The Philadelphia Phillies grew from frustrating losers to frustrated winners, and finally to World Series champions during the period from the early 1970’s to the early 1980’s. The career of Dick Ruthven, both in and out of Philly, can be described in much the same way.
After being named to the college baseball All-America team at Fresno, Dick Ruthven was the Phillies pick at the first overall slot in the secondary phase of the 1973 January MLB Draft. He went straight to the Major Leagues, inserted immediately into a Phillies starting rotation that was desperate for talent.
The previous season of 1972, the Phillies had finished in last place in the National League East Division. Of the club’s 59 victories, 27 of them had come from lefty Steve Carlton all by himself. No other starting pitcher had won more than 4 games.
Ruthven’s first start didn’t go well, as the Montreal Expos knocked him out in the 2nd inning after tagging the 21-year old for 4 earned runs and 5 hits. He also walked 2 and struck out nobody. It would get better, and fairly quickly.
Over his next four starts, he went at least 7 innings each time. In his 3rd start on April 28th at Cincinnati, Ruthven earned his first victory in a 1-0 masterpiece at Riverfront Stadium. In 7 innings he dominated the Reds, allowing just 1 hit while striking out 8 and walking 2.
There were two more personal highlights for Ruthven during the 1973 season. He recorded his first Complete Game on July 1st in a 1-0, 2-hitter at Saint Louis which was also his first career Shutout. And on July 20th in Atlanta, Ruthven came on to register the final out of a 6-4 Phillies victory, recording his first career Save in the process.
The Phillies again finished in last place during that 1973 season, but they improved from 59 up to 71 wins, and went from finishing 37 1/2 games off the first place pace in ’72 to just 11 1/2 back to finish the 1973 campaign.
From 1973 through 1975, Ruthven appeared in 71 games and made 65 starts. He fashioned a 17-24 record, and allowed just 344 hits in 377.1 innings pitched. In ’74 alone he had what would be a career-high 153 strikeouts.
The team again improved, to 80-82 and just 8 games back in ’74, and then to a winning record at 86-76 and just 6 1/2 games behind in ’75.
Ruthven lost much of that 1975 season to injury. He pitched most of the year during his first-ever stint in the minor leagues on a rehab assignment, and didn’t get back to the Phils until August. Overall he was limited to 11 appearances and 7 starts for the team down the stretch that year.
Finally, the Phils kicked down the door and won the NL East in both 1976 and 1977. In both seasons the club set a franchise record by winning 101 games. But Dick Ruthven wasn’t around to enjoy either of those tremendous seasons.
In a dizzying span over 3 days in December of 1975, Ruthven had been traded – twice. First, the Phils sent him to the Chicago White Sox along with the 1973 January Draft’s 1st overall pick, shortstop Alan Bannister, in a deal that yielded veteran lefty starting pitcher Jim Kaat.
Ruthven would never spend a day in the Windy City, only lasting even one full day on the White Sox roster. Two days after being acquired from the Phillies, the Chisox sent him on to the Atlanta Braves in a deal that included outfielder Ralph Garr coming back to Chicago.
In his first season away from Philly, Ruthven became an All-Star for the first time. He went 10-8 with a 3.26 ERA in 129.2 pre-break innings for the Braves. But the season began to crumble thereafter. Ruthven went just 4-9 after the All-Star break, with his ERA ballooning to 5.29 over that span.
A big part of Ruthven’s problem was emotional. He had learned that during Spring Training that year with the Braves, the team owner, wealthy cable TV and publishing magnate Ted Turner, had made a pass at Ruthven’s wife, Sue. When confronted, Turner claimed it was only “playful” in nature.
As told to Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Frank Dolson at the time, Ruthven was offered an apology by Turner. Ruthven told the owner to apologize to his wife instead. Turner did so, but according to Ruthven, the owner chose to make the incident public by “apologizing in front of about 20 people at the Stadium Club.”
Ruthven became increasingly unhappy in Atlanta
Ruthven’s relationship with Turner, and thus the Braves organization, was irreparably damaged by the incident, and he demanded a trade. “I told the manager. I told the general manager. I told opposing teams” said Ruthven in regards to his trade wishes.
