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Remembering the incredible story of the 1980 Phillies, 40 years later

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40 years ago this week, the Phillies ended a 96-year curse and won it all.

You didn’t ever want Dallas Green mad at you.

The combative former Phillies skipper was never shy about making his displeasure known when players didn’t perform up to expectations, and after losing the first game of a doubleheader against the Pirates in early August of 1980, he let them know it. With the clubhouse doors closed inside the halls of Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Green unleashed a torrent of vitriol at decibel levels that rendered the closing of those doors pointless.

His frustration was understandable. These 1980 Phillies were trying to squeeze in one last shot at a World Series title that had eluded them in three bitter NLCS defeats from 1976-78 and, on the grander scale, for 96 long, torturous years. And yet here they were, sleepwalking through another dreary loss in another season that appeared likely to end without a title.

The Nationally Ignored Curse

The Philadelphia Phillies entered the decade as the only one of the original National League teams not to have won a Fall Classic. Born in 1883, the franchise had gone 96 years without a championship, and it felt to Philadelphians as if the team had languished under a cruel curse for its entire existence. Unlike the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, the Phillies didn’t have a cute name for their curse. They didn’t have the “Curse of Babe Ruth.” They didn’t have the “Curse of the Billy Goat.” No one came up with a “Cheesesteak Curse,” or “The Curse of Ben Franklin.”

For almost a full century, the Phightin’ Phils were simply a really bad baseball team. Last place finishes piled up like dirty dishes in a diner kitchen. They had made the postseason just five times in those 96 years, winning pennants in 1915 and 1950, along with those three straight NL East titles in the mid-‘70s. In between was a cavalcade of losses.

In 2007, they lost their 10,000th game as a franchise, the first American pro sports team to reach that milestone. They were the authors of one of the greatest late-season collapses in MLB history, when they lost a 6 ½ game lead with 12 to play and choked away the 1964 pennant. From 1915-50, they finished either in last place or second-to-last place 24 times in the 8-team National League and reached third or higher in the standings just three times during that stretch.

They weren’t lovable losers. They were just losers.

The Core Develops

In the early 1970s, a young core of stars – Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Bob Boone and Larry Bowa – began to form the makings of an up-and-coming team. The Phils stole Steve Carlton, one of the greatest left-handed pitchers ever, from the St. Louis Cardinals before the 1972 season in a trade for right-handed starter Rick Wise. Schmidt became the preeminent slugger in the NL and was the game’s best defensive third baseman, too. Luzinski, known as “The Bull,” was a prolific home run hitter in his own right and made four straight All Star teams from 1975-78, was MVP runner-up twice and averaged 32 dingers and 112 RBIs a season over that stretch. Boone was known as one of the game’s great defensive catchers and was a three-time All Star heading into the ’80 season, while Bowa made five All Star teams in the 1970s and finished third in the NL MVP voting in ’78. Carlton had been on seven All Star teams by the time 1980 rolled around and would end up winning the second of his eventual four Cy Young Awards that year after going 24-9 with a 2.34 ERA and a league leading 304 innings pitched, 286 strikeouts, and 3.18 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

In the 1976 NLCS, those Phillies ran into a buzzsaw named “The Big Red Machine,” and although the games were close, the Cincinnati Reds were far more experienced and went on to sweep the Phils in three games and become the last NL team to repeat as world champions. In ’77, the Phillies appeared on their way to reaching the World Series but a disastrous Game 3 meltdown at Veterans Stadium against the Los Angeles Dodgers which came to be known as “Black Friday” (they blew a 5-3, 9th inning lead with two out and none on in comical fashion) led to a four game defeat. In ’78, they fell to the Dodgers for the second straight year.

That off-season the Phillies made the winter’s biggest splash when they signed future Hit King Pete Rose to a free agent contract. It was hoped Rose’s postseason experience as a member of The Big Red Machine would help launch a talented team of underachievers over the top. Instead, injuries and underperformance decimated the team, resulting in a fourth place finish.

