Monday, January 17, 2022

Martin Luther King's Final Speech, 3 April 1968: "I've Been to the Mountaintop"


[For the full text of his speech, see here; for the video of the entire speech, see here.]

"Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord." With this citation of the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. turned, physically and emotionally drained, and walked away from the podium at the Mason Temple in Memphis on the evening of the 3rd of April, 1968. He would be dead less than 24 hours later, assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel by a sniper's bullet.

I have often written about Dr. King over the years―his "I Have a Dream" speech (here), his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (here), his powerful, prophetic calls for justice and against war (here), his 1960 Christian Century article, "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence" (here)―perhaps as a reflex to my evangelical background's at best marginalization of him, and at worst disparagement or disowning of him as a wolf in sheep's clothing. Yes, he was no evangelical (the fundamentalist preacher and future Left Behind author Tim LaHaye, in a letter to Wheaton president Carl Armerding protesting the school's holding a memorial to the slain civil rights leader after his assassination, referred to him as "an outright theological liberal heretic"). Yes, he had documented academic and moral failures. But, as one who lived through the time period and knows the people who most disparaged him, I greatly suspect the real reason lies elsewhere. After all, significant moral failings have not diminished their assessments of such other monumental historical figures as Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, and Winston Churchill.

What still strikes me, as it has struck nearly everyone over the years, is that King, in alluding to the experience of Moses on Mt. Nebo (Deuteronomy 34), appears to have foreseen his approaching martyrdom for the cause of civil rights. What showed his true greatness was his courageous refusal to shrink from what he saw to be the mission he had been given to do ("I just want to do God's will") in the teeth of implacable opposition. As I have often reflected, King saw himself, first and foremost, as a minister of the gospel. And, for those of my evangelical friends who might demur, let me remind you that the genuine, "biblical" gospel is the gospel of 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, yes, but it is also the gospel of Mary's Magnificat; it is also the gospel of Jesus' Nazareth Manifesto in Luke 4. In other words, the New Testament gospel is not the pinched, desiccated, dualistic, "soterian" "life-after-death"-exclusive gospel of much popular evangelicalism. As I argued, ten years ago now, in a 9-part series on this blog, the New Testament gospel is the announcement of the inbreaking, through the events of Jesus' death and resurrection, of the long-awaited kingdom of God/new creation promised in the Hebrew scriptures. It may include such elements as substitutionary atonement and justification by faith, but it cannot be limited to such things, divorced from ultimate social, and societal, ramifications. As Dr. King proclaimed, prophetically as it were, "Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord."

One more thing strikes me. It has been close to 54 years since Dr. King spoke these words. He claimed to have "seen the promised land." There are some, indeed, who, seeing laws passed in the wake of the civil rights struggles of the '60's, believe the promised land to have been reached. This, of course, was the rationale of Chief Justice John Roberts and the four other conservatives of the Supreme Court, who gutted the Civil Rights Act of 1965 by striking down its Section 4(b) in their Shelby County v. Holder ruling in 2014, believing it no longer to be necessary. The results could have been predicted: many southern states have once again acted to purge registration rolls, enact voter ID rules, end or restrict early voting and same-day registration, shuttering polling locations in minority districts, etc., in efforts to hold the vote down. The manufactured crisis over "critical race theory" in schools, or even the more general issue of "systemic racism" is yet another issue. Many people―I won't mention their race to protect the guilty; hint: it's the same as mine―continue to insist, in what must be a vain attempt to salve guilty consciences, that the problem is only a matter of the individual prejudice of a few bad actors. What a load of rubbish. And nothing will change until a large enough number of the majority community in this country comes to grips with the problem and acknowledges it. But there's the rub: such would involve the actual teaching of history, something many in this country are not really in the mood for these days. 

Today, in the wake of Donald Trump's refusal to acknowledge his loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 election, multiple "red" states have passed laws both restricting the vote and placing the elections in charge of partisan Republican legislatures in transparent efforts to game the system for future potential steals. In each case, the target of their vote suppression are the very demographic King fought, and ultimately died, for. Biden and the Democrats in Congress, of course, have a voting rights bill ready to counteract these measures, but thus far it remains stalled. The problem? Of course, the anti-democratic Senate, split 50/50 along partisan lines, even though the 50 Democrats represent 40 million more people than the 50 Republicans. The fly in the ointment, however, remains the two recalcitrant "moderate" Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who, though they say they believe in voting rights, pledge ultimate fealty to the traditional, though not constitutional, institution of the filibuster. Hence, since they can't get ten (!) Republicans to vote for the bill, they won't either. Better, I guess, incipient authoritarianism than unilaterally-sanctioned democracy? I won't pretend to guess as to the motivation for Sinema's and Manchin's bull-headedness on this matter. Certainly they can't be as naïve as they appear. But my only question is this: if 51 votes is OK to pass Trump's tax cuts for the rich and confirm Supreme Court justices, why not voting rights to secure democratic outcomes to our elections? 

Such seems like a no-brainer to me. And it would be the most fitting tribute to the memory of Dr. King. Don't honor his memory unless you mean it.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

T. S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" (1927): A Brief Reflection for Epiphany

Today (Jan 6) marks the Christian Feast of the Epiphany, which in the Western Church celebrates the visit of the gift-bearing Magi to Bethlehem narrated in Matthew chapter 2. In Matthew's narrative, the Magi, who "prostrate themselves" before the one "born King of the Jews," represent, as the late New Testament scholar Raymond Brown argued,* the firstfruits of the eschatological pilgrimage of the nations and their submission to the true God. This richly evocative story called forth this wonderful poem by Christian convert T. S. Eliot in 1927:


A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times when we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wineskins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.


Three elements of this poem stand out for me. The first is the reference to the "three trees on the low sky." This, transparently, is an allusion to the three crosses on Golgotha 36 years (on the assumption of a 33 CE date for the crucifixion) after their visit. The second is the line, "Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver," likewise alluding to the soldiers' dicing for Jesus's garments (Mark 15:24 et par.) and Judas's betrayal of his Lord for 30 pieces of silver (Matt 26:15). Elliot's point in these two allusions is manifest: Jesus's death is already foreshadowed at his birth. And by doing this Eliot is, I believe, faithful to the theological intent of Matthew's narrative, in which "all Jerusalem" is "terrified" of the news of the birth of the King (Matt 2:3) and the "chief priests and scribes" "of the people" "assemble" in response, in deliberate foreshadowing of the "high priests and elders of the people's" decision to put Jesus to death at the climax of the story (Matt 27:1; cf. v. 25). Even in Matthew's story, in other words, the shadow of the cross hangs over Jesus's life from the beginning. For in truth Jesus was a baby born to die for all, Jew and Gentile alike, who submit to him as did the Magi of old.

The third element I would like to highlight comes at the end: "We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods." This highlights the all-important New Testament theological emphasis on inaugurated eschatology. The birth of Jesus―indeed, his birth, ministry, death, and resurrection viewed as a whole, the entire complex conveniently referred to as the "Christ-event"―changed things, indeed changed things fundamentally and eschatologically, inaugurating the promised kingdom and fulfilling, in an initial sense, the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Second Exodus, the New Creation―these have arrived, but not completely, not as they will be at the consummation. The new age co-exists in "eschatological" tension with the old, a fact which gives the apostle Paul's theology its particular dynamic and dynamism. What matters is what today's followers of Jesus do with this eschatological tension. As Eliot, through the words of the Magi, suggests (rightly), the Christian, as a citizen of the kingdom of God, should never be totally at ease "here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods." As an American, it may be uncomfortable to have to say this, but America, like Britain, like Canada, may be a fine country to live in, but it is a human country, and that means it is a fallen country. It is not an outpost of the kingdom of God. And it has its own idols, chief among them being, as I heard Ron Sider say a number of years ago in a fine commencement address at Messiah College, an "idolatrous nationalism" that runs rampant in evangelical circles in today's America. As Christians, our job is to work for the kingdom of God, for that is where our true citizenship resides.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Remembering My Father on the Centenary of His Birth


So when a great man dies,
For years beyond our ken,
The light he leaves behind him lies
Upon the paths of men

~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Charles Sumner" (1875)

My father, the Rev. Dr. John F. McGahey, was born 100 years ago today in Montchanin, Delaware. I find these words as hard to believe as they feel surreal to write for, though he has been gone from this earth nearly 35 years, not a day goes by that I don't think of him, and his memory―indeed his very voice―remains as fresh in my mind today as if I had just heard it yesterday, not on November 18, 1986, when indeed I last spoke to him on the phone in Dallas from a distance of over 1400 miles. He was taken from us shortly after his 65th birthday, the victim, as his beloved British used to say, of a hereditary "dicky ticker." Only the good die young, indeed. Yet, as Longfellow wrote in his tribute to Charles Sumner, the light he left in his wake still lies upon the paths trod by those diminishing numbers of us who follow in his footsteps.

