Sunday, February 19, 2023

Books: "Lefty and Tim" Documents McCarver and Carlton's Historic Pairing In Philly


Lefty and Tim: How Steve Carlton and Tim McCarver Became Baseball's Best Battery

By William C. Kashatus; foreword by Larry Christenson

University of Nebraska Press; hardcover, 376 pages; $34.95

The baseball world was saddened this week by the passing of longtime catcher and announcer Tim McCarver. While most people, especially younger generations, in New York know him for his work calling games for the Mets and Yankees, and nationally on Fox, his playing career was just as compelling.

McCarver began his career in 1959 with the St. Louis Cardinals, where he won two World Series championships, in 1964 and '67, and partnered with ace pitcher Bob Gibson to form one of the best batteries in their history.

Then, McCarver found himself with the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1970s, and he duplicated the feat by turning Steve Carlton into one of the best pitchers of his generation.

In the book Lefty and Tim, which was originally released last June, historian and educator William C. Kashatus writes a dual biography of McCarver and Carlton, two of the most compelling characters in baseball history. 

Their partnership actually begins in their time in St. Louis together in 1965, and then when they reunited in 1975 in Philadelphia, when McCarver became his personal catcher, they became the best battery in baseball in the mid-to-late 1970s. Carlton won his second Cy Young Award with McCarver behind the plate in 1977.

By all appearances, McCarver and Carlton appeared to be an odd couple. as McCarver came from baseball's old school, while Carlton represented new age thinking on the game. 

At the outset of his career, McCarver believed that the catcher called the pitches, encouraged the pitcher when necessary, and got on the pitcher if he deviated from the game plan. Carlton was one of the pioneers of meditation and martial arts in baseball, and he was just as stubborn. The big left-hander also wanted to control pitch selection, and over time they developed a strong bond off the field that allowed them to understand and trust each other.

In this excerpt, Kashatus writes of a big game early in the first full season of the reunification of Carlton and McCarver as a battery, and how unique a partnership it was: "On Saturday, May 1, 1976, Steve 'Lefty' Carlton took the mound for the Philadelphia Phillies in the second game of a doubleheader against the Braves at Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium. The Phils, battling the Pittsburgh Pirates for first place in the National League East, won the first game, 3-0, to improve their season record to 9-6.

Winless in his previous three starts, Carlton was struggling to recapture the magic of his extraordinary 1972 campaign. That season Lefty led the NL in wins (27), earned run average (1.97), innings pitched (346.1), and srikeouts (310). The six-foot, four-inch southpaw accounted for nearly half of the last-place Phillies' fifth-nine victories that year. It was one of the most brilliant pitching performances in the history of Major League Baseball, but since that Cy Young Award-winning season Lefty had seemed lost.

Over the next three years Carlton posted mediocre records of 13-20, 16-13, and 15-14, respectively. He abandoned a devastating slider and began to rely on a 90 mph fastball and a long, looping curve as his ERA ballooned to 3.56. Batterymates Bob Boone and Johnny Oates, both talented pitch callers, were unable to help. 'When I caught Steve, I felt he was fighting me,' Boone said. 'He didn't trust my calls and because of his negative thoughts, he would throw poorly.'

General Manager Paul Owens identified the same problem midway through the 1975 season. Owens had a long history of evaluating players. Since 1965 he had been an instrumental figure in the Phillies' front office. He was either remarkably lucky or extraordinarily smart in signing and trading for talented players. When Owens saw his ace pitcher struggling, he seized the opportunity to reunite Carlton with his old catcher, Tim McCarver, a grizzled, thirty-four-year-old veteran. McCarver, released by the Boston Red Sox in June 1975, was looking for a job in the broadcast booth. Owens told him that the club had no openings there, but he did have one as a backup catcher and pinch hitter. The veteran backstop accepted the position.

Carlton and McCarver had been batterymates on the St. Louis Cardinals from 1965 to 1969 and appeared in two World Series for the Redbirds, in 1967 and 1968, earning rings in '67. McCarver was traded to Philadelphia after the '69 season, and three years later Carlton joined him in the City of Brotherly Love, if only for half a season. Traded to the Montreal Expos in July 1972, McCarver had the opportunity to watch Lefty from the opposite dugout. He noted that Carlton had abandoned the slider in 1973 and struggled mightily because of it. When McCarver returned to the Phillies in '75, he encouraged Lefty to return to the slider, and Carlton obliged.

'I had not just the luxury of facing him [with the Cardinals], but being on a team of guys facing him,' McCarver said. 'I remember right-handed hitters would come back to the bench and say at least he didn't throw his slider. I tucked that away. I said if I catch him again, that slider is going to be good.'

