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Pitcher perfect: The story behind Carlton’s amazing season in 1972

It was all so typical. On July 23, 1972, the Phillies were playing the Dodgers in Los Angeles when - deep in the game - lefthander Steve Carlton was hanging on to a shutout. But the Phillies weren't scoring, a common occurrence that year. The season was barely half over and the club was already 24 games out of first place, owners of the worst record in baseball: an abysmal 30-57.

In 1972, Phillies lefthander Steve Carlton struck out 310 batters and posted an ERA of 1.97. (Bill Ingraham/AP)
In 1972, Phillies lefthander Steve Carlton struck out 310 batters and posted an ERA of 1.97. (Bill Ingraham/AP)Read moreBill Ingraham / AP

It was all so typical. On July 23, 1972, the Phillies were playing the Dodgers in Los Angeles when - deep in the game - lefthander Steve Carlton was hanging on to a shutout. But the Phillies weren't scoring, a common occurrence that year. The season was barely half over and the club was already 24 games out of first place, owners of the worst record in baseball: an abysmal 30-57.

Then, in the seventh inning, a miracle: The Phils got their first two batters on base. After Dodgers pitcher Tommy John struck out the next two hitters, it was Carlton's turn to bat. He looked into the dugout, probably expecting new manager Paul Owens to bring someone in to pinch-hit, maybe a righthanded hitter, someone who would have a better chance against the lefthanded John. But Owens motioned for Carlton to get into the batter's box. The 21,288 Dodgers fans in attendance at Chavez Ravine that day might have been surprised, but what the hell, Owens figured, the way Carlton's season was going, he'd earned the right to try to win the game.

John delivered the pitch. Carlton swung and made contact. The ball lofted into right, carrying over outfielder Frank Robinson before it finally hit the rightfield wall. It was good for a triple, driving in the two runners and putting the Phillies up 2-0. When John finally retired the side, Carlton went back to the mound and easily dispatched the Dodgers' batters in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. The whole thing lasted exactly 2 hours.

At the time, the game seemed utterly unremarkable. It didn't set any records. It didn't have any playoff implications (the Dodgers finished well-behind the Cincinnati Reds in the Western Division that year). It didn't even have any notable miscues; nobody got hurt or made an egregious error.

Yet in many ways that one game perfectly encapsulated the entire season. When it came to the 1972 Phillies, Carlton had to do it all. He made 41 starts, threw 30 complete games, and logged 346 innings, more than anyone since. He also struck out 310 batters became only the second lefthander in National League history to record 300 strikeouts (Sandy Koufax was first) and posted an ERA of 1.97.

Most remarkable, though, was that he won 27 games for a team that won only 59 the entire season. (Only one other pitcher in that last 40 years has won 27, the A's Bob Welch, during a season when Welch's team won the World Series.)In other words, Carlton - who finished 27-10 - accounted for 45.7 percent of his team's wins in 1972, a record that's unlikely to be ever be broken. Indeed, for all of Carlton's greatness - he would win 329 games, garner four Cy Young awards and record 4,136 strikeouts over the course of his career - the Phillies' dismal record that year obscured what, in hindsight, may just be the most impressive single season by any individual player in any team sport. Ever. Or as Billy DeMars, the Phillies' batting coach in 1972, put it: "It was the greatest pitching performance I saw in my 58 years of baseball . . . Everything he did was absolutely perfect."

Once every spring training, Phillies general manager John Quinn and minor league director Paul Owens would have dinner together with their wives. In 1972, as they were sitting down at a restaurant, Quinn leaned over and mentioned to Owens, "Carlton for Wise."

"Even up?" asked Owens.

Quinn said yes.

"What are you waiting for?"

The year before, Carlton had gone 20-9 for the St. Louis Cardinals. On the basis of that performance, he had been seeking a raise for the 1972 season, from $40,000 to $90,000 a year. But St. Louis was holding firm at a lower figure. Carlton, though, was equally obstinate, and finally Cardinals owner Auggie Busch told general manager Bing Devine to trade him. "We were probably the first team that St. Louis called," recalled former Phillies owner Ruly Carpenter, who would later take over the team from his father, Bob, as owner and general manager. "It was not an insurmountable amount [of money] between them."

At the time, the trade did not look lopsided. Rick Wise had won 17 games with a 2.88 ERA for the Phillies in 1971. And on June 23 of that year, he not only threw a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds at Riverfront Stadium, he also hit two home runs. When Wise was sent to St. Louis, in fact, Phillies fans grumbled that the team had traded away its best hitter.

Carlton reported to Clearwater on Feb. 25, 1972, a few days before exhibition games started. For Carlton, the trade would mean a bigger paycheck, of course. But just as important, it freed him from a dictum that St. Louis management had put down while he was in a Cardinals uniform - that he was not to throw a slider.