A trade would not come for a year and a half. Through 1977 and into early 1978, Ruthven remained miserable, continued to publicly and privately ask for a trade, and performed poorly on the field.
In 1977 he went 7-13 with a career-high 4.23 ERA in just 23 starts. He had a terrible 84-62 K/BB ratio. The fact that the Phillies had become a power in the National League in his absence didn’t help. Ruthven began 1978 still unhappy, and was pitching poorly again, going just 2-6 through his first 13 outings.
Atlanta manager Bobby Cox spoke after a Braves game in Philly: “What he’d really like is to come here, with the Phillies. And if we could get something that would really help us, we would do it. But he’s a pretty good pitcher, and we aren’t going to give him away. We would have to get something for him.”
The right deal finally came along. On June 14th, the Phillies acquired former Reds closer Rawly Eastwick from Cincy in a trade. A day later, with their bullpen now shored up in preparation for just this move, the Phils sent closer Gene Garber to Atlanta in exchange for Ruthven.
The trade immediately turned around Dick Ruthven’s entire outlook, and breathed renewed life into his career. The now 27-year old went 13-5 with a 2.99 ERA over 150.2 innings for the Phils, and helped the club win its 3rd straight NL East crown, the first in which he was able take part in celebrating.
In the NLCS, the Phillies would face the Los Angeles Dodgers in a rematch of the 1977 NLCS which many felt the more talented Phils had simply blown. But the outcome would prove the same in 1978. Ruthven started Game 2, and was beaten by the Dodgers, lasting just 5 innings in a 4-0 defeat. LA would again win the series in 4 games.
When 1979 opened, Ruthven and the Phillies were hot, and seemed on their way to yet another big season. Ruthven began the year 6-0 with a 1.65 ERA through early May. The team was in first place as late as May 27th. But then injuries struck Ruthven and a number of other players.
Ruthven tried to pitch through his injury troubles, but was limited to just 9 more starts after May. His season officially ended in early August. The Phils also lost starter Larry Christenson at the start, got him back in May, but then lost him for most of the season after June. Aging veterans Kaat and Jim Lonborg had become ineffective and were released in May.
The starting pitching troubles combined with injury-plagued seasons to catcher Bob Boone and 2nd baseman Manny Trillo, and down years from veterans Greg Luzinski and Larry Bowa, to undermine the once-promising 1979. The team fell behind, managed to stay in the race until early August, but then totally collapsed.
The 1979 Phillies finished with a winning record at 84-78, but they also finished in 4th place in the division, a full 14 games behind the eventual division champion Pittsburgh Pirates. Adding insult to injury, the in-state rival Bucs would go on to win the World Series, something that had eluded the Phils during their run atop the division.
The collapse cost longtime manager Danny Ozark his job. The amiable ‘Wizard of Oze” was replaced in the manager’s office by organizational man and firebrand Dallas Green, who immediately set about the task of trying to light a fire under what he saw as a complacent, comfortable team.
In 1980 it would finally all come together for the Phillies. The team reclaimed the NL East crown, thanks largely to an inspired final week of play, including a final showdown weekend in Montreal. Ruthven contributed a strong bounce-back campaign. He proved to be the perfect #2 rotation compliment to ace Steve Carlton by going 17-10 with a 3.55 ERA, and proving his health by tossing 231.2 innings.
In the postseason, both Ruthven and the Phils set about the task of shaking the ‘choker’ label. The righty again started Game 2, just as he had in ’78, and again lost. But this time he had pitched 7 strong innings, leaving with the score tied at 2-2. The Astros would score 4 runs in the top of the 10th to win 7-4 and even the best-of-5 series at a game apiece.
Ruthven would not make another start in what would prove in many eyes to be the greatest NLCS in history. The two teams battled into extra innings in each of the final four games. The Phillies appeared dead a couple of times in both Game 4 and 5, but rallied each time.
