Carlton has been honored by the Phillies as a member of the franchise Wall of Fame and with a statue outside of Citizens Bank Park
This is the 22nd entry in the Philography series of mini-bios highlighting the careers of the most interesting and important individuals throughout Philadelphia Phillies history.
It is a simple matter of fact to state that Steve Carlton is the greatest pitcher to ever pull on a Philadelphia Phillies jersey.
“Lefty” was enshrined on the Phillies Wall of Fame in 1989, just a year following his retirement from baseball. He was also a first ballot enshrinee when eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame five years later in 1994.
Steven Norman Carlton was a South Florida kid, born and raised in Miami. He played Little League ball and then at North Miami High School, even staying home to play his college ball at Miami-Dade College where he was used primarily as a relief pitcher.
It was while still a college student that Carlton signed his first professional contract, receiving a $5,000 bonus to ink a deal with the Saint Louis Cardinals.
Chuck Hixson for 247 Sports noted in a May 2017 piece that the Cardinals nearly passed on signing Carlton, relating the following story from an unnamed scout:
“Chase Riddle was the Cardinals scout that signed him, and when he had him pitch for the Cardinals brass, they weren’t overly impressed. Riddle practically threatened to quit if they didn’t sign him, and really stuck his neck out to get him signed.”
Hixson also quotes Carlton himself in his piece, which was written on the occasion of an appearance at a home game in 2017 for the Phillies Triple-A Lehigh Valley affiliates:
“...I didn’t really even know about the big leagues until I was a senior in high school. North Miami is rural, they have college football and horse racing, so that was all that I knew. I didn’t really know what was going on...”
Carlton’s talent was unmistakable from the get-go, as he rolled through three levels of the Cardinals minor league system during his first pro season of 1964. That summer, Carlton went 15-6 and reached Double-A at just age 19, giving up just 118 hits over 178 innings with 191 strikeouts and a 2.22 ERA.
At age 20, Carlton made his big-league debut the following season. He pitched in 15 games for Saint Louis that year, including his first two starts in Major League Baseball. Carlton described his first-ever outing on a mound with the Cardinals this way:
“My major league debut came at old Busch Stadium on Grand Avenue in St. Louis, against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The first pitch I threw was to third baseman Bob Bailey. It was a fastball, low and away. He ripped it for a home run down the left field line. I said, ‘Damn, that was a pretty good pitch.”
Among those early outings were a pair of appearances against the Phillies. On May 8, 1965 at Connie Mack Stadium, Carlton would first face the club with which he would ultimately become most famously associated. Entering in the bottom of the 7th inning, Carlton got Tony Gonzalez to ground into a force out and then struck out Clay Dalrymple swinging to end the frame.
After making nine more appearances with the 1966 Cardinals, Carlton earned a spot in their starting rotation for the 1967 season. He would go 14-9 over 30 games, 28 of those as starts, and helped Saint Louis to win 101 games and the National League pennant.
With the Cardinals leading the Boston Red Sox by three games to one in the World Series, he was given the start for Game 5 at Busch Stadium by manager Red Schoendienst. Carlton tossed six shutout frames, leaving with the Cards trailing 1-0 in a game they would end up losing by 3-1. On the mound that day for Boston shutting Saint Louis out on three hits was his future Phillies rotation mate, Jim Lonborg.
When the series returned to Fenway Park, Boston tied things up with an 8-4 victory. But Bob Gibson then bested Lonborg for his third win of the Fall Classic in Game 7, and the Cardinals became world champions, earning Carlton his first World Series ring.
Over the next four years with Saint Louis, Carlton developed into one of the top starting pitchers in all of baseball. He was a National League All-Star in 1968, 1969, and again in 1971. Just entering his prime at age 26, Carlton had already won 77 big-league games.
His 1970 season was marred by a contract dispute over which Carlton held out and missed spring training. When the season got underway, he suffered through an underwhelming 10-19 campaign.
