By the time he retired early in the 1989 season, Schmidt had established himself as the best all-around third baseman of all time. He was the NL’s premier power hitter in the 1970s and 1980s, failing to hit 30 homers only three times in his 16 full major-league seasons. Schmidt won the NL home run crown a record eight times, led the NL five times in slugging and RBI four, and is seventh on the all-time home run list. He also won eleven Gold Gloves and was named to the same number of All-Star squads. Strikeouts were particularly troublesome to Schmidt early in his career, and he retired with the third-highest strikeout total in history. While averaging 150 whiffs over his first four seasons, Schmidt was nicknamed “A-choo!” by teammate Willie Montanez. But once he learned to be more selective at the plate, Schmidt became the consummate all-around ballplayer, hitting for both power and a high on-base average, stealing 15-20 bases per year, and providing stellar defense at third base.
The Phillies drafted Schmidt from Ohio University in the second round of the 1971 draft, and he spent two seasons in the minors before being called up in September 1972. He hit only .196 in his first full season but showed promising power with 18 HR. A season of winter ball in Puerto Rico and following advice from manager Danny Ozark and coach Bobby Wine helped him come into his own in 1974. He doubled his HR total to lead the NL and raised his average almost 100 points. Hitting third ahead of Greg Luzinski, Schmidt still drew 106 walks. He also hit one of the longest singles in ML history that year, crushing a Claude Osteen fastball off a speaker dangling from the roof of the Astrodome, 329 feet from the plate and 117 feet in the air.
Playing with a sprained left shoulder, Schmidt struck out a career-high 180 times in 1975, but still led the NL in home runs and stole 29 bases, also a career high. On July 17, 1976 Schmidt hit four HR in one game at Wrigley Field, as the Phillies rallied from a 13-2 deficit to beat the Cubs 18-16 in 10 innings. He hit his first homer that day off Rick Reuschel, and the fourth off Rick’s brother, Paul.
Schmidt was uncomfortable with his new role as team captain in 1978 and suffered an off-year. Pete Rose’s arrival in 1979 gave the club an additional spiritual leader, and Schmidt enjoyed a resurgence. He began to hit the ball to all fields, rather than trying to pull each pitch over the left-field fence, and recorded the highest home run totals of his career, 45 in 1979 and 48 in 1980. He was the runaway choice for MVP in 1980 and took World Series MVP honors as well, with a .381 average and two homers in the Phillies’ six-game victory. His double keyed a four-run eighth-inning rally in Game Two that led to a 6-4 win, he homered in a losing cause in Game Three, homered again in Game Five and scored the tying run in the ninth inning, and drove in a pair of runs in the Phillies’ final 4-1 win. The 1981 players’ strike did not slow him down, as he hit .316 with 31 HR to win his second straight MVP award.
Schmidt cracked the 40-homer and 100-RBI barriers again in 1983 but suffered a miserable postseason, with only one single in 20 at-bats in a World Series loss to the Orioles. That winter he became baseball’s highest-paid player, signing for $2.1 million per year, and his next four seasons were typically productive. The Phillies shifted Schmidt to first base in 1985 to allow Rick Schu to play third, but the experiment didn’t last the season.
In 1986 he won his third MVP award, despite the Phillies finishing a distant second to the Mets — over 20 games out. Schmidt batted .290 and led the NL in homers (37) and RBI (119) for the final time that year. In 1987, he hit .293 with 35 HR and 115 RBI. Schmidt suffered the first serious injury of his career in 1988, a rotator cuff problem requiring surgery that forced him to miss the final third of the season. He returned to hit six homers early in 1989, but when his average dipped to .203 in May he retired. Fans elected him to the starting lineup of the NL All-Star team despite his retirement, but he did not play.
Five years after retiring, Schmidt was voted into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association, who awarded him 444 out of 460 possible votes (96.5 percent) and made him only the 31st player to be elected in their first year of eligibility. He joined former teammate Steve Carlton (elected to the Hall the previous year) in Cooperstown. (SG)