In that 5th and decisive game, the Phils rallied from a 5-2 deficit in the 8th inning to take a 7-5 lead, but the Astros answered with a pair to tie it at 7-7 and again send it to extras. The Phillies scored a run to take an 8-7 lead, and having already burned through his top relief options, manager Green turned to Ruthven to try to close out the game.
Ruthven got pinch-hitter Danny Heep to lead off with a pop-out to Bowa at shortstop on a 2-2 pitch for the first out. Then he caught the dangerous Terry Puhl guessing on a first-pitch, getting him to line out to centerfielder Garry Maddox for the 2nd out.
Veteran 3rd baseman Enos Cabell was the only player standing between the Phillies and the franchise’ first World Series berth in 30 years. Ruthven battled him to a full count. Then on the 6th pitch, Cabell caught a pitch off the end of his bat, flaring a punch-shot to center field. Maddox charged, cradled the ball for the 3rd out, and the celebration began.
Dick Ruthven, a Phillies homegrown draftee over 7 years earlier, had left town, but had always wanted a return. He fought for and finally got that return to his first team. And now here he was, earning the Win as he closed out the most dramatic playoff series to that point in Phils history.
In the World Series against Kansas City, Ruthven was again frustrated. He got the start for Game 3 in Kansas City with the Phils up 2-0 and looking to take a strangle-hold on the Series. Ruthven pitched a gem, striking out 7 and walking none over 9 full innings. But the game was tied 3-3, and he was pulled. The Royals would win in the bottom of the 10th.
That excellent outing was Dick Ruthven’s only appearance in the 1980 World Series. Four nights later, the Phillies would win in Game 6 at Veteran’s Stadium. Ruthven would join in the on-field celebration, the post-game locker room champagne showers, and the celebratory parade down Broad Street.
Dick Ruthven would pitch two more full seasons in Philadelphia. He went 12-7 in the 1981 work stoppage season, making his 2nd and final NL All-Star team. He then took the loss in Game 2 of the 1981 NLDS vs Montreal, his final career postseason appearance. In 1982 he went 11-11.
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In 1983, the Phillies would return to the World Series, but Ruthven wouldn’t get to be a part of that October run. On May 22nd he was traded to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for reliever Willie Hernandez. It would prove a good deal for both teams, as Hernandez would pitch in 63 games, saving the Phils bullpen. Ruthven would go 12-9 in Chicago.
The 1984 season would prove to be the beginning of the end of Ruthven’s career. It started out well as he gained the victory as the Cubs starter on Opening Day. It would end in near-glory, with the Cubbies winning the NL East. However, Ruthven had become ineffective during the course of the season, so much that he would not appear in the NLCS loss to San Diego.
After struggling through a full 1985 season, Ruthven was finally released by the Cubs in May of 1986 at age 35. He finished his career with an overall 123-127 record and a 4.14 ERA compiled over 2,109 innings pitched.
In retirement, Dick Ruthven settled in to live Alpharetta, Georgia, where he and Sue raised their 3 sons. He founded Ruthven Construction, and received numerous awards for quality and customer satisfaction in home building, including the OBIE, the premier home-building industry honor in the Atlanta area.
Ruthven today in retirement
Today, Ruthven is the owner and CEO of Access Management Group, focusing these days on the company’s IT operations, and using his industry experience to position them in a leadership position in the Atlanta land market. (Twitter: @accessmgtgroup)
Despite what seem like mediocre career numbers, Dick Ruthven’s contributions to the Philadelphia Phillies were pivotal to their late-70’s and early-80’s success. In Philadelphia, Ruthven’s record was 78-65 with a 4.00 ERA in over 1,200 innings, including vital contributions to a world championship team.
On the all-time leaderboard, Ruthven is tied for 17th in Wins (78), 10th in Starts (198), tied for 15th in Strikeouts (717), 20th in Innings (1,262.2) and 48th in Games (208) among all pitchers who ever towed the mound for the Fightin’ Phils.
A talented righty who loved his time here in Philly, Dick Ruthven’s contributions are often overlooked, but nonetheless vital, to the first World Series championship in franchise history. He is remembered fondly by all Phillies fans of that time, and deserves to have his career known and remembered by all fans of the team of any generation.