Statue of Michael Jack Schmidt, the greatest player in Phillies history, stands outside of Citizens Bank Park
This Philography series has now weaved its way through 20 individuals who have played a big part in the history of the Philadelphia Phillies franchise. So it is perhaps fitting that we now take a look back at the career of #20 himself, the greatest player in franchise history, Mike Schmidt.
Entire books can be written – have been written – in order to fully tell the story of one of the greatest players in the history of Major League Baseball. I’m not going to try to do that here. If you are interested in getting in deeper, check out a fine biography at this link written back in 2010 by Rob Maaddi titled Mike Schmidt: The Phillies’ Legendary Slugger.
In order to keep this to a reasonable article-length piece, I will simply rehash the early playing career, and then key on the 1980 highlights of the greatest third baseman in the history of the game, with a little background tossed in here and there. It should make for a great introduction for younger fans, and a fun bit of nostalgia for those who, like me, actually got to see him play.
Schmidt was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio and stayed home to play college baseball at Ohio University. He was a shortstop in those days and was selected at that position to the 1970 College Baseball All-America Team after leading the Bobcats to the College World Series.
With the sixth pick in the second round of the 1971 MLB Amateur Draft, the Phillies selected Schmidt at 30th overall. That was just one pick after the Kansas City Royals had chosen a California shortstop by the name of George Brett.
“The next day, Mr. Lucadello (Phillies scout Tony Lucadello) came to the house, pulled in the driveway, opened his trunk and he pulled out a typewriter. He pulled a typewriter out, walked in the house, set the typewriter down, had a piece of paper and said, “We’re prepared to offer Mike $25,000 if he’ll sign with the Phillies right now.” And my father said, “No way. Come back when you can give us $40,000.” We ended up settling on $37,500 and I went out and bought a Corvette for $7,000.”
As an advanced college prospect, Schmidt went straight to Double-A Reading that same summer. He appeared in his first 74 professional games there, hitting .211 with eight homers and 31 RBI over 268 plate appearances.
With a full off-season of rest, Schmidt moved up to Triple-A Eugene for the 1972 season and really showed his ability. He slashed .291/.409/.550 while slamming 26 home runs and driving in 91 runs over 131 games.
MONEY FOR A CUP OF COFFEE
That performance earned him a September promotion to a 59-win, last-place Phillies club. The starting third baseman at that time was 25-year-old Don Money, who the Phillies had high hopes for at one point. However, Money hit just .222 with 15 homers that year following up on a 1971 season in which he had hit just .221 with seven homers.
Schmidt didn’t light the world on fire in that first brief big-league cup of coffee. But he got to appear in 13 games, and made eight starts at the hot corner alongside a fiery 26-year-old shortstop by the name of Larry Bowa.
On September 16, 1972 in the first game of a doubleheader at Veteran’s Stadium against the Montreal Expos, Schmidt blasted a three-run homer off Balor Moore for his first career round-tripper. It would turn out to be a game-winner, taking the Phillies from a 1-0 deficit to a 3-1 lead that would also end up as the final score that night.
Schmidt’s contributions to the 1972 Phillies season, such as they were, were lost on most of Phillies Nation at that time. The big story had been the performance of a new arrival, starting pitcher Steve Carlton. The left-hander won 27 games and the NL Cy Young Award that year for a last place team. Little did anyone know that he and Schmidt would become the cornerstones of great Phillies teams for years to come.
RISE TO CONTENDERS
In his first season as a starter, Schmidt struggled mightily, slashing just .196/.324/.373 with 18 home runs. The Phillies again finished in the basement of the National League East Division, but under new manager Danny Ozark they showed some progress overall, entering September just six games off the division lead.
The 1974 season would prove to be a big step forward for both the team and its young third sacker. Schmidt slashed .282/.395/.546 and led the NL with 36 homers. He also produced 116 RBI, 108 runs scored, and 23 stolen bases, was selected as a reserve for the National League All-Star team and would finish sixth in the NL MVP voting.
On June 10 of that 1974 season in Houston, Schmidt drove an offering from Astros pitcher Claude Osteen that was a no-doubt home run right off the bat. But as the ball soared up and up at the Astrodome it struck a public address speaker that was suspended 117 feet up and 329 feet out from home plate. The ball fell into center field for what ended up as one of the longest singles ever hit.
Sparked by Schmidt’s emergence and the veteran influence of new second baseman Dave Cash the Phillies spent much of June and July of that summer of 1974 in first place. Though the club wilted in the August heat, they still won 80 games for the first time in eight years and ended the season in third place, the highest finish by a Phillies team since 1966.
The 1975 season would see the Phillies take another step forward. The team won 86 games and was tied for first place as late as August 18. The Phillies went 11-7 against the division power at that time, the cross-state rival Pittsburgh Pirates. But the Bucs again pulled away at the end, finishing 6.5 games ahead.
Schmidt had a bit of a fall-off that season, hitting just .249 and seeing his strikeouts total soar to a league-leading 180. But he also led the league for a second straight season with 38 home runs. He and left fielder Greg Luzinski gave the Phillies the most feared combination of sluggers in the game. “The Bull” slashed .300/.394/.540 that year with 34 homers and 120 RBI, making the NL All-Star team and finishing as the NL MVP runner-up.
BECOMING THE BEST
The Bicentennial season of 1976 would finally see the Phillies overtake the Pirates as kings of the east. Led by a rejuvenated Schmidt, the club would romp to a franchise-record 101 regular season victories. They moved into first place on May 14 and would never relinquish the lead, building a 15.5 game cushion at one point and finishing on top by nine games.
Schmidt led the charge for that club, again leading the league with 38 homers and also finishing with an NL-best 306 total bases. On April 17 he blasted four home runs during an 18-16 Phillies victory over the host Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Schmidt was selected for his second NL All-Star team, finished third in the National League MVP vote, and was honored with his first Gold Glove Award for fielding excellence at third base.
In the Phillies first-ever NLCS appearance, Schmidt was shut down over the first two games by Cincinnati. The Reds won both games by 6-3 and 6-2 at The Vet as he went just 1-8 in the two games combined. In Game 3 back at Riverfront Stadium, Schmidt finally broke out with three hits. But the big bats of the Big Red Machine scored three times in the bottom of the 9th, rallying to a 7-6 victory and the National League pennant.
The next three seasons would be a mixture of success and frustration. The Phillies equaled their record 101 wins in 1977, then won 90 games in 1978. They captured the NL East each season, giving them three consecutive division crowns. But the team came up short each year in the National League Championship Series, dropping back-to-back heart-breakers to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Frustrated by the Phillies inability to get over the hump in the postseason, Owens decided to finally go after a big piece in a free agency process that was only a few years old at that point. On December 5, 1978 he signed perennial All-Star Pete Rose, who had helped lead the Reds to World Series titles in both 1975 and 1976.
With Rose on board the Phillies opened 1979 as favorites once again. Things were going as planned early on, as the club built a 3.5 game division lead by early May and were still sitting atop the division on May 27. But then it all came suddenly and unexpectedly crashing down.
Starting on May 28 the Phillies lost six straight games. That began a 38-51 collapse over the next three months. Despite a 19-11 final month the 1979 Phillies would finish in fourth place, a distant 14 games behind the famed “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates team that would go on to become World Series champions.
That victory in the Fall Classic was the second of the decade for the Phillies main division rivals. It was the fifth overall World Series title for Pittsburgh. The Phillies had still never won a single World Series crown in what was then 97 seasons of existence.
From 1977-79, Schmidt cemented his place as one of the true stars of the game. He won the NL Gold Glove Award each season and twice was a National League All-Star. In 1979 his 45 home runs set a new Phillies franchise record, breaking the old mark of 43 set by Chuck Klein all the way back in 1929.
But that 1979 collapse had cost the laid-back Ozark his job. He was replaced by Dallas Green and his no-nonsense, in-your-face. It would be under Green that the team would turn it back around for that 19-11 final month performance.
Green took over as Phillies manager at the end
of the 1979 season. He would drive the
team hard, but it all paid off in the end.
There was only one mandate as the 1980 season began, win a championship. If it failed to happen then an aging Phillies core was likely to see major changes after that season. That core of Schmidt, Bowa, Luzinski, and catcher Bob Boone had been together for most of the decade. They had led the rise to contending status but were also continually falling short in the playoffs.
Coming off their fourth-place finish, the Phillies were not considered division favorites entering the season. Sure enough the Phillies sat in fourth place and were already 5.5 games out on May 10. But by the All-Star break they had scratched and clawed their way back into the race.
For the first time since the opening days of the season, the Phillies took sole possession of first place in the NL East on July 11. And yet that was not a jumping off point.
On July 19 they were swept in a doubleheader by the Atlanta Braves. On August 10 they were again swept in a doubleheader, this time by the Pirates. Counting and between those two sweeps, the club lost 14 of 22 games to fall six off the division lead.
Unlike the prior season, the Phillies refused to die. Victories in eight of nine games at the end of August put them back into the race. It would remain a nail-biter from that point onwards. On the weekend of September 26-28, the Expos won two of three at The Vet to take a half-game lead. Those would be the last games that the Phillies would lose until the season finale.
Over the final week, the Phillies won four straight to even things up. This would set the stage for what may be the most dramatic back-to-back regular season games in franchise history, and Schmidt would play a pivotal role in both contests.
SHOWDOWN NORTH OF THE BORDER
On Friday night, October 3 the Phillies and Expos began a season-closing three game series at Stade Olympique in Montreal with the two teams tied atop the division. Behind Schmidt’s first inning sacrifice fly and sixth inning solo home run, and a tremendous two-inning relief stint from Tug McGraw, the Phillies won the opener by a 2-1 score.
That left the Phillies needing just one win to clinch the division crown. However, a win by Montreal would even things again, setting up a winner-take-all season finale. Rain and extra-innings on that Saturday, October 4 combined to add to the drama as the Phillies trailed by a run heading to the 9th inning of Game 161.
A pair of bang-bang plays at first base, the second on which Schmidt was called out when replay showed he was actually safe, left Bake McBride on second base with two outs. Down to their final out, Boone sliced the second pitch from 40-year-old former Phillies pitcher Woodie Fryman to center. McBride stumbled around third, but still raced home with the tying run.
The two teams remained knotted at 4-4 into the top of the 11th inning. With one out and Rose at first base, Schmidt stepped in against 35-year-old, 14-year veteran Stan Bahnsen. Working the count to 2-0, Schmidt got a fastball on Bahnsen’s third offering “right down the pipe” as Harry Kalas described it on TV and drove it deep out to left field – “He buried it!” as called by Andy Musser on radio – for a 6-4 Phillies lead.
In the bottom of the 11th, McGraw would set the Expos down in order, blowing a fastball by Larry Parrish for the final out. Schmidt led the charge to the mound as the Phillies celebrated their fourth NL East crown in five years. They could be forgiven if they thought that in the NLCS against the Houston Astros, things couldn’t possibly get any tougher, more exciting, or more dramatic. They would also have been wrong.
In what many consider to still be the greatest NLCS of all-time, the Phillies defeated the Astros by 3-2. After Luzinski’s home run gave them a 3-1 victory in the opener at Veteran’s Stadium the next four games would all be decided in extra-innings.
Trailing by two games to one, their backs to the wall with the host Astros needing just one win, the Phillies found themselves trailing by 2-0 entering the top of the 8th inning of Game 4 of that 1980 NLCS. But four straight singles, the last a game-tier by Schmidt to score Lonnie Smith, gave the Phillies the lead. They would ultimately win it in 10 innings to tie the series.
Game 5 of the 1980 NLCS is perhaps the single greatest postseason comeback in Phillies history. Trailing legendary future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan by 5-2 entering the top of the 8th inning, the Phillies rallied for four runs.
Schmidt would play no part in this famous game, going 0-5 and striking out three times, including right in the middle of that rally and again to lead off the top of the 10th inning. The Phillies would win it when Garry Maddox doubled to center with two outs in that 10th frame, scoring Del Unser with the eventual game-winner. Dick Ruthven shut down Houston in the bottom of the frame, and the Phillies were going to the World Series for the first time in 30 years.
WORLD SERIES MVP
The 1980 World Series would provide a showcase for the two players who were drafted at #29 and 30 overall back in 1971. Brett and Schmidt had each developed into perennial All-Stars and both had put up Most Valuable Player seasons that year. Schmidt broke Eddie Mathews‘ NL record by hitting 48 home runs. Brett took a run at becoming the first player to hit .400 in a season since Ted Williams in 1941, finishing at the .390 mark.
In that Fall Classic, the Phillies would finally capture the first championship in franchise history. They defeated Brett and the Royals by four games to two. Schmidt led the way with two homers, seven RBI and six runs scored, capturing the World Series Most Valuable Player honors.
With Game 2 at The Vet tied at 4-4 in the bottom of the 8th inning, Schmidt doubled off Royals closer Dan Quisenberry to score McBride. He then rumbled home on a base hit by Keith Moreland, giving the Phillies a 6-4 victory and a 2-0 series lead.
The Royals battled back to win the first two in Kansas City to tie the series, and took a 3-2 lead into the top of the 9th inning of Game 5, looking to take the series lead. Schmidt came through again. He led off the inning with a base hit against Quisenberry and when Unser followed with a double into the right field corner, Schmidt raced all the way around from first to tie the game. Unser would later score on a Manny Trillo double, and the Phillies were one win away.
In the climactic Game 6 it was Schmidt’s two-run single in the bottom of the 3rd inning that opened the scoring. Steve Carlton delivered a strong seven-inning effort and then turned the ball over to McGraw, who by that point was running on fumes. But Tug battled through the final two innings, finally striking out Willie Wilson to end it. Schmidt led that charge, leaping up into McGraw’s arms as their teammates swarmed them.
Of course, that is far from the end of the Mike Schmidt career or story, but I’m going to begin to wind to a close with mostly summations. As I said at the beginning, his is a story worth of a book.
Over the rest of the 1980’s, Schmidt would mostly continue as one of baseball’s superstar players. He captured NL MVP honors in 1980, 1981, and 1986. He was a Gold Glover and Silver Slugger winner from 1980-84 and again in 1986. He was an NL All-Star in eight of the decades ten seasons.
The Phillies returned to the playoffs in 1981, and to the World Series in 1983. But that 1980 world championship would be the only title won by the team during his 18-year career.
A milestone was reached on April 18, 1987 at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. With the Phillies trailing the host Pirates by 6-5 in the top of the 9th inning, Schmidt came to the plate. Juan Samuel was at third base as the potential tying run, and Von Hayes stood on first as the go-ahead run.
Bucs pitcher Don Robinson fell behind Schmidt by 3-0, and then tried to sneak a fastball past him. It was a huge mistake. Schmidt crushed the pitch deep out to left field for a three-run homer that put the Phillies on top. Not only that, but it was career home run #500 for Schmidt, making him just the seventh player in Major League Baseball history to reach that plateau.
As the decade was drawing to a close, Schmidt entered the 1989 season as a 39-year-old who recognized that his once-dominating skills were clearly deteriorating. That had become somewhat noticeable as early as 1985, when the team had asked him to move over to first base temporarily at age 35 to accommodate young third baseman Rick Schu.
Schmidt bounced back from that slight indignity to have two of his best all-around seasons in 1986 and 1987. The Phillies won 86 games in that 1986 campaign. It would have been good enough for a Wildcard berth, if one existed at that time. Since it did not, that only left the team as distant runners-up in the NL East race to a 108-win New York Mets team that would go on to capture the World Series.
ENDING OUT WEST
On May 29, 1989 the Phillies were in San Diego to start the final series of a long west coast road trip. The team had lost five games in a row and 10 of their last 12 contests overall. The team was 8.5 games off the division lead already, 10 games under the .500 mark, and struggling through what would clearly be a third consecutive losing season, their fourth in five years.
The previous day at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Schmidt had taken an 0-3 collar. It would be the final game of his storied career. In his final plate appearance in the top of the 9th inning, Schmidt drew a walk from Mike LaCoss. He would advance to second base, and was running to third as Curt Ford grounded into a game-ending double play. Schmidt would turn and walk off a big-league field for the final time as an active player.
Of course, no one knew that at the time. It was not until an emotional press conference upon the team’s arrival in San Diego the next day that a tearful Schmidt would stand at his locker with Ashburn beside him and announce his retirement.
Despite his announcement, baseball fans voted him as the starting third baseman for the National League All-Star team. Schmidt declined to play but would don the Phillies uniform one more time in order to take part in pre-game introduction ceremonies.
Schmidt also compiled 2,234 hits with 1,595 RBI while scoring 1,506 runs. He won three National League Most Valuable Player awards, the 1980 World Series MVP, and was a 12x NL All-Star. He was honored with 10 Gold Gloves and a half-dozen Silver Slugger awards. He received NL MVP votes for nine seasons in which he didn’t win the honor, including finishing third twice.
In January 1990, Schmidt was named as the 1980’s Player of the Decade by The Sporting News. The Phillies officially retired his number 20 during a ceremony at Veteran’s Stadium on May 26, and he was inducted that year as the 12th person on the Phillies Wall of Fame.
Five years after his retirement, Schmidt was elected on the first ballot for enshrinement to the Baseball Hall of Fame with 96.5% of the vote. He would be joined in the induction ceremonies that summer by Ashburn, who had been voted in by the veteran’s committee.
In 1997, Schmidt was voted by the Baseball Writers Association of America as the third baseman on their Major League Baseball All-Time Team. Two years later, The Sporting News published their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, ranking Schmidt at #28. He was the highest-ranked third baseman and highest player whose career began after the 1967 season. He was also elected in 1999 to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
When the Phillies opened the new Citizens Bank Park for the 2004 season, Schmidt was one of four players honored with a statue at the new ballpark, joining his teammate Carlton, along with Ashburn and Robin Roberts. A decade later his collegiate #10 was retired by his alma mater at Ohio University.
A PHILLIES ICON
Schmidt has remained active with the Phillies community since his playing days. In 1990 he was a commentator during Phillies broadcasts on the old PRISM cable TV network. Since 2002 he has frequently appeared at Phillies spring training to help work with the players, a role he will fill once again this year in Clearwater.
“Assuming you have a pretty good base for hitting mechanically, I believe you’ve got to be a thinking man’s hitter. I don’t believe in freelancing, which is what I call it, when you go to home plate and you see the ball and hit it. I don’t believe in the see the ball and hit it approach. Just going to home plate, ‘If he strikes me out he strikes me out, if I get a hit, I get a hit.’ I believe in a plan for each day. If you don’t want to do that, I don’t think you’re on the right track toward reaching your potential. Everybody told me I thought too much when I played, but I wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame if it wasn’t for my crazy brain taking me to different levels.”
He managed the High-A Clearwater Threshers during the 2004 season, and then Schmidt served as the third base coach for Team USA which included Phillies players Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino at the World Baseball Classic in 2009.
In June of 2014, Schmidt was on hand as Rollins passed him to become the Phillies all-time hits leader. Schmidt remains second on that list today. He is the franchise all-time leader in games played, home runs, RBI, runs scored, walks, and strikeouts. Schmidt is also second in at-bats, third in slugging percentage and fifth in OPS on the club’s all-time list.
Schmidt had yet another honor bestowed on him in a vote by fans back in 2006. In what was known as the DHL Hometown Heroes event that year, Schmidt beat out Ashburn, Carlton, Klein, and Roberts in fan voting for the greatest player in Phillies history. The only players to receive more overall votes with their team were Aaron, Ruth, Brett, Tom Seaver of the Mets, and Ty Cobb of the Tigers.
Starting in 2014 and continuing into the upcoming 2019 season, Schmidt has joined the Phillies television broadcasts for weekend home games, providing color commentary. Fans of a new generation are enjoying listening to the insights, opinions, and anecdotes during those “Weekend with Schmidt” telecasts from the greatest player in Phillies history.