Years ago I wrote a tribute to dad, honoring him on the 28th anniversary of his death. In that piece, reflecting an earlier tribute to F. F. Bruce by his friend Charlie Moule, I focused on the twin Christian virtues of grace and truth, so rarely found in combination, which I believe found their dual embodiment in dad to a degree rarely seen in my experience: his legendary zeal for what he considered the truth was matched by a life committed to, and profoundly conditioned by, God's grace in Christ.

The earliest picture of dad
I can hardly improve now on what I wrote then, so I would like to focus today on what is both to me, personally, and for the present Zeitgeist, I believe to be the most significant consequence of his life. The marks of his influence on my life are everywhere present. One thinks particularly of the love of sports. He was a great athlete, perhaps the greatest natural athlete I have ever known (the memory of him, as a 50-year old, running down an all-Central League high school soccer player from behind in a touch football game still stands out, not to mention the one-armed pull-ups he used to do in the stairwell to our attic). As a wee lad, there was always a football, basketball, or baseball game on TV on the weekend whenever he was not away preaching. I still remember watching, at the age of 6, the Bears-Giants 1963 NFL Championship Game with him and my cousin Tommy in the latter's house in Piscataway, New Jersey on December 29, 1963. Likewise, I still remember him telling my brother and me stories about the greatness of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, and before them, his childhood heroes Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, when he started buying baseball cards for us from the Jack and Jill ice cream truck that passed through our West Philadelphia neighborhood in the spring of 1964. He taught us how to play the various sports at an early age (hitting fungoes directly at us and zipping passes to us so we would learn not to be afraid of the ball, improvising basketball by shooting an inflatable ball between the power line and the back wall of our row house in the alley), was always the dad who played the games with us and our friends, and who took us to multiple Phillies and Sixers games each year. 

The love of all things British is another tell-tale sign of his influence. This, of course, is not surprising, considering he came from an immigrant Protestant family from the north of Ireland, with three siblings born in the old country and two sisters with Brits as husbands. Only as I have grown old(er), however, have I realized the degree to which his insistence that our family was both American and British was unusual, to say the least, in the country of my birth. (And I still can't fathom how someone won't put a splash of milk in their tea.) My sensibilities, in more ways than I can count, were shaped by my 22 years of life apprenticeship with him.

Dad with other family members, including
his father, John (with the pipe) and brother,
Bill (in rear at right).
Montchanin, Delaware, ca. early 1930's
Most importantly, however, and I say this with no hesitation, I am a Christian, and remain one to this day, largely because of my father and the influence of the towering example provided by his life. As I mentioned in my earlier tribute, Dartmouth historian Randall Balmer perceptively opined that "conversionist" evangelicalism's greatest challenge, indeed difficulty, when compared to, say, Roman Catholicism, is the passing on of the faith from one generation to the next. This structural difficulty was exacerbated in my case as the son, not just of some run of the mill preacher or Bible teacher, but of a theology professor of some repute within certain ecclesial circles in the wider Mid-Atlantic region (I think likewise of the experiences of Balmer and Frank Schaeffer, though the latter is the son of a far more famous figure and has rejected far more of what he had been bequeathed). Considering his theological proclivities and feisty temperament, I have often joked, though only somewhat in jest, that it was like being raised by the Apostle Paul himself. Quite a daunting experience! It wasn't simply the fact that others expected a demonstrable, outward "piety" from me to which I was (and am) temperamentally incapable (the transparency of character I inherited and/or learned from dad made sure of that; there were few things he scorned more than such spirituality-for-show). More to the point was my own constant desire not to disappoint him and mom, and my usual awareness that I hadn't done as well as I could or should have (though they never showed or articulated any such disappointment).

As a theologian, dad is probably best remembered by his former students as a Dispensationalist ("Israel is not the Church!"), which he taught and defended throughout his 29 years at Philadelphia College of Bible. Like all of us, dad was a man of his time, perhaps more evident in his case here more than in any other area (though I say, with some pride, that it was his 1957 Dallas Th.D. dissertation on the New Covenant that sowed the seeds for the ultimate demise of the classic dispensationalism he inherited as a viable theological system). In a similar vein, he was decidedly old-fashioned in proudly wearing the label of "fundamentalist," and was disappointed in me when, after reading J. I. Packer's "Fundamentalism" and the Word of God for an undergraduate theology class, I told him I didn't think it wise or helpful to use the term as a designation. Yet he wasn't a fundamentalist of the variety all too well-known in America. To be sure, he made sure to stress that the Bible was inerrant as well as infallible, but he was a fundamentalist the way J. Gresham Machen was, the Princeton/Westminster New Testament scholar who wrote the classic Christianity and Liberalism, a book dad still assigned as a text more than 50 years after it was originally written in 1923. He derided anti-intellectualism, the overt racism of southern fundamentalists like Bob Jones and Jerry Falwell, and the rigid "secondary" separationism of northern fundamentalists like Carl McIntyre and the Regular Baptists. His, in other words, was a decidedly northern, urban fundamentalism of the old sort, a far cry culturally from the fundamentalism that most people, then no less than now, associated with the term. It must be remembered that he came from Anglican stock, and there remains to this day a plaque in a beautiful Episcopal church outside of Wilmington, Delaware, with his name on it as a baptized member of the church who had served in the country's armed services. When his family moved to North Jersey, they began attending Elmwood Presbyterian Church in East Orange. Later, when I came of school age, my parents sent me to a Lutheran elementary school in Havertown, PA. Later still, even as a "fundamentalist" Bible professor, he often pointed me as a student to Anglican New Testament scholars like J. B. Lightfoot and especially Presbyterian theologians like the Hodges, B. B. Warfield, and John Murray―he especially admired Murray's commentary on Romans―for help. He was no anti-intellectual. Moreover, he was a Calvinist, after all!

Dad and Mom, Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, 1946
As I reflect back on dad's life, the more I come to realize that the North Star of his life as well as his theology was the Apostle Paul, especially the Paul of the Epistle to the Romans, which he considered―rightly, in my view―the greatest, most important book of the New Testament. One lesson he learned and internalized from Paul in that book is the concept of Christian liberty that had, to say the least, been largely perverted in American fundamentalism at the time. At this late stage of my life, from a distance of more decades than I care to admit, it is hard to fathom, but in those circles the idea of the Christian life had too often been reduced to a convoluted hodgepodge of an emotionalistic pietism, a selective, sexually-oriented moralism, and a boundary-marking legalism. The last of these, of course, consisted of elements that often attained a sociological importance far out of proportion to their intrinsic worth, which wasn't much to begin with: drinking, smoking, movies, playing cards, rock and roll (and other forms of the "devil's music," such as blues and jazz). Most of these didn't concern me. But I loved music, and was an aspiring trumpet player who especially loved jazz and the rock music emanating from the new FM radio stations like WMMR in Philly. Even though he, of course, didn't like such music in the least, not once did dad say anything about my listening to it; nor did he ever prohibit me from purchasing jazz or rock records (indeed, I still recall one time in the summer of 1973 when, on the drive back home from the shopping center, he saw my copy of Chicago VI I had just bought; he asked, "Are you sure that's OK to listen to?" When I responded in the affirmative, that was sufficient for him). And of course he enthusiastically supported my playing jazz in the high school stage band. When I arrived at my fundamentalist college and found out how many of my friends had not been allowed to listen to such music, I was shocked. Sadly, I learned quickly not to be surprised when looked down upon as "unspiritual" by the "spiritual elite" for doing so. Dad may have been "Snappin' Jack," with strong convictions and a pronounced zeal for defending them, but he knew the difference between adiaphora and sin, and was perfectly willing to stand up, alone if need be, to support a Christian's right to the former.