At the time, Carlton had a fastball in the 95 mph range, and a big, slow-breaking curveball. Yet, when Carlton arrived in Clearwater, Phillies pitching coach Ray Rippelmeyer noticed something was missing. "I had seen him pitch in the minor leagues in Triple A in Tulsa and seen him use another type of breaking pitch that I hadn't seen him use when I saw him pitch against us in 1971," said Rippelmeyer. "I asked him about it, and he told me the Cardinals weren't letting him throw it. I asked if I could see it. He threw me a half dozen and I said, 'You and I are going to use this pitch.'

"The theory back then in certain clubs and pitching coaches was if you started throwing the slider, you would lose your curveball," continued Rippelmeyer. "He had a very good overhand curve and I was convinced that [the slider theory] was a complete fallacy. I had thrown both of them. I convinced him to forget it."

"It was a devastating," recalled longtime shortstop Larry Bowa, Carlton's teammate on the 1972 club. "I've never seen so many righthanders swing and miss at that pitch."

Carpenter recalls that during home games, he would watch the action with the ground crew, standing 55 feet behind home plate. "I saw firsthand what the hitters had to contend with," he said. "He was unhittable. He just dominated some of the best hitters in the league."

After a good start - the Phillies were in first place in early May - the team went into a tailspin, losing 19 of 20 games. And Carlton, the team's prize offseason acquisition, wasn't helping matters. After starting off 5-1, he proceeded to lose five straight decisions.

But change was coming. First, team president Bob Carpenter stepped down and named son Ruly as his successor. Quinn was let go and Owens was named general manager. In a few short years, the duo would lead the Phils to one of the most successful runs in team history. But then, the only direction the club was heading was down. Owens tried to shake things up with a few trades, one in which he shipped Tim McCarver off to Montreal for John Bateman, the Expos' starting catcher.

The move didn't seem to faze Carlton. After he had retired the side in one game, Bateman came to the dugout and sat down. "It doesn't matter what I call," he told Rippelmeyer. "Anything I call it's a perfect pitch. The way he's throwing the calling doesn't matter really."

In July, Owens fired Frank Lucchesi and took over as manager, ostensibly to see for himself what the players were like on the field and in the clubhouse. The team was a mixed bag: some players, such as Bowa, had come up through the Phillies' farm system. Some, like Greg Luzinski (another homegrown talent), had big expectations. Others, such as second baseman Denny Doyle, infielder Terry Harmon and utility man Tommy Hutton, were getting a chance to see if they could play.

Besides Carlton, the pitching staff ranged from wily veterans like Woody Fryman to youngsters like Barry Lersch, Ken Reynolds, and Wayne Twitchell.

Several players went on to have solid careers after leaving the Phillies. Don Money was an All-Star third baseman with Milwaukee. Doyle, the second baseman for the '72 Phils, was a key player for the 1975 Boston Red Sox. Outfielder Oscar Gamble had a long and productive post-Phillies career. But nobody did much offensively in 1972. The Phillies were next to last in the major leagues in runs scored (with 503) and would score just 17 in the 10 games Carlton lost that year. "The Triple A team I played on in Spokane in 1970 was probably better," said Hutton, a first baseman/outfielder who arrived in a trade with the Dodgers. "We had Ron Cey at third, Bobby Valentine at short, Dave Lopes at second, and Bill Buckner, Tom Paciorek and Von Joshua in the outfield. And here I am on this really bad team [in the majors]."

"He [Carlton] was a good teammate," said Reynolds, who was 2-15 in '72, his second full season in the majors. Reynolds also says other pitchers never minded that the team seemed to play better when Carlton pitched.

In an August game in Cincinnati, Carlton entered the ninth up 4-2, but the Reds scored a run and had two runners on with nobody out. Rookie reliever Mac Scarce was brought in to face Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Bobby Tolan. "I got Rose to ground out and got Morgan and Tolan to strike out," said Scarce. "That was my claim to fame.

"Every fourth day we were the best team in baseball," Scarce continues. "Every other day we were the worst."

Bowa even had a special name for the days when Carlton pitched: win days. "Steve sort off started it when he'd come through the clubhouse doors and say it's win day, and I sort of picked up on that," said Bowa. "No matter how bad the team was, he expected you to go out and win when he pitched. We were a young team without experience, and maybe it was because we knew we didn't have to score many runs that we elevated our play when he went out there."

DeMars also thought the players gave a little extra when Carlton pitched, at least "subconsciously," he said. Added Money: "If you could score a run or two and play good defense, we knew we had a chance to win the game when Carlton pitched."

