|Pete Rose was the first big Phillies free agent signing|
On December 5th, 1978 the Philadelphia Phillies dipped into the free agent market for the first time, and hauled in a big fish. Pete Rose, the man known as Charlie Hustle, was signed away from the Cincinnati Reds.
The driving force behind a 2-time World Series-winning ‘Big Red Machine’ in Cincy, Rose would bring his signature hustle, determination, leadership, and overall winning attitude and game to the Phillies, pushing a group of under-achieving stars over the top to a title.
The deal with Rose is small by today’s contract standards, but at the tail end of 1978 it was considered a huge contract when he signed with the Phillies for $3.2 million over four seasons. It made him the highest-paid athlete in the history of team sports at that point in time.
The Phillies had been growing into a winner over the previous handful of seasons. In 1976 and 1977 the club had won the National League East Division title with identical 101-win seasons that were a franchise record for regular season wins.
However, in both seasons the Phils had come up short in the playoffs. In ’76, it was Rose and his Reds teammates who had swept them in the NLCS. In ’77, the Phils suffered through the “Black Friday” loss and gone down in 4 games to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Rose seemed the perfect fit. He had won the two World Series in Cincinnati. He was an 11x NL All-Star. He had been the 1963 NL Rookie of the Year as well as the 1973 NL Most Valuable Player. He had won 3 batting titles and a pair of Gold Gloves.
But not only was Rose outstanding on the field, he was also well-known as being one of the game’s leaders and spark plugs. He fully earned his Charlie Hustle nickname by playing with his hair on fire. He ran down to 1st base after a walk, and his head-first slides into 3rd base had become a signature.
While the Phillies in those days had some tremendous talent, with players such as future Hall of Famers Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt, slugger Greg Luzinski, athletic outfielders Garry Maddox and Bake McBride, and All-Stars raised in the organization such as Bob Boone and Larry Bowa, there was clearly something missing come playoff time.
Rose would bring that postseason experience, the knowledge of how to perform in the clutch at the most important time. It was also hoped that he would instill some of the confidence required to finally get over that October hump to the other players, in particular the superstar talent that was Schmidt.
That first season of 1979 in Philly turned out to be a tough one. The Phils took over first place on April 21st, and for the most part the held it for over a month. But following a loss to the Cubs on May 28th that dropped them a half-game behind the Montreal Expos, they went into Montreal and were swept in a 3-game series.
Those 1979 Phillies would never recover. They hung around near the lead into early August, but collapsed as the ‘Dog Days’ of summer drew to a close. Injuries were a big part of the reason. They would finish in a hugely disappointing 4th place with an 84-78 record.
The disappointing season was hardly the fault of Rose. In his first Phillies season, Charlie Hustle hit .331 with a .418 on-base percentage. He drilled 208 hits, including 40 doubles. He scored 90 runs and stole a career-high 20 bases. In short, he was all the team paid for…except that he never got a chance to show that postseason leadership.
As everyone who follows the team knows, 1980 would prove a different story. Rose was strong again with 42 doubles and 95 runs scored. This time the team came along for the ride. Schmidt became an MVP for the first time, and largely credited Rose for his taking this step up in his overall impact from star to superstar.
And of course, that 1980 team would also not only reclaim the NL East crown, but would to on to win the World Series. The leadership, confidence, and experience that Rose was signed to bring was on full display, especially in the dramatic 5-game NLCS victory over the Houston Astros.
In the World Series vs. the Kansas City Royals, Rose provided a signature moment, one that fully encapsulated his “Charlie Hustle” persona. With one out in the 9th inning of Game 6, the Phils leading the Series by 3-2 and the game by 4-1, the Royals loaded the bases.
Frank White, the Royals experienced 2nd baseman, stepped to the plate and popped the first pitch foul over near the Phillies dugout between home plate and first base. Boone was set to catch the ball for the 2nd out. Suddenly, however, the ball popped into and out of his glove.
For a brief instant, it seemed that the Royals were going to get a huge break, with a Boone error allowing White another shot with the bags loaded and still just the one out. But as the ball popped out of Boone’s glove, another reached out and snatched it from the air. Rose had hustled over from first base, and was Johnny-on-the-spot to snatch the ball for that precious 2nd out.
One batter later, Tug McGraw struck out Willie Wilson, and Rose and his Phillies teammates were champions. It was the first World Series title in franchise history after 98 seasons.
Rose would go on to play 3 more seasons in Philadelphia. He was an NL All-Star in each of the first 5 seasons here, and in 1983 would help the team back to the World Series for a 2nd time. The loss to Baltimore would be his final games in a Phillies uniform.
In his 5 seasons with the Phillies, Rose appeared in 745 of a possible 810 games. He came to the plate more than 3,000 times in those seasons, recording 826 hits. He hit for a .291 average, scored 390 runs, and won a Silver Slugger Award at 1st base in 1981.
There can be no doubt that the Philadelphia Phillies first-ever foray into free agency was well worth the enormous financial expenditure. It was 36-years ago today that the historic signing happened.