Dad with the author, Philadelphia, early 1960's
As is increasingly obvious, the evangelical church in America is in disarray. I myself wrote my own obituary for the movement back in January in the wake of yet another election in which Donald Trump had won 80% or so of the white evangelical vote. Younger folks raised in the movement appear to be leaving in droves, leading to the "Exvangelical" phenomenon, even as more Trump supporters, or Republicans in general, are now adopting the label, irrespective of whether or not they attend church, or even are Christian at all. In these dark days I have, because of my implacable and outspoken criticism of Trump, lost not a few friends. "Meaningful Christian community" has, for all practical purposes, become for many an oxymoron as hordes have compromised their devotion to the Lord Christ by their inexplicable devotion to a human political ideology and a criminal, amoral (indeed blatantly immoral) former president. Many have asked me why I hang on, why I refuse to quit, why I persevere in the faith entrusted to me by my dear, departed father.

With his brother Bill in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, August 1975
To be honest, that's a good question, one to which I gave a lengthy response some eight years ago. The short answer is that I won't quit and can't quit. Why?  Because I know the faith is true. And I know this, not from personal experience―"you ask me how I know he lives?/he lives within my heart;" dad hated that hymn, realizing, correctly, the deceptive potential of subjective feelings and emotions―but because I have seen the faith work itself out in the life of my father. To be sure, I believe in the truth of Christianity intellectually because I believe the testimony of Scripture to the bodily resurrection of Jesus (Dad would have said, "You ask me how I know he lives?/The Bible tells me so"). But I wonder sometimes how many Christians in America, especially those of us of a certain age raised in Christian homes in a culture where Christianity was the dominant cultural expression, ever sit down and consider how truly outrageous the claims of our religion are, to wit, that the god of a middle eastern nomad named Abraham, and of only one branch of his family (the Jacobean line)―a historically insignificant people who had been dominated by the major players of the ancient world such as the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Syrians, and Romans― this god is the one and only God of the whole world; even more outrageous: that the Galilean man Jesus of Nazareth not only was this God's incarnate Son, but that his crucifixion by the Romans was God's ultimate victory over sin and evil, that he was vindicated by being raised bodily to immortal life two days later, and that this resurrected Jesus will return again at some undisclosed time in the future to establish God's kingdom on earth as in heaven.  As I said, these claims are outrageous … and yet they are non-negotiable, claims Christians by definition stake their lives upon. As counterintuitive as it may seem, I nevertheless do believe there are good, abjunctive historical arguments for affirming the truth of the resurrection, as N. T. Wright and Michael Licona, among others, have argued in meticulous detail (somewhat less orthodox, though not entirely skeptical, is Dale Allison), not the least of which concerns the conversion and testimony of the Apostle Paul himself. In the nature of the case, historical reasoning cannot convey mathematical certainty. But the historical case, to my mind, is sufficient to justify belief. But what settles it for me, and I don't write this lightly, is the example provided by the life lived by my father as one thoroughly transformed by the grace of God. As I wrote seven years ago, "his life served as an embodied apologetic for the Christian faith."

With his friends and colleagues Gordon Ceperley and John Cawood,
Jerusalem, June 1976
In particular, as a student and de facto disciple of the Apostle Paul, dad, having experienced the grace of God, was profoundly gripped by it and thoroughly absorbed the apostle's teaching on the subject. He was a man of uncompromising integrity and unfailing graciousness. To love God, for him as well as for the Torah and Jesus, entailed, as a necessary corollary, loving one's neighbor as oneself. For him, "considering others better than himself" (Philippians 2:3) wasn't simply a pious platitude to be passed over after it warmed one's heart; it actually meant we should look to the interests of people other than ourselves (Philippians 2:4). For him, the "cheap grace" of so much American fundamentalism had no currency. He knew that the incongruous grace (J. Barclay) that saved the undeserving was, through the Holy Spirit, both efficacious in calling people to faith, leading to their justification, and transformative, leading to the sanctification and "life" granted on the last day. And because he was a theologian of grace, this means as well that he was fundamentally a proponent of Paul's theology of the cross. His only boast, like that of the apostle, was in the cross, through which the relationship he had by birth to this present age had been definitively severed (Galatians 6:14). For it was at the foot of the cross that he, like I, like Martin Luther, and like all who have followed in the footsteps of Paul, had found grace in the person of the crucified Messiah and Savior who loved him and gave himself for him (Galatians 2:20). It is here, despite his brilliance and all his selfless service for God's people, that the ultimate simplicity of his faith comes to the fore, a simplicity which all of us should strive to emulate. I thank God each and every day that I was his son, that in God's providence I was privileged, not only to be taught the gospel plainly, but to see it embodied in one who remains my greatest teacher.

I conclude with words from what he described as his favorite hymn, "My Faith Has Found a Resting Place," written in 1891 by Eliza Edmunds Hewitt of Olivet Presbyterian Church at 22nd and Mt. Vernon Streets in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, words that convey this simplicity in a nutshell:

My faith has found a resting place,
Not in device or creed;*
I trust the ever living One,
His wounds for me shall plead.

I need no other argument,
I need no other plea,
It is enough that Jesus died,
And that He died for me.

*For those wont to criticize the apparent anti-creedal nature of Ms. Hewitt's lyrics here, remember that she was a Presbyterian, and thus not averse to creeds or confessions. Her point is a salutary one: creeds and confessions are good―indeed, I would argue, failure at catechesis is one one the primary causes of evangelicalism's current malaise and downfall―but simple creedal assent, though necessary, is not sufficient. Saving faith involves more than knowledge and conviction of the truth of the gospel. It involves trust, the entrusting of ourselves to Christ as Savior and Lord (notitia, assensus, fiducia).

With his friend Ted Deibler, Dallas, January 1980

Holding his first grandchild, my daughter Lauren, Havertown, July 1982

At my Th.M. graduation, Dallas, 29 April 1985

My last picture of dad: Ocean City, New Jersey, July 1986

Thursday, October 21, 2021

21 October 1980: Mike Schmidt, Tug McGraw, and 97 Years of Philly Phutility Erased on One Glorious South Philadelphia Night


Tug McGraw and Mike Schmidt celebrating after the Tugger struck out Willie Wilson to win the 1980 World Series
(photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Phillies)

10:59 PM CST, Tuesday, October 21, 1980. My wife, Teri, and I were in Dallas, sitting in the living room of our friend, my fellow seminarian (and Philadelphian) Putter Cox, in rapt attention as Kansas City Royals outfielder Willie Wilson waved and missed at a Tug McGraw (sort of) fastball to strike out with the bases loaded to preserve a 4-1 Phillies victory and a 4-2 series victory, the first World Series crown in the 97-year history of the franchise―the last of the "original sixteen" teams to win the title, once the Baltimore Orioles (née St. Louis Browns) won their first crown in 1966. Immediately I rushed screaming, "Phillies," at the top of my estimable lungs into the Dallas night, where the clueless neighbors in the apartment complex―Dallas, to say the least, was not a baseball town―had no idea what this apparently deranged Yankee was up to. To this day, I consider this moment―not the '74 Flyers Stanley Cup, the '67 or '83 Sixers NBA titles, the '08 Phils World Series championship, or even the February '18 Eagles Super Bowl victory, the greatest in Philadelphia sports history. Even today, 41 years after the event, tears come to my eyes as I write about it.

