Dick Allen, April 17, 1976 (allegedly):
“Mike, you’ve got to relax. You’ve got to have some fun. Remember when you were just a kid and you’d skip supper to play ball? You were having fun. Hey, with all the talent you’ve got, baseball ought to be fun. Enjoy it. Be a kid again.”
This is supposedly what Allen told Mike Schmidt before Schmidt went out and hit four home runs on the date above. Hitting four in one game is unusual, of course, but this particular game was an outlier unto itself. Rick Reuschel started for the Chicago Cubs. Steve Carlton started for the Philadelphia Phillies. A good pitching matchup for the afternoon Wrigley Field crowd. Or, at least, it should have been.
As it was Reuschel actually lasted seven innings and left with the lead. In fact, the Cubs had a lead of 13-2 going into the top of the fifth. When Reuschel left after the seventh, the Cubs still led 13-7, a lead that even at Wrigley should have been safe. Reuschel was a good pitcher. In 1977, he would win 20 for the only time in his career with an ERA of 2.79 and four shutouts. He also pitched four shutouts in his rookie season of 1972. He would pitch more than 200 innings in a season 11 times. At age 40 he would be 17-8 and a 2.94 ERA with the San Francisco Giants. All told he would win 214 games in his career and be ranked as the 26th greatest Cub of all time (no disrespect to Reuschel, but I am not sure this high of ranking for a player on a club that has been around since the advent of the sun says more about the player or just how awful Cub history has been) by SB Nation’s Bleed Cubbie Blue blog. Also, Reuschel was nicknamed Big Daddy. So, there’s that too.
Carlton, of course, because he still stands as one of the best pitchers ever, only pitched a total of one and two-thirds innings giving up as many runs as Reuschel did in seven innings. Carlton would win 20 of his career total of 329 in ’76, so this game was not indicative of the season as a whole. The Phillies had started the season 1-3, and seeing their ace leave the mound after such a short start the team would have been within their rights to make the game go as quickly as possible and enjoy the city that evening, but with the wind blowing straight out in Wrigley the Phillies always knew there was a small chance of a comeback.
Rick Monday would catch Schmidt’s fly ball innocently enough the first time Schmidt came to bat. (Monday hit lead off for the Cubs and would enjoy a nice day of his own with two home runs, and his overall line was 6-3-4-4.) Schmidt, batting sixth, would hit a single in the fourth, and would later say he would have been ok with just that. He was slumping so badly, a single felt like a home run. With the Phillies trailing 13-2 in the fifth with a man on, Schmidt hit his first home run of the day. In the seventh he hit a solo homer. When he came to bat in the eighth there were two on and the Phillies had pulled the game closer to 13-9. There was a sense in the crowd that there was something special happening, and so when Schmidt homered to make it 13-12 even the Cub faithful could not help but feel nervously appreciative.
The Phillies went ahead 15-13 in the ninth, but the Cubs managed to tie the game in the bottom of the inning. Rick Reuschel’s brother, Paul, started the tenth for the Cubs and began it by walking Allen. Following the walk many Cub fans wondered if walking Schmidt next was the right thing to do if Chicago wanted to win. But the fans wanted to see Schmidt hit too. So when Schmidt hit a line drive into the centerfield bleachers for his fourth consecutive homer to give the Phillies a 17-15 lead, the crowd stopped being Cub fans for a moment and became simply baseball fans, giving Schmidt a standing ovation in his opponents home park. Schmidt became just the second National League player to hit four consecutive home runs, and the first since Bobby Lowe of the Boston Beaneaters did it in 1894 at the Congress Street Grounds in Boston. The Phillies, once down 11 runs, eventually won 18-16. And though the team started off 1-3, Philadelphia would win 101 games in 1976 and make the playoffs for the first time since 1950.
Schmidt would finish the year with 38 home runs (the second year of three straight years he would hit that number), 112 runs scored and 107 RBI. After the season he would become the first player to begin earning $500,000 a year or more.
Baseball has changed, of course. Now players earn an average of $3.8 million a season. But the game has remained the same as well. You see the ball. You hit the ball. Few ever did it better over their careers than Schmidt, and none have done it better than on that single day in Chicago in April, 1976.