM of a minor league team in Columbus, OH, that had installed lights a few years previous and seen their attendance skyrocket during the night games. Crosley, seeing a stadium full of empty seats, didn’t need much convincing to try night games. Conservative baseball Commish, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was not warm to the idea at first, but Crosley and MacPhail prevailed upon him that without drastic measures, baseball was going to leave the Queen City. Being staunchly against franchise relocation (Not a single team switched cities during Landis’s 22 year reign as commissioner), the Commish conceded to allow the Reds to play 7 experimental games under lights in the 1935 season.
And so, on May 24th, 1935, the 8-17 Phillies came to town to take on the 11-16 Reds. Both teams were on their way to forgettable seasons, finishing 6th and 7th in the National League. But on this night, the two squads were going make history. They were going to play under artificial light.
The field was made twice as bright as any minor league park. The Reds, who had played an afternoon home game the day before in front of 2,000 fans, were greeted by a cheering throng of 20,000 as they took the field that Wednesday evening. The lights were flipped on, Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem yelled “Play Ball!” and a new era in baseball history had begun. The Reds won the game, 2-1, but more importantly, night baseball had proved to be both legitimate and successful. There were no errors in the game, proving wrong the naysayers who said that players would lose the ball in the night sky. And the game had proved to a hit with fans and players. Said Reds first baseman Billy Sullivan after the game, “No pun intended, but there was electricity in the air-on the field, in the stands, and in the dugout. Ballplayers did not get blase. They got fired up too.”
Four years later, lights were erected at Shibe, and the Athletics became the first AL team to host a night game. Two weeks later the Phillies, also playing at Shibe, played their first night game. The last non- expansion team to get lights, the Chicago Cubs, finally did so in 1988. Their opponents that day? The Philadelphia Phillies.
Want to learn more about this game? Two great resources for this article were this crosley-field.com site and the book Let their Be Light. Like the story and our site. Please click “Like” below to help us spread the word. Thanks!