“Lefty & Tim: How Steve Carlton and Tim McCarver
Became Baseball’s Best Battery”
William C. Kashatus
The publishing info:
Univ. of Nebraska Press
Released June 1, 2022
The review in 90 feet or less
UPDATED: Aug. 7, 2022:
Can two 40-something Major League Baseball players keep dancing together long enough before October to make history without hurting themselves too much before retirement benefits kick in?
With two months are left in this 2022 MLB season, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina are apt to catch and surpass the record for most games started together as a battery.
They had been stuck on 316 since mid-June – and tied for second place all-time on the list – as Molina was been trying to come back from a swollen right knee to reunite with Wainwright and see what’s left to accomplish.
Molina returned to active duty Tuesday for the beginning of a three-game series at home against the Chicago Cubs – where Wainwright was the scheduled starter. In the Cardinals’ 6-0 win that night, Wainwright pitched seven spotless innings with Molina and they made their 317th career start as batterymates, passing the Boston/Milwaukee Braves duo of Warren Spahn and Del Crandall for sole possession of second place in major league history since 1901. Molina also caught his 153rd career shutout, second only to Yogi Berra (173) in MLB history.
That was also their 204th win as a battery. On May 15, they passed the Spahn-Crandall record with 203.
Sunday, in a 12-9 win over the Yankees where Wainwright had no decision, the two made it together 318 times. They are closing in on the all-time mark of 324 by the Detroit Tigers’ Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan (1963-to-’75).
Wainwright, who turns 41 later this month, and Molina, who hit 40 last month, have a 15-year run going back to 2007.
In the Cardinals’ self-proclaimed glorious franchise history, Wainwright and Molina have already surpassed what had been considered to be the franchise’s most high-profile pitcher-catcher combo — Bob Gibson and Tim McCarver, who were together for 197 starts and which we assume adds in what they did in the 1964, ’67 and ’68 World Series.
To drive that point home, Gibson and McCarver were part of the team’s opening pitch ceremony for the team’s first home game on April, 2018, moments before the battery of Wainwright and Molina started No. 238 together.
After the astro-dust settles, does all this ruckus make Wainwright and Molina the greatest battery of all time, once they have the top marks for appearances and wins?
Does Gibson-McCarver have a say in this?
Or, what’s all the fuss about Steve Carlton and Tim McCarver?
Here’s the catch: For at least four seasons – 1976 through ’79 – there’s little to dispute that Carlton-McCarver formed the top tag team in baseball while members of the Philadelphia Phillies, reviving a relationship they started in some 10 years earlier in St. Louis. All the appendix charts, graphics and research at the end of this 350-page dual bio seem to secure that claim.
This came at a time when pitchers were getting more notoriety for having a particular catcher team up with them. In this case, the revival was necessary, Carlton thought, after he was dealt from the Cards to the Phillies and wasn’t having much of a connection with All-Star catcher Bob Boone. McCarver, added back to the Phillies roster as a backup, ended up catching 32 of Carlton’s 35 games, and all was well again.
So if, as the title suggests, this was “baseball’s best battery,” it is probably with some context. But we’ll give them that. Because, from ’76-to’79, McCarver caught 128 of Carlton’s 140 starts, including 90 in a row. Carlton posted a 48-26 record over that time and came back to Cy Young form, securing a spot in the Hall of Fame, and giving McCarver plenty of credibility as he began to start a Hall of Fame-quality broadcasting career, where he set many more longevity records.
For the record, McCarver caught 228 of Carlton’s 709 career starts, putting them No. 17 on the all-time list, and the only pair who did it with more than one team. That’s got to count for something. A bio? Why not.
But it didn’t start all that excellent.
Chapter 2 of this new book recalls their introduction:
“Steve Carlton made his first appearance for the St. Louis Cardinals in a 1965 spring training game at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. The lean rookie has rocketed through the Redbirds’ farm system … now he was ready to prove that he belonged in the Majors.
“Carlton went four innings, surrendering two runs on five hits. It was hardly an impressive performance. But he refused to accept blame for the poor showing. Afterward in the Cardinals’ locker room he approached his catcher, Tim McCarver, while he was shaving.
” ‘Hey,’ began the brazen young hurler. ‘You gotta call for more breaking pitches when we’re behind in the count.’
“McCarver couldn’t believe that a rookie had the gall to tell him how to call a game. He was, after all, a veteran and the club’s regular catcher. Just five months earlier, he hit .478 in the World Series and smacked a three-run homer in Game Five to help the Cards clinch the championship against the storied New York Yankees …
” ‘You son-of-a-bitch!’ McCarver exploded. ‘Who the hell do you think you are, telling me that? You’ve got a lot of guts. What credentials do you have?”
The stage was set: Can two men share a baseball field without driving each other crazy?
Kinda sounds like McCarver in a future confrontation with Deion Sanders, doesn’t it?
From that initial meeting, Carlton, 20 years old and already aloof, walked away. McCarver, 24 years old and garrulous as well as hard-nosed and far wiser,, later went back and apologized. He understood the value of a pitcher-catcher relationship.
“The rookie brushed him off again. Looking the veteran catcher straight in the eye, Carlton said: ‘I wasn’t listening anyway.’ “
That said, and what would go unsaid, it seems pretty amazing decades later, a book could come of it for historical, and some hysterical, context.
How it goes in the scorebook
1-2 output. Without so much the 1 we would hope for.
For this dual biography of this battery, noted Philly based historian William C. Kashatus (author of more than 20 books, including “Jackie and Campy: The Untold Story of Their Rocky Relationship“) was able to get McCarver to talk for three extended interviews.
Carlton abstained. Some things don’t change.
Even with former teammate Larry Christensen (who wrote the forward) trying to intervene.
