On a flight to Japan in October 1968, the pilot informed his passengers, many of them members of the St. Louis Cardinal baseball team, that they were crossing the International Date Line. "Timmy took out his camera and started taking pictures from the window," the gentleman farmer recalls. "Everybody started looking for the date line. I was naive in those days but not that naive."
Timmy was catcher Tim McCarver, and the gentleman farmer is 49-year-old Steve Carlton, who was a promising young lefty back then and not yet the Lefty. The Cardinals were on their way to Japan for an exhibition tour, and although his teammates never did see that line in the ocean, Carlton did discover on that trip the secret that would eventually get him elected to the Hall of Fame—which he was last week, with a resounding 95.8% of the 455 votes cast.
"I knew how effective Bob Gibson's slider was," Carlton says.
"But Bob had elbow problems, so I had been looking for a way to throw the slider and minimize the wrist turn that causes elbow injuries. I had been fooling with a pitch, but in Japan, after Sadaharu Oh hit two home ins off me, I figured, what the heck. I threw Oh, a lefthanded hitter, the slider. When he backed away and the ball was a strike, I knew I had something."
The slider helped Carlton win a record four Cy young Awards and 329 games, ninth on the alltime victory list. His 4,136 strikeouts are the most by any lefthander. Carlton began as a Cardinal and played out his career in brief stints with four other clubs, ending with the Minnesota Twins in '88, but the cap on his Hall of Fame plaque will be that of the Philadelphia Phillies, for whom he pitched from 1972 to '86, helping them to their only world championship, in 1980. His first season with the team was arguably the best ever for a pitcher. He accounted for 27 of the last-place Phils' 59 wins in '72 and led the National League in ERA (1.98) and strikeouts (310).
During his career, Carlton became as famous for his silence as for his slider after deciding to stop talking to the media. So while there was a certain kick to hearing him speak at last Thursday's Hall of Fame press conference in New York City, it was also a little like finding out that the Dalai Lama is a chatterbox. At the height of Carlton's success, there was a mystical quality about him, a palpable aura as he walked through the clubhouse to the training room, where he would stick his left arm in a barrel of rice. McCarver, who became Carlton's personal catcher and mouthpiece after they were reunited on the Phils in '75, was at the press conference last week. "No other pitcher was as revered as Steve Carlton was," McCarver said. Even at the end of Lefty's career, Carlton remained a man of mystery. In a photo caption of the 1987 world champion Twins' visit to the White House, a St. Paul newspaper labeled a tall man with sunglasses in the corner as "an unidentified Secret Service agent." It was Carlton.
Last week Carlton said he really became mute to better focus himself on his game. "Besides, you guys become more creative writers when you don't have to rely on quotes," he said. "Some of the articles about me were quite good, I thought." He was candid and funny and voluble at the press conference. He said he doesn't watch television (he doesn't even own one). He said he could probably still pitch in the majors. He quoted Shakespeare and Nietzsche. Finally, after two hours of interviews, there was just one reporter left. He wanted to ask if Carlton would seriously consider a comeback.
'I don't think I'd want to spend eight months away from the farm, but I think I could do it. I know Jim Palmer tried it, but he wasn't training every day like I do. And so much of training is in the brain. The body is only the vessel of the mind. To better understand that, you should read Twelfth Planet by Zecharia Sitchin...."
That's great, Lefty. Congratulations. Gotta go.