The Spectactular 50
A trio of promising minor leaguers joined the Phillies in September of 1972 after their AAA team was eliminated in the postseason. Speculation was all three could someday be starters. It was a team that needed a great deal of help.
Steve Carlton had one of the greatest seasons ever for a starting pitcher, going 27-10 with an ERA of 1.98. Without him, the Phils went 32-89. They finished next-to-last in runs scored and ninth in team batting with an average of .236. Only two regulars hit better than .250. At one point they lost 19 of 20 games. But under Paul Owens the organization’s minor league system began to improve.
Bob Boone was behind the plate, and Craig Robinson at shortstop when they made their major league debut in the top of the first in a game on September 12, 1972 against the New York Mets. But Don Money, the veteran third baseman, was at his usual spot when the game began.
In the top of the second, however, Money came out of the game and rookie number three took his place at third base: Mike Schmidt.
The consensus greatest all-round third baseman in the game’s history doesn’t remember why he didn’t start that game, in which he went one for three with a walk. (Robinson and Boone also got their first big-league hits that night.)
Not exactly a striking entrance to make as a major league debut in a career that culminated with a Hall of Fame induction.
Owens had taken over as manager for the team, and Money said recently he was going for a fielding record and all he had to do was to play one inning, which the manager allowed and he then gave way to Schmidt. The next day’s Philadelphia Inquirer reported that a throwing error by Monday ended his league record skein of errorless chances by a third baseman at 162 – the record Money referred to.
At Ohio University, Schmidt was considered a top prospect, but knee surgery scared off some teams. Owens watched Schmidt play a college game at his usual shortstop position. He thought, if I move Schmidt to third and have Larry Bowa at short, the left side of the infield is set for 10 years.
The Phillies gambled he would be available after the first round as other teams would be wary of Schmidt’s knee issues. The Phils selected him in the second round, one pick ahead of the Kansas City Royals taking George Brett.
“I joined the AA club in Reading in June to play the final months of that season,” recalled Schmidt. “I was overmatched as a hitter, seeing pitchers that were way above my experience. Everything in the pro game was new to me. Every player was the best at his college or high school, or had been fighting to move up in the minors for years. There was a natural tendency for the current roster at Reading to be jealous of me getting to start my career at that high level, when they all started in the lower minors. It didn’t help that I drove up in a brand new yellow Corvette.”
“I joined the team, being driven from Reading to Elmira by the team’s GM. My first sight was the team showering in a small building that only had a couple showers. There was a line of players wrapped in towels waiting for their turn,” he said. “Welcome to the minors. I remember my first game at Pittsfield where I went 2-4; can’t remember the results of the game, but for me it was downhill from there.” He batted .206 for that season.
“Despite the sense of jealousy, I did make a few lasting friendships. Bob Boone and Andre Thornton are still great friends, both were extremely important mentors.”
“To close, life is a series of experiences both good and bad, timing is everything and mine at Reading, Pa. will always be remembered.”
The Phillies traded Money after the 1972 season and handed Schmidt the starting third base job. It was a tough year in 1973. He batted .196 and struck out more than one third in his at bats. But he hit 18 homers, drove in 52 runs, and displayed good range and a strong arm in the field.
Perhaps his difficulties in Reading and his first full season made him withdrawn. Or maybe he was just that way.
In 1974, manager Danny Ozark decided to take the pressure off Schmidt by having him bat eighth on opening day in a game against the Mets. He hit a walk- off homerun off future teammate Tug McGraw. By season’s end, he had moved up to third in the batting order. He slugged 36 homeruns to lead the league, and also lead the circuit in homers for the next two years.
Mike Schmidt, 1979.
Schmidt played his entire career as a Phillie, clubbing 548 homeruns and winning 10 gold gloves and three Most Valuable Player Awards. He led the National League in homers eight times. In 1986, his third MVP season, he led the league in home runs, RBI’s and slugging percentage, done when he was 36 years old.
And yet, you’ll hear this phrase, “They even booed Mike Schmidt.” The best-ever at his position with a plaque at Cooperstown did hear jeers for much of his career, especially in its first decade.
He had his comments about the infamous Philadelphia fans:
“Philadelphia is the only city where you can experience the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day.”
Or: ”If you’re associated with the Philadelphia media or town, you look for negatives. I don’t know if there’s something about their upbringing or they have too many hoagies, or too much cream cheese.”
And: “You’re trying your damnedest, you strike out and they boo you. I act like it doesn’t bother me, like I don’t hear anything the fans say, but the truth is I hear every word of it and it kills me.”
The reason for the boos? The Phillies have been mostly terrible. When he joined the team a half century ago, the Phils were the only one of the eight original NL franchise’s not to win a World Series (even the upstart expansion franchise New York Mets won a title only seven years into their existence). Other Phillies stars, such as Del Ennis, Dick Allen and Greg Luzinski were also booed despite posting excellent numbers. Later, Ryan Howard heard the jeers.
From 1918 to 1948, the Phillies had one winning season and finished last or next-to-last most years. In 1964, the team held a 6.5 game lead in the National League with 12 games to go. World Series tickets were printed and mailed to season ticket holders. It then dropped 10 straight and lost the pennant.
The city never recovered and the bitterness has ingrained itself in the fans’ DNA. In Philadelphia, you’re only as good as your last play. Hit a homerun and you’re cheered, but ground into a double play the next time up and boos will rain down on you.
On July 15, 2007, the team became the first professional sports franchise in history to lose 10,000 games. At the end of the 2021 season, the Phillies had played 21,047 regular season games, with a record of 9,935-11,112. It would have to go 162-0 for seven and a quarter seasons to get to .500.