1980 was a strange year to be a Philadelphia sports fan. No city had a more infamous history of losing than my home town. The Phillies, famously, were the losingest franchise in American professional sports history. Indeed, in the "modern" era of baseball, between the years of 1900 and 1976, when they won the NL East with a (then) team record of 101 wins, the Phillies won a grand total of two (!) National League pennants and zero World Series titles. And in their two World Series appearances, they won a grand total of one game, Game 1 of the 1915 series, when the great Pete Alexander outdueled Ernie Shore of the Red Sox (who was removed for pinch-hitter Babe Ruth), 3-1. In the 35 years between their pennants of 1915 and 1950, they finished in 8th place (in an 8 team league) 16 times, and in 7th place another 8 times. The highest they finished between 1917 (2nd place, after which they traded 30 game winner Alexander) and 1949 (3rd place) was their 4th place finish in 1932, behind the bats of Chuck Klein (38/137/.348) and Don Hurst (24/143/.339), both of whom thrived in the cozy confines of the Baker Bowl's short Lifebuoy-themed rightfield wall. Indeed, their 78-76 record that year was their only winning record in the span of 31 years, plenty of time for the fabled Philly cynicism to grow and thrive (leading one intrepid fan to break in to the park and add "and they still stink" to the ad, "The Phillies use Lifebuoy," in 1936).

But 1980 was different. The Flyers, winners of the Stanley Cup in both 1974 and 1975, continued to be powerhouses. Indeed, from October 13, 1979 through January 6, 1980, they went 25-0-10, setting a record for consecutive games without a loss. They went on to win the Clarence Campbell Conference before bowing to the New York Islanders, 4 games to 2, in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Sixers, meanwhile, were in year 3 of Julius Erving's promise of "We Owe You One" after blowing the 1977 championship series to Portland that they had led, 2 games to none. With the arrival of Larry Bird in Boston, things had become more difficult, and so, despite winning 59 games, they finished in second place, 2 games behind the Celtics. Surprisingly, however, they dispatched of Boston in 5 games in the Eastern Conference Finals before succumbing to Magic Johnson and the Lakers in the NBA Finals. The Eagles, meanwhile, who had last won the NFL championship in 1960, had only one winning season between 1961 and 1978, when they snuck in to the playoffs by securing a Wild Card berth with a 9-7 record. But after an 11-5 record and a Playoff win over the Bears in 1979, in October of 1980 they were in first place and on their way to their first Super Bowl. Indeed, on October 19, they met their arch rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, at Veterans Stadium, in a battle of 5-1 teams, and prevailed, 17-10, in a preview of the NFC Championship Game to come in three months time. I was very happy that afternoon. But the best was yet to come.

Pete Rose in action, 1979 (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)

By contrast, in the summer of 1980, things didn't look so good for the Phillies. The core of the team remained from the great teams that won 101 games and the East Division titles in 1976-77, only to lose to the Big Red Machine in '76 and (in excruciating fashion) to the Dodgers in '77 (on that loss and its consequences, see my post here), and also the somewhat lesser divisional champions of 1978: Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Bob Boone, Larry Bowa, Garry Maddox, Greg Luzinski, Tug McGraw, Ron Reed, Larry Christenson. Bake McBride, the catalyst of the great '77 team, remained as well. After the noticeable decline of 1978, GM Paul Owens made a couple of significant moves in an attempt to upgrade the club. He traded for slick-fielding second baseman Manny Trillo and reserve outfielder Del Unser, who had previously played for the team back in the darker days of 1973-74. Most importantly, in perhaps the most consequential move of his great career, he signed 38-year old Pete Rose to a record, 4-year, $3.2 million free agent contract. Rose, Owens believed, was just what the doctor ordered to get the "too cool for their own good" Phils off their butts and light a fire under them to get them over the top. But things didn't work out as planned. Rose came as advertised. In '79, he hit .331 with a league-leading OBP of .418. Schmidt rebounded from his subpar '78 season to hit 45 homers and drive in 114 runs. But the team still finished 7th in the NL in runs scored and 10th in ERA (even the 18-game winning Carlton's was 3.63, only good enough for a 106 ERA+). When, after losing to the Reds on August 29, their 5th straight and 8 in 9 games, to fall to 65-67 on the season, 12.5 behind the Pirates and mired in 5th place, Owens did the unthinkable: he fired the player-friendly Danny Ozark and replaced him with the team's Director of Player of Development, former pitcher Dallas Green. Green was the polar opposite of Ozark: a screamer, confrontational, given to profanity-laced tirades, and not afraid to go public with his criticisms of players. Needless to say, the players didn't like it, but they rebounded to go 19-11 the rest of the way to finish 84-78, in 4th place, 14 games behind Pittsburgh.

Dallas Green (AP Photo)

As the 1980 season began, management put the players on notice: win this year or else the team―the most talented and winningest team in franchise history―would be broken up. Yet they still were less than thrilled with Green's "rah rah," "we, not I" style. And the pundits didn't give the Phillies much of a chance, either. After all, the Pirates were the defending World Champions, and the youthful Expos were rising fast with up and coming stars approaching their primes such as future Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson, along with Ellis Valentine, Scott Sanderson and veteran starter Steve Rogers. And for much of the season, the pundits looked prescient. Sure, they hung around, bouncing around from 1st to 3rd place through the season's first four months. But they never got better than 9 games over .500, which they achieved three times, on June 18, July 12, and July 18. Each time they did so, they promptly hit the skids. Starting on June 19, they lost 7 of 9; beginning on July 13, they lost 3 straight; then, starting on July 19, they promptly lost 6 in a row to fall 4 behind the Bucs and 1.5 behind Montreal. Then, after a somnambulant 7-1 loss to Pittsburgh in the first game of a twin bill on August 10 to drop their record to 55-51, 5 games behind the Bucs and 5.5 behind the Expos, Green called a team meeting and lowered the boom with a profanity-laced tirade against their complacency and "cool" (a coded reference to Schmidt) that even Rose's incandescence couldn't overcome. If Green's meeting had any effect, it didn't show, as they put in yet another lackluster effort in the nightcap, losing 4-1 to fall 6 games off the pace. Even the great Daily News columnist, Ray Didinger, opined at the time that "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." I rarely disagree with Ray Diddy, but for once, thankfully, he was mistaken.

As a result, the players called their own meeting the next day when they got to Chicago to play the Cubs. Forget Green, they decided. Let's play for ourselves, they vowed. And, for once, it worked. They went 36-19 the rest of the way (after losing 2 in a row badly to the Padres in San Diego on August 29-30, GM Owens himself called a meeting with the team to rip them in San Francisco before a 3-game series with the Giants on the 1st of September. They would go 23-11 the rest of the way). When, on October 2, they defeated the Cubs, 4-2, at the Vet, they moved into a tie with Montreal for the division lead. And it was off to Montreal for the final and decisive 3-game series of the year to decide who would win the NL East. On Friday, October 3, the Phillies drew first blood as Mike Schmidt drove in both runs with his 47th homer and a sac fly to support Dick Ruthven, with Tug McGraw providing a 6-out save, striking out 5 for good measure, in the Phils' 2-1 victory. Then, on Saturday, October 4, Bob Boone singled with 2 out in the 9th to drive in Rose with the tying run to send the game into extra frames. In the 11th inning, Rose led off with a single and, with one out, Schmidt hit the most important home run of his career to this point, a tape measure blast to left that gave the Phils the 6-4 win and the team's 4th divisional title in 5 years. McGraw got the win with 3 innings of 1-hit relief, striking out 4.

Credit for the Phils' title has rightly gone largely to Hall of Famers Schmidt and Steve Carlton. Schmidt had his finest season to date, smashing 48 homers, driving in 121 runs, and hitting a then-career-high .286 to go along with his Gold Glove defense. Most significantly, whether or not there was a causal correlation or not, he went on a tear after Green's tirade, hitting .338 and slugging .715, with 21 home runs and 48 RBI in his 56 games after August 11. Carlton, meanwhile, rebounded from his somewhat subpar '79 season to have his best year since 1972, going 24-9 with a 2.34 ERA and a league-leading 286 strikeouts. In the process, he become the last pitcher in MLB history to pitch 300 innings in a season, with 304 (not counting his work in the postseason). Schmidt's MVP and Carlton's Cy Young Awards were well-deserved and hardly surprising when given after the season.

