Mike Schmidt Is the Greatest Draft Pick Ever

Fifty years later, Mike Schmidt stands alone as the baseball player who did the most for the team that drafted him. To one scout, Schmidt’s potential was obvious.,

Mike Schmidt led Ohio University to the College World Series in 1970. He was just getting started.
Mike Schmidt led Ohio University to the College World Series in 1970. He was just getting started.Credit…Ohio University Archives

The Greatest Draft Pick Ever

Fifty years later, Mike Schmidt stands alone as the baseball player who did the most for the team that drafted him. To one scout, Schmidt’s potential was obvious.

Mike Schmidt led Ohio University to the College World Series in 1970. He was just getting started.Credit…Ohio University Archives

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He went to college hoping to become an architect. He left school, 50 years ago Tuesday, as the best draft pick in the history of Major League Baseball.

Mike Schmidt did not see this coming. He picked Ohio University largely because of a drafting class he had taken as a senior at Fairview High School in Dayton. He liked the T-squares and triangles, the pencils and possibilities. It seemed like a dream career.

“It was a long shot, obviously, but they had a great school of architecture at Ohio,” Schmidt said last month. “That kind of struck me as something that was a lot of fun.”

If an architect’s life seemed fanciful, it was more likely than the path Schmidt took instead. Of the 74,774 selections made in the various iterations of the M.L.B. draft since it began in 1965, Schmidt has done more for the team that drafted him than any other.

A generation beyond Schmidt’s retirement in 1989 — a decision that came the same month as the confounding death of the dogged scout who signed him, Tony Lucadello — it remains true: no player has accumulated more wins above replacement for the team that picked him than Schmidt, the Philadelphia Phillies’ second-round choice, 30th overall, in 1971.

“To have Mike Schmidt start with the Phillies, stay with the Phillies, be inducted into the Hall of Fame as a Phillie only,” said the longtime scout Gary Nickels, who learned the trade from Lucadello, “that’s the ultimate.”

The draft, an annual June ritual since its inception, will shift to July this year to coincide with the All-Star Game. While a few drafted players have compiled more overall WAR — spread across multiple teams — Schmidt did the most to fulfill every scout’s fantasy: that an amateur player could become the best to ever play his position and lead his team to unprecedented glory.

Value Added as a Draft Pick

Since the Major League Baseball draft was instituted in 1965, 74,774 players have been drafted. Mike Schmidt leads all of them in terms of wins above replacement produced for the team that drafted him. The top 50 are shown here.

Wins above replacement for drafting team

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Note: Wins above replacement produced for teams other than a player’s drafting team are not shown. Totals may not match Baseball Reference because of rounding. This season’s WAR through June 4.

Source: Baseball Reference

By The New York Times

While there is no perfect way to sum up a player’s career into an easily digestible figure, WAR, which accounts for a player’s hitting, baserunning and defense, while adjusting for position, era and ballpark, is the closest thing we have to a catch-all statistic. Fans of more traditional statistics could instead note that Schmidt hit more home runs for the team that drafted him than any other draft pick, while playing game-changing defense and leading a previously moribund franchise to its first World Series title.

Using other methods, arguments could be made for Cal Ripken Jr., Albert Pujols and several others, but Schmidt, a third baseman who had 106.9 WAR by Baseball Reference’s counting, stands alone in that metric. He said he doubted this distinction would last.

Now 71, Schmidt divides his time between Florida and Rhode Island, calling Phillies games on home Sundays and working to raise awareness of melanoma after a fight with skin cancer in 2013. In a phone interview last month, he predicted Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels would pass him as the best draft pick ever.

“Oh sure, absolutely, are you kidding?” said Schmidt, adding that Trout would still need to excel into his thirties. “And he seems to be the kind of kid that will.”

Schmidt was also that kind of kid, willing himself to greatness through a combination of talent and desire. Pat Gillick, a Hall of Fame executive, scouted Schmidt and considered him a second- or third-round talent whose inner fire lifted him to Cooperstown.

“He was playing short at that time and I thought he was too big to play short; I thought, Well, he’d either have to play third or first,” said Gillick, then a Houston scout and now a senior adviser and minority owner with the Phillies. “I liked him offensively and thought he was going to be a good hitter, even though there were a lot of swings and misses in there.

