19to21: June 17, 2008
A Look at the Philadelphia Phillies in "Almost a Dynasty" by Dr. William Kashatus
19 to 21
No, that’s not how many All-Stars the Phillies developed in the Seventies, it’s Baseball...Then and Now
News Item: May 29, 1989 – Mike Schmidt retires from baseball.
Writing baseball history is not always easy, although it can actually be easier for the historian to write about subjects 100 years in the past than it is to write about subjects that the historian has experienced first hand. It’s a matter of perspective. It can be difficult for the historian to separate out his or her own prejudices regarding events actually witnessed.
A case in point is Dr. William Kashatus’ latest book, “Almost a Dynasty,” (University of Pennsylvania Press) a tale of the Philadelphia Phillies from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, with the emphasis on (as sub-titled) “The Rise and Fall of the 1980 Phillies.” Kashatus is an historian, the holder of a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of more than a dozen history books, including four on American history and nine on baseball history. (In other words, 10 more than this author has had published.) However, even a professional historian can run afoul of history when writing about a subject that is either too recent or too personal. Previously the author of a biography of Mike Schmidt, the pre-eminent star of the 1980 Phillies, Kashatus has dedicated “Almost a Dynasty” to Schmidt (”my boyhood hero”) and to the memory of the late Tug McGraw (“a sorely missed friend”). And, as he states in his Introduction, “Those Phillies were the only professional sports team I ever lived and died with.”
This is not a crime. In fact, this baseball author will admit to pretty much the same emotions about the Philadelphia Phillies (and I still haven’t gotten over Schmidt’s retirement press conference), as will millions of other Philadelphians. For that matter, another very good baseball author, Bob Gordon, will also lay claim to these feelings. Gordon, along with his collaborator, Tom Burgoyne, has written some marvelous books on the Phillies. Books that indeed include the very recent history of the team. Books like “More than Beards, Bellies and Biceps” (the story of the 1993 Phillies). But, there’s a difference. Gordon’s not writing a history for the University of Pennsylvania Press, he’s writing a story. It’s first and foremost entertainment. In fact, it’s an insider story, since Burgoyne also happens to be the Phillie Phanatic. Gordon’s task isn’t so much to be an historian and explain the phenomenon that was the 1993 Phillies, it’s to allow the reader to relive the thrill of that remarkable team, to feel that emotion for the team they lived and died for.
And that’s what Kashatus has done. Like Gordon and Burgoyne (and as is sometimes the case in a present-day column like “19 to 21”), he’s written an advocacy book – his statement in the Introduction about this being a “labor of love” makes that clear – in this case an advocacy book trying to explain why “his” team “only” won a single World Series. This is not a crime. However, it does not necessarily make for the writing of a good historical account. An interesting, entertaining account, yes. An account that Phillies’ fans will relate to, notably his review of the magical 1980 season, yes. A good historical account, no.
That’s not to say that Kashatus hasn’t given it his best shot, and, yes, he makes it clear this is an advocacy book. “Almost a Dynasty” is extensively researched and footnoted, and includes insight from numerous interviews he conducted with the principals involved; be they players, managers, sportswriters, or team executives. However, the result of all this work ends up being more psychoanalysis than baseball analysis. Having lived the 1980 Phillies as a fan, and having read and heard all about the team from the media at the time, Kashatus comes to the conclusion, and repeats the popular theory, that the team, and the organization, ultimately failed due to personal conflicts on the field and front office politics.
That’s the issue upon which the book was written. Why didn’t the Phillies of the 1974-1989 era do better? (First of all, I would postulate that six first place finishes, two World Series appearances and a World Series championship in eight years are pretty good.) Kashatus goes on at length on clubhouse and front office politics, the jealousy between the players who came up together through the Phillies’ farm system (e.g., Schmidt, Boone, Bowa, Luzinski), and the rants and raves of Dallas Green and Paul Owens. It’s also obvious who among the front office types Kashatus likes, and who he doesn’t like. Clearly, Kashatus is a Paul Owens, Dallas Green, Ruly Carpenter and especially a Howie Bedell (like many others, he’s convinced Bedell was given short shrift by the Phillies) fan. On the other hand, he doesn’t have much use for Bill Giles, Hugh Alexander and Lee Thomas.