On that May afternoon in Atlanta, Carlton, with McCarver behind the plate, would look like the power pitcher he had been four years earlier. The Phillies gave the left-hander a 1-0 lead in the third when shortstop Terry Harmon drew a walk off Atlanta starter Carl Morton. Carlton sacrificed Harmon to second, and second baseman Dave Cash brought him home with a single to left. The Phils tacked on two more runs in the fourth when left fielder Ollie Brown led off with a double to right. Right fielder Jay Johnstone followed with an infield hit advancing Brown to third. Center fielder Garry Maddox hit a grounder to short, and Johnstone was forced out at second while Brown was held at third, but McCarver followed and singled Brown home. Harmon then singled to left to drive in Maddox, giving Carlton a 3-0 lead and Morton, an early exit from the game.

Using an effective combination of a high inside fastball followed by a slider low and away, Lefty held the Braves scoreless through five innings. Carlton, who had not been able to go more than six innings in his three previous starts, made only one mistake. After walking Braves left fielder Jimmy Wynn in the sixth, he threw a 3-2 fastball down the middle of the plate to cleanup hitter Earl Williams, who launched the delivery into the left-field bleachers for a two-run homer. That's all the Braves would get, though.

Johnstone added an insurance run in the ninth with a solo homer off Atlanta reliever Roger Moret. Carlton, who gave up 6 hits, walked 3, and struck out 7, shut down the Braves in the bottom of the inning to seal a complete game victory, 4-2, his first of the season.

Lefty went 20-7 that year, and McCarver caught all but two of his thirty-three starts. Those twenty victories paced the Phillies to their first-ever National League East title, as they finished 9 games ahead of the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates and won 101 games, the most in franchise history. The Fightin' Phils also made their first postseason appearance since 1950, when they won the NL pennant. Although the Phillies lost a trio of games to the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Championship Series, Carlton returned to his winning ways in subsequent seasons.

During the next six years Carlton captured three more Cy Young Awards ('77, '80, and '82) with the Phillies, a testament to the special blend of power and finesse that allowed him to be successful on the mound. Fanatical about conditioning, Carlton worked out nearly two hours a day with a personal fitness coach. He also eliminated all outside distractions, believing that the mental aspect of the game was every bit as important as the physical. On the day of a start Lefty rarely spoke with teammates, and he stuffed cotton in his ears when he pitched. He consistently avoided the press and by 1978 was refusing to give interviews altogether. Throughout his career Carlton remained an intense competitor and a seemingly unemotional person, though teammates knew a more supportive and humorous side. When he retired in 1989, Carlton, age forty-four, had amassed 329 career victories, 4,136 strikeouts, and a career earned run average of 3.22. Five years later the great left-hander was voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility and with one of the highest vote percentages (95.6 percent) ever accorded a member. Steve Carlton received his due as one of the greatest left-handers in the history of Major League Baseball, but that achievement would not have been possible without  Tim McCarver.

Not only did McCarver mentor Carlton as a young hurler with the Cardinals, but the hard-nosed catcher resurrected Lefty's career when they resumed in Philadelphia. Carlton made 709 starts over the course of his twenty-four-year career in the Majors, and McCarver caught 228 (32 percent) of them. But between 1976 and 1979 Lefty and Tim were the best battery in Major League Baseball. Of the 140 starts Carlton made during the four-year span, McCarver was behind the plate for 128 (91 percent) of them. At one point Tim caught Lefty in 90 consecutive starts. Carlton's record during that stretch was 48-26. With the Phillies overall Carlton was 81-45 when McCarver caught him. Tim also established a close personal relationship with Lefty that allowed the enigmatic southpaw to succeed.

At first glance they seemed like an odd couple. McCarver was old school, while Carlton was new age. Tim did not at the beginning of his career respond well to pitchers shaking him off. He believed that the catcher called the pitches, encouraged the pitcher when necessary, and kicked him in the ass when he deviated from the game plan. Lefty, who pioneered the use of meditation and martial arts in baseball, was stubborn, too. He wanted to control pitch selection, but over time Carlton and McCarver came to think alike because they developed a strong bond off the diamond that allowed them to understand and trust each other. Thus, when Lefty was struggling at the start of the '76 campaign, Tim became his personal catcher. When Lefty refused to talk to the press, Tim became his personal spokesman. When the off-season rolled around, the two teammates went on hunting trips together. In fact Carlton and McCarver became so close that the gruff backstop once quipped, 'When Steve and I die, they're going to bury us 60'6" apart!'" 

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