Steve Carlton (and not much else)

ERIC: Here’s installment #3 of “Stuff that didn’t make it into the book.” Following the Hall of Shame section Michael and I originally contributed a chapter on our own personal You Stink! moments. As a lifelong (and often suffering) Phillies fan, here is mine…

The 1972 Philadelphia Phillies

“Steve Carlton was an extremely focused competitor with complete dedication to excellence. He thrived on the mound by physically and mentally challenging himself off the field. His out-pitch, a hard, biting slider complemented a great fastball.” – National Baseball Hall of Fame

The Philadelphia Phillies fill more pages of this book than any other team, for good reason. No other professional sports franchise has a longer history of futility, and no other professional franchise has lost 10,000 games. Consequently, the Phillies have had a lot of really wretched teams, marked by occasional glory. The 1972 team, which played when I was 11 years old, was, unquestionably, one of the worst in a long legacy of bad teams.

The franchise started the 1970’s hopefully enough. The last game in decrepit old Connie Mack Stadium was played at the end of the 1970 season, and in 1971, the team moved into gleaming, new Veterans Stadium. A multiple use facility designed for both baseball and football, the Vet, as it was known, seated 56,000 for baseball. Huge and sterile, the field was covered by a thin layer of Astroturf covering a concrete base. There were dirt cut-outs for the bases, but the rest of the field was green carpeting. Things seemed hopeful. More than 1.5 million fans—including my father and me—flocked to the new stadium.

Flashy outfielder/first baseman Willie Montanez, obtained from St. Louis as compensation for center fielder Curt Flood, who refused to report to the Phillies in a trade, hit 30 homers and drove in 99 runs, finishing second in the rookie of the year voting. Pitcher Rick Wise won 17 games for a last place team and had what might have been the single greatest game any pitcher ever had. On June 23, 1971, Wise pitched a no-hitter against the mighty Cincinnati Reds at Riverfront Stadium on the Ohio River, and also hit two home runs that night. Fiery second-year shortstop Larry Bowa played terrific defense, hit a little bit, and stole 28 bases. Popular catcher Tim McCarver hit a career-high .278, and first baseman Deron Johnson hit 34 homers and drove in 95 runs. Future Hall-of-Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, in his final major league season, posted a 5-12 mark. Although the team finished last in the National League East, they seemed a bit improved, and fans had high hopes for the future.

Wise, who had been a member of the 1964 team that collapsed, was extremely popular in Philadelphia, particularly after the no-hitter against the mighty Reds. The only pitching bright spot on a bad staff, Wise wanted a raise for 1972. When he and general manager John Quinn were unable to break their impasse, Quinn made a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals in February 1972. Twenty-seven year-old left-handed pitcher Steve Carlton had posted a gaudy 20-9 record for the 1971 Cardinals, and in five full and two partial seasons in the major leagues, had won 77 games. Wise had 75 wins and was a year younger, so the trade appeared to be an even swap of two good pitchers. The trade of yet another popular young star outraged Philadelphia fans. Fortunately, their outrage did not last long.

Carlton posted what might be the single-greatest season of any pitcher of the modern era. He posted a record of 27-10, hurling 346 1/3 innings, striking out 310 hitters against only 87 walks, and posted a sparkling 1.97 earned run average. At one point, Carlton reeled off fifteen consecutive wins and posted thirty complete games, unanimously winning his first Cy Young Award and garnering a few votes for most valuable player. Carlton notched an incredible, record-breaking iron man performance that began his magnificent 14-year career with the Phillies that featured four Cy Young Awards and a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Wise, by contrast, was 16-16 with a good 3.11 ERA for the Cardinals, and had a solid career that ended with a 188-181 record in 1985, including 19 wins and a World Series appearance for the 1975 Boston Red Sox. The Phillies clearly got the best of that trade; Lefty, as Carlton became known, won 329 games and posted more than 4,000 strikeouts in a Hall of Fame career.

