Maury Z. Levy

Mike Schmidt: The Phillies Find a Slugger

In Sport magazine on September 12, 2009 at 7:37 pm


“What this game needs,” the black Philadelphia Phillie was telling the white Philadelphia Phillie, “is some white superstars. And it needs them fast. And that’s just what you could be, kid.”

The white Phillie grinned and stood up in front of his locker. He pushed back his long reddish hair, matted down his mustache and flexed his freckled muscles. “You hear that, America?” he shouted. “Mike Schmidt is the great white hope!”

Then Mike Schmidt, who is white, and Dave Cash, who is black, both laughed.

If anyone had suggested a year ago that Mike Schmidt could be the next white superstar, or the great white anything, the whole baseball world would have laughed. Mike Schmidt had just finished his first full season as a Phillie, and if he had accomplished anything, it was that he had perfectly concealed any superstar potential he might possess. He had batted .196 in 132 games, which is dreadful, and he had struck out 136 times in 367 at‑bats, which is worse.

But in 1974, at the age of 24, Mike Schmidt found a batting groove, and the Phillies found a slugger. Schmidt led the major leagues in home runs with 36, fin­ished second in the National League in runs batted in with 116, and batted .282.

“I was hoping to hit .250, drive in 80 runs, play decent third base and maybe help the club a little,” says Schmidt. “I never thought all this would happen so fast.”

So much happened so fast that as late as the beginning of September, when the Phillies’ “Yes We Can” motto melted into a lie, Schmidt was a legitimate contender for Most Valuable Player in the National League.

“I don’t want to black-cat the kid,” says Danny Ozark, the manager of the Phillies, “but if Schmitty continues to progress the way he has, he’ll be the highest-paid player in this game some day. The front office won’t be able to find enough money to pay him.”  

Mike Schmidt is not the first slugger ever to play for the Phillies. He is only the first slugger ever to play for the Phillies in Veterans Stadium, their home park since 1971. Richie Allen was the last slugger to play for the Phillies be­fore they moved, which was a couple of years after he moved. Nobody ever said that Richie Allen would be the next white superstar. Which is part of the reason he moved. Also, the Phillies couldn’t find enough money to pay him. And sometimes they couldn’t find him to pay him.

“If Dick Allen were white,” says Schmidt, “he’d probably still be here, and I’d be in the minors somewhere. You get a white guy who’s a little flaky, and the writers and fans make a folk hero out of him, like Joe Namath. But people wouldn’t tolerate that in Allen.”

Ironically, if Schmidt suspects that he can thank Allen for his own job in Philadelphia, he knows al­most for certain that he can thank Allen for the major-league home run title in 1974. Allen had hit 32 home runs for the Chicago White Sox when he decided, with a month left in the season, that he no longer wished to play baseball. Allen abdi­cated, and Schmidt reigned.

When Dick Allen was finishing his seven-year sentence in Philadel­phia, in 1969, Mike Schmidt was a 19-year-old sophomore at Ohio Uni­versity, not far from his home in Dayton, playing shortstop on the college team and batting over .300. By his junior year, he was an All-American. The Phillies made him their second selection in the 1971 free-agent draft, and in 1972, at Eu­gene, Ore., he was the Pacific Coast League’s All-Star second baseman. At Eugene, he batted .291, with 26 home runs and 91 RBIs, and moved up to the major leagues.

In 1973, Danny Ozark took a special interest in Schmidt. Too special, Schmidt feels. “I know Danny was really trying to help me,” says Schmidt, “but I kept wishing that he’d just leave me the hell alone. It was like I was in the Little League, and he was my father. He was continually on me.”

Schmidt did manage to hit 18 home runs as a rookie, which is sensational for a .196 batter, and his obvious eagerness inspired in the Philadelphia fans a character trait they had rarely shown: Patience. “I was tight as a drum,” says the six foot-two, 195-pounder. “I was trying to kill the ball.”