After he rebounded with his first 20-win season in 1971, Carlton again demanded a raise. In those final years just prior to baseball’s reserve clause being eliminated and free agency instituted, he had little recourse but to hold out once again.
Gussie Busch, who had made a fortune with Budweiser beer and the Anheuser-Busch Companies, was the Cardinals owner from 1953 until his death in 1989. Busch was an old-school owner who had little time for what he felt were prima donna players trying to force his hand.
Instead of paying up, Busch ordered that Carlton be traded by general manager Bing Devine. So, as spring training was underway, Devine made a fateful deal. On February 25, 1972, Carlton was traded to the Phillies straight-up for right-handed pitcher Rick Wise.
“There was no free agency, so he didn’t have the freedom to say, ‘Sign me or else.’ He was being very difficult to sign for the ridiculous amount of $10,000 between what he wanted and what we’d give him,” said Devine. “Many times Mr. Busch gave me a little leeway in the budget, but in the case of Carlton, Mr. Busch developed the feeling that Carlton was a ‘smart-aleck’ young guy, ‘and I’m not used to having young smart-alecks tell me what do.”
Wise was no slouch. He was coming off a 17-win season with the Phillies at age 25 during which he was selected to his first National League All-Star team. Having made his big-league debut with the club at just age 18 during the ill-fated 1964 season, Wise was considered a solid and rising starting pitcher in his own right.
In fact, Wise would win 16 games for Saint Louis each of the next two seasons, and was again selected to the NL All-Star team in 1973. The Cardinals would end up packaging him with outfielder Bernie Carbo in a trade to the Red Sox in October 1973 for star outfielder Reggie Smith. Wise would ultimately pitch for 18 years in the big-leagues, winning 188 games with five different clubs.
The Phillies would, however, clearly get the best of this deal. In his first season with the club, Carlton would fashion one of the greatest pitching performances in baseball history. He went 27-10 with a last place Phillies team that won just 59 total games. That made for 45.8% of the club’s 1972 victories. Carlton allowed just 257 hits over 346.1 innings across 41 starts with 310 strikeouts.
It would all add up to the first of what would ultimately be four National League Cy Young Awards for Carlton, this one in a unanimous vote. He was also selected to his fifth NL All-Star team, and came in 5th place in the NL MVP voting as well.
“Auggie Busch traded me to the last-place Phillies over a salary dispute,” he said. “I was mentally committed to winning 25 games with the Cardinals and now I had to re-think my goals. I decided to stay with the 25-win goal and won 27 of the Phillies 59 victories. I consider that season my finest individual achievement.”
Over the next three years the Phillies began to slowly emerge as contenders. A homegrown group of young players developing from the minor leagues which already included left fielder Greg Luzinski and shortstop Larry Bowa would be joined by third baseman Mike Schmidt and catcher Bob Boone.
Carlton was solid but unspectacular during the 1973-75 seasons, going a combined 44-47 with 759 hits allowed over 839.2 innings while striking out 655 batters. He was an NL All-Star during a 16-win campaign in the 1974 season.
It was during this period that, feeling he was receiving unfair criticism from the local press, Carlton stopped talking to the media. In later years he would speak about the situation as follows:
“I was tired of getting slammed. To me it was a slap in the face. But it made me concentrate better. And the irony is that they wrote better without access to my quotes…I took it personal. I got slammed quite a bit. To pick up the paper and read about yourself getting slammed, that doesn’t start your day off right.”
In 1976, the Phillies broke through to win their first-ever National League East Division crown. Carlton won 20 games at age 31 on a staff that included fellow veterans Lonborg and Jim Kaat and a pair of talented 22-year-olds in Larry Christenson and Tom Underwood.
The Phillies would get swept out of the National League Championship Series in three straight games by the Cincinnati Reds. That was the heyday of the ‘Big Red Machine‘, and Carlton took the loss in the opener. He yielded four earned runs on seven hits in the game, including a sixth-inning two run homer off the bat of George Foster to break a 1-1 tie.
Carlton would finish fourth in the NL Cy Young voting that year. Both he and the club would do even better the following season.