It was at the tail end of the ’79 disaster when Green stepped in. Danny Ozark, a favorite of the players, was jettisoned from the skipper’s chair in favor of the hard scrabble Green for the season’s final month. Green’s mission? Audit the players and report back on what wasn’t working and why. General manager Paul Owens and ownership apparently liked what they heard from Green and gave him the manager’s job for the 1980 season, too, hoping he could push them past the NLCS roadblock through which they had not yet driven through.

A Last Chance

The 1980 season was their last shot, and they knew it. “This year there’s probably more pressure on our ballclub than ever,” said Bowa in spring training, “Because we’ve been told by the front office if we don’t do it this year, they’re gonna have to break up the ballclub.” This was the last opportunity this group was going to get a to see if they could finally reach the Fall Classic, and yet here they were in an early August series against the Pirates, looking at another season about to go down the tubes.

Green had seen enough. After falling 7-1 to the Pirates if the first game of a scheduled doubleheader on August 10, he lit into his squad like he hadn’t before, as recounted by former Philadelphia Inquirer sports writer Ray Didinger the day after.

“This [bleeping] game isn’t easy,” Green screamed. “It’s tough, especially when you have injuries. But you guys (have) got your bleeping heads down.

“You’ve gotta stop being so bleeping cool. Get that through your bleeping heads. If you don’t, you’ll get so bleeping buried, it ain’t gonna be funny.

“Get the bleep off your asses,” Green said, “and just be the way you can be because you’re a good bleeping baseball team. But you’re not now and you can’t look in the bleeping mirror and tell me you are.

“You tell me you can do it but you bleeping give up. If you don’t want to bleeping play, get the bleep in that (manager’s) office and bleeping tell me because I don’t want to bleeping play you.”

Green’s verbal assault didn’t have an immediate impact, as his squad promptly went out and lost the second game 4-1. “The Phillies have about as much chance of winning the National League East as Ted Kennedy has of stealing the Democratic nomination away from Jimmy Carter,” Didinger wrote. “But, like a crusty old campaign manager, Dallas Green is not about to concede until the last delegate is counted.”

It seemed like Dallas might just be shouting at windmills. Even before the season began, most pundits pegged the Phils as the fourth-best team in the division. Montreal, St. Louis and Pittsburgh were the teams on the rise. The Phillies were old news. As they left Pittsburgh, with Green’s voluminous butt-chewing still ringing in their ears, they sat in 3rdplace, six games out of first. It appeared the preseason prognosticators were right.

The Phillies Catch Fire

One day after Dallas’ meeting, the players held a meeting of their own in which they essentially decided to play for themselves and forget about Green. Whether it was their manager’s profanity-laced tirade, their players-only meeting or the sudden realization that sand was flowing through the hourglass ever quicker, the ’80 Phils went 35-19 following their Pittsburgh debacle and quickly worked their way up the standings.

It’s hard to imagine the Phillies going on their late-season tear without Green, a hard-nosed manager who challenged a group of stars he felt were soft. He felt they talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk. Green later declared, “In prior years, it seemed like tee times were more important than batting practice times. In 1980, that was gonna change.

“It was obvious we had the talent, but the attitude was all wrong.”

When Green posted a sign in the clubhouse that read, “We, not I,” players were not amused. “We sort of joked about it at the time,” Bowa said later, “and we asked if we were going back to college or high school.” Fellow infielder John Vukovich was more blunt. “The first comment was, ‘Where are the pom poms?’ And it was a reaction he knew he’d get and he didn’t care.”

Green banned drinking on team flights. He instituted a dress code. And in his first day on the job, he told the players that they were the ones who fired Danny Ozark. In a Philadelphia Inquirer article that looked back at Green’s career with the Phillies shortly after his death in 2017, catcher Bob Boone put it bluntly, “We hated him. He was driving us crazy. But it was a relationship that worked.”

