The Philadelphia Phillies were a proud franchise, but they were on hard times. They had not seen the World Series since 1950. Even a winning season had been elusive since 1967. Danny Ozark took the managerial reins in 1973, and by ’75, the Phils finally won more than they lost. Now the question was if the 1976 Philadelphia Phillies could overtake the Pittsburgh Pirates, the traditional power in what used to be the National League East.
Mike Schmidt, a 26-year-old third baseman beginning a Hall of Fame career, posted a stat line of .376 OBP/.524 slugging and hit 38 home runs. Greg Luzinski, their 25-year-old leftfielder put up a .369/.478 season with 21 home runs.
The Phils had players who could get on base. Centerfielder Garry Maddox hit .330 and played impeccable defense. Rightfielder Jay Johnstone had an excellent year, at .373/.457 and set the stage for his finest hour, a cameo appearance in the 1989 police comedy, The Naked Gun. Bob Boone, a 28-year-old catcher who would send his kids, Aaron and Bret, on to good big-league careers, had a .348 OBP.
Then you mixed in the veterans. Dick Allen was 34-years-old and no longer the power threat of his heyday, but he hit 15 dingers. Larry Bowa, age 30 at shortstop, providing defense and a feisty sparkplug to the line.
Steve Carlton was the anchor of the pitching staff, and the lefty ace with the nasty slider won 20 games in 1976. Jim Lonborg won 18, and the Phils backed them up with a solid veteran bullpen. Ron Reed, Tug McGraw and Gene Garber were all reliable, battle-tested relievers.
One more starting pitcher was realistically needed, and Philadelphia hit the trade market in the offseason. The acquired 37-year-old Jim Kaat from the Chicago White Sox. Despite his age, Kaat had two straight seasons of 20-plus wins and his arrival looked to make this team complete. Now they just had to do it on the field.
If the Phils were looking at their opening two-game set at home with the Pirates as a chance to make a statement, it couldn’t have gone much worse. In spite of seven good innings from Kaat on Opening Day, and a three-run rally take a 4-3 lead in the eighth, McGraw surrendered the lead in the ninth and Pittsburgh won in the 11th. Carlton was hit hard the next day in an 8-3 loss.
No one really jumped out strong in the NL East though, and by the end of April, Philadelphia’s 8-6 record had them a game up on the Pirates and only two back of the first-place New York Mets. It was the end of April, where Philly really started to send some warning signals to the rest of the division.
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The Reds, fresh off their World Series title of 1975, came into old Veterans Stadium in Philly. In the series opener, light-hitting Phillie second baseman Dave Cash had four hits, Schmidt homered twice and the Phils won 10-9. After the Reds grabbed the middle game, Boone hit a three-run shot to key a 7-6 win in the rubber match. Philadelphia took the momentum from this series win and promptly won five more in succession, getting their first taste of the division’s top spot on May 5.
May 14 was the date the Phils took first place for good. They won consecutive games over the Mets in Shea Stadium, including roughing up staff ace and future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver. The Mets soon paid a return visit for a four-game set. The Phils again knocked Seaver around, with Johnstone touching him for four hits and a home run. Philadelphia took three of the four, Carlton mixed in a shutout, and New York was pushed 6 ½ games off the pace, with Pittsburgh five back.
Another series victory over the Big Red Machine awaited over June 18-20. Allen and Schmidt homered to lead the way in the opener and even with Carlton losing the middle game, the pitching combo of Kaat, Reed and Garber was enough in closing out the 6-1 win in the finale.
Philadelphia’s lead ballooned to eight games by the time they paid a visit to Pittsburgh for a four-game set over Fourth of July weekend. This was the chance for the Pirates to get back in the race, with single games Friday and Saturday and then a doubleheader on Sunday the Fourth.
When Pittsburgh took the opener 10-9, in spite of a late Phils’ rally to force extras, there was reason for the young frontrunner to be nervous. The Saturday game was tied 2-2 in the ninth, when Cash singled and moved up to second with two outs.
Schmidt showed the kind of clutch player he was already becoming, with an RBI single to give his team a win they needed. Philly came out Sunday and gave Carlton ten runs in the first game, and even though the Pirates took the nightcap, the split clearly favored Philadelphia. All was good in the City of Brotherly Love when they hosted the All-Star Game, with Luzinski starting and Schmidt, Boone, Cash and Bowa on hand as reserves.
In late July, Philadelphia appeared to put the fork in Pittsburgh when the Phils took four of five from the Pirates in the Vet. The lead was eleven games and got as high as fifteen. But a trip to Cincinnati on August 26 began the last anxious spell of the regular season.
Cincinnati took three of four, which by itself was not all that disturbing. But the Phils lost 10 of the next 15, and Pittsburgh turned on the afterburners in a last desperate push. They cut the lead to six games with 21 still to play, and then hosted the Phils for two games on September 15-16.
The two-game set didn’t go as anyone in Philly had hoped. Kaat was chase din the third inning of the opener and the Phils lost 7-2. The Pirates took the second game 7-6, and now the lead was down to four games. Philadelphia lost two of three to the lowly Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, but Pittsburgh didn’t take advantage and the four-game margin held.
It was a home series with another NL East doormat that really finished the job. St. Louis was in town, and Allen delivered three hits and a home run to win the opener 5-1. Then in the second game, trailing 4-1 in the eighth, the Phils managed to score eight runs without a single extra –base hit! Carlton gave eight good innings in the finale to close the sweep and it was all but over.
The Phils formally clinched in Montreal, when they won the first game of a doubleheader 4-1 thanks to a three-run homer by Luzinski and a complete game win from Lonborg.
Philadelphia went into the National League Championship Series with reasonable expectations of competing against the more heralded Reds. The Phils’ 101 wins were only one back of the Reds’ 102 and Philly won the season series 7-5.
Furthermore, both Games 2 & 3 were in Philadelphia’s grasp. But the next step wasn’t meant to be—at least not until 1980.
The 1976 Philadelphia Phillies still deserve a place in baseball history and that of their proud franchise. They put baseball back on the radar in Philadelphia and were the only team that ever had even a puncher’s chance of stopping the steamroller that came out of Cincinnati.