In 1977, the Phillies set a franchise record with 101 regular season wins. For his 23-10 season, Carlton was an NL All-Star for the sixth time. He then was awarded a second career Cy Young, finishing 5th in the NL MVP voting once again.
However, the Phillies would again fall short in the National League Championship Series. This time it was the Los Angeles Dodgers knocking them out in four games. Included was the infamous ‘Black Friday‘ of Game 3, which set up Carlton’s start in Game 4.
In that Game 4 start, Carlton lasted just five innings on a miserable, rainy night at Veteran’s Stadium and the Dodgers eliminated the Phillies in front of their disheartened fans. Carlton allowed two runs with two outs in the 5th inning thanks largely to his second walk of the frame and a wild pitch, turning a 2-1 deficit into the final 4-1 margin of defeat.
Over the next two seasons of 1978-79, Carlton would fashion a combined 34-24 record. He was a 1979 NL All-Star, and stretched a personal streak of seasons during which he made more than 30 starts out to a dozen straight.
The Phillies tied the franchise mark with another 101-win campaign in 1978. But once again the Dodgers knocked them out in the NLCS in four games. Carlton wasn’t at his best when he was credited with the win in Game 3. But he helped himself with a home run and the Phillies bats exploded for their lone victory of the series, a 9-4 win at Dodger Stadium.
The 1979 season began with great promise. The Phillies were three-time defending NL East champions. They had signed free agent Pete Rose to help get them over the playoff hump during the off-season. They got off to a solid start, and the club wasa still tied for first place as late as May 27.
But there would be no playoffs in 1979. The Phillies would collapse thanks in part to a string of injuries. Following a legendary 23-22 shootout win over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on May 17, they stood at 24-10 with a 3.5 game lead in the division. From that point onward, the Phillies would go just 60-68. They finished in a disappointing fourth place, 14 games behind the eventual world champion Pittsburgh Pirates.
As fallout from that collapse, manager Danny Ozark was fired late in the 1979 season. The laid-back ‘Wizard of Oze’ was replaced by director of player development Dallas Green, who displayed much more of a confrontational personality.
It was Green’s mandate from the front office to figure out which players were the problems, weed them out, and make changes to try and get the club over the hump to a title. Green made it clear that in 1980 the Phillies would either finally produce a championship, or the club would be broken up.
Carlton would produce his best season since 1972. He went 24-9 with a 2.34 ERA, allowing just 243 hits over 304 innings across 38 starts with a league-leading 286 strikeouts. The result was his third career Cy Young Award. The Phillies would emerge from a dramatic final week of the season with their fourth NL East crown in five years.
Carlton drew the starting assignment for Games 1 and 4 of what turned into perhaps the greatest National League Championship Series in history. The Phillies would defeat the Houston Astros in the full five games, all close, with the last four all reaching extra innings.
In the opener, Carlton went seven innings and allowed just one run in a 3-1 victory at Veteran’s Stadium. With the Phillies then trailing by two games to one and their backs to the wall, Carlton went 5.1, allowing two runs in Game 4. The Phillies would rally to win in 10 innings to force a decisive fifth game in Houston.
The Phillies finally ended their NLCS frustrations with an epic Game 5 comeback victory over Nolan Ryan and the Astros. The first National League pennant for the club in 30 years allowed them to move on to face future Hall of Famer George Brett and the Kansas City Royals in the World Series.
In the Fall Classic, the Phillies would win both of Carlton’s starts, each coming at The Vet. The first was a come-from-behind 6-4 win in Game 2, when the Phillies scored four times in the bottom of the 8th inning to rally for a victory that put them up two games to none.
The Royals rallied to take two games back in Kansas City to tie the series, but the Phils rallied from behind to win Game 5. With the Phillies leading 3-2 in the Fall Classic and just a win away from the first world championship in franchise history, it was Carlton who took the mound for Game 6 back in Philadelphia.