Once again, this is not a crime, for an historian or anyone else. For instance, I happen to think the Phillies’ original owner, John Rogers, was, well, the worst kind of Philadelphia lawyer. And I said so in “Base Ball in Philadelphia.” But, there’s a difference. There’s the historical perspective. Rogers has been dead for 98 years, and his misdeeds have been chronicled at length and depth and are far enough in the past that some balanced perspective can be obtained. The events I chronicled in “Base Ball in Philadelphia” took place between 177 and 108 years ago. It is pretty safe to say in 2008 that Rogers shouldn’t have tried to stiff Nap Lajoie for a lousy $400 a year in 1900, thus driving him to Connie Mack. However, Kashatus, as an historian (as opposed to a storyteller), takes his story personally, takes his heroes personally, maybe because he was there, leaving the uniformed reader to speculate that the Phillies of this era would have been wiser to sign a psychiatrist or an organizational consultant instead of signing Pete Rose.
Maybe that’s why psychoanalysis takes the place of baseball analysis. What little Kashatus does of the latter takes the form of very simplistic statistics. For instance, “In ’87 Schmidt enjoyed his last productive year, hitting .293 with 35 home runs and 113 RBIs... Hayes… Wilson… and Parrish did not produce the numbers or power hitting they were expected to deliver.” The metrics Kashatus uses are those that most of the current generation of baseball writers realize are outdated in terms of their ability to shed light and insight on the players and teams. There isn’t a single “OPS+” in the entire book. And, should you care to look it up, you’ll find that Von Hayes in 1987 had a 129 OPS+, well above his career 113 mark. You’ll also find that the 1987 Phillies were fourth in the NL in walks and fifth in home runs and slugging percentage (thanks in part to Juan Samuel and Chris James) but ninth in runs scored – more the sign of a dysfunctional offense, not one lacking in power.
“Dynasty’s” Conclusion is a microcosm of the book. Having previously gone on at some length about the team’s poor leadership, Kashatus summarizes his case… first praising Owens, Green and Bedell for building such a fine team and a fine farm system, and then throwing a bouquet to Carpenter for running the organization “like a family.” Then it’s time for the villain of the piece, throwing Giles, et al, under the bus as responsible for the Phillies’ collapse, and saying that the Giles front office, “operated like an inept business corporation where cost-effectiveness and profit margins mattered more than winning.” A nice phrase, but one that doesn’t make much sense, since there are very few business corporations outside of sports, be they inept or otherwise, that are concerned at all with the concept of “winning.” Semantics aside, Kashatus does admit that poor leadership was not the only reason for the team’s collapse. Free agency and a limited budget under Giles also played a role. Neither of these themes are new… the Philadelphia sports media harped on these same causes at great length in the 1980s, and Kashatus footnotes to many of these same sources, having bought into the equivalent of the pop culture explanation (as opposed to the baseball explanation) for the Phillies’ failures.
In the end, the careful reader and the baseball historian would be better served if Kashatus had been more of an historian and less of a fan in writing this book, thus giving more baseball analysis of the team’s strengths and weaknesses in judging whether or not Owens, et al, had really built a great team and a great farm system. We also would be better served if his Conclusion had referred back to his “Legacy of Losing” chapter and tied the team’s 1980s financial problems back into the team’s history. The second issue is one of historical interest and significance, since the Phillies were historically notorious for running a shoestring operation – basically the Baker and Nugent regimes -- adversely affecting the Phillies’ ability to compete for some 30 years.
But, even the failure to historically compare Gerry Nugent and Bill Giles pales against coming up with the wrong conclusion as to why the Phillies didn’t do better, especially in the period from 1975 to 1983. While they were one of the dominant teams in baseball during that time, Kashatus feels they should have done better, and repackages for us the dysfunctional family theme that was so popular at the time. And you know what? It’s just not true. That’s not why they weren’t a dynasty. Let’s look at the facts, at the statistics, the baseball analysis. The 1975 to 1983 Phillies just weren’t a great team. Just go to Baseball-Reference.com. Let’s look at the one team that did win the World Series, the 1980 Phillies.
