Alumni Profile: Steve Carlton

Of all the pitchers who have appeared in the major leagues, only one is known simply by the arm that he built his career on. "Lefty". Steve Carlton came to the Phillies and was not only successful, he left opposing hitters and fans in awe with what he was able to do with the 60 feet and 6 inches that stood between him and the hitter. As Willie Stargell noted, "hitting Steve Carlton is like drinking coffee with a fork."

For Steve Carlton, it wasn't all about natural talent. While Carlton had plenty of talent to carry him, he added to it an extremely regimented workout routine that few other players even dared to copy. With that, he was a genius, who used his head as much as his arm to make the best hitters in the game look like a drunk trying to hit a wiffle ball.

Part of Carlton's regimen included 1,100 sit-ups at a time. When that didn't seem to be enough, he added 15 pound weights to his wrists and ankles. Mentally, Carlton knew how to get into the heads of hitters and stayed there long term. Plus, nothing around him threw Carlton off in any way. Sometimes, Carlton's mental approach made him seem arrogant to those that didn't know him. On days when he pitched, he would talk to no one and he always kept the media at more than an arm's length.

Carlton felt he wasn't always treated fairly by the press and that their questions were too prying. As his career went on, he talked less and less to fewer and fewer reporters. Fans knew very little about Carlton because of his reluctance to disclose anything about his approach to the game or his life away from baseball. Since his retirement, Carlton has still avoided the spotlight, but has allowed glimpses into his life.

Carlton's arrival in Philadelphia came as one of the last gasps from general manager John Quinn in 1972. Quinn was deluged with angry phone calls from fans and demeaning newspaper articles from reporters for sending popular and successful pitcher Rick Wise to St.Louis for Carlton. Before Carlton would leave Philadelphia, fans would still give the proper respect to Wise, but knew that they had gotten the better end of the deal. The Phillies honored Carlton by retiring his number 32 in 1989.

During his time in Philadelphia, Carlton developed one real friend. Tim McCarver became Carlton's personal catcher and the two were on the same page both on and off the field. McCarver understood Carlton's approach and knew where he wanted to take hitters in order to send them straight back to the dugout. McCarver was part of Carlton's single-minded approach to the game. Knowing that McCarver was behind the plate was just one less thing that Carlton had to concern himself with when he was on the mound.

During his time in Philadelphia (1972-1986) he started a National League record 14 opening day games. Carlton also pushed his name to the top of the Phillies record lists for wins, games started and strikeouts. He also finished his Phillies career at number two on their list of pitchers for shutouts, runs, earned runs, innings pitched, hits and losses.

Nobody knew when Carlton signed with the Cardinals in 1964 just how good the left-hander would become. He spent just one full season in the minors, although he would bounce back to the minors for a few stints in 1966. By 1967, Carlton was a full-time member of the Cardinals and would never return to a minor league assignment. Over five seasons in St.Louis, Carlton went 74-63 and struck out a then record 19 hitters in a single game in 1969. After the '71 season, Carlton was unhappy with his contract in St.Louis and didn't feel he was being treated well enough by the organization. Luckily for the Phillies, the Cardinals decided to split ways with Carlton and sent him to Philadelphia. The deal made sense to Quinn since the Phillies were in their own contract battle with Wise. It seemed to make financial sense to both teams, but with Wise having had his best season in 1971, fans were upset about the deal.

Very quickly though, Carlton won the fans over to his side. In his first year in Philadelphia, Carlton had a season that ranks up there with the best single seasons that any player in major league history has ever had. The Phillies fielded a team that was, in a word, pitiful. That fact made Carlton's accomplishments even more amazing. While the Phillies managed to win just 59 games, Carlton won nearly half of them, going 27-10 for one of the worst teams in Phillies history. Carlton finished with a 1.98 ERA, struck out 310 hitters and at one point, won 15 games in a row. The season also featured a one-hitter against the Giants, eight shutouts, a career high 346 1/3 innings and pitched 30 complete games in 41 starts. When Carlton's winning streak came to an end, it was in a 2-1 loss to Atlanta, in which Carlton pitched 11 innings. The season gave Carlton his first of four Cy Young Awards.

In '73 Carlton suffered a minor, but nagging arm injury and battled bronchitis for much of the season. Carlton wound up losing 20 games. For two more seasons, Carlton was basically an average pitcher. The true Steve Carlton returned in 1976 when "Lefty" went 20-7, picking up win number 20 on the last day of the season. '76 also saw Carlton record the 2,000th strikeout of his career when he fanned Dave Winfield of the Padres on July 10th. Carlton would again pass the 20 win mark in 1977, 1980 and 1982. The players strike cut Carlton off from another likely 20 win season in 1981. Carlton could have potentially won another 20 games in 1979, but the Phillies didn't give him much support and he finished the year at 18-11.

In 1983, Carlton beat the Dodgers twice in the NLCS to push the Phillies into the World Series matchup with the Orioles. Carlton seemed to own the Dodgers in the postseason, as he also beat them in the '78 NLCS and helped his own cause with a homerun in the game. Carlton was the winning pitcher in the deciding game of the 1980 World Series, his second win of the series.

In 1984, the Phillies failed to return to the World Series, where they had been the year before. It was also Carlton's swan song for the Phillies. Their star left-hander was starting to wear down, but it wasn't completely obvious by his '84 numbers. Carlton finished with a 3.58 ERA and a 13-7 record, but his strikeouts fell dramatically and he was able to complete just one game. For most pitchers, that wouldn't be so bad, but for Carlton, it was the stats of a mere mortal. Over the next two seasons, Carlton would start just 32 games for the Phillies, going 5-16. Carlton beat the Padres 16-5 on June 1st of 1986 and just three weeks later, Phillies president Bill Giles asked Carlton to retire. Feeling that he had more innings left in his arm, Carlton refused and forced the Phillies hand. Giles made the call and Carlton was released.

Carlton's final major league seasons were sad. After being released by the Phillies, Carlton signed with the Giants, but lasted for just six games before they too released him. His stay with the Giants did allow Carlton to notch the 4,000th strikeout of his career in a loss to the Cincinnati Reds. Carlton moved to the American League and went 4-3 with the White Sox in 10 starts over the rest of the season. Carlton tried to catch on with the Indians and Twins in 1987, but neither worked out. The Twins kept him on the roster to start the '88 season, but he lasted just four games before Minnesota released the future Hall of Famer.

At age 44, Carlton still didn't think his career was over and he talked the Phillies into letting him come to spring training in 1989. Carlton soon realized that the end had come and he announced his retirement.

Since he retired, Carlton was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1994. He still ranks as one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. Now, Carlton lives in Colorado and operates a large orchard. His interests have turned to organic gardening and he still works out religiously. His attitude toward the press has mellowed somewhat and he has been a regular visitor to Philadelphia.

For all he did in major league baseball, Carlton is still known as "Lefty". It's a title that doesn't figure to leave him anytime soon.

Philly Baseball Insider Top Stories