Not too long ago, pal Michael Schur and I had one of our silly little draft podcasts— this is when we draft things that do not really fit the draft theme, like “abstract concepts” and “types of balls.” Anyway: We drafted sports nicknames. As much as it pains me to say, Michael made a pick with the second round that I powerfully envied.
He chose “The Great One,” which, of course, is the nickname of Wayne Gretzky.
There is nothing aesthetically great about “The Great One” as a nickname. It sounds like something a 4-year-old might call her favorite kind of cookie (“You know, The Great One”). But it is a fantastic nickname because … it could refer to just about anyone. The Great One could be Willie Mays, it could be John Unitas, it could Michael Jordan, it could be Pete Sampras, it could be Arnold Palmer, it could be Jim Brown. The Great One? Hell, it could be one of a 100 hockey players. It could refer to any great athlete.
But it doesn’t.
The Great One is Wayne Gretzky. And THAT is what makes it awesome.
In the same vein, there are a lot of people who have been called Lefty. There’s Lefty Grove, Lefty Gomez, Lefty O’Doul, Lefty Driesell, Lefty Frizell. But all of them required the last name. There have been dozens of bad guys in the movies named Lefty. Phil Mickelson is sometimes called left.
However, at the end of the day, this is only one.
Lefty is Steve Carlton.
* * *
Poor Rick Wise. In 1971, he was 25 years old, a first time All-Star and possibly on his way to stardom. He was coming off his best year … and he’d had one of the greatest games in baseball history. Back in June, in Cincinnati, he had thrown a no-hitter against the Big Red Machine (he was a Dave Concepcion walk away from a perfect game) AND he hit two home runs.
He wanted a big raise. Seems reasonable. He had his best year. He won 17 games for a terrible team, completed 17 games, threw four shutouts. But no big raise request was reasonable in 1971. Philadelphia’s general manager John Quinn began looking around to see if someone would trade for Wise. Nobody wanted to be traded to Philadelphia in those days. Curt Flood had been so upset when he was traded to Philadelphia that he fought it all the way to the Supreme Court.
But in St. Louis, another pitcher — similar age to Wise, similar 1971 statistics — was also trying to get more money.
Take a look at the two pitchers’ 1971 seasons:
Wise: 25 years old, 17-14, 2.88 ERA, 4 shutouts, 272 innings, 155 Ks, 70 walks, 123 ERA+, 3.4 WAR.
Trade bait: 26 years old, 20-9, 3.56 ERA, 4 shutouts, 273 innings, 172 Ks, 98 walks, 102 ERA+, 4.1 WAR.
Similar enough. Cardinals owner August Busch had fought with his pitcher over salary before … he decided enough was enough. He told his GM Bing Devine to trade the two grumbling pitchers straight up. Devine did what he was told. Rick Wise went to St. Louis. Steve Carlton went to Philadelphia.
And poor Rick Wise would always be known as the bad side of one of the worst deals in baseball history.
Should everyone have known that Philadelphia had just stolen one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history? Perhaps. Carlton had been a pretty fantastic in his young 20s. In 1969, he went 17-11 with a 2.17 ERA (second to Juan Marichal) and he set a major league record by striking out 19 in a game against the New York Mets. He had a remarkable fastball, an even more remarkable slider, and he looked to be the next big pitching star in baseball.
Then by all accounts — and for unclear reasons — Carlton stopped throwing his slider in 1970 and 1971. According to one story, recounted in Steve Bucci’s Drinking Coffee With A Fork, the Cardinals had told him to stop throwing the slider because it would ruin his curveball. In another version, Carlton told reporters (yes, he told reporters) that he had lost his feel for the slider and hurt his arm. In yet another version, Carlton gave up two massive home runs to Ernie Banks sometime early in that 1970 season, both on sliders, and decided to shelve the pitch.
Whatever the reason, he definitely stopped throwing the slider, and he took a significant step back.
Here’s an unrelated and unnecessary interlude: Look at Steve Carlton’s 1970 and 1971 seasons:
1970: 253 innings, 193 Ks, 109 walks, 111 ERA+, 4.2 Baseball Ref WAR, 4.5 Fangraphs WAR.
