Carlton Does It All
It was so typical. On July 23, 1972, the Phillies were playing the Dodgers in Los Angeles. Steve Carlton was pitching a shutout, but the Phillies hadn’t scored, a common occurrence that year. The season was barely half over and the club was the owner of the worst record in baseball: 30-57.
Then, in the seventh inning, a miracle: The Phils got their first two batters on base. After Dodgers pitcher Tommy John struck out the next two hitters, it was Carlton’s turn to bat. He looked into the dugout, probably expecting new manager Paul Owens to use a pinch-hitter. But Owens motioned for Carlton to get into the batter’s box. The 21,288 fans at Chavez Ravine might have been surprised, but what the hell, Owens figured, the way Carlton’s season was going, he’d earned the right to try to win the game.
John delivered the pitch. Carlton swung and the ball lofted into right, carrying over outfielder Frank Robinson before it hit the right field wall. He had a triple, driving in the two runners, putting the Phillies up 2-0. Carlton easily dispatched the Dodgers in the final three frames. The contest lasted exactly two hours.
In many ways the game perfectly encapsulated Carlton’s season as he had to do it all. He made 41 starts, threw 30 complete games, and logged 346 innings, more than anyone since. He also struck out 310 batters, becoming only the second lefthander in National League history to record 300 strikeouts (Sandy Koufax was first) and posted an ERA of 1.97.
Most remarkable, though, he won 27 games for a team that won only 59. (Only one pitcher since has won 27, the A’s Bob Welch whose team won the World Series that year.) In other words, Carlton – who finished 27-10 – accounted for 45.7 percent of his team’s wins in 1972, a record unlikely to be broken.
Indeed, for all of Carlton’s greatness – he would win 329 games, garner four Cy Young awards and record 4,136 strikeouts over the course of a Hall of Fame career – the Phillies’ dismal record that year obscured what, in hindsight, may just be the most impressive single season by any individual player in any team sport. Ever. Or as Billy DeMars, the Phillies’ batting coach in 1972, put it: “It was the greatest pitching performance I saw in my 58 years of baseball… Everything he did was absolutely perfect.”
The year before, Carlton had gone 20-9 for the St. Louis Cardinals, and he was seeking a raise from $40,000 to $90,000 a year – but St. Louis was holding firm at a lower figure. Carlton, though, was equally obstinate, and Cardinals owner Auggie Busch told general manager Bing Devine to trade him. “We were probably the first team that St. Louis called,” recalled Ruly Carpenter, who would later take over the team from his father, Bob, as owner and President. “It was not an insurmountable amount [of money] between them.”
At the time, the trade did not look lopsided. Rick Wise had won 17 games with a 2.88 ERA for the Phillies in 1971. And on June 23 of that year, he not only threw a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds at Riverfront Stadium, he hit two home runs. When Wise was sent to St. Louis, Phillies fans grumbled the team traded its best hitter.
Carlton reported to spring training a few days before exhibition games started. For Carlton, the trade meant a bigger paycheck, of course, but equally important, it freed him from a dictum St. Louis decreed: not to throw a slider.
Carlton had a fastball in the 95 mph range, and a big, slow-breaking curveball. Yet, Phillies pitching coach Ray Rippelmeyer noticed something was missing. “I had seen him pitch in the minor leagues and seen him use another type of breaking pitch that I hadn’t seen him use when I saw him pitch against us in 1971,” said Rippelmeyer. “I asked him about it, and he told me the Cardinals weren’t letting him throw a slider. I asked if I could see it. He threw me a half dozen and I said, ‘You and I are going to use this pitch.’
“The theory back then in certain clubs and pitching coaches was if you started throwing the slider, you would lose your curveball,” continued Rippelmeyer. “He had a very good overhand curve and I was convinced that [the slider theory] was a complete fallacy. I had thrown both of them. I convinced him to forget it.”
“It was devastating,” recalled Larry Bowa, the team’s shortstop. “I’ve never seen so many righthanders swing and miss at that pitch.”