“There was quite a bit of animosity toward Dallas,” Phillies team historian and long-time publicity director Larry Shenk said, “but he didn’t care if hurt any feelings. He played who he wanted and benched guys.

“Players didn’t like it but when they crossed the white lines on the field, it was all business, all pulling in the same direction.”

After sweeping a four-game home series against the Cubs in late September, the Phillies entered the final series of the season at 89-70 and tied with the Expos for first place in the NL East, setting up a winner-take-all three-game series in Montreal.

Les Phillies Gagnent à Montréal

Those Expos were loaded with talent. Gary Carter, 1980 MVP runner-up, was just 26 and led the team with 29 homers and 101 RBIs, far and away the best catcher in the National League. Center fielder Andre Dawson finished 7th in the MVP voting, while right fielder Ellis Valentine and first baseman Warren Cromartie were key contributors as well. Staff ace Steve Rogers threw 281 innings that year and posted a 2.98 ERA while going 16-11, and the rest of the rotation featured some solid young arms, including 23-year-old Scott Sanderson, 21-year-old Bill Gullickson, 23-year-old Charlie Lea, and 22-year-old David Palmer.

In the first game of the series, a Phillies’ 2-1 victory was powered by the eventual National League MVP Schmidt, whose sacrifice fly and solo home run off Sanderson backed up an outstanding pitching performance by Dick Ruthven, and put the Phils up by one game with two to play. The following day, the Phils held a 3-2 lead in the 7th only to watch Montreal regain the lead with two of their own in the bottom of the frame.

In what would become a theme for the Phillies that October, they rallied. Rose led off the 9th inning with a walk, followed by groundouts from Bake McBride and Mike Schmidt that resulted in McBride standing on 2nd with two out (McBride had reached on a fielder’s choice). Bob Boone, the veteran catcher whose job appeared to be in jeopardy during the regular season thanks to the young, hard-charging Keith Moreland, singled a ball to center field to score McBride and tie the game at 5-5.

Then in the top of the 11th with a runner on, Schmidt hit his NL-leading 48th homer of the season, an absolute bomb to left field to give the Phils a 6-4 lead.

Tug McGraw retired the Expos in order in the bottom of the 11th to give the Phillies a surprising NL East crown, their fourth in five years.

But that wasn’t even the hard part.

A Battle To the Death In Houston

What would follow was perhaps the greatest five-game postseason series in MLB history. The Phillies and the NL West champion Houston Astros faced off in an epic battle in which four of the five games in the series went to extra innings. There were 20 lead changes in the five games. Players were thrown out at home multiple times, and the intensity level was off the charts. Houston was powered by star pitchers Nolan Ryan, Vern Ruhle, and Ken Forsch, and had overcome the loss of All Star J.R. Richard, who suffered a stroke and collapsed on the field before a game on July 30. The Astros also featured a dynamic lineup led by Terry Puhl, Cesar Cedeno, Jose Cruz and Rose’s former Big Red Machine teammate Joe Morgan. They were a formidable opponent and played relentless baseball throughout the series.

The Phils jumped on top in the NLCS by winning Game 1 at Veterans Stadium, 3-1, but the Astros put three on the board in the 10th inning of Game 2 and tied the series at a game a piece with their 7-4 win. As the series shifted to Houston for the final three games, things got a little insane.

Larry Christenson and Joe Niekro engaged in a terrific pitcher’s duel in Game 3 as Christenson pitched six shutout innings, but was bested by an incredible performance from Niekro, who hurled 10 scoreless frames to send the game into the 11th, 0-0. In the bottom half of the inning, Morgan led off with a triple. Jose Cruz and Art Howe were intentionally walked, and Denny Walling hit a game-winning sacrifice fly to give the Astros a thrilling 1-0 victory and a 2-1 series lead.

