The Philadelphia Phillies were already one of the most successful organizations in baseball in the early 1980s. Since 1976, they had gone to the postseason five times and won the World Series in 1980. They decided to turn back the clock even more, reuniting three key players of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine that won the World Series in 1975 and 1976. Joe Morgan and Tony Perez joined Pete Rose, and the 1983 Philadelphia Phillies returned to the World Series.
Rose had been in Philadelphia since 1979, and though his best days were long behind him, the 42-year-old still provided vital intangibles at first base. Morgan, age 39, was acquired from the San Francisco Giants and brought a keen batting eye—he drew 89 walks and turned a .230 batting average into a sparkling .370 on-base percentage. Perez, 41-years-old, was signed and was the least productive of the trio, with his power gone in 253 at-bats.
Morgan’s approach of drawing a lot of walks set the tone for the team. The Phillies led the National League in taking free passes, and it’s the reason they ranked third in the NL in runs scored. The power, a staple of the late 1970s success, was mostly gone, save third baseman Mike Schmidt, who blasted 40 home runs and finished with 109 RBIs.
But even Schmidt knew how to get a walk (and pitchers undoubtedly were willing to oblige). He drew 128 walks and his .255 batting average ended up as a .399 OBP. Leftfielder Gary Matthews finished with a .352 OBP, but his power was down. Greg Gross was a reserve outfielder who provided valuable part-time punch with .385 OBP.
The big offseason move was a blockbuster with the Cleveland Indians. The Tribe had one of the coveted young players in the game, outfielder Von Hayes. Philadelphia wanted him so badly that they dealt five players to get Hayes. Those players included Manny Trillo, the second baseman who had been MVP of the 1980 NLCS, a reliable role player in George Vuckovich and a good young player in Julio Franco.
Hayes finished with a .337 on-base percentage, hit for little power and never turned into what scouts expected. A trade that worked better for Philadelphia was acquiring Joe Lefebvre from the San Diego Padres, and Lefebvre finished with a .388 OPB/.543 slugging percentage.
Those weren’t the only trades in what was an active offseason and early summer. As part of the Morgan deal with San Francisco, the Phils gave up starting pitcher Mike Krukow, a good young arm in Mark Davis and also got closer Al Holland back in return.
Holland saved 25 games with a 2.26 ERA and anchored a good veteran bullpen. Ron Reed worked 95 innings at age 40 and finished with a 3.48 ERA. Willie Hernandez finished with 3.29 ERA and also worked 95 frames. Tug McGraw was no longer the bullpen centerpiece, as he’d been for the World Series year, but he still finished with a 3.56 ERA.
And the starting rotation provided leads to work with. John Denny had the best year of his career, winning 19 games with a 2.37 ERA and he won the NL Cy Young Award. Steve Carlton, the future Hall of Famer at age 38, worked over 280 innings and finished with a 3.11 ERA. Charles Hudson worked 169 innings and posted a 3.35 ERA. The Phils finished second in the National League in ERA.
Philadelphia won 16 of their first 25 games, but they lost nine of eleven, and a road trip west produced a further 1-6 stretch. By Memorial Day, the were barely over .500, at 20-18, but no one in the NL East taking control, so the Phils were only 2 ½ games back of the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, and the Montreal Expos.
The early part of the summer didn’t see a turnaround though The Phils lost five of seven games with the Cardinals and Expos before rebounding to take three of four at home from Montreal and they crawled back over .500, at 37-36, by the All-Star break. No one in the NL East could get traction, so this mediocre performance had them just one game out and packed in a four-team race that now included the Chicago Cubs.
Pat Corrales was in his second year of managing the Phillies and though he’d gone 89-73 in 1982, he hadn’t won the division, which is something that Philadelphia had become accustomed to. When the Phils continued to be sluggish out of the break, splitting the first twelve games of the second half, Corrales was fired and replaced with Paul Owen.
It still wasn’t until July 28 that Philadelphia got over .500 for good They took four of five from the Cubs, who were starting to fade. The Phils lost two of three from the Pirates, who were starting to come on. Philadelphia then won seven of nine in games against St. Louis and Pittsburgh and took a two-game lead in the division. That was followed by a 6-13 run in a home-and-home sequence against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Padres and Giants.
The Philadelphia record was 69-66 on Labor Day and Pittsburgh was now in first place by a game, with Montreal and St. Louis still in the mix.
Philly took two of three from the Pirates and nudged into the lead by a half-game. Then the Phillies won a series with the Expos and swept the Cardinals. It was enough to push St. Louis out of the race and give Philadelphia a two-game lead on both Pittsburgh and Montreal.
With two weeks left in the season, the Phils made their decisive push. They swept a makeup doubleheader with the Expos in Montreal, again swept the Cardinals and pulled out to a four-game lead with a week left. They clinched on the final Wednesday of the season, with four days to spare.
It was a familiar foe awaiting in the 1983 NLCS—the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had eliminated Philadelphia in this round in 1977 and 1978. The Phils had vindicated themselves with the 1980 title, but they hadn’t had the chance to settle their business with the Dodgers.
The best-of-five series opened with two games in Los Angeles. Schmidt homered in the first inning of Game 1 and then Carlton outdueled fellow veteran Jerry Reuss in a 1-0 win. Denny took the mound for Game 2 with a chance to put a quick stranglehold on the series, but he lost 4-1 to another recent Cy Young winner, the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela.
Philadelphia would host the balance of the series in front of the home crowd, the Phils took over. More accurately, Matthews took over. In Game 3, he had three hits, four RBI and a home run, keying a 7-2 win. In the Carlton-Reuss rematch of Game 4, Matthews hit an early three-run bomb and the end result was another 7-2 win and a return to the World Series.
Matthews was named 1983 NLCS MVP, going 6-for-14 with the three home runs. Carlton’s two wins were also notable, and Rose went 6-for-16 to key the victory.
The World Series was a local affair, as the Phils had only to travel an hour-plus south on I-95 to open the Fall Classic with the Baltimore Orioles. Denny pitched brilliantly in winning the opener and the Phils got the road win they needed. But they couldn’t do anything at home—Philadelphia lost one-run games in Games 3 & 4 and then Baltimore cruised to an easy Game 5 win and a championship.
Philadelphia parted ways with the Big Red Machine trio at the end of the season. It was one last great ride for everyone, as the Phils would not return to the postseason until 1993, at which time they had a completely different cast.