If there is a performance in baseball more remarkable than the one Steve Carlton is currently turning in for the Philadelphia Phillies, the record books fail to yield it. At the end of last week Carlton had won 19 games and lost only six for a team whipping along at a winning percentage of .381.
Through the years only six other pitchers have won 20 games for teams as phutile as the Phils (people jumping off the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge in steel suits usually come up with a better percentage than .381), but none of them—Christy Mathewson, Iron Man McGinnity, Bobo Newsom, Ned Garver, Noodles Hahn or Jiving Young—approached the winning percentage that Carlton has so far rolled up. Garver won 20 games and lost 12 for the 1951 St. Louis Browns while poor Young had to swallow 21 defeats with his 20 wins for the 1905 Boston Braves.
In beating the Montreal Expos last Sunday Carlton won his 14th consecutive game and his strikeout total was more than 50 above that of the second-ranked pitcher. His complete-game total of 19 is surpassed only by Gaylord Perry, the man who brought the dry look from San Francisco to Cleveland.
Carlton is thinking about winning 25 games for Philadelphia, a goal he had set for himself over the winter when he was still a St. Louis Cardinal and had an excuse for entertaining such lofty aspirations. Last year the Cards scored nearly 200 more runs than the Phillies. When Carlton was traded for Rick Wise in late February because General Managers Bing Devine of St. Louis and John Quinn of Philadelphia were having no luck at all signing either pitcher, it seemed a safe assumption that the two had balked their ways into 20-game years, wins for Wise, losses for Carlton.
Things certainly have not worked out that way. By the end of last week, Wise was 11-12. Carlton, in contrast, got off to a splendid 5-1 start before losing five in a row as the Phillies provided him with only 10 runs during a five-game span. But beginning in the second week of June, he pitched so well that even Philadelphia's puny offense could no longer drag him down. In 15 games he gave up a total of 15 runs.
For the second straight season the Phillies are proving themselves to be the worst team in the National League, perhaps even 'The Worst Damn Team in Baseball." This is somewhat surprising, considering their start. Early in the race the Phils roared through the West, and all was joy in Philadelphia when they returned home with an 11-6 record. But then hopes went tumbling, the team fell under a spell and in May lost 19 of 26 games. Quinn was fired, then Manager Frank Lucchesi was bounced. "I guess it's the same in politics, war and everything else," said Owner Bob Carpenter. "You can't change the army, so you change the general."
On hindsight, it seems almost inevitable that Carlton would one day find himself an ex-Cardinal, and some of his troubles stem from his own excellence. Touring Japan with the Cards after the 1968 World Series, Carlton started working on a slider. He wanted the pitch to discourage hitters from waiting on his fastball. In 1969 he threw a slider so well that he set the major league record for most strikeouts in a single game, 19, a feat only slightly diminished by the fact that Carlton lost the game. With a superior curve to go along with the slider and fastball, he won 17 games, had the second-best earned run average in the National League (2.17) and decided he was ready for a fat raise the following year.
With exquisitely bad timing, he held out before the 1970 season. That was the year of the Curt Flood case—Flood did not want to leave the Cardinals—and the case of Richie Allen, who seemed to be reluctant to join them. Carlton was "middled" by the two, and it was a bad middle to be in with fuming Owner Gussie Busch around. In the heat of a press conference Busch said of Carlton, "I don't give a damn if he never pitches another ball for the Cardinals."
When things finally cooled off to just a normal boil, wiser heads pointed out that somebody was going to have to pitch for the team and Carlton was signed for $90,000 for two seasons. During arguments, negotiations and name-calling, Carlton managed to lose three weeks of spring training and, primarily because of that, he junked the slider. "I could never get it to feel right or throw it right," he says. "The few I threw hurt me and I abandoned it." He might just as well have abandoned the season. He finished with a 10-19 record.
One would think that by 1971 Carlton would have reactivated the slider, but he didn't. "I just plain quit on it last year," he says, "and won 20 games without it. I didn't even throw it while warming up."
For the 20 wins Carlton thought another raise was in order. Busch, perhaps remembering the 10-19 year, did not. So Carlton started this season in Philadelphia, but with one small difference. He had the slider along with him. "It started to come back in the spring," he says, "and now it is one of my best pitches."
There are those who believe that each of Carlton's three pitches is as good as the best pitch of any pitcher in the game today. Carlton is not willing to go that far. "I admired Sandy Koufax' curve." he says, "but as to judging my fastball and slider against any other pitcher's, I wouldn't be capable of doing it." He is capable of judging his fielding. "Because of my motion," he says, "I come off the mound in a poor position. I know that it has hurt me and I've worked on it. But I'll admit I'm not the best fielder in the world."
Woefully shy as a youngster growing up on the edge of the Everglades in Miami, Carlton hunted doves and rabbits with rocks and knew how to take care of an occasional rattlesnake. He could throw an excellent curve at 12 but playing major league baseball was not much on his mind. Carlton was an excellent water skier and he is a fine pool shooter and golfer.
St. Louis signed him for a $5,000 bonus and in 1964 deposited him at Rock Hill, N.C. where he ran up a 10-1 record and an earned run average of 1.03 before being advanced to Winnipeg and then on to the No. 1 Cardinal farm team, Triple A Tulsa—all in his first year. He was brought up to the Cardinals to observe the end of the season from the bullpen. In the important next to last game the Cardinals were losing to the Mets and Carlton was the only man left in the bullpen. Although he did not get to pitch, he remembers the day well. "I was so nervous," he says, "I was throwing to Dave Ricketts and couldn't even see him."
Carlton spent the entire 1965 season with St. Louis but pitched only 25 innings and found himself back in Tulsa the following year. One day in July Manager Charlie Metro approached him and said, "Steve, pack your stuff up; you're going to Cooperstown."
Carlton said, "Already?"
The Cardinals were playing the annual Hall of Fame exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins there and Carlton went the full nine innings for a victory over the defending American League champions. His curve was excellent and his fastball hummed. He was brought back to the big club, this time to stay until Busch's ire got the best of him.
Carlton, who is 27 now, often keeps things to himself. As a friend says, "Steve can be standing with a group of friends and thinking deeply about something else even when he is talking to you." And that, according to some, has always been his problem. He frequently seems to have one too many things on his mind. While he was a Cardinal he drove management to distraction by his seeming lack of concentration while pitching. His mind would wander and suddenly he was in a jam.
Near the end of the 1970 season Carlton received a 10-page letter from a fan criticizing him for squandering his vast talents by not concentrating. Carlton took the letter to heart, as he does others he receives about once a week from the same person. He believes they are a personal matter and will not discuss them, but says they work on his imagination. "The imagination," he said recently, "always wins in a battle with the will and my imagination had a hell of a year in 1970."
His imagination is having a hell of a year in 1972, too. Imagine, for instance, the Philadelphia Phillies in 1972 without Steve Carlton.