Schmidt's and Carlton's great seasons were needed, in part, because many of the team's players, whether due to age or injury, had off seasons. Catcher Bob Boone hit only .229; Secretary of Defense Garry Maddox dropped 22 points to .259; Greg Luzinski, though only 29, continued his precipitous drop from his 1975-78 peak by hitting a measly .228 with 19 homers; even Rose seemed to show his age, with his average dropping 49 points to .282, its lowest point since 1964. Of the remaining starters, only Bake McBride (.309) and defensive wizard Larry Bowa (.267) batted to expectations.

But where some long-time starters faded, others on the roster picked up the slack, none more so than Tug McGraw, the gregarious Irishman who had his best season at age 35. McGraw appeared in 23 of the 55 games after August 11. In these appearances, he pitched 39.1 innings, allowed 23 hits, 5 walks, and allowed 1 earned run, striking out 33 batters, for an ERA of 0.22, winning 5 games and saving 9. In the decisive September-October run, the Tugger did not allow a run in his last 15 appearances, covering 25 innings. For the season, his ERA was a minuscule 1.47, earning him 5th place in the Cy Young voting. During the stretch run, Green also relied heavily on three rookies, outfielder Lonnie Smith, who hit .339 in 298 at bats; catcher Keith Moreland, who hit .314 in 159 at bats; and September call-up Marty Bystrom, who won all five of his starts down the stretch, finishing with a 1.50 ERA in 36 innings.

Thrilling as their pursuit of the Expos was, the Phils had no time to celebrate. On their plate in the NLCS was a formidable opponent, the Houston Astros, winners of the NL West with a 93-70 record after defeating the Dodgers in a one-game playoff. The Astros, playing in the spacious Astrodome, were masters of small ball, and had baseball's best pitching staff, even after their ace, J. R. Richard, suffered a stroke while on the mound in July. Their staff included starters Joe Niekro, Nolan Ryan, Ken Forsch, and Vern Ruhle, and shutdown relievers Joe Sambito, Dave Smith, and Frank LaCorte. What promised to be a fine series turned into the greatest series in postseason baseball history. [As an aside, game 3 was played on a Friday afternoon; at the time, I was a second year seminarian with a brutal academic schedule and a part-time afternoon job working at a downtown Dallas law firm, which I got to via bus; fortuitously, that week a transit strike was called, so I used that as an excuse not to go to work; instead, I watched the game on TV in a lounge at the school, where I was―sigh―the only one rooting for the Phillies.] After the Phillies won game 1, 3-1, behind Steve Carlton, games 2-5 all went into extra innings, the Phillies winning games 4 and 5 in Houston. Game 5 on Sunday, October 12, was particularly memorable, as the Phils entered the 8th down 5-2 against Nolan Ryan, before they rallied for 5 runs to take the lead, only for the Astros to tie it back up before Maddox doubled in the winning run in the 10th. The feisty Bowa, the longest-tenured Phillie (his tenure as the team's starting shortstop dated to 1970, the team's last at Connie Mack Stadium), who had started the rally against Ryan with a single, said that after the pressure of that series, he wasn't worried about the World Series. He knew they would win.

But the Kansas City Royals, winners of 97 games, who had slain their own demons by defeating their own nemesis, the 103-win New York Yankees, the very team that had defeated them in the ALCS in each of the three seasons of 1976-78, remained in the way of the Phillies'―and the city of Philadelphia's― dreams. And the series would begin in just two days, on Tuesday, the 14th, at Veteran's Stadium in South Philly. That blustery, cool evening there was "The Voice of God," NFL Films' (and Philadelphia's own) John Facenda opening the festivities; there was Philadelphia native Andrea McArdle, of "Annie" fame on Broadway, singing the National Anthem, there were 65,791 fans packing the Vet; and there was me, as well as millions of others of the vast Philadelphia diaspora throughout America, powering an unprecedented television viewership that night: 26 million households, and an astronomical 33.5 share of the national TV audience.

But the game began badly. Because Carlton had started on the 11th in game 4 of the Houston series, he was unavailable, so Green inserted Bob Walk, who had not pitched in the NLCS, and who, though he had a respectable 11-7 record during the regular season, sported a pedestrian, at best, ERA of 4.57. And the Royals struck early. Amos Otis smacked a 2-run homer in the 2nd and Willie Mays Aikens a 2-run blast in the 3rd, giving Kansas City and their 20-game winner Dennis Leonard a 4-0 lead going into the bottom of the 3rd. Then, with one out, Larry Bowa singled and, going against all received wisdom, stole second base to jumpstart the team. And jumpstart them he did. Bob Boone followed with a double to drive home Bowa. Lonnie Smith then singled to left, but was thrown out trying to stretch the hit to a double. Yet on the throw Booney scored, making it 4-2. After Rose was hit by a pitch and Schmitty walked, Bake McBride came up and slammed a 3-run blast over the fence in right to give the Phils a 5-4 lead they would not relinquish. McGraw once again pitched the final 2 innings to save the game for Walk. Game 1 to the Phils, 7-6.

In game 2, the Phils overcame an uncharacteristically shaky outing by Carlton (10 hits, 6 walks, 3 earned runs in 8 innings) by scoring 4 runs in the bottom of the 8th to go up, 2 games to none. The big blow was Mike Schmidt's game-winning double to right off Dan Quisenberry. For Schmitty, who had a brutal NLCS against Houston, including an 0-5 with 3 K's in the deciding game 5, it was decidedly a new series indeed.

But when the series moved to Kansas City for 3 games starting on Friday the 17th, things changed. Green's overuse of McGraw had started to take its toll on the affable lefty. Not only had the Tugger pitched 15 times (25 innings) in the season's stretch run, he had pitched in all 5 games of the NLCS and in game 1 of the World Series. In the 10th inning of game 3, Willie Aikens, who had hit 2 homers in game 1, singled in Willie Wilson, who had walked, with the winning run off McGraw. Then, in game 4, the Royals jumped all over Larry Christenson, scoring 4 runs in the 1st inning, as Aikens hit 2 more homers and the Royals evened the series with a 5-3 victory. This led to the pivotal game 5. Schmidt put the Phils up with a 2-run homer off Larry Gura in the 4th, but the Royals stormed back with 3 off Bystrom in the 5th and 6th to take a 3-2 lead. Which is where the score stayed until the top of the 9th inning, where the Phils once again rallied off the Royals' ace closer Quisenberry, who had won 12 games and led the majors with 33 saves during the regular season. A Schmidt single and Del Unser RBI double had tied the game, and then Manny Trillo lined a single off Quisenberry's leg for an infield single to give the Phils the lead, 4-3. Tug McGraw, in his second inning of work, would load the bases with walks, but finish the Royals off by striking out pinch hitter Jose Cardenal to send the series back to Philadelphia with the Phils on top, 3 games to 2.

In contrast to his game 2 start, Carlton had his best stuff in game 6. He had the Royals off balance all night. Through 7 innings, he had allowed no runs, only 3 hits and 2 walks, striking out 7. For their part, the Phils struck first in the bottom of the 3rd, when Mike Schmidt, with the bases loaded on a walk, an error, and a bunt single, ripped a line drive 2-RBI single to right center. The Phils would tack on insurance runs in the 5th on a Bake McBride groundout and in the 6th on a Bob Boone single. In the 8th, however, Carlton apparently tired under the weight of the 331.1 innings he had thus far pitched that season at the age of 35. He led off the inning by walking John Wathan and allowing a single to Jose Cardenal. So Green decided to make a difficult and perhaps questionable decision, replacing Lefty with the even more spent McGraw, who by this time was clearly running on fumes (which by this point were even becoming difficult to detect). Nonetheless, McGraw got out of the inning, allowing only one of the two inherited runners to score. After the Phils went down one, two, three, in the top of the 9th, McGraw went out to the hill to face the Royals for the bottom of the 9th … and his immortal place in Philadelphia sports history.

The inning started well, as the Tugger reached back and struck out Amos Otis with a curve ball. But he then walked Aikens … And Wathan singled  And Cardenal smashed a line drive single to center to load the bases. Bases loaded. One out. Frank White the batter. On the first pitch McGraw induced the overeager White to pop it up foul in front of the Phillies dugout. Boone settled under it … and promptly dropped it, only to have it bounce straight into the glove of Rose, who was backing up the play. As the Brooklyn Dodgers' old GM Branch Rickey used to like to say, "Luck is the residue of design."