The Phillies had been here before. One loss away from yet another season in which they fell short of the Fall Classic. One more loss and their title drought would continue for a 97thyear. Things weren’t looking good as Houston held a 2-0 lead as the 8th began but the Phillies proved 1980 was going to be different. They scored three runs in the 8th to jump on top 3-2, but the Astros tied the game in the bottom of the 9th off Phils reliever Warren Brusstar, sending Game 4 into extra innings once again.

This is where the investment in Pete Rose paid off. Before he was best known for gambling on his own team as a manager and was kicked out of baseball forever, he was known for a hard-nosed style of play that earned him the nickname “Charlie Hustle.” He was hated by opponents and loved by teammates and, in the top of the 10th, it was clear why. Rose singled with one out and remained there when Greg Luzinski came to the plate with two away. When the Bull smoked a double into the gap, Rose steamed around third with no intention of stopping.

He should have stopped. His third base coach wanted him to stop. Most normal humans would have stopped, but Rose ran through his coach’s stop sign and he should have been thrown out by 30 feet. It was a bone-headed decision that should have deprived the Phillies of a prime scoring opportunity, but the relay throw from third was a bad one and short-hopped catcher Bruce Bochy, who couldn’t handle it as Rose bowled him over and scored the go-ahead run.

Sometimes, when you’re breaking a curse, you need a little luck and a Pete Rose forearm shiver to the face of the opposing catcher. The Phils would tack on an insurance run and won Game 4 in a thriller, 5-3, which sent the series to a decisive fifth game.

Game 5

If you’ve never seen Game 5 of the 1980 NLCS, you really should make that the first thing you do when you’re done reading this. It is one of the greatest baseball games in the sport’s history, a true classic.

The Phillies held an early 2-1 lead thanks to some outstanding defense and two runners thrown out at the plate in the early innings.

However, the Astros entered the 8th inning ahead 5-2 with their fireballing ace, Nolan Ryan, still on the mound. According to Baseball Reference’s win probability metric, Houston had a 96% chance of winning the game and the pennant when the inning began. In years past, the Phillies would have unraveled or given up in situations like this, but this time, it was their opponents who melted down.

Bowa led off with a single to center, which was followed by a Boone infield hit that deflected off Ryan’s glove. Pinch hitter extraordinaire Greg Gross laid down a perfect bunt single to load the bases with nobody out, and as Howard Cosell said on the TV broadcast for ABC, “The Phillies have loaded the bases in about 30 seconds!” Rose followed with a walk that forced in a run and knocked Ryan out of the game to make the score 5-3. Keith Moreland hit an RBI groundout to make it 5-4, which brought up the man who had hit 48 home runs during the regular season, the best player in baseball, Mike Schmidt.

All Schmidt had to do was hit a fly ball to tie it. Just hit it in the air somewhere. But Schmidt also perennially led the league in strikeouts, and fanned at the worst moment possible. Pinch hitter Del Unser, however, played hero and picked Schmidt up with a single to center that miraculously tied the game, a hit that Schmidt would later joke was, “The best hit of my career!” Eventual NLCS MVP Manny Trillo then followed with a triple down the left-field line to give the Phillies an improbable 7-5 lead.

Six outs away from elimination, facing Nolan Ryan, in a hostile Astrodome, the Phillies scored five unbelievable runs. But this madness still wasn’t over.

Houston punched right back with RBI singles by Rafael Landestoy and Jose Cruz in the bottom of the 8th to tie the score at 7-7. It was a seemingly endless heavyweight fight, with both sides landing body blow after body blow and head shot after head shot for the full 15 rounds. When no one scored in the 9th, Game 5 predictably went into extra innings, the fourth straight extra inning game in this ridiculous series.

In the 10th, after an Unser double, Garry Maddox singled to center to put the Phillies on top 8-7.

Dick Ruthven then retired Houston in order in the bottom of the 10th to give the Phillies just their third pennant in team history.

They had done it, but the curse was still not broken.