As soon as the 1973 season ended, Schmidt went down to Puerto Rico, played winter ball and regained the confidence he had lost in his rookie season. He showed up at spring training, relaxed and ready, and this time Danny Ozark offered no lectures, only broad smiles. “I’m his biggest fan.” said Ozark. “I’m finished with advice. I probably believe in hint more than he believes in himself.”

Schmidt quickly made believers of the rest of the National League. He started oil the season hitting home runs with regularity, but he made his deepest impression with the most solid single ever struck.

On June 10, in the Astrodome in Houston, Schmidt threw his full swing into a pitch and connected as he had never connected before. The ball took off toward center field, and Cesar Cedeno, the Houston centerfielder, didn’t even move. He knew the ball was gone.

But it wasn’t. Some 300 feet from home plate, some 117 feet up in the artificial air of the Astrodome, Mike Schmidt’s line drive crashed into a public-address speaker sus­pended from the roof. The ball fell straight down. Schmidt pulled up with a single, a single that unim­peded might have traveled 600 feet. “I think,” said Schmidt after the game, ”that people will start to realize I’m around now.”

The people of Philadelphia certainly noticed. They stepped up a write-in campaign to earn Schmidt, who was not listed on the official ballot, a spot on the National League All-Star team. An engineer at one Philadelphia radio station personally wrote Schmidt’s name on more than 30,000 ballots. The ball-club hired a helicopter and airlifted 100,000 votes to All-Star headquar­ters, just in time to heat the election deadline.

Schmidt wound up with the most write-in votes in the history of All-Star balloting and finished second in the third-base contest to Ron Cey of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Mets’ Yogi Berra, the National League All-Star manager, named Schmidt to his squad. “The guy was having a fantastic year,” said Berra, “and, anyway, I didn’t want to get shot the next time I went to Philadelphia.”

Throughout the summer, the Phillies stayed in the pennant race, and much of the credit went to Schmidt, to All-Star Dave Cash at second base, to All-Star Larry Bowa at shortstop and to .300-hitter Willie Montanez at first base, perhaps the strongest infield in baseball. The Phillies had moved from awful toward awesome, and nothing was more awesome than Schmidt’s slugging. ability. Even he seemed awed.

“It’s a gift, says Schmidt. “I’d be foolish to treat it as anything else. The best I can do now is try to perfect it. But God gave it to me. I’ve always had it, and it scares me sometimes. Like I can just pick up a golf club and swing it the way you’re supposed to. I’ve never fired a gun, but I know, with my hand-eye coordination, I could be an expert marksman.”

It’s a little hard to believe now, but a year ago, one of Schmidt’s difficulties was a lack of confidence. “I always had the ability, he says, “and when I put the two together, ability and confidence, everything started to fall into place. I was able to relax at the plate. I had a clear head, and my natural instincts took over. I stopped thinking so much and I started hitting. All I had to do was meet the ball.

Schmidt’s clearer head in 1974 can he traced partly to confidence —and partly to marriage. “Last year,” he says, “I was single, and I’d never go home right after a game. Sometimes I’d be out till all hours of the morning. But things are different now that I have a wife to go home to. I’m not concerned with anything now except baseball and loving my wife.”

Schmidt is now free to concen­trate upon becoming as good a baseball player as his hero Rober­to Clemente. “I only saw him on television,” Schmidt says, “but I respected his ability more than anyone’s. He was the ultimate because he could do so much.”

Schmidt does not have quite so much respect for the present crop of superstars, at least not for his white rivals. “The press is always trying to make heroes out of guys like Johnny Bench,” says Schmidt. “Well, Bench can catch, and he can hit them a mile, but he’s a .270, .280 hitter. Bobby Bonds to me is better than Bench. But how many products do you see Bonds endors­ing? Or Cesar Cedeno. When was the last time you saw his face on a magazine cover? Everybody just keeps pushing the Benches and the Pete Roses. They’re stale already.”

Schmidt smiles. “Baseball’s really dying for a new white superstar,” he says. “And here I am.”

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