Luzinski was playing his first full season in the majors that year. For him, the frequent loses were offset by the thrill of being in the major leagues. But even as a rookie, he knew the team wasn't the same when Carlton pitched. "There was a different attitude," he said. "Steve was a mind-over-matter guy. You used to hear him say on the bench, stuff like, 'Just let the ability flow, the ability's there, just let it flow,' and we heard that numerous times from him. I think that was his motto, play hard, relax and let it flow, and there's ability there and it will come through. Don't put any unwanted pressure on yourself to play the game. No question he helped change the attitude of pitchers and lot of the young guys."

Carlton was the rare individual, says Harmon, who could totally blank out everything except what mattered at the moment: himself, the catcher, the ball and the batter. "He seemed to be able to stay in that zone," said Harmon. "If it was a bad call, it didn't bother him. If it was an error, it didn't seem to bother him. When he was pitching and you had a decent game, or if you made a few plays or whatever, that made you feel part of it, and I think everybody looked at it like that."

"I know Hall of Famers and have been fortunate enough to play with them - the Mike Schmidts, the Steve Carltons, the Tom Seavers, the Carlton Fisks, and all these guys were unique," said Luzinski. "You look back at them, there was something different about them, their approach to the game, and things of that nature. No question, when you look back, Steve was in his own world. Seaver was same way. Mike Schmidt was in his own world."

Carlton would later become known for his detachment, for his approach to pitching as nothing more than "an elevated game of catch" between him and the catcher. But there was another benefit for his teammates: "He worked fast," says DeMars. "I was a shortstop myself, and there's nothing better than working behind a pitcher who worked fast. What drove you crazy were guys who took too much time, who'd step off the rubber or shake off the catcher. When he got the ball back in his glove he was ready to go. Infielders play better behind that. The only people who hated Carlton were the concession people: The game was over in an hour and a half."

Thanks to major league baseball's first strike, the 1972 season started late. The Phils didn't play their first game until April 15 against the Cubs in Chicago. Carlton pitched eight innings and won, 4-2.

The Phillies' home opener was against the Cardinals on April 17 in front of 38,182 fans at Veterans Stadium, although only 8,184 turned out two days later to see Carlton outduel Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, 1-0, in a contest that took only 1:33 to play.

In 1972, there were no mounds in the bullpen, so pitchers warmed up in front of the Phillies' dugout before the games. Before an early-season game, outfielder Bill Robinson approached Carlton while he was warming up. He was working on his stance, Robinson told the pitcher, and asked if it would be OK if he stood next to the catcher while Carlton warmed up. Carlton agreed and he won that night for the first time after dropping five games. Carlton said he fixed his mechanics, but the next time he warmed up he asked Robinson to stand in. "One night, Joe Lis wanted to be the batter while Carlton warmed up," Robinson once told a reporter before he died, in 2007. "And Steve in no uncertain terms told Lis to get the hell out of there."

Carlton had found his groove. By August, he had reeled off 14 straight victories and was going for his 20th win at home against the Reds on Aug. 17. More than 42,000 fans showed up at Veterans Stadium. "It felt like a playoff game," said Bowa. Two unusual things happened that night: Carlton gave up four runs, but the Phils banged out 16 hits and scored nine runs.

Perhaps the only time Carlton was upstaged that season was on Aug. 13. Between games of a doubleheader, Bill Giles - then the Phillies' promotional guru - had booked Karl "The Great" Wallenda to walk a two-inch tightrope 900 feet across the open expanse of Veterans Stadium. Not only did the 67-year-old Wallenda safely walk the distance, he did a headstand when he reached the spot above second base as organist Paul Richard played, "Look up and you'll never be alone."

After the season, Carlton was the unanimous choice for the NL Cy Young Award, just the fourth pitcher to win it unanimously. The Indians' Gaylord Perry took the honor in the American League that year, making Carlton and Perry the first Cy Young Award winners to both pitch for losing teams.

Carlton's performance was rewarded with a two-year contract (rare at the time) that paid him $165,000 per year, making him one of the highest-paid pitchers in the game. He spent the offseason speaking at banquets, and reported to spring training the next year out of shape. Then he contracted pneumonia. Unready for the start of the season and having difficulty adjusting to a new ball that the major leagues had introduced, Carlton became infamous for following a 20-win season with a 20-loss season, going 13-20 in 1973. He fared a little better in 1974 and 1975 before regaining his form in 1976, when he went 20-7, then winning his second Cy Young Award the following year. (He won it again in 1980 and '82). His numbers for those three seasons were outstanding, but he was pitching for playoff-caliber teams with superb bullpens.

But the 1972 season was special. Great pitchers have played well while playing for bad teams - Walter Johnson with the woeful Washington Senators, Robin Roberts with the Phillies after the 1950 Whiz Kids crumbled - but no one, before or since, achieved more with less than Carlton did that year. As Dan Money puts it: "Even a Hall of Fame player can have a career year!"