“But one thing about Mike is, Mike’s a smart guy — a very smart guy — and he is really driven to be successful. So he really took pride in every part of his game from his fielding to his hitting, and he was a hard worker and that’s what it takes. The most important ingredient, I think, is the mental aspect of it, and Mike would do anything possible to improve himself.”

For the young Mike Schmidt, there was a lot to improve. But an old scout, who knew him better than any of his peers, was certain he could do it.

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Mike Schmidt was scouted and signed by Tony Lucadello. He inscribed this photo to Lucadello with “Tony, You made it all possible. Thanks, Mike Schmidt.”Credit…Toni Lucadello

Tony Lucadello was the kind of scout Hollywood turned into a punchline. He would have fit well in the early scenes of “Moneyball,” where graying scouts talk about “the good face” and the sound of the ball off the bat. He worked without a radar gun or stopwatch and believed in homespun theories — dubious but unimpeachable — that 87 percent of baseball was played below the waist and that no player with glasses should be signed.

Born in 1912, with a couple of years as a Class D infielder in the 1930s, Lucadello was 5-foot-7, if that. “When you say Dr. Fauci, that’s who Tony Lucadello reminds me of today,” Schmidt said of Lucadello, who had a dapper style: a coat and a tie, a fedora, and an ever-shifting perch at games.

Lucadello would watch from the outfield or the baselines — even, sometimes, from a tree — to view prospects from various angles while keeping his distance from rival scouts. He did not drink or smoke or socialize much.

“He would exchange pleasantries, but he never gave you a smell of what was going on, not even a hint,” Gillick said. “You thought he was a little bit eccentric, but at the same time scouts recognized people that could evaluate talent, people who’d been successful, and Tony certainly was.”

By 1980, the year Schmidt carried the Phillies to their first World Series title, Lucadello had signed more major leaguers than all of the team’s other scouts combined. In all, he signed 52 players who reached the majors, including another Hall of Famer, pitcher Fergie Jenkins, and eight other All-Stars: infielders Toby Harrah and Mickey Morandini, outfielders Larry Hisle and Alex Johnson, and pitchers Don Elston, Grant Jackson, Mike Marshall and Bob Rush.

“Tony Lucadello was one of the greatest scouts I ever knew,” said Art Stewart, 94, a senior adviser for the Kansas City Royals who met Lucadello in 1950. “Branch Rickey put it best: a great scout has the intangibles, like a great musician with an ear for music. I’ll never forget that, and that was Tony. Besides being so skillful at evaluating, he was so into getting the in-depth background on a player, to know everything he could from the priest of his church, from his girlfriend, from his father.”

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Schmidt was a star for Coach Bob Wren at Ohio University. He faced another top prospect when they went up against Southern California in 1970: Dave Kingman of the Trojans went No. 1 in the secondary phase of the 1970 draft. Schmidt went 30th in 1971.Credit…Ohio University Archives

Those skills were especially important in the years before the draft, when a prospect might choose his team based largely on a personal bond with a scout. Lucadello started scouting in the early 1940s for the Chicago Cubs, covering nine states and parts of Canada, logging some 70,000 miles a year in his car. In his later years, with the Phillies, he concentrated on Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, his home state, spreading the gospel of the game to promising young athletes.

“He would sell what it’s like and explain it all and really educate you about the minor leagues,” said Steve Phillips, the former Mets general manager, who was scouted by Lucadello as an amateur player in Detroit. “The number of times he must have done that in his life — to go into those homes and have the exact same conversation — but he made it fresh, he made it real.”

Lucadello would write regular letters to his signees as they made their way in the pros, and scour box scores every morning looking for their names. His trusted network of bird dogs — part-time scouts — gave him tips on players to follow, and one, Ed French, alerted him in 1965 to a high school sophomore named Mike Schmidt.

“Sometimes he would do things that would amaze me,” Lucadello told Mark Winegardner for the book “Prophet of the Sandlots,” a tender and moving portrait published in 1990. “Other times he would make errors or just look terrible up at the plate. This gave me an edge right away, see, because other scouts, they’d see him and they’d pick at all those flaws. But I sensed Mike Schmidt would be a late bloomer.”

