Phillies Hot Stove History: The 1978 free agent signing of Pete Rose

Rose was the Phillies first-ever free agent signing and helped the club win their first World Series championship.

The Philadelphia Phillies frustratingly lost out on free agent starting pitcher Patrick Corbin. They supposedly remain among the most active bidders for  the big bats of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado as this off-season moves along.

It was forty years ago today that the Phillies made their first-ever free agent signing, and it was a big one. It turned out to have as positive an impact on the history of the organization as those who made the decision could have hoped.

There were a number of superstars who made up the core of the Cincinnati Reds legendary ‘Big Red Machine’ back-to-back World Series champions of 1975-76. But the man who provided the engine to that powerful train was Pete Rose.

Nicknamed ‘Charlie Hustle’ because of his highly competitive style of play, Rose was already 37-years-old when Phillies owner Ruly Carpenter gave his blessing to the four-year, $3.225 million contract negotiated by GM Paul Owens.

The Phillies had won three consecutive National East Division crowns from 1976-78. But each year they fell short in the League Championship Series. They were swept out by Rose and the Reds champions of 1976. In both 1977 and 1978, the Los Angeles Dodgers won an NLCS each year when the Phillies seemed poised to win for themselves.

Those Phillies teams were extremely talented. Led by future Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton and filled with numerous Gold Glove Award winners and NL All-Stars, they had the talent to win. They just didn’t seem to quite know how to actually get the job done.

Rose knew how to win the big one. He was a key part, perhaps the most important part, of those Reds championship teams. Voted the Most Valuable Player of perhaps the greatest World Series in history, the Reds unforgettable seven-game 1975 victory.

Rose was the 1963 NL Rookie of the Year and a decade later was the 1973 National League Most Valuable Player. He had been runner-up for that NL MVP in 1968, and would finish among the top five in voting on three other occasions. Rose was a 12x NL All-Star, and won back-to-back NL Gold Glove Awards as an outfielder in 1969 and 1970.

This was the player whom the Phillies decided was, even at an advanced age for a baseball player, worth the largest contract in the history of the game. Carpenter and Owens brought Rose to Philadelphia for one reason alone, to put the team over the top. To finally win the first World Series title in franchise history.

During his first season with the Phillies, Rose helped drive the team back to the top of the division. They moved into first place on April 21 and would remain there for more than a month, building an early 3.5 game lead at one point. And then the wheels fell off.

The 1979 Phillies collapsed under a myriad of injuries, losing second baseman Manny Trillo, catcher Bob Boone, and starting pitchers Dick Ruthven and Larry Christenson for chunks of the season.

They would finish 84-78, a disappointing fourth place, 14 games behind the division-winning “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates team that would go on to win the World Series that year.

Rose himself could hardly have been considered a disappointment, however. He had 208 hits, including 40 doubles. He stole 20 bases and his .418 on-base percentage led the National League. Rose was selected to his 13th NL All-Star team that year.

It would finally all come together the following year. Rose led the NL with 42 doubles and was again an NL All-Star. And finally, the Phillies were World Series champions.

It wasn’t an easy battle. The Phillies had to fight off the tough, young Montreal Expos over the final week of the regular season, winning their fourth NL East crown in five years on the final weekend of the season in Montreal. Next came a tremendous challenge, overcoming the tough Houston Astros and their dominating pitching staff led by Nolan Ryan.

The Phillies would win what still may be the greatest NLCS in history by 3-2. Each of the last four games were decided in extra innings. Rose famously steam-rolled Astros catcher Bruce Bochy to score the winning run of Game 4 as the Phillies tied the series. It was stereotypical Rose, and epitomized the very reason he was brought to the team.

In the World Series against the Kansas City Royals, Rose was largely absent at the plate. He hit just .261 with a double and two walks, and one RBI.

But even without his usual offensive impact, Rose would still leave a lasting positive impression. With one out in the top of the 9th inning of Game 6, Tug McGraw was on the mound and the Phillies were trying to nail down the title.

The Royals had base runners and were threatening a comeback when Frank White sent a foul pop towards the Phillies dugout. Catcher Bob Boone ran to snare it for the second out, but the ball popped out of his glove. It could have fallen to the ground, and the Royals could have been given another shot to extend their rally.

Rose would have none of it. Again typical of his ‘Charlie Hustle’ nickname, Rose sped towards Boone and the popup. When the ball bounced out of Boone’s glove, Rose shot his own out and snared the ball before it had a chance to drop.

The Phillies had the valuable second out. McGraw then struck out Willie Wilson, and the Phillies were world champions for the first time in their 97-year history.

That would be the lone championship during the four seasons that Rose would play in Phillies pinstripes. The 1981 team reached the postseason but were defeated in a tough five-game NLDS by the Expos. Rose hit .325 and led all of baseball with 140 hits during that strike-shortened campaign.

The 1982 Phillies were in first place once again as late as September 13, but a 4-9 stretch over the next two weeks doomed them. That team finished in second, three games behind a Saint Louis Cardinals team that would win the World Series. The four-year contract was up, but Rose and the Phillies agreed on a one-year deal for the 1983 season.