Meet The Royals

After that insane NLCS, it would have been tempting for the Phillies to think the hard part was over, but manager Dallas Green wouldn’t let them. After all, they still had to play the 97-win Kansas City Royals, who defeated the New York Yankees in the ALCS to advance to their first Fall Classic, and set up a matchup of the game’s two best third basemen, Schmidt and George Brett. Brett’s 1980 was one of the great seasons of the decade, when he hit .390 and came within five hits of being the first qualified batter to hit .400 since Ted Williams in 1941. Amos Otis, Willie Akins, Hal McRae and Willie Wilson were all terrors, but like the Phillies, they also had failed to reach the World Series after consecutive failures in the League Championship Series in 1976, ’77 and ’78, all against the New York Yankees. As fortune would have it, K.C. had face New York once again in the 1980 ALCS. Would the fourth time be the charm? Could they finally overcome their demons and take down the Bronx Bombers?

The rivalry between the Royals and Yankees had developed into one of baseball’s best. The big market Goliaths vs. the small market Royals – only in this case, David-like Kansas City hadn’t been able to knock their enemy between the eyes with their slingshot-propelled stone. As Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles said, “Everybody had a rival, and Kansas City was ours at that time.”

Years later, Brett was even more blunt. “I hate the Yankees. I still hate ‘em, and you know what? They still hate me!” A fight broke out between the two teams in Game 3 after Brett slid hard into third baseman Nettles and Nettles appeared to kick Brett in retaliation.

In Game 1, the Royals were powered by a Brett home run and routed the Yankees 7-2, and then followed it up with a 3-2 victory in Game 2. Up two-games-to-none with a chance to close out the series out in the Bronx, Brett came to the plate down 2-1 in the 7th inning of Game 3 with two men on against Yankees ace reliever Goose Gossage and crushed a ball deep into the seats in right for a three run home run that clinched the series and earned them a spot in the Fall Classic.

Like the Phillies, the Royals had overcome their LCS demons. Now, each squad would face each other for a chance to win their first title.

The parallels between the two teams were eerie. This World Series was the first to be played entirely on artificial turf and it was the first Fall Classic since 1920 in which neither team had won a World Series before. Both were led by managers, Green and K.C.’s Jim Frey, in their first full seasons, and both featured the best third baseman in their respective leagues.

A True Fall “Classic”

Game 1 in Philadelphia featured another comeback by the team play-by-play man Harry Kalas called “The team that wouldn’t die.” After rookie starter Bob Walk put the Phils in a 3rd inning 4-0 hole, the Phillies rallied for five runs in the bottom of the third off 20-game winner Dennis Leonard thanks to a three-run homer by clean-up hitter McBride, an interesting choice in that he had slugged a mere nine home runs all season. It’s one of the least-talked about and one of the greatest postseason games in franchise history, a historic comeback that would ultimately end in a 7-6 victory and a 1-0 series lead for the Phils.

In Game 2, Kansas City was a bit hamstrung when Brett had to leave the game due to a battle with hemorrhoids, but they still led 4-2 in the 8th even with their absent MVP. They entrusted that lead to ace submarining reliever Dan Quinsenberry, who led the American League in saves (33) and appearances (75) and finished fifth in the AL Cy Young voting. However, the Cardiac Kid Phillies staged yet another lat inning rally and put up four runs in the bottom of the 8th off Quizz to shock to shock the Royals, 6-4.

The series shifted to Kansas City and the home cookin’ for the Royals must have helped. Ruthven outdueled K.C. starter Rich Gale, who threw nine innings of three-run ball, but the Phillies still trailed 3-2 in the 8th until a Rose single scored Bowa to make it a 3-3 game. Hey, what do you know, another extra inning game! This time, however, Phils closer Tug McGraw couldn’t keep the Royals at bay and, in the bottom of the 10th, allowed a Willie Aikens walk-off single to give Kansas City a 4-3 win. In Game 4, the Royals jumped all over Christiansen early and scored four in the first in a game they would win going away 5-3.

