Rod Carew was almost named Margaret. You might know this story — he was born on a segregated train in Panama. His mother was in one of the segregated back cars when she went into labor. A nurse happened to be on the train, and she comforted Carew’s mother. She was so kind that she later became Carew’s Godmother and one of his mother’s best friend.
Her name was Margaret Ann. And so one of the purest hitters in baseball history was almost called Margaret Ann Carew. He probably would have gone by Mac.
Fortunately there was also a doctor on the train who actually delivered the baby. His name was Dr. Rodney Cline. His role in the delivery was apparently not nearly as involved as the nurse’s, and so the naming was a close call. In the end, though, the baby was named Rodney Cline Carew.
Rod Carew was obsessed with baseball from the start. The neighborhood game in Gatun — a small town in the Panama Canal Zone — was stickball which Carew recalled playing more or less every waking hour of his childhood. He actually was not a natural. Carew suffered from rheumatic fever for much of his childhood and spent a lot of time in hospitals.
Also his father was abusive. Carew has written: “There wasn’t a time in my life I wasn’t licked or punched or whipped, often for no reason whatsoever. … I think it’s one reason I was so reticent with the press, so cautious about opening up to others. When you’re young and under attack, you withdraw from family and friends. Shyness stays with you.”
Here is where Margaret Ann returns to the story — she lived in New York and when Carew was 14 she asked if he wanted to come live with her in New York and study in America. He and his mother agreed to come. When he saw the New York lights, he would say that his life was forever changed. “I had the feeling,” he would say, “a whole new world was opening up for me.”
Carew never played even one inning of high school baseball. The reason has never been entirely clear. There may have been racial tensions. There was a language barrier. And Carew would say that the high school coach made it clear to him that he wasn’t good enough.
Instead, he played for a sandlot team called the Bronx Cavaliers. The team was coached by a local hero name named Sam Cummando, who managed youth baseball for decades in the Bronx. He marveled not only at Carew’s speed but also (a little bit or irony here) at Carew’s natural power. He crushed long home runs and scouts came to see Carew play. Carew would say he would have signed for nothing. He signed with the Twins for $5,000 instead.*
*There has been an oft-repeated story that the Twins only gave him that much because Carew had gone to a Yankees tryout and (again, here’s that irony) had blasted shot after shot into the Yankee Stadium bleachers. It’s amazing how much home run power the young Carew and how little home run power the older Carew used.
Carew was no natural, though. He hit well, but not overwhelmingly well, in the minors. And then he did not hit .300 in either of his first two seasons. That may not seem like but there are 16 players in baseball history with 9,000 plate appearances and at least a .325 career batting average. Fifteen of them broke .300 in their first two seasons (all but one hit .300 in their FIRST full seasons). Part of the reason that it took Carew a little longer is that his first two seasons happened to be 1967 and 1968, two of the worst hitting seasons in baseball history. His .273 batting average in 1968 actually placed just outside the Top 10 in the American League.
But Carew also would say that he LEARNED how to become a hitter at the Major League level. At first, he had a conventional upright stance, and he swung and missed a lot. He struck out 91 times his rookie year, another 71 his second,* he rarely walked and hit for no power. He certainly wasn’t a bad hitter — he had a 105 OPS+ after two seasons — but he did dramatically chance. He started getting lower in his stance, he moved to the back of the box, he brought down the bat so that it was almost parallel to the ground when he was ready to unleash. He won his first batting title in his third season, hitting .332, more than 20 points better than anyone else in the league. He would win six more.
Carew’s mastery of hitting was in the plan he brought to the plate in every at bat. Announcers often would say that Carew had a slightly different stance for every pitcher — indeed this was one of the most repeated descriptions of any player of my childhood — but that wasn’t exactly right. He did have different stances but he mostly used them not to adjust to a pitcher but to get in the pitcher’s head.
