Ay, there's the rub. Most of Mauch's career numbers are on the debit side of the ledger. "If it's true you learn from adversity," Mauch once told Nina Lee, "then I must be the smartest sumbitch in the whole world." He holds the major league record for the most consecutive seasons without a championship—23. His 1961 Phillies set a modern major league record for losses in a row with 23, and though he is eighth on the alltime list in games managed (3,610) and ninth in games won (1,731), he is also fourth in games lost (1,876). These milestones have been reached with a succession of teams that were barely major league.
In his first big league job he took over a Phillies team in 1960 that had finished last the previous two seasons and had such unpromising prospects that Mauch's immediate predecessor, Eddie Sawyer, quit after the Opening Day loss, informing owner Bob Carpenter, "I'm 49 years old and I want to make 50." Mauch managed the Phillies longer—from April of '60 to almost the middle of the 1968 season—than anyone in the modern era, and he returned the franchise to a measure of respectability. He moved directly from that reclamation project to an expansion team, the Expos, that was fully as dreadful as any he had had in Philly. By the time he departed, after the '75 season, the Expos were close to .500.
In 1976 he pressed on to Minnesota, timing his arrival with owner Calvin Griffith's unhappy realization that he could no longer compete with baseball's big-money boys in the modern world of free-agent baseball and wildly escalating salaries. Mauch presided over the precipitous descent of the Griffith enterprise, exercising all his wiles to cushion the fall. His '77 team, picked as an also-ran, led the American League West for 51 days and was in contention until September, when pitching weaknesses were finally exposed, and it lost 18 of 27 games to finish fourth, 7½ games behind Kansas City. Mauch stayed in Minnesota, through not much thick and increasing thin, through 125 games of the '80 season.
Then it was on to California and an owner, Gene Autry, who, unlike Griffith, was willing to spend prodigiously, but often for stars who either succumbed immediately to crippling infirmities or established beyond dissent that they had passed their primes. And yet with all this travail, Mauch won Manager of the Year awards in 1962, '64 and '73.
He was widely and justifiably acclaimed for making silk purses out of sows' ears. In truth, he did this all too well, for on at least two demoralizing occasions he took mostly undeserving teams to the brink of success, and then when they failed at last, it was he who took the rap for their downfall.
Mauch is an unnerving man to talk with because he does not immediately respond to questions, no matter how inoffensive they may seem. A grim silence may well follow "How are you?" Then, just when you surmise that he has rejected your inquiry as the prattling of an imbecile and are prepared sheepishly to pursue a different conversational avenue, the words cascade from him. It isn't that he has ignored what has been said, it's just that he has actually been thinking about it. Imagine that. Here's someone who actually thinks before he speaks. Extraordinary! "He's probably never made a move in his life that he hasn't thought out," says his sister, Jolene, who's married to Mauch's former Cubs roommate of years ago, Roy Smalley Jr. (Mauch in his long career has managed at different times both his brother-in-law and his nephew.) "Gene works things out," says Jolene, who lives in Manhattan Beach, Calif. "There's always a Plan B. When he doesn't answer, he's sorting out which answer to give."
After a particularly tough loss to Kansas City last month, Mauch was asked by a courageous reporter if he thought his young pitchers, who had thrown so well early in the season, were now all going sour at once. The reporter was armed for the death rays that Mauch's steel gray eyes discharge to penetrate human flesh. There was, of course, no immediate answer. Then, after an excruciating interval, Mauch replied mildly, "I'm still thinking about this game, so that's a little complicated for me to answer right now. It's not that your question doesn't deserve an answer, it's just that I'm not up to it tonight." Talk about mellow.
And so, under that blistering Baltimore sun, he is asked if the game that has been the cause of so much hurt has also been fun for him. Now there's a question deserving of a double whammy from those twin grays. Pause. The lighting of a Marlboro. A hand through the short-cropped silver hair. A puff of smoke. The application of clogs to bare feet. A slow unfolding from the chair he has set up alongside the dugout. A stretch. The pack of Marlboros dropped contemplatively into the undershorts. A quick descent of the dugout steps. And then, when all seems lost: "The most fun was the first 150 games of '64. That little team could flat play. Nobody thought we had a chance to win, but for the first 150, nobody played better than those kids. We didn't have great talent, but we had great execution. In all my years, I don't think I've ever seen anyone play both sides of the game [hitting and fielding] as well as Doug DeCinces did in '82, but Johnny Callison came close in '64. If we hadn't screwed it up, he'd have had the MVP locked up. You know, they've always said I pitched Bunning and Short too much at the end. Let them have their fun with that version. I've never told anyone what I thought happened, and I never will. The funny thing is, some people seem to think the only year I managed was 1964."
The '64 Phillies, a ragtag bunch with two good pitchers in Jim Bunning (19-8) and Chris Short (17-9), a hot Callison (31 homers, 104 RBIs), a rookie flash, Richie (later Dick) Allen, and not much else, had won 90 of those first 150 games and were 6½ games ahead in the National League pennant race with 12 games left to play at a time when there were no divisions and no playoffs to clutter things up. They had been picked to finish no higher than fifth, and here they were, Whiz Kids reborn, about to lock it up. But those last dozen games didn't look to be a Cakewalk, and Mauch knew it. Frank Thomas, acquired to provide righthanded power in August, had carried the team over a 32-game stretch, driving in 26 runs. But on Sept. 8, he jammed a thumb and was out for the rest of the year. Starters Dennis Bennett and Ray Culp had sore arms. The bullpen, anchored by Jack Baldschun, was shaky. Mauch decided that if he was going to hold on, he had better stick with his aces, Bunning and Short, pitching on short rest. Actually, says Toronto pitching coach Al Widmar, the Phillies' pitching coach at the time, "it was their idea. Bunning and Short came to him and told him that's what they wanted to do."
With the pennant there for the taking, Mauch's Phillies lost 10 in a row and dropped out of first. They won their last two against Cincinnati and tied the Reds for second, a game behind the Cardinals. The 92 wins were the most by any Phillies team up to that time, and Mauch beat out Johnny Keane of the winning Cardinals for Manager of the Year. His contract was extended. The terrible collapse haunts him still. He has heard the names, Bunning and Short, as often, presumably, as another failed leader has heard those of Ehrlichman and Haldeman. He managed the Phillies until 1968, feuding along the way with stars Callison and Allen, both of whom he had nurtured in their baseball infancy. When it came to a showdown with the eccentric and rebellious Allen, Mauch was sent packing, 55 games into the '68 season.