That brought up the great Willie Wilson, who led the AL in hits (230), runs (133), triples (15), stole 79 bases and batted .326 during the regular season, but who had gone only 4-25 thus far in the series. K-9 cops circled the stands around the infield in anticipation of hordes of rabid Philly fans storming the field after the hoped-for victory. After two screwballs put Wilson down, 0-2, McGraw threw a "fastball" that just missed. Then, with the count 1-2, he threw another one down Broadway that Willie inexplicably swung through, and the Phillies had finally, after 97 years, won their first championship.

To this day, 41 years down the line, the memory of the reserved Schmidt, the Series MVP with a .381 average, 2 homers, and 7 RBI, leaping on McGraw after the final out, and then Green and GM Paul "The Pope" Owens crying during their interview with Bryant Gumbel in the locker room, remain etched in my mind. The game remains, not only my most precious sports memory, but also, amazingly, the most watched World Series game in history: more than 31 million households in America watched the game, an unprecedented and unsurpassed 40.0 rating.

As I mentioned earlier, this victory was the first in the 97-year history of the franchise. Yet there was never any national hoopla over this fact, in contrast to the overwrought attention and pity given to the "poor" fans of the Cubs because of the so-called "Billy Goat Curse" and to fans of the Red Sox because of the "Curse of the Bambino." Of course, by the time 1980 had rolled around, the Cubs and their fans had garnered even more sympathy because of their collapse in 1969, but even so, they had won 10 NL titles in the 20th century (most recently in 1945), and 2 World Series in 1907-08. The Sox, to be sure, had not won a World Series since inexplicably trading away Babe Ruth after the 1919 season. And they had, just two years earlier in 1978, blown the 9 game lead over the Yankees they had on August 13. But they had won 9 AL pennants in the 20th century, most recently in 1967 and 1976, and had 5 World Series titles under their belts (1903, 1912, 1915, 1916, 1918). The Phils, by contrast, had two pennants and zero World Series championships. Even worse, for long time Philadelphians, the city's most beloved team, Connie Mack's A's, had been forced to leave town for Kansas City in 1955 (note that the other two cities that were forced to give up one of their teams, Boston and St. Louis, lost the weaker of their franchises, the Braves and Browns, respectively). It was the A's, after all, who had won 8 AL pennants and 5 World Series titles, and whose 1929-31 clubs, featuring Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Mickey Cochrane, and Al Simmons had dominated the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees, averaged over 104 wins per season (in a 154-game schedule), won 3 AL pennants and 2 World Series championships, and thus have a claim to being one of the greatest teams in baseball history. The Phillies, meanwhile, … just stunk. No cute curse. Just decades of losing and uninspired play, with hostile, cynical fans to boot, for whose plight no one, least of all the city's natural and haughty geographical rivals 90 miles to the northeast in New York, gave a toss.

Larry Bowa and Mike Schmidt celebrating
in the Phils' 1980 World Series Championship
parade on South Broad Street

This legacy, such as it was, came crashing down on the night of October 21, 1980. At long last the Phillies, and by proxy, the city of Philadelphia, played second fiddle to no one. Never was this made more clear than the very next day when the city hosted a victory parade in Center City and the three miles down South Broad Street to the old JFK Stadium, where an estimated 1.5 million screaming fans lined the confetti-strewn streets and over 100,000 packed the stadium to honor the team. Pete Rose, the winner of two World Series with his hometown Big Red Machine, wrote in the book, The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: Philadelphia Phillies“The most awesome sight I’ve ever seen in sports -- and this is Pete Rose talking -- was the post-World Series parade. To see a million people in the street on Broad Street and to have 130,000 people for us at JFK Stadium, it was unbelievable. It’s a sight I’ll never forget. Yeah, that’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Looking back on this celebration, it is helpful to view it in terms of what it meant, not only for the team, but for the city of Philadelphia itself. The '74-75 Flyers parades (the latter of which I attended) and '83 Sixers parade all were massive events attracting more than a million people, but these were primarily celebratory in nature. By contrast, and not to detract from the celebratory character of the events, the only real analog I can think of to the 1980 Phillies parade was the February 2018 Eagles Super Bowl parade (which I was also privileged to attend). The Phillies and Eagles parades were more than celebratory. They were cathartic events. For Philadelphia is as great a sports town as exists in America, and for vast numbers of its citizens, their self-image is reflected, not in their city's peerless historical significance or cultural treasures like the Philadelphia Orchestra, but in their sports franchises, in particular in their two longest tenured ones, the Phillies and Eagles.

For years, living in both Dallas and in Lancaster, PA, I was frustrated by ignorant football fans who ridiculed the Eagles and their fans for never having won a Super Bowl. Never mind that the Eagles had won NFL Championships in 1948-49 and in 1960 (this was especially galling when coming from fans of the NY Yankees who would never stand for anybody dismissing as irrelevant the titles earned by Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, and Mantle, all of which were earned before Super Bowl I was played; did the NFL begin with the Super Bowl era?). Unlike the national media and fans who sympathized with fans from Boston and Chicago for their long World Series droughts, Philadelphia's football team and its surly fans―oh my, they booed Santa Claus; the horror!―were held up for ridicule and condescension, which served as the background for Eagles' center Jason Kelce's famous "No one likes us; we don't care" rant in front of the Art Museum at the parade. [Actually, truth be told, we do care, and we resent it greatly.] Winning the Super Bowl ended such malarkey once and for all, and the self-image of the citizenry was palpably different for some time to come (It has since returned to normal, but that is a story for a different time.)

The same was even more true of Philadelphia in 1980. This was a city that once had been the largest and most important in the American colonies, the second-largest (after London) in the English-speaking world. It lost that distinction to New York as it lost its role as the banking and economic engine of the nation in the 19th century. It had been the nation's capitol, only to lose that distinction to the planned city of Washington. It had remained the 3rd-largest city in the nation as late as 1950. But in the decade of the 1970's, as de-industrialization sapped the American economy, the city lost 140,00 industrial jobs and, consequently, 260,000 people (abetted, of course, by the "white flight" that occurred at the confluence of government-encouraged suburbanization and the racism endemic to our nation). Edmund Bacon's well-publicized revitalization of Society Hill and Center City was to many, especially those living on the deteriorating fringe, nothing but lipstick on a pig. And the fortunes of the city's one remaining baseball team, the floundering Phillies, seemed to mirror those of the city they represented: 107 losses in 1961, the infamous 1964 collapse, the 7 straight losing seasons between '68 and '74, the NLCS failures in '76-'78. 

This is the context in which the Phillies' 1980 World Series victory has to be understood in its cultural impact on the city and its people: in this one series, this one game, this one Tug McGraw pitch to Willie Wilson, all this failure, all this futility (or "phutility") seemed to be wiped away―expiated, to use a theological term dear to my heart. This is what this meant to me and to my city. And, at bottom, it is why this game remains, to me, my greatest sports memory.


Thursday, October 7, 2021

Black Friday, 7 October 1977: The Worst Loss in Phillies History


Black Friday. To Philadelphia sports fans of a certain age that expression conjures up images, not of (now happily declining due to internet commerce) harried Christmas shoppers looking for deals at suburban malls the day after Thanksgiving, but of a baseball game played at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia on the afternoon of October 7, 1977, four years before the expression was first used, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, to explain the day after Thanksgiving's role in putting retailers "into the black."

I am referring, of course, to game 3 of a deadlocked, one game apiece best-of-5 National League Championship Series between the 101-win, NL Eastern Division champ Phillies and the 98-win Los Angeles Dodgers, the champions of the NL's Western Division. Last month I recalled the collapse of the 1964 Phillies and the bizarre event that began it all, the naked steal of home by the obscure Chico Ruiz on September 21 of that year. But whereas that "infamous" collapse took place in slow motion, as it were, over 10 excruciating days, the collapse of the 1977 Phillies, no less bizarre, but infinitely more catastrophic considering how good the team was, came shockingly quickly, in the span of a mere 10 minutes in the top of the 9th inning of a game they led by 2 runs with 2 outs and no one on base.

