The end of August had the Cardinals taking a brutal 12 game road trip. They would first travel west to Los Angeles for three games, east to Houston for the next three, back to the west coast for three with the Giants and then all the way across the country to end with three games in Philadelphia. The league had not yet figured out how to deal efficiently with expansion and the two new west coast teams.
Pennant hopes had been high for the Cardinals to start the 1963 season, but a 3-6 record over the last games had them 6 1/5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers with a month to play. In a foreshadowing of their historic pennant chase the next year, the Cardinals were about to close that gap to just a single game. It all started with the three game series in Philadelphia.
The Redbirds made a winner out of Ray Sadecki in the opener, thanks to a huge offensive explosion in the late innings. A pair of errors and series of singles led to five runs in the seventh, and a big three run homer by Ken Boyer in the ninth gave the Cards an 11-6 win.
Ernie Broglio couldn’t hold a two run lead in the ninth, and the second game went into extra innings. For the second time in two games, Ken Boyer came up big. This time it was a two run homer in the eleventh inning, and Bobby Shantz was the winner in relief.
That brings us to the series finale and a battle of lefties. The Phillies would send the hard throwing Chris Short to the mound. He would face the former Phillies Whiz Kid, Curt Simmons. It was an amazing pairing as Short was exactly to the current Phillies, what Simmons had been to them a decade earlier.
Both pitchers would struggle early, but got through their respective first innings without allowing a run. It was what happened in the second inning that makes this one for the history books.
Tim McCarver would lead off the inning with a single. Forget that McCarver was a catcher, he had good speed and the innings had yet to take their toll on his legs. That would come into play when Curt Simmons stepped up to the plate with one out. Not known as a particularly good hitter, Simmons rips a triple off Short and McCarver scores all the way from first base. The Cardinals had a 1-0 lead.
Julian Javier is the next up, a right handed hitter. Javier would effectively block Simmons from the prying eyes of Phillies catcher, Bob Oldis. As with most hard throwing pitchers, Chris Short had something of a long delivery to the plate. Since he was a lefty, that allowed Simmons to take a bit of a longer lead than if he had been a right hander.
Perhaps taking a bit of a chance to give his hometown crowd something to cheer about, Simmons does the unthinkable – a straight steal of home plate. This was right out of the Jackie Robinson play book. Nothing but pure guts, except with Simmons there might have been just a bit of luck. Catching the Phillies totally off guard, Simmons slides in safe and the Cardinals led, 2-0.
Stealing home, especially in that era, was generally the end result of a double steal. Straight steals of home plate were, and still are, relatively rare and few of them happen in the second inning of a game. Fewer still are done by a pitcher. In fact, no pitcher since Simmons has stolen home sucessfully (courtesy of our friends over at SABR).
The Cardinals would extend their lead to 5-0 the next inning, and finally 6-0 on another home run by Ken Boyer, the third in as many days. Simmons would throw a complete game, and the Cardinals won, 7-3, sweeping the Philadelphia Phillies.
The winning would continue when St. Louis returned home. The suddenly red hot Cardinals would sweep a three game series with the Pirates, two with the Mets, take three of four at Pittsburgh, and sweep a pair of four game series against the Cubs and Braves. That’s a 19-1 record over 20 games, and it was good enough to pull the Cardinals to within one game of the Dodgers.
Unfortunately, the miracle of 1963 would end there as St. Louis would win just two of their last ten games and the Dodgers would win the NL Pennant. But the experience gained from that exciting month of baseball helped the Cardinals the following season as they caught, and finally passed the same Philadelphia Phillies on the way to their first World Series title since 1946.
As for Curt Simmons, he was something special. At one time an unhittable flame thrower, retooled as a crafty and deceptive veteran who had mastered the curveball, Simmons would win 18 games for the Cardinals in 1964 and would finally get his chance to pitch in a World Series.
June 2, 2012 will be the 65th anniversary of a most amazing exhibition game, played in Egypt, Pennsylvania. The Phillies, who were scouting high school players in the Lehigh Valley area, played an exhibition game against a group of local all stars. The starting pitcher for the high school team was Curt Simmons. He struck out 11 Phillies on the day, making quite an impression. Thanks to a late error, the game ended in a 4-4 tie – the high schoolers nearly beat the big leaguers.
The city of Egypt will be honoring Curt Simmons with a parade and special ceremony as they dedicate the newly rebuilt field as “Simmons Field”. You can find out more about Curt Simmons Day at egyptpark.org. If you live in the Philadelphia area, I hope you can make it out to Egypt to honor one of the game’s good guys.