1971: 273 innings, 172 Ks, 98 walks, 102 ERA+, 4.1 Baseball Ref WAR, 3.7 Fangraphs WAR.
Which of those seasons was better? They are VERY similar but I suspect if you had to pick one you’d pick the 1970 season, right? A few more strikeouts, better ERA in context, yes. Except Steve Carlton’s 1970 season was viewed as a DISASTER while his 1971 season was viewed as AWESOME. Why? Right. The ol’ won-loss record.
Anyway, without his slider he was a different pitcher, good but not great. He was in fact very similar to Rick Wise; people in Philadelphia were NOT originally excited about the trade.
So if the Phillies had realized, “Hey, we just need to get him throwing his slider again,” then yes, they were absolute geniuses and knew exactly what they were doing when they traded Wise to get him. But I suspect the trade was more about some bitter feelings for Wise because he asked for $50,000. They certainly treated him badly after the deal. Wise had pitched for the Phillies for seven seasons — he signed with the team when he was still 17. But he said general manager John Quinn never even called after the trade was made. It was personal. It was all about the money.
Then: Steve Carlton began throwing his slider again. And he promptly had what might be the greatest pitching season in the last 100 years.
And everyone talked about what GENIUSES the Phillies were for the traded.
Poor Rick Wise.*
*Later, Wise was traded in a package deal to Cleveland for Dennis Eckersley. So he was traded for two Hall of Fame pitchers.
* * *
In 1972, Carlton faced the Cardinals in his second start. There was a lot of lingering anger. He was furious when the Cardinals traded him. He actually called Players Union head Marvin Miller to ask if he had any recourse after the Cardinals traded him to Philadelphia. Miller, blunt as ever, said he could show up in Philadelphia or, you know, he could retire. It was like that in 1972.
Carlton threw a three-hit shutout against his old team. Next time out, against San Francisco, he gave up a leadoff single to Chris Speier and did not give up another hit the rest of the game. Nine inning, one hit, one walk, 14 strikeouts. It looked like it was going to be a sensational year.
But — and many people don’t realize this about his extraordinary 1972 season — Carlton then went into a six-week slump. From April 29 to June 3, Carlton went 2-7 with a 4.02 ERA. He gave up four runs in San Diego, 10 hits in Pittsburgh, and in New York he was lambasted by the Mets; he didn’t even make it out of the fifth inning. In early June, Carlton was 5-6 with a 3.12 ERA, certainly not terrible but not great either. He was pitching more or less the way he had the previous couple of seasons.
And then, it happened. He went on a stretch for the ages. You could say it began June 7 against Houston when he struck out 10 in seven innings, allowed a single run. Or it could have been his next start, a complete game victory over Atlanta where he scattered nine hits, allowed one run, struck out nine. Then, it could have been his next start when he threw 10 shutout innings against the Astros (though the Phillies lost in the 11th).
Whenever it began, for the next four months, Carlton — while playing for the worst team in the league — was otherworldly. You can just put the plain numbers out there: 22-4, 1.54 ERA, 208 strikeouts, 61 walks, 10 home runs allowed in 251 innings.
But the game-by-game recap of the stretch go even beyond those overall numbers. He threw a shutout in Montreal, back-to-back shutouts against the Dodgers and Cubs, back-to-back shutouts at St. Louis (again) and Pittsburgh, and another one in Montreal. He completed 23 games and had, 19 starts with a Bill James Game Score higher than 70.
In case you are wondering, that’s more 70-plus Game Scores than any pitcher has had in a FULL SEASON since Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens did it in 1997. Carlton did it in four months.
People were awed by his win total — 27 wins out of Philadelphia’s 59 total — and that still’s still a very cool stat all these years later. But it’s probably a little bit of an illusion; it suggest that if he had pitched for a great team like the Reds or Pirates he would have won 32 or 33 games. And that’s probably not true. If you look at his season, game by game, you see the Phillies actually scored a reasonable amount of runs for him considering how lousy they were. He got a couple of cheap wins, had four of five tough losses and probably would have won 28 or 29 games, maybe 30, for a really good team. But then that season might not have the aura it has now.