Mike Schmidt, of the Philadelphia Phillies, batting during a game against the New York Mets. (Getty)
The Phillies became good when Schmidt and other young players started to mature. But they came up short. They won three NL East titles in 1976-78, and lost all three NLCS series. Nobody was going to beat the Big Red Machine Cincinnati Reds in ’76, and the team was swept (as were the New York Yankees in the World Series). But in the following two years they lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers, even though the Phils believed they were the better team. One of those series losses featured a game in which the Phils were up by two runs with two outs in the ninth inning and in a nightmarish sequence of events wound up losing, which shifted momentum back to the Dodgers.
The 1978 NLCS started out badly, with the Phils losing the first game 9-5.
“So it’s October and the Phillies stink,” began a New York newspaper story, and once again Los Angeles went to the World Series and the Phillies went home.
Hall of Fame baseball writer Jayson Stark, who covered the Phils from 1979 to 2000 for the Philadelphia Inquirer, composed a piece summing up the third baseman’s career. Stark wrote Schmidt was “a man who made his sport look almost too easy. He may have fired off those homeruns off into the night, but he never shook the Earth trying to launch them. He never went tumbling to one knee like Reggie. He never glowered like Frank Robinson or towered like Willie McCovey.”
“His style was to make the spectacular plays look easier than they were, not the other way around. And that was a trick only the great ones could turn,” observed Stark.
Perhaps making it look too easy made fans think he wasn’t trying hard enough, which is a no-no in the city. Despite his accomplishments, Schmidt was not considered a “Philly” guy, meaning he didn’t wear his heart on his uniform sleeve, or express his joy or angst. He was typecast as “California cool” – even though he was from Ohio.
Then in 1979, another one of the game’s greatest players convinced him he was, in fact, that good.
Pete Rose signed with the Phillies in 1979. It was felt his fiery personality and drive to win was needed to put the club over the top.
One day, when the Phils were going to face the Montreal Expos, Schmidt told Rose he was nervous about facing Expo starter Steve Renko.
Rose answered him with this proposition: Don’t you think Renko’s nervous thinking about facing you?
Those few words helped him, especially when it came to relaxing at the plate.
Schmidt led the Phillies to their first World series title in 1980 with an MVP season. He was voted MVP again in the strike-shortened 1981 season. He put up some of his best seasons in the 1980s.
But in 1985, he had his most memorable reaction to the Philadelphia fans:
He called Phillies fans a “mob scene” and said they were “beyond help.”
“Whatever I’ve got in my career now, I would have had a great deal more if I played in Los Angeles or Chicago. You name a town, somewhere where they were just grateful to have me around. I drive in a hundred runs a year, hit forty home runs, probably have been on more winning teams in the course of my career than most guys. It’s a damn shame to have negative fan reaction tied to it,” he said.
On July 1, 1985, the Phils played their first home game since Schmidt had made his remarks.
Schmidt said his teammates were afraid to stand next to him during pregame drills. So he went back to the clubhouse and found a shoulder-length wig that belonged to pitcher Larry Andersen. Shortstop Steve Jeltz gave him a pair of sunglasses.
His teammates dared him to take the field wearing the wig and glasses, and Schmidt agreed to do it. When he was introduced during pregame infield practice, fans began to boo, and then they saw him rush onto the field tossing grounders to his teammates. Some boos became cheers, and the perceptions of at least a few Philadelphia fans began to shift. Schmidt eventually tossed the wig to a batboy, and the game began.
Schmidt was hitting .237 when he made his remarks. He finished the season batting .277 with 33 homeruns and 93 RBIs.
In 1989, Schmidt began the season as the team’s starting third baseman. But after 42 games, the 39-year-old Schmidt knew he wasn’t playing well, batting only .203 and making eight errors. On May 29, made a surprise announcement. In an emotional speech, he said he was retiring.
As a sendoff from the baseball community, fans voted him as the starting third baseman for the National League All-Star team that year, even though he was no longer an active player. (He didn’t play in the game but made an appearance at the contest in San Francisco.)
In 1995, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot with 96.5 of the votes. At the time of his induction, only six third baseman were in the Hall, and three of them were voted in by the Veterans Committee.
Reports had 17 busloads of Philadelphia fans travel to Cooperstown for the ceremony. People now knew how good he was, and it was reflected in his speech:
“And finally, my fans:
“I want to tell you straight from the heart, how I feel about you and your influence on this game. As athletes, we’re disciplined, we’re focused, we’re even tough. But I know of no athlete who is immune to fan reaction, positive or negative. Yes, you fans affect the game in a ‘big’ way. Calling Philadelphia fans spectators hardly describes your impact. You help mold the spirit of a team. Your positive feedback is crucial in the Phillies’ right to stay on top. You know, I’m often asked what I miss most about the game. It’s tough to sort out all the wonderful memories and come up with a definite answer. But I can tell you this; I’ll always miss the goose bumps I got when you cheered me. I’ve collected eighteen years of those goosebumps, from my first hit back in 1972 to the welcome you gave me tonight. To right now. That feeling can never be recreated, but that feeling will always be remembered.”
“My dreams started on a small playground near my home where I first learned how to hold a bat. My dreams came true here on this field. This game – baseball – is rich with strategy, talent, challenge, excitement and yes, tradition. But most of all, this game of baseball creates a bond – an indescribable bond, a bond that brings all of us together. All of us, not only teams but families, friends, communities and, yes, even countries. At this very moment, I feel that bond and it will always be with me. I don’t know where life will lead. but the Phillies and Philadelphia will forever hold a very special place in my heart.”
And Philadelphia now reciprocates that sentiment.