Schmidt, Carlton and fire: Classic '80s poster

Photographer shares stories of flaming bats and balls in Phillies photoshoot

November 19th, 2021

PHILADELPHIA -- Bryce Harper and Zack Wheeler already have the powder blues.

Why not douse a bat and ball and light them aflame, too?

This week, Harper and Wheeler nearly joined Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton as the second pair of Phillies in franchise history to win the National League MVP and Cy Young Awards in the same season. Harper won MVP on Thursday. Wheeler fell 10 points short of Corbin Burnes for Cy Young on Wednesday, the closest NL vote since the ballot expanded from three pitchers to five in 2010. Schmidt and Carlton won MVP and Cy Young, respectively, in 1980.

As fans anticipated a potential Harper-Wheeler sweep, a memorable Nike poster shot in 1981 featuring Schmidt and Carlton resurfaced on social media, beginning in the summer. The image is an `80s classic: Schmidt, smiling at Carlton as he holds a bat on fire. Carlton, smiling at the camera as he holds a baseball on fire. Both are wearing their powder blue road uniforms with maroon caps.

It reads “MVP & CY” at the bottom.

“They were both blown away by the fact that they had to actually hold things that were burning,” photographer Bill Sumner said recently. “That was in the days prior to Photoshop and all of that stuff. We actually did things, you know?”

Sumner shot that memorable image with Schmidt and Carlton somewhere in St. Petersburg, Fla., during a Spring Training in the early 1980s. He shot several other iconic Nike posters from the era: Bo Jackson and Bo Diddley playing guitars on stage, Will Clark and Mark McGwire swinging at each other from across the San Francisco Bay, Lance Parrish standing next to a tiger, Charles Barkley holding onto a rim torn from a glass backboard, Randall Cunningham as “Rocketman” and more.

“I just had a guy drill a bunch of holes in the baseball bat and stuff them with cotton,” Sumner said. “He dipped the whole thing in alcohol. We did the same thing with the baseball, but that was trickier. Because [Carlton’s] hand, which was a golden hand of course, was right next to the flame. We had the thing dug out and we put a little metal cup in there. We put cotton and alcohol in it and said, ‘If it starts to burn, drop it.’

“That wasn’t the scariest one we did. We shot Lance Parrish with a 700-pound tiger. That tiger ended the freaking shoot by growling at Lance. And that was the end of it. Today we would never do those things.”

Sumner said Peter Moore came up with the burning bat and ball idea. Moore had Nike as a client at his design agency in 1977. He joined Nike as their creative director in 1983. He and his business partner, Rob Strasser, launched Air Jordan.

Moore, in fact, designed the Air Jordan 1 sneaker.

Sumner said Moore’s crew gave him two or three ideas to shoot every spring.

“They’d call me up and tell me what they wanted,” he said. “In this instance they’d say, ‘Hey, we want a flaming ball and a flaming bat.’ And they left it up to me to figure out how to make it happen. That’s pretty much how those crazy ideas happened.”

“At the time we were both at the top of the sport at our positions,” Schmidt said. “So I think it was pretty cool that Nike made us part of that. I think the essence was that we were both hot players at the time in the sport. Hot items, hot players. We had some degree of fame.”

Sumner prepped for the shoot by having two people stand in for Schmidt and Carlton. He needed to make sure the lighting was perfect before they arrived. He needed to make sure there would be no hiccups.

Athletes don’t like to waste a lot of time at photoshoots.

“The actual time with athletes was minimal,” Sumner said. “If you’re standing there with something burning in your hand you’re not going to do it very long anyway. If you look at the expressions on their faces, they’re kind of like, 'Holy [cow], are we actually doing this?' It was a real moment. The smiling is a result of thinking, 'I can’t believe we’re doing this.'”

“The reaction in the pic was real,” Carlton confirmed in a text message via a representative. “We didn’t know how big the flames would get.”

Sumner recalled getting the shot almost immediately, but Carlton thought the photoshoot lasted 2-3 hours. Schmidt doesn’t remember much about the experience, other than the final product.

Ten minutes or 180 minutes, it was worth it. The image resonates nearly 40 years later. And even though Harper and Wheeler didn’t sweep like Schmidt and Carlton in ’80, it would be a fun to see the MVP and Phillies' ace recreate it.

“I think it’d be cool,” Schmidt said. “Maybe it’d be cool to bring back some of the old guys, like Carlton and I.”