In his final Phillies season, Rose again helped lead the Phillies to a National League pennant. He was an NL All-Star for a 16th time in that 1983 season, his fourth straight all-star appearance as a member of the Phillies. Rose hit .375 in the NLCS victory over the Dodgers and then .313 in the World Series, but the Phillies lost in five games to the Baltimore Orioles.

Rose would sign as a free agent with the Expos, where he would play 95 games during the 1984 season. The Expos would then deal him back to where it all began in Cincinnati. Rose would finish out a 24-year big-league career with the Reds in 1986 at age 45.

Over his five seasons in Philadelphia, Rose hit .291 with a .365 on-base percentage from ages 38-42. He banged out 826 hits, including 139 doubles, and scored 390 runs. Perhaps most importantly, Rose pushed Schmidt from being an all-star to a Hall of Fame caliber player.

“Mike was the best player in the league three or four days a week when I got to the Phillies in 1979,” Rose told The Sporting News when Schmidt entered the Hall of Fame. “By the time I left, he had learned to be the best seven days a week.

There were a number of controversies that would envelop Rose in his later years as a manager. Even more would pop up in recent years to derail his enshrinement into the Phillies Wall of Fame.

But on this date in 1979 the Philadelphia Phillies did what the 2018 Phillies can only hope to accomplish. The signed a controversial superstar free agent player who actually helped the team win a World Series championship, and helped them contend for the life of his contract.







  1. Ken Bland

    December 5, 2018 at 10:12 pm

    Your article is decent enough, but if one is going to write about the Phils signing Rose, and celebrate the anniversary of it, the real story was the up and down of the negotiation and what resolved the matter.

    Why does that matter? Because it was beyond interesting, riveting would better describe it. For conversation’s sake, if the Phils signed Bryce Harper and over the course of the contract had some memorable success, 40 years from now, people would be remiss to review Harper’s contributions, assuming they stood out to any extent. In all likelihood, in that high rent area, the real memory would figure to be the negotiation that led to his joining the Phils. Pete on the field here spoke for itself, but the signing process was terrific. Another example would be the night Cliff re-signed here spurning an allegedly more lucrative offer from the Yanks, the odds on popular choice to sign him. Was the story Cliff’s greatness as a Phil? Yeah, but not as much as the equal of where were you when Kennedy was shot, or Magic announced he was HIV positive which is a fair description of the night Cliff signed.

    With Pete, I’ll pass on what I remember. One of the biggest, and maybe the biggest competitors was the Pirates, ironically, considering their lack of free agent indulgence over the years. John Galbraith was a participant in the horse racing game and the scuttlebutt was that Pete would be offered compensation (partial) in horse raceing. Kind of ironic with the gambling aspect there, but let’s not digress. The Cards were involved and the rumor had Pete being rewarded some beer distributorship action from the Busch family.

    As I remember it, the Yanks were not real big participants in the bid, though I could be a little off on that recollection. A little ironic in that the DH was only 7 some years old, and Pete was 37, heading toward that position being advantageous. Pete wanted Musial’s NL hit mark, later accomplished 1 night before the strike in ’81. Kansas City was a well publicized player in the bidding, but I don’t recall much. They were a very good club back then, like the Phils, thinking Pete would be the over the hump guy.

    So as the Phils watched the parade of big boys pass them by, it finally came down to the fine folks at Channel 17 adding a bundle to the TV rights making it possible. Ruly Carpenter was pretty practical with his money, and whether he could have afforded to splurge with a different mentality, who knows. But when The Great Entertainer antied up, the deal was on, and Pete was a Phillie.

    • Matthew Veasey

      December 6, 2018 at 10:52 am

      Love the extra information. However, I would dispute that “the real story” was the up and down of the negotiation. It wouldn’t have mattered what that process was had Rose proved to be a bust in his late-30’s, which was a legitimate possibility. His performance and that of the team with him as a driving force was “the real story” in my opinion. Again, doesn’t take away from the interest in the extra information on the negotiation and decision-making process on the contract. It was all fascinating, especially since we had never seen anything like it here in Philly. As a 17-year-old, I just remember being excited to add him to what was already a tremendous team. Thanks for the response, it was highly enjoyable and I hope that anyone reading the piece also reads your comment here.

      • Ken Bland

        December 6, 2018 at 2:30 pm

        “Real story” is indeed a subjective thing quite often. So different perspectives are fine, and it’s a thing that is perhaps slanted by the observer’s perspective.

        I never thought about it at the time, but now, many multiplications of Pete Rose self destructions later, I wonder what the Cincy Reds would think the real story was of Pete splitting. All I know is I read an article at some point that included content that Morgan and Bench were concerned about what would happen to Pete after he retired. By and large, Red fans were appalled by Pete leaving, but I wonder who and how many Red insiders kept quiet, or had mixed feelings about Pete leaving. Can’t rehash all that 40 years later, no point to it, but it’s funny how you can look at things much differently as the years flow by.

        It’s such a short list of people who over the years have invoked the degree of extreme mixed feelings that Pete has in me. And no doubt, a larger than I can count number of other people as well.

  2. Craig Glessner

    December 6, 2018 at 6:09 am

    Pete Rose was a proven hitter.

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