After a good start – the Phillies were in first place in early May – the team went into a tailspin, losing 19 of 20 games. And Carlton wasn’t helping. After going 5-1, he lost five straight decisions.
But change was coming. First, Ruly Carpenter became team president. Quinn was let go and Owens was named general manager and later manager. In a few years, the duo would lead the Phils to one of the most successful runs in team history. Owens tried to shake things up with a few trades, such as Tim McCarver to Montreal for John Bateman, the Expos’ starting catcher.
The move didn’t seem to faze Carlton. After he had retired the side in one game, Bateman sat down in the dugout. “It doesn’t matter what I call,” he told Rippelmeyer. “Anything I call it’s a perfect pitch. The way he’s throwing, the calling doesn’t matter really.”
Besides Carlton, the pitching staff ranged from wily veterans like Woody Fryman to youngsters Barry Lersch, Ken Reynolds, and Wayne Twitchell.
“He [Carlton] was a good teammate,” said Reynolds, who was 2-15 in ’72. Reynolds also says other pitchers never minded the team seemed to play better when Carlton pitched.
In an August game in Cincinnati, Carlton entered the ninth up 4-2, but the Reds scored a run and had two runners on with nobody out. Rookie reliever Mac Scarce was brought in to face Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Bobby Tolan. “I got Rose to ground out and got Morgan and Tolan to strike out,” said Scarce. “That was my claim to fame,” he said, saving a game for Carlton.
“Every fourth day we were the best team in baseball,” Scarce continues. “Every other day we were the worst.”
Bowa had a special name for when Carlton pitched: win days. “Steve sort of started it when he’d come through the clubhouse doors and say it’s win day, and I sort of picked up on that,” said Bowa. “No matter how bad the team was, he expected you to go out and win when he pitched. We were a young team without experience, and maybe it was because we knew we didn’t have to score many runs that we elevated our play when he went out there.”
Even as a rookie, Greg Luzinski knew the team wasn’t the same when Carlton pitched. “There was a different attitude,” he said. “Steve was a mind-over-matter guy. You used to hear him say on the bench stuff like, ‘Just let the ability flow, the ability’s there, just let it flow.’ I think that was his motto, play hard, relax and let it flow, and there’s ability there and it will come through. Don’t put any unwanted pressure on yourself. No question he helped change the attitude of pitchers and a lot of the young guys.”
Carlton was the rare individual, says infielder Terry Harmon, who could totally blank out everything except what mattered at the moment: himself, the catcher, the ball and the batter. “He seemed to be able to stay in that zone,” said Harmon. “If it was a bad call, it didn’t bother him. If it was an error, it didn’t seem to bother him. When he was pitching and you had a decent game, or if you made a few plays or whatever, that made you feel part of it, and I think everybody looked at it like that.”
There was another benefit for his teammates: “He worked fast,” says DeMars. “I was a shortstop myself, and there’s nothing better than working behind a pitcher who worked fast. What drove you crazy were guys who took too much time, who’d step off the rubber or shake off the catcher. When he got the ball back in his glove he was ready to go. Infielders play better behind that. The only people who hated Carlton were the concession people: The game was over in an hour and a half.”
On opening night at Veterans Stadium 8,000 fans came to see Carlton outduel Bob Gibson, 1-0, in a contest that took only 1:33 to play.
After losing five straight, Carlton found his groove. By August, he had reeled off 14 straight victories and was going for his 20th win at home against the Reds on Aug. 17. More than 42,000 fans showed up at Veterans Stadium. “It felt like a playoff game,” said Bowa. Two unusual things happened that night: Carlton gave up four runs, but the Phils scored nine runs.
After the season, Carlton was the unanimous choice for the NL Cy Young Award, only the fourth pitcher to accomplish this.
Carlton went on to win three more Cy Young Awards, but 1972 was special. Great pitchers have done well for bad teams: Walter Johnson for the woeful Washington Senators, Robin Roberts with the Phillies after the 1950 Whiz Kids crumbled, but no one, before or since, has achieved more with less than Carlton did that year. As third baseman Don Money puts it: “Even a Hall of Fame player can have a career year.”