Carlton’s performance is made all the more remarkable in light of the team’s record. The 1972 Phillies posted a 59-97 record, meaning that Carlton accounted for a staggering 46% of the team’s victories. The rest of the pitching staff was truly atrocious; 15 pitchers combined for 32 wins, accounting for a 32-87 record. Southpaw Ken Reynolds posted a 2-15 record, righty Billy Champion was 4-14, and hefty lefty Woody Fryman logged a 4-10 record. Only reliever Darrell “Bucky” Brandon managed as many as 5 wins, notching a 7-7 record out of a terrible bullpen that accounted for a total of 15 saves. Lefty Mac Scarce, a mid-season call-up, led the bullpen with 4 saves. Even as magnificent as Carlton’s season was, the team was still outscored by 635-503.

Offensively, things were not much better. A big rookie outfielder, Greg Luzinski, showed a lot of promise. Luzinski, converted to the outfield from his natural position of first base, batted .281 with 18 homers and 68 RBI’s, and earned the nickname “The Bull.” Bowa led the National League with 13 triples and stole 17 bases, playing superb defense at shortstop. Montanez followed his terrific rookie season with a solid second season with 13 homers and 64 RBI’s. The popular McCarver, whose defensive skills, and especially his throwing arm, were suspect, was traded to the Montreal Expos mid-season for catcher John Bateman, who played solid defense but was not much of a hitter. Slick fielding third baseman Don Money hit only .222, with 15 homers and 52 RBI’s. The team batting average was an anemic .236, and the Phillies only totaled 98 home runs that year, with only Luzinski, Money, and Montanez reaching double figures.

The season started badly, and only got worse. On April 16, the second game of the strike-delayed season, Burt Hooton of the Chicago Cubs pitched a no-hitter against the Phillies at Wrigley Field, winning 4-0. And then it got worse. Bill Giles, son of former National League President Warren Giles, was the team’s marketing director. Desperate to fill seats for a bad ball club, Giles came up with what seemed a great idea for opening day. Richard Johnson, of Cyprus, Florida, would use a hang glider to come down an 80-foot ramp erected in the outfield upper deck seats, swoop down, and deliver the first ball to the pitching mound. On April 17, before 38,000 fans, the terrified “Kite Man”, as Johnson was known, instead veered off course and crashed into the seats, never making it out of the upper deck (See our Kiteman post). Giles later said that he was just glad that nobody was killed by the failed scheme. The stunt, like the season, was an unmitigated failure. It was not an auspicious beginning to what proved to be a long and equally inauspicious season.

There were a few interesting moments along the way. On July 15, Carlton started against the San Francisco Giants. It was not one of his better outings. He surrendered four earned runs in five innings and left the game with the Giants ahead, 4-0. Improbably, the Phillies batted around twice in the 7th inning, scored 11 runs, and won the game 11-4. That 11 run inning still stands as the team record for most runs scored in a single inning. In August, they reeled off 5 straight wins over the Mets and Cardinals. They ended the season with two straight wins and a promise that 1973 would be a better year.

The Phils, who had been no-hit by Hooton on April 16, came within one pitch of suffering the indignity of a second no-hitter on July 18. Dr. Steve Arlin of the San Diego Padres, who practiced dentistry in the off-season, went into the bottom of the 9th inning with a no-hitter against the Phils. Arlin got the first two outs in the 9th, and slap hitting second baseman Denny Doyle at the plate. Padres manager Don Zimmer had his third baseman, Dave Roberts, play in to guard against the bunt. Arlin got two strikes on Doyle and then the little second baseman chopped one over Roberts’ head that would have been an easy out had Roberts been playing at his ordinary depth. Arlin lost his no-hitter on a Baltimore chop, and the Phillies avoided the embarrassment of being no-hit twice in a single season. Arlin settled for a 5-1 win.