* * *
Carlton’s career after that 1972 season was shockingly spotty. He was preposterously mediocre in 1973 (leading the league with 20 losses), good in 1974, lackluster again in 1975. He was good in 1976, won the Cy Young again in 1977, was blah in 1978 and 1979, and was awesome again in 1980 when he went 24-9 with a 2.34 ERA and a league-leading 286 strikeouts.
He won his fourth Cy Young in 1982 — the award probably should have gone to Steve Rogers — and and he led the league in strikeouts again in 1983. He seemed to believe that, even though he was turning 39 the next year, his best years were still ahead. This had something to do with his training regimen and his philosophy of life. Whatever, he was wrong — he was never again a great pitcher and was only rarely a good one. He played for five different teams in his 40s in a desperate effort to prove what he believed — that he still had great pitching in him — and it was a sad but honest ending to his career. Carlton never stopped doing it his way.
* * *
Carlton’s silence became about as famous as his pitching after 1972. Carlton was a fairly accessible — if odd — interview before the silence began in 1973. That year, he stopped talking. Many think it was because of something written by outspoken Phillies writer Bill Conlin. But nobody knows for sure.
Even after he shut off the media, Carlton was not quite J.D. Salinger silent. He would talk to the Philadelphia radio crew for instance. He usually would talk briefly with the press after victories. And he would TALK with reporters at length too; more than one reporter would tell of conversations they had with Carlton about wine or something not related to baseball. But when the questions did come around to baseball, he would politely say: “I’m not talking.” When one reporter, a longtime acquaintance, made an impassioned plea for an interview, Carlton supposedly said: “I’d like to. But policy is policy.”
After he retired, he said that doing interviews had affected his pitching which is why he stopped. Reporters got in his head. You know, I can see this for a semi-mystical guy like Carlton. To play sports at a high level, I imagine, you have to in a strange way leave yourself. Think about a moment in your life when you achieved some kind of sports high — maybe you made a hole in one or you hit a bunch of jump shots in a row or you banged a perfect serve or came from behind to win a race.
In that moment, you probably weren’t FEELING anything. We often ask athletes: “How did you feel when …” But this is a silly question. You don’t feel the perfect slider in the biggest moment. You throw it. Carlton, who would have grueling training sessions in a vat of rice, and he would talk (when he talked) about far east religions, and he studied various martial arts. He had his own equilibrium, and he didn’t need it tiled by echoes of reporters asking, “Why’d ya throw him the 3-2 fastball Lefty?” and “What’s the deal with the elbow?” No, I can’t blame the guy for wanting his head clear.
But as it turns out … Carlton probably did himself and the game a great favor by not talking to the press. Years later, Pat Jordan went out to talk to Carlton. You might remember that story because of the anti-semitic flap that followed — Carlton made a remark about 12 Jews in Switzerland who control the world, and that was the one bit of crazy most people took from the story. But what Pat found was a guy who was ALL KINDS of crazy. This brilliantly packed paragraph is representative:
“He believes that the last eight U.S. presidents have been guilty of treason, that President Clinton “has a black son” he won’t acknowledge and that his wife, Hillary, “is a dyke,” and that the AIDS virus was created at a secret Maryland biological warfare laboratory “to get rid of gays and blacks, and now they have a strain of the virus that can live ten days in the air or on a plate of food, because you know who most of the waiters are,” and finally, that most of the mass murderers in this country who open fire indiscriminately in fast-food restaurants “are hypnotized to kill those people and then themselves immediately afterwards,” as in the movie The Manchurian Candidate. He blinks once, twice, and says, “Who hypnotizes them? They do!”
Carlton denied a lot of stuff in the article and a few of his teammates kind of stood up for him — Jordan will tell you they KNOW he’s crazy but ballplayers stick up for ballplayers. Anyway, it seems pretty clear that Carlton did himself and baseball a service by staying quiet during his career.