Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Schmidt, Philadelphia's Unappreciated All-Star

ST. LOUIS, Missouri -- One day, late in the greatness of his career, Mike Schmidt came out of the Philadelphia Phillies' dugout wearing a woman's curly wig and sunglasses.


There fell upon the gathered multitude at Veterans Stadium a silence of stupendous proportions, for surely their eyes betrayed them. They saw the tall and lithe frame of the athlete they'd known for a decade or more. They even saw the familiar No. 20.


But Mike Schmidt? The brooding Mike Schmidt whose face so often was a leave-me-alone scowl? That Mike Schmidt was throwing out grounders to his infielders while wearing a goofy disguise? Sooner would the Philly fans have expected Ben Franklin to drop from a kite in the sky.


Then the silence was transformed into laughter and applause, some of it delivered by people who stood in recognition of Schmidt's jest.


Truly he had reason to work incognito in 1985. He had called Philadelphia fans "a mob scene'' and accused them of being spoiled by his excellence even as they were jealous of his money. The bad feelings were mutual: Fans long considered Schmidt, who was voted into baseball's Hall of Fame this month, an arrogant pretender. After all, hadn't he taken the Phillies to a World Series since going 1 for 20 when they lost to the Baltimore Orioles in '83.


Never a good idea in any town, picking a fight with Philadelphia fans is always a bad idea. Philadelphia has wonderful museums, universities and institutions of business and society that are models of sophistication. It's also a place where the Liberty Bell isn't the only thing that's cracked.


The schizophrenics there celebrated Schmidt when he helped win the 1980 World Series (8 for 21 with two home runs and seven RBI against the Kansas City Royals) and denigrated him after the '83 defeat that reaffirmed the city's tradition of failure. Three times the National League Most Valuable Player, the elegant and graceful Schmidt couldn't please folks who adored athletes called "Concrete Chuck,'' "Hammer'' and "Nails.''


"This isn't so much a sports town as a hardware store,'' Philadelphia writer Glen Macnow once declared. "When it comes to sports, we are strictly row homes and lunch pails, clock-punchers and blue collars. ... We demand our heroes to be gritty and rumpled, perhaps with a broken nose and a little dried blood caked under the fingernails.''


So the Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik became the god who clotheslined Frank Gifford. The Philadelphia Flyers won with acts of criminality forgiven because they were committed on ice. As for the Phillies, Tug McGraw once said the trouble with losing a big game on the road was getting past the machine-gun nest at the airport.


Pete Rose understood the place: "It's not hard to become a fan favorite in Philly. Play hard, get dirty. Cuss and spit and never let them see you loafing. One more thing: never lose a game.''


Schmidt's best years came alongside Rose, who could make the brooder laugh and whose lust for notice relieved Schmidt of attention he never wanted. In Rose's years with the Phillies, 1979 through 1983, Schmidt reached career highs: .316, 48 home runs, 121 RBI, .644 slugging average.


In those seasons, the Phillies won two National League championships and a World Series.


The wonder of Schmidt's career is that he did it all in Philadelphia, where fans who wear their hearts on their sleeves were never sure if Schmidt had a heart. He was stoic, cool and studious, a college graduate, of all things, an artist sipping wine in a bully's shot-and-chaser town.


Utterly unfair. The man's only crime was to come to the ballpark with a gift so large he made hard things look easy.


The irony of Schmidt's alienation from Philadelphia fans was that few players were ever more intent on success.


The best third baseman ever, baseball's best player for the last 20 years, Mike Schmidt at bat was an efficient wonder of power, his hitting stroke beautiful in its quickness and compactness, the bat moving from a high position sharply downward to send the baseball a great distance in a hurry.


With a glove, Schmidt deserved mention in paragraphs starring Brooks Robinson, there with Graig Nettles as fielders whose acrobatics were those of jungle cats chasing down the night's dinner.


Thirteen seasons he hit 30 home runs or more. Only Henry Aaron, with 15, did it more often. Eight times Schmidt led the National League in home runs. No one else has done that. Ten times he won Gold Gloves as his league's best fielding third baseman. Outside of Michael Jordan, no athlete more effectively combined offense and defense than Mike Schmidt.


And yet he came to work one day in 1985 certain to be the target of wrath. Instead, with his wig and sunglasses, Schmidt rendered the boo-birds silent. "I really had 'em for a minute,'' he said, but, alas, not much longer. On his retirement, the Phillies refused his entreaties for a front-office job, saying his baseball skills didn't necessarily translate to leadership and talent judgment. Hurt, Schmidt left Philadelphia and now lives in Florida.