For instance, Carew would sometimes unmistakably crowd the plate in an effort to get the pitcher to throw an inside pitch. Then, if the expected inside pitch came, he had the ability to unleash the hands and lash the ball down the right field line. He would sometimes go into a pronounced crouch against high fastball pitchers like Nolan Ryan to force them to bring their pitches down a bit in the strike zone. He was deadly in that crouch.
Then, he was deadly in all of his stances — that’s what made him so great. He wanted to provoke certain pitches, but even if pitchers refused to take the bait he had the quick hands and extraordinary flexibility to adjust and foul off the pitch or, perhaps, serve it out to left, yank it down the line or smack it up the middle. Twenty five batters got 75-plus plate appearances against Nolan Ryan. Only one hit .300. Yeah. Rod Carew.
For 15 straight seasons, 1969 to 1983, Carew never hit less than .305. He won six batting titles in seven seasons. His 1977 season is legendary. He hit .388, drove in 100 runs, scored 100 runs and slugged a a career high .570. Carew was hitting .403 on Independence Day, and seemed just kind of guy to break the then-35 year drought of .400 hitters. Carew never actually “slumped” but he did hit a mere .326 for the next month, and this dropped his average into the .370s. This is the extraordinary thing about trying to hit .400 — a month of merely outstanding hitting will more or less end the quest.
Anyway, Rod Carew hit .412 the rest of the way.
The other stuff: Carew was a good base runner. Smart. Dynamic. He stole more than 300 bases in his career, including 17 steals of home, more than any players the last 50 years. His stolen base trends reflect his teams. He showed a little bit of speed when his manager was Billy Martin, but under the more conservative Bill Rigney he stole just six bases in 1971 and 12 in 1972.
When young Frank Quilici became manager (Qulici had been Carew’s teammate and backup second baseman) Carew stole 41 bases. When Gene Mauch took over in 1976, Carew stole a career-high 49 bases. Carew simply changed depending on what the team wanted. When they wanted him to be an aggressive base-runner, he was one, perhaps even overaggressive as he was caught stealing 15 or more times in five different seasons.
He was an OK second baseman despite a weak arm because he was a smart and athletic player. Then, late in the 1975 season he was moved to first base. He was not a good first baseman but, more than that, his extreme lack of home run power made him stand out at the position. From 1976 to 1985, Carew hit a total of 46 home runs — 32 first basemen over that time hit more.*
*It was often said that Carew chose not to hit home runs in an effort to get more hits and better help the ballclub. This sort of thing is often said about great hitters who do not hit a lot of home runs.
There’s one other Carew statistic to discuss. Carew did cut down on his strikeouts as the years went along. But he never quite eliminated the strikeout bug from his game. There are eight players in baseball history who hit .325 with 3,000 hits. Of the eight, Carew is the only one to strike out 1,000 times. In fact, none of the others even struck out 700.
What does this mean? It means that Rod Carew must have had had a phenomenally high average on balls in play. And he did. Carew hit .359 on balls in play, the highest for any player since Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Rogers Hornsby. People argue about the value of measuring batting average on balls in play but, in this case, it seems pretty clear that Carew had a genius for getting hits. He bunted often and beautifully. He knew how to read a defense; Carew was one of the great hit-and-run men. And he just knew how to serve hits into the outfield so that they dropped safely.
You know who is next on the BABIP list, by the way? Right. Derek Jeter. He hit .353 on balls in play. How many of those were bloopers just over the second baseman’s head?
One of the great surviving baseball myths is that Rod Carew is Jewish. The big reason for this is Adam Sandler’s classic Chanukah Song, where one verse goes: “O.J. Simpson. Not a Jew. But guess who is, Hall of Famer Rod Carew! (He converted).”
Only it isn’t true, Carew never did convert. He did (against tremendous pressure) marry a Jewish woman and they raised their children Jewish. Carew always has always had a great affinity for the Jewish faith and he would wear a Chai necklace as a player, Chai being a Hebrew for “Life.” But he did not convert. He wrote a letter to Sandler to explain his situation. In it, he apparently did say that he found the song very funny.