On October 21, 1980 at Veteran’s Stadium, Carlton went seven strong innings, holding Kansas City to one run on four hits while striking out seven batters. When the first two Royals batters reached base to start the top of the 8th, Green pulled him in favor of Tug McGraw.
McGraw would eventually load the bases and surrender a sacrifice fly, narrowing the Phillies lead down to 4-1. But he got the dangerous Hal McRae to ground out to second base with the bases loaded to end that threat.
In the top of the 9th, the Royals again loaded the bases, this time with just one out. McGraw then got Frank White on a foul pop near the Phillies dugout on which Pete Rose made a heads-up play for the second out. And then, on a 1-2 pitch, the Tugger pumped a fastball past Willie Wilson for the final out. For the first time in their history, the Phillies were the world champions of baseball.
“Pete Rose came over to the Phillies in ’79 and he became the catalyst that helped us to put it all together,” said Carlton. “His example on the field and his leadership helped to bring everybody’s play up a notch. Hopefully, Pete will be reinstated by Baseball and he will have his rightful place in baseball history, a plaque in the Hall of Fame.”
The following year would be a strike-shortened season in Major League Baseball. Carlton had a fantastic year, going 13-4 with a 2.42 ERA and 179 strikeouts over 24 starts despite losing more than two months to the labor strife. He would finish 3rd behind Fernando Valenzuela and Tom Seaver in an extremely tight Cy Young vote.
That vote for the NL’s best pitcher would not be as tight in 1982. Carlton captured his fourth and final career Cy Young Award with a 23-11 campaign in which he struck out 275 batters over 283.2 innings across 37 starts.
On September 13 of that 1982 season, Carlton struck out a dozen Cardinals and homered during a victory at Veteran’s Stadium. He is the only pitcher to homer during a complete game shutout in three different decades. Carlton accomplished that feat four total times.
Unfortunately, the team would crumble down the stretch. Leading the NL East as late as September 13, the Phillies would go just 9-10 over the final weeks. They finished in second place, three games behind Carlton’s old Saint Louis team. The Cards would go on to capture their first world championship since his trade.
The Phillies would have one last hurrah in 1983. With a veteran-laden squad nicknamed ‘The Wheeze Kids’, the Phillies got hot in September and pulled away, winning the club’s fifth division title in eight years.
On September 23, Carlton enjoyed a major career milestone when he struck out a dozen over eight innings against the Cardinals in Saint Louis for the 300th victory of his career.
In the NLCS, the Phillies exorcised their 1970’s demons, beating back the Los Angeles Dodgers in four games. Carlton won both Game 1 and Game 4 with a pair of stellar outings, allowing a total of just one run on 13 hits over 13.2 innings with 13 strikeouts.
With the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles then knotted at a game apiece, Carlton would pitch well in Game 3 at Veteran’s Stadium. But it would be a fellow future Hall of Famer, Jim Palmer, who would earn the pivotal victory. Palmer tossed a pair of shutout relief innings as the Orioles won 3-2.
Led by series MVP catcher Rick Dempsey, future Hall of Fame first baseman Eddie Murray, and a rookie shortstop named Cal Ripken Jr the O’s would go on to down the Phillies in five games in that 1983 Fall Classic.
It had been a great run of a winning decade for both Carlton and the Phillies, but it was coming to an end. He won 13 games and made 33 starts in 1984 at age 39. The Phillies were tied for first place on July 2, but would finished just .500 at 81-81 and in fourth place.
During the 1982-84 seasons, Carlton became involved in an ongoing battle for the top of Major League Baseball’s all-time strikeouts list. The record had been held for decades by Walter Johnson. Over that three year period Carlton, Ryan, and Gaylord Perry would duel for the top spot. Ryan would ultimately last the longest and remains the all-time strikeout king, the only man to surpass the 5,000 career mark.
Carlton’s signature pitch was a wipeout slider. It was a pitch he had developed during an exhibition series of games in Japan following the 1968 season, and one which was unhittable when he was on. He once described throwing the pitch in this manner:
“It just rolls off of your index finger and begins it’s spin, which will take it down and across the plate. Just remember not to twist your elbow or wrist. It should be thrown, with the wrist and grip set, just like your fastball, slightly off center – with the same velocity and intensity.”