The team undoubtedly would have lost more than 100 games that year, but for several games canceled as a result of the brief players’ strike at the beginning of spring training. Consequently, the Phillies played only 156 games in 1972, robbing them of their chance to post more than 100 losses. In spite of the rain-shortened season, they finished a stunning 37.5 games behind the division winning Pittsburgh Pirates and managed only that single 5-game winning streak. They even finished well behind the Montreal Expos, who were only in the fourth year of their existence after joining the National League as an expansion team in 1969. Attendance dropped by nearly 200,000 from 1971, but still exceeded 1.3 million fans, largely due to huge crowds that flocked to the stadium each time that Carlton pitched.

The Phillies reeled off 10 straight losses in one stretch and 9 in another. They were shut out 13 times and lost another 29 games by 1 run. They had a winning record against only one team, posting an 8-7 record against the St. Louis Cardinals. The 1972 Phillies hold the record for the most losses ever by a team with a pitcher who led the league in wins. Manager Frank Lucchesi was fired on July 9 after posting a 26-50 record in 76 miserable games. Lucchesi, a decent man who loved the game, wept when he faced the press after being told that he had been fired. General manager Quinn, plagued by a long career of futility, was forced into retirement in June, and farm director Paul Owens took his place. Owens, eager to see just how bad his team really was, took over as field manager after firing Lucchesi, finishing the season and posting a 33-47 record, faring only slightly better than his predecessor. Owens left the dugout after the season, hiring Dodger third base coach Danny Ozark to manage the Phillies. Owens then resumed his duties as general manager, building a farm system and a team that won its first World Series championship eight years later.

Not all was gloom and doom for the 1972 Phillies. Two late-season call-ups from the farm system provided a tantalizing glimpse of things to come. Twenty-five-year-old catcher Bob Boone, son of former major leaguer Ray Boone, joined the team for 24 games, hitting .275 and showing some real talent behind the plate. Boone was the Phillies’ regular catcher for the next nine years. Twenty-two-year-old third baseman Mike Schmidt, a former shortstop who was a standout player at Ohio University, also joined the team in September. Schmidt, with curly red hair, demonstrated a great deal of raw talent, but still needed seasoning after just two years in the minor leagues. He went 1-3 in his major league debut against the Mets on September 12, 1972, and played 22 games for the Phillies that year. He hit only .206 with 1 homer in 34 at-bats, but he showed the kind of raw talent that led to three Most Valuable Player Awards, 548 career home runs, and enshrinement in Cooperstown. Schmidt joined the team for good in the spring of 1973, and spent the balance of his superb 18-year career in Philadelphia.

Although the 1972 Phillies have to rank among the worst teams in the history of Major League Baseball, five players from that team—Carlton, Bowa, Luzinski, Boone, and Schmidt—provided the nucleus for what quickly became one of the best teams in the National League. The Phils won 101 games in each of 1976 and 1977, won three straight National League East Division titles in 1976, 1977, and 1978, and won the World Series in 1980. Better days lay ahead, but in 1972, it was hard to see beyond the misery of an atrocious team whose only highlights were a crashed hang glider and the finest single season performance by a pitcher in the modern era of the game.


One thought on “Steve Carlton (and not much else)

  1. This comment by left handed pitcher Mac Scarce of the 1972 Phillies sums it up quite nicely:

    “We were the best team in baseball when Carlton pitched that year. We were the worst team when he didn’t. We had a lot of guys just putting in their time.”


    Posted by Eric Wittenberg | May 4, 2012, 3:15 pm

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Readers Relate

“We always read about the good teams and the great players, but it’s the bad teams and the horrific players that help build teams’ rich histories. You Stink! lets you know, that it can always be worse, and makes you appreciate your ball club that much more!” - Matt Lambert, a Cleveland Indians fan -----------------------------------------“Gave Dad a copy of You Stink! about the worst baseball teams and players in history. The review: ‘a home run.’” - Scott Gosnell, Columbus, OH

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