Writer J. Daniel is in the final stages of working on a book with McFarland & Company covering the 1980 baseball season. Recently, Daniel took the time to talk with me about the thrilling season that culminated with a Philadelphia Phillies World Series trophy and what readers can expect to find in his book.
You were a big Philadelphia Phillies fan growing up, correct? What are some of your earliest Phillies memories?
I became a fan because my Mom grew up in Philadelphia and when one of your parents tells you who their favorite team was when they were a kid that’s either a reason to like that team or dislike that team. In my case, I decided sometime in the mid-70s to start following the Phillies. I grew up a Phillies Phan in Southwest Ohio during the Big Red Machine era, so many of my memories involved them losing to the Reds a lot and then the Dodgers in the NLCS in 1976, 77 and 78.
Those were some really talented teams but they kinda came along at the wrong time. From 1976 through 1978, the Phillies won 292 games in the regular season under Danny Ozark but just two in the playoffs. The Reds and the Dodgers were both powerhouse teams at the time and the Phillies just couldn’t get over the hump. Then they went out and got Pete Rose for 1979 but had a ton of injuries and finished 4th in the division.
The following year there were lots of rumors that it was do or die for this group of players and they finally won it. It was the first World Series win in franchise history and the franchise dates back to 1883.
My personal memories include going to see the Phillies play the Reds at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati and seeing as many as five Hall of Famers on the field in one game plus the all-time hits leader. You had arguably the best catcher to ever play the game in Johnny Bench and (in my mind) the best 3rd baseman ever in Mike Schmidt. Then you add Morgan, Perez, Carlton and Seaver. I saw Steve Carlton face off against Tom Seaver in 1980 and the Reds/Phillies games were always entertaining. From 1975 through 1983, the Phillies and Reds combined for 9 postseason appearances. Those were really good teams.
When did the idea for the book come about and why did you choose 1980 as the focus?
I had the original idea for the book as far back as 2010, but at that point I was going to cover the entire decade. Once I started doing research into notable events and began writing I realized that I was 50 or 60 pages into the 1980 season and I hadn’t even begun to tell the story of what happened during the year in terms of pennant races. Everything I had talked about to that point were things like Freddie Patek hitting 3 homers in a game, fights, career milestones and other “tidbit” kind of things.
I realized at that point that I could either write a 1,500 page book about the decade or a 250 page book about 1980 so I chose the latter. Certainly being a Phillies Phan was a big part as well. I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I decided to focus on another year in my early research but I guess we’ll never know…
Many fans (and writers) tend to remember the familiar points from a season. Examples from 1980 would be George Brett chasing a .400 batting average, Nolan Ryan reaching 3000 strikeouts, and the Phillies winning the World Series. What are some of the lesser-known or remembered tidbits from the season that you just had to put into the narrative?
Honestly this was one of the more challenging parts. I’m such a huge baseball fan and such a huge ‘80s guy that in my mind, nearly everything is interesting and worth discussing. I had to draw the line somewhere but there wasn’t really a “rule” as to what got included and what didn’t.
The book also talks about pop culture and world events so I get into big movie releases that summer like Airplane!, The Blues Brothers, The Shining, Friday the 13th and The Empire Strikes Back. That was also the Who Shot J.R.? summer, Richard Pryor lit himself on fire freebasing, CNN launched and Mount St Helens erupted so I delve into those and other events as well. There’s a cool baseball-related nugget concerning the movie Airplane! that I discuss, too. They originally wanted to cast a baseball player for the role that Kareem got but the film was shot in August so they had to make other arrangements.
On the baseball side, it was an “interesting” summer for Fergie Jenkins, He hit a few career milestones, but also was arrested for drug possession. Al Cowens had an odd fight with Ed Farmer in Chicago, a few members of the Cardinals fought on the team bus in Cincinnati, Bill Veeck and Charlie Finley both sold their teams, BillyBall began in Oakland, which included his pitchers throwing a ridiculous number of complete games, there was a lot of managerial turnover and Joe Charboneau burst onto the scene in Cleveland.
The Phillies were just a soap opera all summer. They hated Dallas Green for the most part and there were some incidents that highlighted that. Nolan Ryan signed the first million-dollar contract in baseball history heading into the season after an acrimonious breakup with the Angels and Joe Morgan returned to Houston as well that season. The Astros were a really good team but the loss of J.R. Richard to a stroke in July was devastating. He was so dominant, then had a stroke and never pitched in the big leagues again. As big a Phillies Phan as I am, I firmly believe if Richard had stayed healthy the Astros would have won the World Series that year.
The other great thing about that season was the pennant races themselves. Three of the four division races came down to the final weekend of the season and there was a one-game playoff in the N.L. West. The Royals handled the Yankees with relative ease in the ALCS but not without controversy but the NLCS is still considered by some to be the best ever. Four of the five games went to extra innings and Game Five was a thriller.
Since I have Brewers followers, here’s a question specific for them. Without giving too much away, what might Brewers fans enjoy about the book?
I get into the tremendous under the radar season that Cecil Cooper turned in that year. In a blog post, I joked that like the character in Airplane! who picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue, Coop just picked the wrong season to have a career year. He was outstanding in 1980 but Brett was otherworldly.
That was also the year that Bambi had a heart attack in spring training and Buck Rodgers took over on an interim basis. Ben Oglivie had a tremendous season in 1980 and it was kinda when the 1982 team began to take shape a bit. They still were a few pieces away, but the core was maturing together and it was a pretty damn good core.
You also run a blog, FB page, and Twitter account. What types of content can people expect to see you post?
The blog and social media accounts have been really fun. I do a lot of “this day in history” kind of things as well as birthdays, especially on Facebook and Twitter, but I also like to do some deep dives on individual stories on the blog. One of the things I really enjoy doing is interviewing people who do baseball art and showcasing their work as well as having other writers do guest posts to get different content.
I also like tracking down relatively obscure stories and bringing them to light. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about finding so much about the game so interesting. There’s always cool things to talk about and poring over old newspaper and magazine articles and looking for common threads is a great way to find some of those things.
Does the book have a title and when can readers expect to see it published?
The book is called Phinally! The Phillies, the Royals and the 1980 Baseball Season That Almost Wasn’t
The subtitle references the fact that that strike of 1981 nearly took place in 1980 but some last-minute negotiating/tabling of issues kept the season going.
I don’t have a release date yet but I’ll certainly let people know ASAP.
My sincere thanks to J. Daniel for the interview. You can find him online here:
80’s Baseball website