The 1977 Phillies were, if not the best, certainly the most talented team in the checkered, 139-year history of the club, whose 11,112 losses remain the most of any franchise in American professional sports history (runner-up are the Boston-Milwaukee-Atlanta Braves at 10,757; methinks the Phillies' record is safe for a few more generations). From 1968-1974, it was business as usual: the team had seven consecutive losing seasons, averaging more than 91 losses per year. But things were about to change. Good trades, most notably those for starting pitcher Steve Carlton in 1972, second baseman Dave Cash in 1974, and outfielder Garry Maddox in 1975, the development of homegrown talent such as outfielder Greg Luzinski, catcher Bob Boone, shortstop Larry Bowa, and especially third baseman Mike Schmidt, and the inculcation of a new attitude by the infectious enthusiasm of Cash led to a breakthrough in 1975, when they won 86 games and finished in second, 6.5 games behind the Pirates.

Mike Schmidt
(photo credit: John Iacono, Sports Illustrated)

Then came 1976, when they sprinted out of the gate and blew away the competition from the start. They compiled a 56-25 record the first half of the season (I still remember going to games and the computerized scoreboard precipitantly bragging "Baseball's Best" when the team took the field to start the game), and by August 26 had built their lead over the Pirates to 15 games. Heck, even the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers couldn't have blown that lead! But they tried. Dredging up the ghosts of blown pennants past, they promptly lost 8 in a row and 13 out of 15. When, after sweeping the lowly Expos, they proceeded to lose two more to the Bucs and one to the Cubs on a walk-off single by Jerry Morales off Ron Reed, they stood a mere 3 games ahead of Pittsburgh with 16 to play. But they managed to right the ship, winning 13 of their last 17 to finish the season with a (then) team record 101 wins and a spot in the NLCS, where they met the buzz saw known as the Big Red Machine of Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, George Foster et al., and were promptly swept by the eventual World Series champions.

1977 started out completely differently. In the off season they suffereed a major blow when they lost their all star second baseman, Cash, to free agency, and subtracted their over-the-hill first baseman Dick Allen via release. In their place they picked up the serviceable Ted Sizemore and grave digger Richie Hebner. And things didn't start well. They managed to lose 6 of their first 7 games to the lowly Expos and mediocre Cubs, and didn't get over the .500 mark until their 27th game, by which time they were mired in 4th place, 5 games off the pace. On June 15th, they remained stuck in 4th place, 8 games off the pace with a 31-28 record, when they made their most significant move of the season, one reminiscent of the one the Cardinals had made on June 14, 1964, when that eventual championship team had been 7 games off the pace and traded for Lou Brock: they dealt pitcher Tom Underwood and outfielders Rick Bosetti and Dane Iorg for creaky-kneed, though electric, outfielder Arnold Ray "Shake 'n Bake" McBride, who would go on to hit .339 the rest of the way for the Phils with 11 homers and 27 stolen bases in 85 games. The team would finally hit their stride in late July and move into first place on August 5. They would win 13 in a row from August 3-16, and then, after a rare Carlton shellacking by the Expos, 6 more from the 18th to the 23rd, making it 19 out of 20, during which time they built a 7.5 game lead over Pittsburgh. At season's end, they once again had racked up 101 wins to match their total from the previous season. Their home record, meanwhile, 60-21, was staggering. They led the league in runs, batting average (.279), and slugging, and were second in homers (behind only the Dodgers). Future Hall of Fame third baseman Schmidt had the lowest batting average among the starting eight at .274, while his 38 home runs and 101 RBI were only good enough for second best on the club, behind Luzinski, whose 39 homers and 130 RBI were accompanied by a .309 batting average. Schmidt and Maddox (along with pitcher Jim Kaat) each won Gold Gloves, and both Bowa and Boone were likewise in the upper echelon of defenders at their positions. Carlton won 23 games and posted a 2.64 ERA to win the second of his 4 Cy Young Awards, and the team boasted  four relievers―Gene Garber, Ron Reed, Tug McGraw, and Warren Brusstar―with sub-3.00 ERA's, 7+ wins and 46 combined saves. But what really separated this team from all others was its bench: Davey Johnson, 8 homers and a .321 average in 186 at bats; Carlton's own designated catcher, Tim McCarver, 6 homers and a .320 average in 169 at bats; defensive specialist first baseman Tommy Hutton, .309 average in 81 at bats; and defensive specialist outfielder Jerry Martin

―Luzinski's designated late-inning replacement (more on this presently)―6 homers and a .260 average in 215 at bats. The team seemed impregnable, at least as far as the National League was concerned, even when opposed by a team as formidable as the Dodgers.

After splitting the first two games of the NLCS in LA, the Phils came home to the Vet with confidence, knowing that if they won on Friday the 7th, they had Steve "Lefty" Carlton ready to take the mound on Saturday night. Taking the mound for the Phils was 19-game winner Larry Christenson. Facing him was Burt Hooten, ironically nicknamed "Happy" by manager Tommy Lasorda, who had won 12 games with a fine 2.62 ERA during the season, and who had a fine fastball to go along with his signature knuckle curve. Nothing happened until the top of the 2nd inning when, after Steve Garvey looped a single to center, Dusty Baker ripped a double to the wall in left center. After the "Secretary of Defense" Garry Maddox uncharacteristically juggled the ball while picking it up, Garvey lumbered home and was met by Larry Bowa's pinpoint relay throw, which Bob Boone, who had blocked the plate perfectly, caught and then applied the tag as Garvey pinwheeled away from the plate. Home plate umpire Harry Wendelstedt, who had somehow not positioned himself adequately, nevertheless called Garvey safe, not realizing he had never touched the plate (on the YouTube video, the play may be seen at the 10:12-11:02 mark, and then again at 11:25). After Rick Monday flied out, 8-hole hitter Steve Yeager singled to plate Baker, giving the Dodgers a 2-0 lead going into the bottom of the 2nd.

Philadelphia fans are notorious for their hostility, but rarely do they get the credit they deserve in providing home-field advantage for their teams. The bottom of the 2nd inning, October 7, 1977, was one such day. The Phils' best hitter, Greg Luzinski, opened the inning, by singling to the hole between short and third. Burt Hooten, however, had his best stuff, and two batters later, a Richie Hebner forceout and a Maddox strikeout, Bob Boone came to the plate with 2 outs and Hebner on first. Boone kept the inning alive by looping a single to left center. And then things unraveled for the highly strung Hooten. First he walked Ted Sizemore to load the bases. That brought up the pitcher, Christenson, a .135 batter on the season (though, to be fair, he did hit 3 home runs). On two consecutive pitches, Hooten appeared to have struck Christenson out with fastballs over the plate, but Wendelstedt called them balls, Finally, he walked Christenson to plate Hebner and put the Phillies on the board as Hooten and manager Tommy Lasorda became ever more incensed … and the sellout crowd of 63,000+, noticing it and sensing blood, grew louder and louder. Hooten, clearly shaken and taking time to walk around between batters, proceeded to walk the next two batters, McBride and Bowa, in the midst of the deafening din, putting the Phils up, 3-2, before Lasorda came and relieved Hooten (the whole sequence may be seen roughly between the 20 and 30 minute marks of the video). Rick Rhoden then came in and retired Mike Schmidt on the first pitch to end the inning. [For those who want the listen/watch, the hot mic during the pitching change, when Phils' announcers Harry Kalas and Rich Ashburn go off on Harry Wendelstedt for his incompetence in both halves of the inning
―Kalas: "the game should be nothing to nothing"―is classic.]

The Dodgers tied the game in the 4th on an RBI single by Dusty Baker, after which nothing of consequence happened until the 8th. Phils' manager Danny Ozark had inserted reliever Gene Garber in the 7th, and Garber rewarded him by inducing 6 consecutive weak grounders. In the bottom of the 8th, the Phils made their move  with help from the Dodgers. Hebner doubled to lead off the inning, and was singled home by Maddox. But rightfielder Reggie Smith overthrew cutoffman Garvey, and the error allowed Maddox to go all the way to 3rd. The very next batter, Boone, hit a grounder to Ron Cey at 3rd, but he likewise threw wildly to first, allowing Maddox to score an insurance run and Boone to move to 2nd. At the time, with Garber on the mound, no one seemed concerned that Boone was left stranded by three consecutive batters. A two-run lead in the 9th. Gene Garber, with his 2.35 ERA and 19 saves on the mound. No problem! Or so it seemed.