To protect the secret of his prized prospect, Lucadello took extreme measures. He got a janitor to let him watch games from the roof of a nearby building. If he saw other scouts’ cars in the parking lot, he drove away. He never contacted Schmidt, his parents or his coach, but he was delighted when Schmidt chose Ohio, whose coach, Bob Wren, was a close friend.

Through that relationship, Lucadello knew how much stronger Schmidt was getting by working to stabilize his knees, which both underwent operations after football injuries with Fairview. Even as Schmidt became a star, his knees worried other scouts.

“What they didn’t know,” Lucadello told Winegardner, describing Schmidt’s regimen, was that “his knees were as good as new.”

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Schmidt was a remarkable two-way player. He slugged 548 home runs, won 10 Gold Gloves and was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award three times.Credit…Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The warranty on Schmidt’s knees has long since expired; playing 74 percent of his career games on artificial turf — with no designated hitter in the National League to ease the burden — did not help. The right knee has had three operations, Schmidt said, and the left knee has had four, including its initial reconstruction in 1965.

“I’m just at the brink of having it replaced and I keep postponing it and postponing it and it keeps hanging on and hanging on,” Schmidt said. “I can still swing a golf club. I can’t walk or run distances anymore — can’t run at all — but it’s getting me through each day.”

It’s a wonder Schmidt’s knees held up for his first baseball tryout at Ohio, let alone 2,404 games in the majors. Before playing for Wren, Schmidt tried basketball, winning a starting job as a guard on Ohio University’s freshman team.

“All I cared about was basketball at that point in time,” Schmidt said, but his knees ached from the drills. “I got called into the varsity coach’s office one day and he said, ‘Mike, your knees just aren’t going to make it.’ I was playing with a brace on each knee, and it just wasn’t pretty. Even though I could compete, there was no way, over the long haul, I was going to be able to make it in basketball. So I just kind of fell back on baseball.”

Strikeouts would always stalk Schmidt — he is 13th on the career list and was third when he retired — and he tried switch-hitting to get a better angle on breaking balls. Wren recognized that Schmidt was limiting his potential and asked him to bat right-handed against a right-handed pitcher one Friday night against rival Miami. He homered in his first at-bat, and that was that.

“I would never have gone anywhere in baseball if not for that decision by Coach Wren,” Schmidt said. “I was not a prospect as a switch-hitter. My power was right-handed, basically raw power, everything to the pull side. And if you can play shortstop and hit home runs and run pretty good and you’ve got good hands and all that, you attract some eyes.”

After leading Ohio to the College World Series in 1970, Schmidt hit .331 with 10 homers in 37 games in 1971. Lucadello’s secret was out, and Schmidt said he knew of at least three other teams that showed interest: the Baltimore Orioles, the California Angels and the Chicago White Sox.

Brandy Davis, who crosschecked the local scouts’ recommendations for the Phillies, saw Schmidt that May and raved about him in his report, later published in the book “Dollar Sign On The Muscle” by Kevin Kerrane. “This boy is wiry, strong, rawboned. Has good features — good voice, poise; looks like a ballplayer,” Davis wrote, before detailing Schmidt’s skills. “Will not survive first round in the draft.”

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George Brett and Schmidt are forever linked as Hall of Famers who were selected with back-to-back picks in the 1971 draft. They faced each other in the 1980 World Series.Credit…Associated Press

Davis was wrong about that; everyone passed on Schmidt in the first round, from the White Sox at No. 1 (Danny Goodwin) to Schmidt’s hometown Reds at No. 24 (Mike Miley). Picking sixth, the Phillies chose a high school right-hander named Roy Thomas, whom they traded before his modest career as a middle reliever. It could have been another colossal blunder for a franchise that had reached the postseason only once in the previous 55 seasons.

But Schmidt was still there in round two, and the Phillies grabbed him immediately after the Royals took their own future cornerstone, the California high school star George Brett. The two third basemen would meet in the World Series in 1980, an M.V.P. season for both, but Schmidt said he never knew they were drafted consecutively until about 10 years ago, over drinks at Cooperstown.

In any event, the Phillies still had to sign Schmidt, who had limited bargaining power. Schmidt had no agent, but his father, Jack, was a tough negotiator, rejecting Lucadello’s initial offer of a $25,000 bonus.