His string of 16 consecutive seasons (not counting the 1982 strike-shortened year) making at least 30 starts finally came to a grinding halt when Carlton missed more than two months with an injury in the summer of 1985. He went just 1-8 over 16 starts that year at age 40, and it appeared to be the end of the line.
Carlton came back in 1986 for what would prove to be his swan song in Philadelphia. He ended up making just 16 starts that year for the Phillies, going 4-8 with a 6.18 ERA.
On June 21, 1986 against his old Cardinals team, Carlton made his final start in a Phillies uniform. He surrendered six earned runs over five innings at The Vet. But while he struck out six batters, he also walked six.
GM Bill Giles would hand him his release just three days later, bringing Carlton’s time with the club to an end after a mostly dominating decade and a half.
The San Francisco Giants were in first place in early July. Their general manager Al Rosen felt that Carlton could provide another veteran for his team’s rotation to help carry them to the playoffs, and signed him to a contract. But Carlton would make just six starts by the Bay before San Francisco realized he had nothing left. They released him on August 7.
Before he left, Carlton provided San Francisco with one big moment. On August 5 at Candlestick Park in his final appearance in a Giants uniform, Carlton struck out Eric Davis of the Cincinnati Reds. It was the 4,000th strikeout of his career and he joined Ryan as the only members of the 4,000 Strikeout Club to that point.
Five days later it was the Chicago White Sox turn to see if they could catch lightning in a bottle. Under first-year GM Ken Harrelson and new manager Jim Fregosi, the Chisox were going nowhere. They decided to give Carlton a shot as a late-summer drawing card.
Carlton finished out that 1986 season making 10 starts with the White Sox. Maybe it was the aid of the Designated Hitter taking the toll of batting and running the bases off the aging lefty, but something was different over in the American League. Carlton recaptured some of his old magic as he went 4-3 with a 3.69 ERA, allowing just 58 hits over 63.1 innings. He pitched into at least the 7th inning on seven occasions.
A free agent that off-season, his late season success with Chicago was enough to entice the Cleveland Indians into a one-year deal. Carlton would appear in 23 games, 14 of those starts, before the Tribe dealt him to a Minnesota Twins club that was competing for an AL West crown under GM Andy MacPhail and manager Tom Kelly.
As with San Francisco, there would be one historic moment during his time in Cleveland. On April 14 he came on in relief of 48-year-old starting pitcher Phil Niekro. The duo thus became the first teammates who were also 300-game winners to appear in the same game. This would also prove to be Carlton’s lone career appearance at Yankee Stadium. He had been selected to the NL team for the 1977 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium but did not play.
Carlton paid early dividends after arriving in Minnesota, pitching the Twins to a key victory with a big August 8 effort in a showdown with the Oakland A’s at the Metrodome. Minnesota led Oakland by two games in the standings at the time. Carlton turned back the clock at age 43, going 8.2 innings while scattering seven hits in a 9-2 victory. It was the 329th win of his big-league career, and would also prove to be his last.
Minnesota would finish four games ahead of the A’s and two ahead of Kansas City to capture their first-ever AL West crown. The club would then go on to capture the ALCS in five games over Detroit, and then stun the Saint Louis Cardinals in seven games to win the second World Series in franchise history, their first since moving to the Twin Cities in the 1961 season.
Carlton was not on the Twins postseason roster for that October championship run, but he would earn his third World Series ring with a third different organization following his earlier wins with the Cards in 1967 and Phillies in 1980.
He would come back to make four April appearances with the Twins, the first three in relief, at age 44 before finally calling it quits. Minnesota was classy enough to give Carlton one final starting outing before he bowed out.
On April 23, 1988 the big left-hander took the mound on a Saturday night in front of more than 40,000 fans at the Metrodome. It wasn’t pretty. The Indians scored four times off him in the 1st inning en route to a 10-2 victory.