But sometimes in a series like this, a turning point can happen even in a loss. With K.C. up 5-1 in the bottom of the 4th, middle reliever Dickie Noles threw a fastball right underneath Brett’s chin, sending the sweet swinging superstar sprawling to the dirt.

Kansas City manager Jim Frey charged out of the dugout like an aged bull released from his cage, and screamed for the umpires to kick Noles out of the game. His pleas fell on deaf ears and first baseman Rose, in an animated exchange with Frey, yelled at the Royals manager, then pointed to Noles and told him, “You pitch your game!” The message pitch seemed to be received by both Kansas City and the rest of the Phillies.

In Game 5, Kansas City once again held a late lead, but as you may have guessed by now, late inning leads against the Phils aren’t worth much. According to a 2019 ESPN ranking of every World Series ever played, the ’80 World Series came in at No. 16 overall with Game 5 being the highlight of the series.

“This one featured the greatest Game 5 ever. The Phillies came from behind with a two-run rally in the ninth inning, started by a Mike Schmidt infield single — enabled by George Brett playing in on the grass, anticipating that the 48-homer-hitting Schmidt might try to bunt for a hit — and finished by a Manny Trillo single off Dan Quisenberry’s glove. The Royals then loaded the bases on three Tug McGraw walks in the bottom of the ninth, before McGraw escaped and tilted the series in the Phillies’ favor. By average leverage index, this is the closest nine-inning game in World Series history.”

Unser once again came up huge with an RBI double that scored Schmidt to tie the game.

The Curse Finally Dies

A record 31.2 million households, roughly 40% of all TVs in America according to Nielsen, tuned in to find out if Phillies ace Steve Carlton could break the team’s 96-year curse. To this day it remains the most watched game in World Series history, a record that will likely never be topped thanks to the dawn of cable and streaming options available today.

Right from the start, it was clear Lefty had his good stuff, with a fastball that seemed 2-3 mph faster than normal and his impossible slider giving Royals hitters fits.

Carlton went seven innings and gave up just one run on four hits with seven strikeouts and three walks. Schmidt put the Phils on top with a big two-run single in the 3rd inning...

... and the team entered the 9th with a 4-1 lead and McGraw needing three more outs to end the curse.

But like everything else in this wacky season, it wouldn’t be easy. McGraw loaded the bases with one out. He was leaking oil. Second baseman Frank White hit a foul pop right in front of the Phillies dugout along the first base line that looked like a sure second out. As Boone camped out under the ball it hit the heel of his glove and squirted out. But it was merely the baseball gods toying with Phillies fans, because there was Rose, backing up the play and catching the ball before it hit the turf.

One more out to go. With 60,000+ fans screaming and mounted police horses trotting onto the field to deal with what Philly police must have assumed would be a riot, McGraw got ahead 1-2 on outfielder Willie Wilson. Finally, McGraw reared back, threw one last fastball that Wilson swung through, and that was it. The curse was broken. The Phillies, in their 97th year of existence, finally had their title.

In the clubhouse after that rollicking run through October, Green soaked in what he and his team had done.

“We challenged them every day,” Green said. “We wouldn’t let them slip. If my coaching staff saw something wrong, they jumped. And if they didn’t jump far enough, I jumped. We kept the pressure on the players from the time spring training started.”

With the curse broken, Dallas Green became a legend in Philadelphia, and in the years that followed, his former players learned to appreciate the role he played in bringing it all together. Green came back for the 1981 season and helped lead the team back to the playoffs, where they would lose in a divisional series playoff against Montreal before being lured away by the Chicago Cubs in 1982 to be their general manager. He would later manage the New York Yankees under George Steinbrenner and spent a few seasons in the dugout as skipper for the Mets before he returned to the Phillies as a scout and front office executive. After Green’s death in 2017, Bowa, who was one of Green’s sharpest critics as a player, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Dallas was what Philly is all about: toughness, honesty, and fairness. Without Dallas, the Phillies would not have won the World Series in 1980.”

Dallas Green. Breaker of curses.