Fact: The 1980 team was very strong up the middle defensively, but the offense provided by Boone, Bowa, Trillo and Maddox was less than average. In fact, the offense of the 1980 team, which admittedly finished second in the NL in runs scored, was absolutely carried by Schmidt with a little help from rookies Lonnie Smith and Keith Moreland and the corner outfielders, Bake McBride and Greg Luzinski. Even Pete Rose didn’t do much that year. Don’t believe it? Look at the OPS+ numbers for 1980 for everyone who batted more than 100 times…
Maddox 80 (career – 100)
Boone 75 (worse than his career mark of 82)
Bowa 71 (the same as his career mark)
Fact: The starting pitching on that team was pretty much a case of throw Steve and then leave. Although Dick Ruthven won 17 games with an ERA+ of 107, no one else was really worth mentioning over the entire year. Rookies Bob Walk and Marty Bystrom had their moments (Bystrom just in the month of September), as did Larry Christenson, but, it was largely a makeshift staff behind Lefty.
W-L GS ERA+
Carlton 24-9 38 162
Ruthven 17-10 33 107
Walk 11-7 27 83
Lerch 4-14 22 73
Christenson 5-1 14 94
Espinosa 3-5 12 100
Larson 0-5 7 120
Bystrom 5-0 5 253
That’s not exactly an overpowering rotation. And while Ruthven (who was traded away, and then re-acquired in another trade), Walk, Lerch, Christenson and Bystrom came out of the Phillies’ system, their combined major league record would end up being just 400-369, or an average of 80-74. The fact is, by far the best pitcher developed by the Phillies since Robin Roberts in 1948 is already Cole Hamels.
Fact: The bullpen was very average, except for Tug McGraw’s incredible second half. Much has been said and written about McGraw’s 1980 season, and it was truly remarkable. As Kashatus points out, after coming off the DL on July 17 he went 5-1 with 13 saves and an ERA of 0.52. However, the rest of the pen, and for most of the year that was Ron Reed, Kevin Saucier, Dickie Noles and Warren Brusstar, was, well, average.
W-L SV ERA ERA+
McGraw 5-4 20 1.46 259
Reed 7-5 9 4.04 94
Noles 1-4 6 3.89 97
Saucier 7-3 0 3.42 111
Brusstar 2-2 0 3.72 102
LaGrow 0-2 3 4.15 91
Look, it’s not easy to be objective about your heroes, particularly the heroes of your (relative) youth. I could tell you, for example, that Chico Fernandez and Joe Koppe were fine shortstops for the Phillies – they were my two favorite players in the late 50s and early 60s. But, it’s just not true, and it’s easy enough to look up their stats for illumination. Fernandez OPS+ numbers for his three years with the Phillies (1957-59) were 74, 59 and 44. His one moment of glory came with the 1962 Tigers, when he inexplicably hit 20 home runs (and still had an OPS+ of just 88.) Koppe played for the Phillies basically in just 1959 and 1960. His OPS+ numbers for those years were 89 and 41. The highlight of his career came later, when he was with the Angles, and posed for his Topps baseball card with his glove on his right hand.
It’s easy to fall in love with your early heroes, but, if you’re writing about those heroes, you should go back and look at their stats in the cold light of day, and history, before you assert how great they were.
And, what about that farm system? Did Giles, et al, squander the riches produced by Owens, et al? Not really. It wasn’t that rich a farm system. Except for the two shining stars, the two Hall of Famers, Schmidt and Ryne Sandberg (admittedly, he was traded by the Giles regime... you can make a good case that the Phillies’ trading record was much better before 1981 than it was after 1981), all of the long-term products of the system (and there were only 14 who played 10 years or more in the majors) from the Seventies were flawed players. Boone, Bowa, Jerry Martin, John Vukovich and Bob Dernier could field, but not hit. Luzinski, Moreland, Smith and Julio Franco could hit, but not field. Ozzie Virgil, Dane Iorg and Jim Morrison (with or without the Doors) were generally just mediocre. Only Schmidt and Sandberg were truly stars.
The real conclusion? This was a good team that got hot at the right time, and rode the wave through the World Series, sort of like the 1969 Mets or the 2006 Cardinals. And nothing more. In point of fact, the 1977 Phillies were a much better team, and they didn’t win anything, thanks in part to Danny Ozark forgetting to put Martin in left field and some terrible umpiring. And that, using baseball analysis, is why the Phillies were almost a dynasty… they just weren’t quite good enough.
In summary of “Almost a Dynasty,” it is an entertaining story for the casual fan, though not strictly a history. Given his skills and credentials, Kashatus has the ability to hit a home run, to write a definitive history of the Phillies. Unfortunately, his effort fell short on the warning track. That is, it could have been a lot better. Let that be a warning on the difficulty of writing history after personally experiencing same.
-- John Shiffert