That left Kashatus, who had been asked originally by University of Nebraska Press do to only a Carlton bio, to rely on newspaper accounts, Dan Stephenson’s DVD “Lefty: The Life and Times of Steve Carlton” in 1989, plus rare interviews Carlton did with Reggie Jackson, Roy Firestone and Tyler Kepner. Some of Kashatus’ research and quotes of other players came from his research for other books he did such as “Dick Allen: The Life and Times of a Baseball Immortal,” a bio on Mike Schmidt, and “Almost a Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies.“
Even if there aren’t a lot of new revelations that one might anticipate — especially without Carlton submitting to new chatty interviews — it’s serves as a nice reminder, and a historic placeholder, as to what we’re seeing again with the Wainwright-Molina achievement.
Catch it, if you can.
By the way, as much as Carlton benefitted from McCarver, the opposite seemed to be true.
In a 2017 story for MLB.com about the Carlton-McCarver pairing, Larry Shenk writes that “while McCarver spurred Carlton, Lefty seemed to spur Tim’s bat. For his Phillies career, McCarver hit .272, with 26 homers and 168 RBIs. While catching Carlton: .306, 10 homers and 66 RBIs.”
You can look it up: More to ponder
== From the bookshelf of Tim McCarver comes the 1987 “Oh Baby, I Love It!: Baseball Summers, Hot Pennant Races, Grand Salamis, Jellylegs, El Swervos, Dingers and Dunkers, Etc, Etc, Etc,” the 1998 “Tim McCarver’s Baseball for Brain Surgeons & Other Fans,” 1999’s “The Perfect Season: Why 1998 Was Baseball’s Greatest Year” and in 2008 “Tim McCarver’s Diamond Gems: Favorite Baseball Stories from The Legends of the Game”
== The current list of all-time battery mates in MLB history, for those curious, includes the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale and John Roseboro (283 games, fifth all-time, from 1957-to-’67) and the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela with Mike Scioscia (239, 13th all time, from 1981-to-’90). The combo of Sandy Koufax and Roseboro made it to 208 appearances (21st all time, from ’57 through ’66).
== In Joe Posnanski’s “Baseball 100” list, Carlton is slotted in at No. 63. Posnanski reminds us how Carlton went from the Cardinals to the Phillies for Rick Wise in a deal that it seemed no one wanted to make but too many contract issues on both sides forced the issue.
Posnanski writes: “You probably know that Tim McCarver eventually became Carlton’s personal catcher. But what you might not know is that he was also Wise’s catcher. So when the Wise-Carlton trade was made, reporters flocked to McCarver to see what he thought. McCarver first made it clear that he thought they were exactly the same as pitchers.
“They’re so comparable,” he said, “that you have to start looking to the finer points like how they field their position. When you have to start looking to things like their personalities, things like that, you know they’re awfully close.”
He then broke it down, pitch by pitch, and actually gave the edge to Wise for his fastball and his slider. Think about that: Steve Carlton had one of the greatest left-handed fastballs in baseball history, and he had the greatest slider in baseball history, righty or lefty, but when Carlton came to Philadelphia, McCarver gave the edge on both pitches to Wise.
But McCarver wasn’t crazy. See, by 1972, Carlton stopped throwing what would become the greatest slider ever. He had picked up that slider in Japan after the 1968 season while trying to figure out a way to get out the legendary Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh. The first two times they faced each other, Oh homered. So Carlton tried the slider he had been playing around with. Oh buckled. “I knew I had something,” Carlton told Sports Illustrated.
But he junked it in at some point in 1970. Why? Some thought it was because the Cardinals felt like it put too much strain on his arm. Some thought it was because he lost confidence in it. In any case, McCarver had it right that Carlton had given up on the slider.
But as soon as he got to Philadelphia, he began to throw it again. And barely a month later, reporters went back to McCarver to ask about Carlton. Suddenly, McCarver sang a very different tune.
“Pound for pound, I think Steve probably throws harder than anybody else in the league,” he said just five weeks after saying that Wise had a better fastball. “He was zipping that slider. When he has that working well, nobody is going to touch him.”
Then Posnanski got into Carlton and his silent treatment to the media:
“By 1979, it became known across the sports world that Carlton was the guy who didn’t talk to the press. He was mocked repeatedly for it. And? From 1980 to 1983, he won two Cy Young Awards, could have won a third, won his 300th game and passed Walter Johnson to become the all-time strikeout king. (Nolan Ryan would take that title back later.) He later said not talking to the press cleared his mind and allowed him to become the pitcher he was meant to be.
In later years, it became pretty clear that Carlton was smart to not talk to the media because there were all kinds of bats flying around in his attic. In 1994, after he was elected to the Hall of Fame, he did a series of interviews, including a long interview in his home in Durango, Colo., with Pat Jordan. The result was an astonishing portrait of racism, homophobia, fear, nonsense and anti-semitism. A few lines probably will suffice:
He believes that the last eight U.S. presidents have been guilty of treason … that the AIDS virus was created at a secret Maryland biological warfare laboratory “to get rid of gays and blacks, and now they have a strain of the virus that can live 10 days in the air or on a plate of food, because you know who most of the waiters are,” and finally, that most of the mass murderers in this country who open fire indiscriminately in fast-food restaurants “are hypnotized to kill those people and then themselves immediately afterwards,” as in the movie The Manchurian Candidate. He blinks once, twice, and says, “Who hypnotizes them? They do!”
Carlton quickly released a statement saying the entire article was untrue and suggested that Jordan “became so disoriented (in the thin air of his hometown of Durango) that he lost his grasp on truth and decency.”
Pat Jordan, as only he can, grumped back: “Steve is the most fearful man I’ve ever met.”
== What might have happened if there was a Steve Carlton-Carlton Fisk battery?