The Philadelphia Phillies were established as the pre-eminent power of the NL East in the late 1970s under manager Danny Ozark. They won division titles in 1976, 1977 and 1978. Even though the Phils lost in the NLCS each time, they were clearly established as a part of baseball’s power elite. And they made a big move to try and take the next step in October. The Phils signed Pete Rose, a key part of the great teams in Cincinnati throughout the 1970s. Expectations were high. But the 1979 Philadelphia Phillies failed to deliver and the Ozark Era came to an end.
The Phils made other moves to get over the hump. An offense-first team, they traded a good bat in Richie Hebner to the New York Mets for starting pitcher Nino Espinosa. Philadelphia picked up Doug Bird, a competent reliever from Kansas City. But at the end of 1979, the pitching was still stuck at 10th in the 12-team National League for staff ERA.
Espinosa, who won 14 games with a 3.65 ERA and Randy Lerch, whose ERA finished at 3.74, were respectable and had other pitchers held to their typical form, there would have been improvement. But Steve Carlton, the great Hall of Famer at the top of the rotation, finished with a relatively high 3.62 ERA. Even though Carlton won 18 games, any staff who doesn’t have a single starter with an ERA under 3.50 isn’t going anywhere. Dick Ruthven, a usually reliable #2, only made 20 starts and was mediocre when he did take the mound.
The bullpen was worse. Tug McGraw, normally a solid closer, finished with a 5.16 ERA. So did Bird. Rawly Eastwick and Kevin Saucier were mediocre. And while Ron Reed won 13 games and worked over 100 innings out of the pen, he ended with a 4.15 ERA.
In short, if the ’79 Phils were going to win, they would have to outslug people to do it. That had worked in prior years, thanks in no small part to future Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt. And Schmidt kept ringing up numbers in 1979, hitting 45 home runs, posting an on-base percentage of .386 and exceeding the century mark in both RBI and runs scored.
Rose also delivered as advertised, with a dazzling OBP of .418. Bob Boone put up a .367 OBP from the catcher position. Greg Gross was a part-time player, but his .422 OBP gave Ozark depth.
It wasn’t getting people on base that was the problem. It was power that failed the Phillies. Greg Luzinski, normally one of the game’s top power hitters in left field, only slugged .427. Bake McBride had an off-year in rightfield. So did shortstop Larry Bowa and centerfielder Garry Maddox.
Philadelphia had also traded away steady second baseman Ted Sizemore to the Chicago Cubs, part of bigger package of players that brought Manny Trillo back in return. While this trade eventually panned out big-time for the Phils, 1979 was a hiccup. Trillo had an awful year at the plate. And this offense, previously one of the National League’s best, finished just seventh in the NL in runs scored.
The problems weren’t immediately apparent. In the first part of April, Philadelphia swept a pair of two-game series from the Pittsburgh Pirates, their top rival in an old NL East format that also included the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, along with the Mets and Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals). Under this alignment that existed prior to 1994, only the first-place team would qualify for the postseason.
Philly’s postseason nemesis had been the Los Angeles Dodgers the last two years and in what would prove to be one of the most exciting moments of the season, the Phils swept the Dodgers three straight at home in late April, every win a walkoff.
Trailing 3-2 in the series opener, Schmidt tied the game with a single in the eighth, then won it with a single in the 10th. The second game was tied 6-6 in the 10th. Reed, having already worked two shutout innings came up with two outs and no one aboard. He doubled, then Bowa singled him in for the win. In Wednesday night’s finale, the Phils trailed 4-3 in the ninth. Trillo and Gross singled, Bowa drew a walk and Rose delivered a base hit to left that won the game 5-4.
Philadelphia went west and did more damage to a Dodger team that would also fall off the pace in ’79, winning three of four. By May 17, the Phillies had a 3 ½ game lead in the NL East and all was normal in the baseball world of eastern Pennsylvania.
But a home series with up-and-coming Montreal was a bad harbinger. The Phillies lost all three games. They hit the skids. Seventeen losses in 23 games piled up, including another three-game sweep at the hands of the Expos. By June 10, it was Montreal and St. Louis who shared the division lead. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were each three games off the pace.
There was still plenty of time and certainly no reason for a veteran team to panic. The Phils stabilized for the next month, helped by another sweep of the Dodgers. Going into the All-Star break, the Phils were still within three games, with a record of 50-41. Montreal was still setting the pace, St. Louis had been replaced by Chicago in second and Pittsburgh was four games back.
Some middling play out of the break left the Phils at 56-50, five games out and a big schedule stretch ahead. They would play ten games against the Pirates, including three doubleheaders. This would be the stretch that would define the season for both teams and not in a way anyone in Philadelphia preferred to remember.
On the first Friday evening in August, at Pittsburgh’s old Three Rivers Stadium, the Phils lost both ends of the doubleheader, scoring just four runs in the two games. The bats stayed silent on Saturday, mustering only six hits in a 4-0 shutout loss. The lineup came alive in the first game of Sunday’s twinbill, with a Luzinski grand slam giving the Phils an 8-7 lead in the eighth.
But the fact this game was still close, when Carlton had been on the mound underscored half of Philadelphia’s problem. The other half was underscored when the Pirates ripped off five runs and won 12-8. The Phils went meekly in the nightcap, losing 5-2.
It was an unmitigated disaster that was about to get worse. Pittsburgh made the return trip to the Old Vet in Philly. The Phils were able to grab the opener of Friday’s doubleheader, 4-3 in 12 innings, but then wasted a good outing from Carlton in a 3-2 loss.
Could it get worse? Yep. Philadelphia staked young starter Dickie Noles to an 8-0 lead on Saturday…and lost 14-11. They got hammered one more time in the finale, losing 9-1. There are a lot of little indicators that tell a team when it’s not their year. I’m going to take a wild guess that losing eight of nine games to your archrival in August is one of them.
By the time the carnage was complete, the Phils were 60-58 and eight games out. They never got closer than 7 ½ the rest of the way. Ozark was fired at the end of August with the record having slipped under .500 at 65-67.
Dallas Green took over and Philadelphia did play with some pride down the stretch. They got back on the winning side of the ledger and finished with a record of 84-78. They played spoiler, with Carlton throwing a shutout at Montreal in the season finale, a result that handed the division title to Pittsburgh.
But when the nicest thing you can say about a season is that helped your hated rival win a pennant—and that rival goes on to do what you haven’t been able to do and win the World Series—well, that’s a rough year.
The good news is this—the Phils wouldn’t stay down for long. In 1980, they got back on top of the NL East. And this time they finished the job, with a long-sought World Series title of their own. 1979 was just an unfortunate aberration.