Carlton allowed nine runs that night, eight of them earned, over five innings. He gave up a single to the first batter he faced, a second baseman who Phillies fans might remember by the name of Julio Franco. Carlton also surrendered a pair of home runs, one of those to a man who would become infamous in Phillies lore a few years later by the name of Joe Carter.
Carlton was officially given his final release from the Twins on April 28, 1988. While he was willing to continue pitching, no one offered him a contract.
The following spring, Carlton was offered use of their training facilities by the New York Yankees. But with no guarantee of even a spring training invitation, he finally opted to retire.
For the vast majority of his career in Philadelphia, Carlton, the greatest pitcher to ever don the Phillies uniform, was a teammate of Mike Schmidt, the greatest all-around player to ever wear that same uniform. Schmidt would hang up his cleats early in the 1989 season.
“He’s the best third baseman that I ever played with, and maybe of all-time,” said Carlton. “Obvious Hall of Famer, even then. He retired while on top of his game. I thought for sure he was going to hit 600 home runs.”
Fellow Phillies Wall of Famer and Baseball Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn is a Philadelphia baseball icon. He was a radio and television broadcast color man for the entirety of Carlton’s career, and had this to say about the left-hander:
“Lefty was a craftsman, an artist. He was a perfectionist. He painted a ballgame. Stroke, stroke, stroke, and when he got through (pitching a game) it was a masterpiece.”
In addition to his four Cy Young Awards, Steve Carlton finished among the top four in that voting on two other occasions. He was a 10-time National League All-Star, and was also the 1982 NL Gold Glove Award winner.
Carlton was an all-around player as a pitcher, priding himself on his defense and hitting prowess. He holds the all-time MLB record with 144 base runners picked off. Carlton hit .201 over his career with 13 home runs, 49 doubles, six triples, and 140 RBIs.
Happily retired to a 400-acre ranch in Durango, Colorado since his playing days ended, Carlton is content with a lifestyle led mostly out of the limelight. He was married to ex-wife Beverly for 33 years and they had two sons together, but the two divorced in 1998.
“I came to Durango in 1989 to get away from society,” he told Pat Jordan for Philadelphia Magazine in 1994. “I don’t like it where there are too many people. I like it here because the people are spiritually tuned in. They know where the lies fall.“
Carlton makes the occasional trip for a Phillies, Hall of Fame, or other baseball reunion event, but otherwise doesn’t have much time for the game. He was quoted in that Hixson piece from May 2017 on his lifestyle:
“I don’t really know the players any more, I don’t follow it. I know some of the coaches, but I’ve moved on, I’ve got other stuff to do. I owned it for 24 years, I played it, so I don’t need to do it again. I’ve moved on to other things…I do as little as possible. I have an orchard and I watch the apples grow. I’m in the forestry program for the good of the nation and the planet; before Al Gore was green, I was green. I have my solar and an orchard of about 150 fruit trees and I plant trees under the forestry program.”
Tim McCarver is renowned as a Hall of Fame baseball analyst and broadcaster to many younger fans of the game for his work over the last few decades. However, McCarver also played the game for a long time. In fact, he is one of the few to ever appear as an MLB player in four different decades.
McCarver and Carlton were teammates with Saint Louis from 1965-69, then again with the Phillies at the start of 1972, and finally from 1975-80. During that last stretch of seasons, McCarver became known as Carlton’s “caddy”, often catching many of his stars even though the club had an All-Star starting catcher in Bob Boone.
The relationship between Carlton and McCarver, who won the World Series together in 1967 with the Cardinals and then again in 1980 with the Phillies, was extremely close.
“When Steve and I die, we are going to be buried in the same cemetery, sixty feet, six inches apart,” said McCarver.
Thankfully, both men are still with us today. McCarver turned 78 back in late October. Carlton will turn 75 years old just a few days before Christmas. I wonder if they’ve purchased that unique burial plot yet?
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2.15.2016 – Edith Houghton