Two batters later, it still seemed that way. Garber induced Dusty Baker to hit a weak chopper to Schmidt and Rick Monday to ground weakly to Sizemore. Two outs. No one on. The fans rose (Over the years, I have learned this is usually an omen of bad things to come.) Lasorda, realizing he needed 2 runs to tie, lifted Steve Yeager for pinch-hitter Vic Davalillo, a 40-year old fossil who had hit .301 for the '65 Indians and .318 for the '72 Pirates, but who hadn't played in the major leagues for 3 years prior to being signed by the Dodgers in August. After one wild swing and miss, the crafty Davalillo, noticing how deep Sizemore and Hebner were playing on the basically concrete surface of the Vet, laid down a magnificent drag bunt to keep the Dodgers' hopes alive. Lasorda then sent another fossil, Manny Mota, to the plate to bat for pitcher Lance Rautzhan. Mota, who would go on to break Smoky Burgess's record for most pinch hits lifetime with 150 (he currently ranks 3rd), batted .395 in 1977. Also, in his last at bat of the regular season, he hit a pinch hit home run off the great J. R. Richard, the first home run he had hit since 1972. Now, in his very next plate appearance, Garber quickly got ahead of him, nothing-and-two. But then he dropped a low and inside changeup that Mota crushed on a line to the wall in left. Martinno, it was still the leaden Luzinski, routinely taken out for Martin for defensive purposes late in games by Ozark!; why, oh why, Danny? With Martin in the game, the Phils would have won then and there―instead of gauging the ball's trajectory and racing to the spot like any competent outfielder, ran a circuitous route toward the ball while watching it, not knowing exactly where the wall was. At the last minute, Luzinski jumped, the ball hit his glove … and bounced out, off the wall, and back into his glove. He fired the ball back into second, where the ball inexplicably got past Sizemore, with Hebner likewise inexplicably not backing Sizemore up. The Keystone Cops routine resulted in the Phils' lead being cut to 6-5, with Mota on 3rd, but still 2 out. No need (yet) to panic.

The author with Larry Bowa, whose two great throws on Black Friday were
neutralized by bad calls by umpires Harry Wendelstedt and Bruce Froemming

That brought up Davey Lopes. Garber induced yet another grounder, but this one wasn't like the others. This was a smash, right to Schmidt, who was playing up to guard against the possibility of a bunt by the speedy Lopes. It was hit so hard that he didn't have time to gather himself. Instead, it bounced off his glove to his left, straight to Bowa, who alertly grabbed it out of the air with his bare hand and rifled the ball to Hebner just in time to nail Lopes at first on a bang-bang play (@1:55:35). Except First Base Umpire Bruce Froemming called Lopes safe, allowing Mota to score the tying run. To make matters worse, Garber then unleashed a slider while trying to pick Lopes off, and his error allowed Lopes to move into scoring position. Of course, Bill Russell then singled through the legs of Garber to plate the go-ahead run before Reggie Smith grounded out to end the inning. In the bottom of the 9th, the Phils had Bowa, Schmidt, and Luzinski coming to the plate. But it wouldn't have mattered if it was Mays, Mantle, and Aaron. The Phils were toast. The 63,000 at the Vet knew it. I, watching the game in the lobby at my college, knew it. When, with 2 outs, Greg Luzinski was plunked with a pitch and Ozark sent Martin out to pinch run for him, the entire Philadelphia region, in exasperation, wondered, why now? After Richie Hebner grounded out weakly to Garvey at first to put the team out of its misery, all that needed to be determined was when the end would come. And it would come the very next night, in a game played in a constant downpour at the insistence of Major League Baseball. Watching that game in a friend's living room in Havertown, PA is one of the most depressing memories of my life. So ended the glorious promise of the 1977 Philadelphia Phillies. It would be the Dodgers, not my Phillies, who would meet the Bronx Bombers in the World Series, and ultimately succumb in 6 games, not least under the weight of Reggie Jackson's 3 home run outburst in the deciding game.

In my title for this post, I called this "the worst loss in Phillies history." To me, it only has three rivals: The Chico Ruiz game of September 21, 1964, that led to that Cinderella team's shocking end-of-season collapse; October 20, 1993, Game 4 of the World Series, when they blew a 14-9 lead, allowing 6 runs in the 8th inning to lose, 15-14, to the Toronto Blue Jays to fall behind 3 games to 1, ultimately losing the series in game 6 on Joe Carter's 3-run walk-off homer off Mitch Williams; and October 7, 2011, Game 5 of the NLDS, when Chris Carpenter outdueled Roy Halladay, 1-0, and the Phillies' season ended with slugger Ryan Howard on the ground in a heap with a torn Achilles' tendon, his career effectively ruined. Each of these games was devastating in its own way, but the '77 loss has them all beat. The '64 team was good, surely, but lacked the talent of the Cardinals, Giants, and Reds. As devastating as their collapse was, hindsight suggests that their win totals of 85 and 87 in 1965 and 1966 are more commensurate with their actual talent levels than the 92 they won in '64. The same goes for the '93 team. No team I have followed was more fun to watch. But this is a team that finished in last place in 1992. They then finished in 5th place in 1994. Indeed, they are the only Phils' team to have a winning record between 1986 and 2001. So as infuriating as their World Series bullpen meltdowns may have been, they could not have been totally unexpected. The 2011 loss is somewhat more difficult to gauge. On the one hand, this was the team that set the team record for wins in a season with 102. Yet, in hindsight, one can see that this was the last gasp of the team's core that had won the World Series back in 2008. Its major stars―Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins―were all well past their prime. Even their best pitcher, Halladay, who pitched heroically in defeat that day, was, although no one knew it at the time, done as an ace pitcher: 19-6, with 8 complete games, a 2.35 ERA, 220 strikeouts, and 8.8 WAR that year, he would last only two more seasons, winning 15 games with a cumulative 5.15 ERA and -0.3 WAR.

The 1977 fiasco was different. The team's stars were all in their prime―Schmidt 27, Luzinski 26, Maddox 27, Boone 29, Bowa 31, McBride 28. Even their ace, Carlton, though 32, still had 6 prime years and 2 Cy Young Awards remaining in his left arm. Yet the loss clearly took something out of them. In 1978, they led the division for most of the year, but won only 90 games, 1.5 games ahead of the 2nd place Pirates. After the season, once again, they were eliminated by the Dodgers in the NLCS. After acquiring Pete Rose via free agency in 1979, the team slipped to 4th place before finally going over the top in the glorious 1980 season. But I often wonder, if Black Friday never happened and the Phillies had won the pennant―or even beaten the Yankees in the World Series―would they have ever made the move to purchase Rose? Would the glories of 1980 have ever happened?

Black Friday occurred when I was 20 years old and a senior in college. When I look back at this painful event today through the eyes of memory, I can see clearly how the Chico Ruiz game and Black Friday serve as bookends, as it were, of my youthful Philadelphia sports fandom, events that have shaped my continued, lifelong fandom at a profound level. The lesson I learned as a 7 year old in 1964, to wit, that my Philly teams are always likely to choke and come up small at the worst possible moments, was reinforced on Black Friday in 1977. Futility―or is it phutility?―is the norm. Cheers are always there, as loud and threatening to the opposition as any place in the USA. But there are always plenty of boos held in reserve for what always seems to be the inevitable disappointment. In the years since Black Friday, the Phillies have won the only two World Series championships in the franchise's history (1980, 2008). The Sixers have won an NBA title (1983). And the Eagles have even won their first Super Bowl (2017). But my constitutional pessimism when it comes to my teams remains. Positive thinking seems all too often to be outside of my reach, try as I may to summon such vibes. Hard-bitten cynicism as defense mechanism. The hardest lessons to unlearn, after all, are those learned firsthand by experience.