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Former Phillies manager Danny Ozark dies

Danny Ozark, the Phillies manager whose hound-dog face and penchant for malaprops sometimes obscured the success his teams enjoyed during the 1970s, died today in Vero Beach, Fla. He was 85.

Former Phillies manager Danny Ozark died Thursday morning at the age of 85. (File photo)
Former Phillies manager Danny Ozark died Thursday morning at the age of 85. (File photo)Read more

Danny Ozark, the Phillies manager whose hound-dog face and penchant for malaprops sometimes obscured the success his teams enjoyed during the 1970s, died today in Vero Beach, Fla. He was 85.

Mr. Ozark, whose 1976 and 1977 teams won more games than any in franchise history, succumbed at home this morning, according to an announcement from the Phillies. The cause was not immediately determined.

A longtime fixture in the Dodgers organization, Mr. Ozark was hired here in November 1972, just as a nucleus of young Phillies talent - Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Larry Bowa, Bob Boone - was maturing.

"I was saddened by the news," said Schmidt. "He was a good friend, my first major league manager and played a major role in the early years my career, and was instrumental in building us into prominence in the mid-1970's."

Owner Bob Carpenter, impressed by his long association with the successful Dodgers, bucked public opinion in hiring the 49-year-old who never played a day in the major leagues. Philadelphia fans had been lobbying for a more familiar face, someone like Richie Ashburn or Jim Bunning.

During his initial Philadelphia news conference, Mr. Ozark was asked for his reaction to getting his first big-league managing job. His answer was somewhat surprising.

"I wasn't overly excited," he said. "I didn't jump up and shout 'Whoopee!'"

Over the six-plus years he managed the Phillies, Mr. Ozark would become as renowned for the malaprops he uttered as for the teams he managed.

After his controversial moves resulted in a 1978, Mr. Ozark told reporters, "We flubbed that dub a little."

During an era when that political scandal dominated the headlines, the manager once tried to explain away a slump by saying, "even Napoleon had his Watergate."

Asked how team morale was holding up, Mr. Ozark shot back, "Morality isn't a factor at this point."

And when he got a rare ovation from a Veterans Stadium crowd. Mr. Ozark was moved. "It really sent a twinkle up my spine," he said.

Yet for all the fun he had poked at him here, Mr. Ozark managed to help a young and talented team find its confidence and its place in Phillies' history.

"We would not have had the success in the '70s if it wasn't for him," said former Phils owner Ruly Carpenter. "He taught those guys how to play the game."

Though his '73 Phils would wind up last, their 70 wins were an 11-game improvement over 1972's total. Still, Mr. Ozark nearly didn't make it through that first season. When his team was routed twice in mid-summer by Montreal, general manager Paul Owens told a reporter that his manager "had three weeks" to turn things around.

He did. The Phillies would win 80 games in '74 and 86 in '75 when, on the day they officially were eliminated from contention, Mr. Ozark infamously said "We're not out of it yet."

A year later, his Phillies would capture their first NL East title, winning a team-record 101 games. He was named Manager of the Year by both the Associated Press and the Sporting News. But in the franchise's first postseason series in 26 years, the Phils were swept by Cincinnati's Big Red Machine.

Mr. Ozark's 1977 team, now viewed as perhaps the most talented in club history, would also win 101 games. But they followed that accomplishment with an even greater postseason disappointment.

For all the success Mr. Ozark enjoyed here, he is destined to be remembered for a move he didn't make in the ninth inning of Game 3 in the 1977 NL Championship Series.

With the NLCS tied at 1-1, the Phils led the Dodgers, 5-3, entering the ninth inning on that Oct. 7, 1977, a day of such excruciating frustration that it is still recalled here as "Black Friday."

After Vic Davalillo beat out a drag bunt with two outs in the ninth, pinch-hitter Manny Mota lined a ball that leftfielder Luzinski, normally replaced by Jerry Martin in the late innings, mishandled at the wall.

That double would be the key hit in an improbable two-out rally that gave the Dodgers the victory. A night later, in the rain at Veterans Stadium, L.A. beat the deflated Phils and clinched the series.

"He was the third batter up in the ninth," Mr. Ozark, trying to explain his puzzling non-move, said afterward. "I wanted him in the lineup in case the game was tied."

That loss exacerbated dissatisfaction with Mr. Ozark among the fans, the media and even his own players. When the manager went to the mound to remove Carlton on one occasion in 1978, the unhappy pitcher angrily spiked the ball at his feet.

In writing about the Phillies' growing unhappiness with their manager, Inquirer columnist Frank Dolson would later say that "in their view, Ozark obviously was someone who couldn't lead a thirsty horse to water."

As an injury-riddled 1979 season wore on, Mr. Ozark couldn't even stick his head out of the Phils' dugout without hearing the boos. Finally, on Aug. 31, he was fired and replaced by Dallas Green.

"If Danny Ozark had one fault," said former Phils owner Ruly Carpenter, "it was that he was too nice. He was tremendously loyal to his players. There were just times when he should have been a hell of a lot tougher on those guys. . . . On the other hand he was a very tough person to put up with the things he did, the crap he took."

In 1980, the club Mr. Ozark had nurtured throughout the previous decade, finally won the franchise's first world championship.

Contacted at his Vero Beach home that night of Oct. 21, 1980, Mr. Ozark admitted that he and his wife, Ginny, had tears in their eyes.

"I wish I'd have been there to be a part of it," he said. "Those players all were with me. We developed the club together. We suffered together."

His victory total of 594 still ranks third among Phillies managers, behind Gene Mauch (645) and Harry Wright (635).

"He was the perfect manager for that team of evolving stars in the '70s and he never seemed to let anything bother him," said broadcaster Chris Wheeler. "When he was replaced by Dallas Green in 1979, he handled his dismissal with dignity and went home to play golf and spend the rest of his years with Ginny."

Born Daniel Leonard Orzechowski in 1923, the Buffalo, N.Y., native began his professional baseball career in 1942 as a first-baseman in the Dodgers' minor-league system.

In 1956, he became the manager of the Dodgers' Class B Wichita Falls team. By 1965, he was a third-base coach in Los Angeles. "I consider him a friend of mine," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel who was a player in the Dodgers farm system. "I knew him from the minor leagues. He was a great guy."

Mr. Ozark would return to the Dodgers in 1980 as a coach. He finished his career with the Giants, acting as interim manager in 1984 when Frank Robinson was fired.

"Ginny and I really miss Philadelphia," Mr. Ozark said in a Phillies Magazine story published last month.  "We enjoyed our time there.  That city is a great sports town.  The fans are the greatest.  They do express themselves, but that's OK.  We made a lot of lifelong friends there."

In addition to his wife of 60 years, Mr. Ozark is survived by two children, Dwain and Darlene; three granddaughters, and four great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending.