Third in a six-part yearlong series about the best local teams that never won a championship. Today: 1977 Phillies. Coming in August: 2002 Eagles.
It’s too bad the 1977 Phillies have become a mere footnote in franchise history, a dynamic team that invigorated but ultimately disappointed a city in the midst of that long, dark passage from the 1950 Whiz Kids to 1980’s breakthrough world championship.
Forty-two summers later, if that 101-win team is remembered at all, it’s because of how swiftly and surprisingly it disintegrated. On Oct. 7, 1977, Black Friday, the brightest of Phillies seasons morphed into one more indelible Philadelphia sports disaster.
With two outs in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, on a gorgeous afternoon at Veterans Stadium, in front of 63,719 raucous fans, a 5-3 Phillies lead was wiped out by a machine-gun burst of misfortune.
The Phillies’ 1964 collapse took 10 games. This one took just 10 minutes. The inning’s litany of horror quickly joined Philadelphia’s narrative of sporting frustration: Vic Davalillo’s drag bunt. The fly ball Greg Luzinski misplayed. The call Bruce Froemming blew. The pickoff toss Gene Garber threw away.
“It was the shortest, most devastating nightmare in the history of a town steeped in an athletic tradition of flood, fire and famine,” said the next day’s Daily News.
A night later, in weather that eerily reflected Philadelphia’s gloominess, Tommy John and the Dodgers put the ’77 Phillies out of their misery.
What nettles most, then and now, about a team seemingly fated to end an 84-year legacy of championship-less baseball is the belief that there’s never been a more talented Phillies roster. And despite how their season ended, despite the two World Series triumphs that followed, it’s difficult to argue that point.
The star-laden ’77 Phillies had two future Hall of Famers in Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton. Carlton won a big-league best 23 games and a Cy Young that season. Schmidt would hit 38 homers, drive in 101 runs — and finish second on the team in both categories to Luzinski. Defensively, their starting eight included four players who combined for 27 Gold Gloves (Schmidt, Garry Maddox, Bob Boone, and Larry Bowa). And in Garber, Tug McGraw, Ron Reed, and Warren Brusstar, each of whom had an ERA under 2.75, they had baseball’s best bullpen.
“They had an abundance of riches,” said Mitchell Nathanson, a Villanova professor and the author of The Fall of the 1977 Phillies. “The bullpen was stacked, the bench was stacked, the lineup was stacked, the rotation was stacked. Baseball will never see a complete club like that again. The way rosters are assembled it’s just impossible for this to occur now.”
That talent and their regular-season success has to rank them among the best Philadelphia teams that didn’t win a championship. But there are many other compelling reasons the ’77 Phillies ought to be remembered.
That season, for the first time ever, the historically frugal franchise had baseball’s highest payroll, $3.497 million. For a second straight year, they’d win more often than any Phillies team ever. They had a manager who won games but failed to influence people, a clubhouse teeming with quirks and jerks, a penchant for controversy.
Carlton was a deep-thinking, wine-drinking loner in a sport where none of those traits was the norm. Schmidt was hyper-analytic, often to the point of self-paralysis. First baseman Richie Hebner was a chain-smoking, foulmouthed, hard-drinking grave-digger, McGraw and outfielder Jay Johnstone were prankish goofballs.
And in Bowa, the Phillies had a world-class agitator, a peppery shortstop who dished it out so often and so sharply that he nearly drove Schmidt and Carlton to violence.
“Bowa would sit there with his chair turned away from his locker, chewing his fingernails, ripping everyone for what they were wearing, what they said in the papers,” recalled Larry Christenson, who won 19 games in ‘77. “Bull [Luzinski] was his roommate and he was relentless with him. I can still hear him today. ‘Bull, you big fat hog.’ He’d get on Schmitty pretty hard too. Once in Houston, Schmitty tried to kill him. Bowa just couldn’t help himself. That’s what he did, what he still does.”
Meanwhile, despite having led the Phillies to consecutive 101-win seasons, Danny Ozark, the countrified manager with a hound dog’s face, was derided nonstop by fans, the media, and often his own players.
“He was maligned from the day he took the job,” said Boone, an Ozark defender. “Danny was country. He wasn’t a polished speaker, so the press thought, ‘Here’s a guy we can rip and make fun of.’ Charlie Manuel went through the same thing. But Danny was smart enough to put the lineup out there and not get in the way of the talent.”
They fought with sportswriters and sometimes with themselves. In what was a memorable era for Philadelphia sports, they usually dominated the headlines, frequently for the wrong reasons.
On the day in Chicago when they clinched another NL East title, for example, they even complained about the champagne.
“Where was this stuff made? In Wilmington?” catcher Tim McCarver inquired of the Chateau Deer Path. “A monk invented [champagne] and we get this stuff? What else do they make, ‘Janitor in a Drum?’ ”
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The Phillies began to emerge from 1964’s extended hangover in the early 1970s as a cadre of promising, homegrown youngsters such as Schmidt, Luzinski, Bowa, and Boone reached the big leagues. Though they struggled at first, general manager Paul Owens stuck with them.
“Because of the way the game’s changed financially, nowadays it would be impossible to keep a team like that together for a 10-year period,” said Boone. “But Paul kept that core and built around it. In 1972, Schmidt hit like .190 and there was talk of sending him down. But Paul said, ‘No, this guy’s going to be a great player and we’re sticking with him forever.’ He did and he was rewarded.”
Carlton had arrived in a 1972 trade by his predecessor, but Owens acquired Tug McGraw in 1974, Garry Maddox in 1975.
“Those two guys were the keys to the puzzle,” said Christenson.
As the young nucleus grew, Owens supplemented them with veterans like McCarver, Johnstone, Hebner, Jim Kaat, Jim Lonborg, and Ted Sizemore.
“In 1976 we got on a roll and started winning,” said Christenson, “and winning became contagious. We got used to it.”
Swept by Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in the ’76 NLCS, the Phils continued to turn over the roster. Owens replaced the departed Dick Allen and Dave Cash with Hebner and Sizemore. And as ’77 dawned, they were big NL East favorites.
Then, amid all the optimism, they lost six of their first seven games. Following that sixth loss, a team bus ride was punctuated by internecine sniping that, depending on one’s point of view, was either tension-relieving humor or stinging personal criticism.
Here’s the way the next day’s Daily News recounted one of the barbs:
BOWA (Imitating Harry Kalas): “Here’s Mike Schmidt. … He’s hit one ball hard in three games. Bottom of the ninth. One run down. Two outs. We’ll have the wrap-up in 20 seconds.”
“That’s how we were,” said Christenson. “We had a good bunch of hard-nosed players who pushed each other. Bowa had a lot to do with that. He was a little loudmouth, a Tasmanian devil. But he had a lot of fire in him and I admired that.”
Whatever the intent, it seemed to work. Schmidt (.182 in April) began hitting and the Phillies, fifth at April’s end and seven games back in early May, started climbing.
“We had too much talent. Everybody knew we were going to start winning – and winning a lot – at some point.”
“We had too much talent,” said Schmidt. “Everybody knew we were going to start winning — and winning a lot — at some point.”
They were nearly invincible at home, winning 60 of 81 games at the Vet. Philadelphia ate it up. The Phils drew a record 2.7 million fans, an average crowd of 33,334.
Stylistically, they took a lead from their best players — Schmidt and Carlton. They played with a confident swagger, a cocky ease that future manager Dallas Green would later disparage as “that damn macho cool.”
“That swagger is probably why we always got maligned in the papers,” said Boone. “We’d walk up to the plate and go, ‘You’re not going to beat me.’ Baseball is a game of individual battles, and when you’re winning those individual battles as often as we did, there’s a swagger that goes along with it.”
Those Phils had an NL-best .279 batting average and led the league in runs (847) and on-base and slugging percentages (.346 and .448). Only the Dodgers hit more than their 186 home runs.
Schmidt and Luzinski combined for 77 homers and 231 RBIs. Bake McBride, who arrived in July in a trade for Tom Underwood and Dane Iorg, hit .335 in 85 games with the Phils, adding 11 homers, 42 RBIs, and 27 stolen bases.
The bullpen’s versatility allowed the Phillies to carry just 10 pitchers so Owens built a deep and productive bench — Johnstone, McCarver, Davey Johnson, Ollie Brown, Jerry Martin.
Their five starters — Carlton, Christenson, Lonborg, Kaat, and rookie Randy Lerch — went a combined 69-37; Carlton and Christenson, 42-16.
For all that, the bullpen might have been their greatest strength.
Ozark employed his big four relievers interchangeably at any point in a game. “Those four guys saved our necks,” he said. Reed, in particular, was an invaluable weapon.
The grumpy former NBA player could start, middle-relieve, or close. A workhorse, he threw 124⅓ innings.
“Clubs were just starting to look at their bullpens as something more than a place to stash pitchers who couldn’t hack it as starters ... and the Phils had the deepest bullpen of anyone.”
“Tug usually had a month each season where his elbow wouldn’t let him pitch,” said Boone. “Reed would just say, ‘OK, give me another inning.’ He was the real key to that great bullpen, a guy you could plug in anywhere.
“But all those guys were so valuable. They gave us what we needed on a daily basis. That led to a winning consistency. We’d say, ‘OK, guys, we’ve just got to get a one-run lead through six innings.’ ”
The Phillies led the league with 47 saves. Garber had 19, Reed 15, McGraw 9, and rookie Brusstar 3. The foursome combined for 29 wins, 378 innings, and an ERA of 2.59. And for all the criticism leveled at Ozark, he was ahead of his time when it came to using them.
“Clubs were just starting to look at their bullpens as something more than a place to stash pitchers who couldn’t hack it as starters,” said Nathanson, “and the Phils had the deepest bullpen of anyone.”
By August, they were hitting on all cylinders. An 8-3 victory over L.A. on Aug. 5 pushed them into the NL East lead for the first time. Between Aug. 3 and 16, they won a franchise-record 13 consecutive games, including a pair of doubleheader sweeps.
Everything came together and we just won, won, won.
“We were moving people over, stealing bases, bunting guys over, pitching well,” said Christenson. “Everything came together and we just won, won, won.”
If there was one foreboding development, though, it was their performance against the NL’s other top teams. The Dodgers won 98 games that season, the Pirates 96, the Reds 88. Against those three, the Phils had a losing record, 18-24.
But they were so good against everyone else — 83-37 — that they finished five games ahead of Pittsburgh, clinching the division on Sept. 26 with a 15-9 win at Wrigley Field.
Favored in an NLCS in which they had home-field advantage, they split the first two games in L.A. As they flew home on Oct. 5, their fans were convinced that after 27 years, the World Series was coming back to Philadelphia.
That looked more likely early in Game 3 when, after gesturing angrily at home-plate umpire Harry Wendelstedt, Dodgers starter Burt Hooton imploded. With the sellout crowd howling and taunting, he walked four straight batters, including Christenson, as the Phils turned an early 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 lead.
“I don’t know if there’s ever been a wilder scene than that,” recalled McCarver. “It was so noisy that I feared that stadium was going to collapse.”
Instead, it was the Phillies who did.
With Carlton scheduled to start Game 4, they led, 5-3, with two outs and no one on base in Game 3’s ninth inning. Then, with the swiftness of a summer storm, it all came apart.
Davalillo, 40, beat out a perfect drag bunt. The count was 0-2 when another pinch-hitter, Manny Mota, lofted a fly ball to deep left field.
Almost always during the regular season, Martin would be a late-inning defensive replacement for the lumbering Luzinski. Not this time. Luzinski retreated warily to the wall and made a halfhearted leap. The ball bounded out of his glove.
“If he [Martin] is out there, we win that game,” a dejected Bowa said afterward.
To compound the mistake, Luzinski’s relay throw skipped past Sizemore. Davalillo scored to make it 5-4.
“Luzinski was the third batter up in the ninth,” Ozark explained of his strategy, sounding as if he were more afraid of losing the game than winning it. “I wanted him in the lineup in case the game was tied.”
Davey Lopes was up next. Fearing another bunt, Schmidt moved in at third. Lopes smashed a ground ball that caromed off his glove but directly to Bowa. The shortstop’s long, hurried throw appeared to beat the runner, but Froemming called him safe. Ozark and Hebner were ejected in the ensuing argument, but the game was tied.
“He didn’t know what … to call it, so he called it safe,” Ozark, who died in 2009, said afterward. “He was stunned by Bowa’s throw, as far as I’m concerned. He anticipated he couldn’t make that throw. He’s got his hands stuffed in his pockets half the … time.”
The rapid demise continued. Lopes took second on Garber’s wild pickoff attempt. By now the huge crowd was silent, as if anticipating what came next — a Bill Russell single that was the game-winner in a stunning 6-5 loss.
“Don’t forget, the Dodgers were a great team too. But you can’t blame it on anybody. It is what is. It would have been great to get by the Dodgers and play the Yankees in Yankee Stadium. But it just didn’t happen.”
“Anything can happen in a five-game series like that,” said Christenson. “Don’t forget, the Dodgers were a great team too. But you can’t blame it on anybody. It is what is. It would have been great to get by the Dodgers and play the Yankees in Yankee Stadium. But it just didn’t happen.”
In 1978, the Dodgers would beat the Phillies again in a four-game NLCS. Ozark would be fired in 1979, replaced by Green, who finally guided the club to that elusive world championship the following season.
“Winning the World Series in 1980 was such a relief,” said Boone. “It was the culmination of 10 years. But I sometimes ask myself if that was the greatest team I played on. We were good. But that ’77 team, that team was better.”
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