They sealed the back-and-forth talks at a Holiday Inn in Dayton — Room 308, Lucadello told Winegardner — with a $32,500 bonus, plus $2,500 for each minor-league level Schmidt would pass. Critically, Schmidt also got an invitation to formalize the deal at Veterans Stadium, where he could work out with the Phillies.

“That was more important than the money,” said Schmidt, who splurged for a Corvette Stingray fastback. “Veterans Stadium was new; it was the talk of baseball. The red shoes and the pinstriped uniforms and the artificial turf, going into the major league locker room and putting the uniform on — if that wasn’t enough to entice you to sign a major league contract, nothing would.”

Schmidt’s signing barely registered in the local press. On June 12, the Philadelphia Daily News ran a four-sentence story about it, with no byline, next to a photo of five women dancing on the Vet turf after winning a “hot pants contest.” The story said Schmidt had been assigned to the Class A Carolina League, but he never made it there.

While Schmidt was in town, the Phillies asked him to come along for an exhibition against their Class AA club in Reading, Pa. He played for the major league side, hit a game-winning homer and stayed with Reading, effectively jumping a full level through a well-timed stroke of luck.

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Schmidt led the National League in home runs eight times. He also had a stretch where he led the N.L. in on-base percentage three years in a row. Credit…Associated Press

From there his career unfolded just as Lucadello predicted. Schmidt was, indeed, a late bloomer with fierce drive; after hitting .196 as a rookie in 1973, he found his confidence and learned to hit the slider while playing winter ball in Caguas, Puerto Rico. Schmidt would lead the majors in homers in each of the next three seasons, guiding the Phillies to their first-ever sustained stretch of winning.

His career would last 18 seasons in which he hit 548 home runs, scored and drove in more than 1,500 runs and won 10 Gold Gloves. He was selected to 12 All-Star teams and won three Most Valuable Player Awards. In 1995, his first year on the ballot, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with 96.5 percent of the vote.

Schmidt has never forgotten the impact Lucadello had on his career.

In 1987, after Schmidt hit his 500th home run, the Phillies invited Lucadello to a celebration at the Vet. Schmidt still has a photo from that night, he said, perhaps the same one he signed to Lucadello with the inscription, “You made it all possible.”

Lucadello shared that photo with the Chicago Tribune for a feature story late that season. He lamented to the writer, Ron Grossman, that players were no longer developing in the United States because athletes were no longer growing up learning the game on sandlots.

By 1988, the Phillies had tumbled to last place and overhauled their front office. While they promised Lucadello a job for life, they also trimmed part-time scouts from their budget, a decision that devastated him. He wrote a resignation letter but never sent it.

On May 8, 1989, at an empty baseball field in his hometown, Fostoria, Ohio, Lucadello, who had grown despondent about the state of the game and his place in it, shot himself to death. He was 76.

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Often a symbol of quiet strength, Schmidt was overcome with emotion when he announced his retirement in 1989. He was comforted by the broadcaster Richie Ashburn.Credit…Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

“I think part of it, and we see it with players sometimes, is that clubs don’t really know what to do with people who have kind of gone beyond their value, as far as what they’re doing,” said Nickels, now a senior adviser with the Los Angeles Dodgers after a long career with the Phillies and other teams.

“I suppose it’s that way in every business. I always felt that Tony was not held in high enough regard, but his personality was not one to force that, because of being private. But was I surprised, because he would have never let you have any idea he was going to do something like that.”

Three weeks later, on Memorial Day, Schmidt abruptly retired in San Diego. He was 39 and hitting .203. The day before, in San Francisco, he had made a two-out error to load the bases for Will Clark, who hit a grand slam. Schmidt’s skills had eroded, irreversibly, and he could not meet the demands of his own high standards. It was time to go.

At his news conference, in a football clubhouse at Jack Murphy Stadium, Schmidt broke down when he mentioned his roots.

“Some 18 years ago, I left Dayton, Ohio, with two very bad knees” — and here Schmidt paused for several seconds — “and a dream to become a major league baseball player,” he said. Schmidt’s voice cracked, and he began to cry. “I thank God that dream came true.”

The odds were infinitesimal that this player would do more for his team than any drafted player, before or since. The odds, to be precise, were 74,774 to 1.

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