Philadelphia's sports pinnacle

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Mike Schmidt and other Phillies celebrate their World Series triumph on the night of Oct. 21, 1980. Schmidt also was the National League's most valuable player that season. (File photo)

In 1981, Inquirer columnist Frank Dolson authored a book on Philadelphia's recent sports history. In its title, the final word in the phrase "A City of Losers" was crudely crossed out and replaced by "Winners."

It was perhaps the briefest and most effective way to portray an unprecedented run of athletic success that began in October 1979 and magically persisted until January 1981.

During those astonishing 16 months, Philadelphia was transformed from a gritty outpost of the sports universe to its unrivaled capital.

One of just a handful of cities with teams in each major professional sport, Philadelphia's four all would play for championships in that brief span, one following another like Penn Relays sprinters.

In May 1980, the Flyers reached the Stanley Cup Finals and the 76ers the NBA Finals. Five months later, the Phillies played in a World Series. And three months after that, the Eagles traveled to their first Super Bowl.

Ultimately, only the Phillies would win a championship. But the season-long journeys of all four teams would leave a lasting impression on a city that is mad - and just as often angry - about sports.

It all began on consecutive autumn nights at the Spectrum, Oct. 11 and 12, when first the Flyers and then the 76ers began their 1979-80 seasons with home victories.

Actually, it was the Flyers who had initiated the city's Great Sports Surge a few years earlier, winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1973-74 and 1974-75. But those championship winners never roared through a season the way the 1979-80 Flyers would.

They would lose the season's second game two nights later in Atlanta. Then they would not be beaten again until Jan. 7, a record-setting streak of 35 games, 87 days. It remains the longest such streak in pro sports.

Coached by Pat Quinn - Bobby Clarke was his playing assistant - Philadelphia would lose just 12 of 80 regular-season games. With 116 points, the Flyers finished 25 points ahead of the Patrick Division runner-up Islanders.

Those young and talented New Yorkers would defeat them in a six-game Stanley Cup Finals, whose concluding overtime match was marred by one of the most notorious officiating decisions in Philadelphia sports history - linesman Leon Stickle's blown offside call on the Islanders' second goal.

The 76ers were nearly as impressive. Led by Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Mo Cheeks and Bobby Jones, they went 59-23 in a high-flying regular season.

Philadelphians' interest in the team grew when the Sixers thrashed the hated Celtics in five games to earn a spot in the NBA Finals opposite Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Lakers.

Though they trailed three-games-to-two in the series, it looked as if the title was there for the 76ers to grab when Abdul-Jabbar was injured in Game 5. That view was reenforced when L.A. coach Paul Westhead, a Philadelphian, started a 6-9 rookie guard at center in Game 6.

But Magic Johnson was no ordinary rookie. Playing out of position, he collected 42 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists as the Lakers won the game, 123-107, and the title.

Those two championship disappointments fanned the pessimism of Philly's sports fans, an unease that grew when the Phillies stumbled.

But with MVP Mike Schmidt and Tug McGraw getting hot at the right time, the Phillies rallied to win their fourth NL East title in five years and a memorable NL Championship Series with Houston.

After that dramatic playoff comeback against the Astros, the Phils' World Series date with Kansas City seemed anticlimactic. For a few games, the hemorrhoids that hampered Royals star George Brett got the most headlines.

The Phillies would win the Series in six games, their long-suffering franchise's happy ending arriving just before 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 21, 1980, when McGraw leaped joyfully off the Veterans Stadium mound.

That long-awaited title for a franchise that, with few exceptions in 97 years, had been a laughingstock triggered spontaneous combustions of joy throughout the city.

"Once a century, even in Philadelphia," wrote The Inquirer's Jayson Stark, "things ought to be allowed to turn out right."

It looked as if they might again when the 1980 Eagles, guided so energetically by young coach Dick Vermeil, won 12 of 16 regular season games. Better than that for local fans was their 20-7 NFC championship game win over the despised Dallas Cowboys at a frigid Vet - highlighted by Wilbert Montgomery's now-famous TD gallop.

Somehow, in the two weeks of hype and hoopla preceding the Super Bowl in New Orleans, the Eagles' magic dissipated. Oakland beat them handily and it would be 24 years before Philadelphia would return to the NFL's championship event.