Only four left-handed pitchers have won 300 or more games in major league history. Steve Carlton is No. 2 overall with 329 victories, trailing only Warren Spahn’s 363.
No wonder Carlton was called “Lefty.” On Dec. 22, the wily southpaw celebrates his 78th birthday.
Carlton is in the mix when naming the top southpaws of the post-World War II era, along with Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson and Tom Glavine.
Armed with a nasty slider, Carlton would strike out 4,136 batters during his 24-year career — 4,000 coming against National League hitters. He won 20 or more games six times and led the N.L. in victories four times. That includes his out-of-this-world 1972 season when the Miami native won 27 games for a last-place Phillies team that had just 59 victories that year.
“Lefty has a hard time being human as a pitcher, so he became superhuman, and did things that were superhuman,” catcher and longtime teammate Tim McCarver said about Carlton.
Carlton was also an enigma who did not talk to the media from 1973 until the end of his career because he wanted to focus on his pitching.
A four-time winner of the Cy Young Award, Carlton was inducted into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame in 1989 — where he spoke to Florida reporters — and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994.
Silence was golden for Carlton during his career.
“Besides, you guys become more creative writers when you don’t have to rely on quotes,” Carlton told reporters during his Baseball Hall of Fame election news conference.
He was apparently hard to recognize, too. According to a Jan. 24, 1994, article in Sports Illustrated, when Carlton, as a member of the 1987 World Series champion Minnesota Twins, went to the White House to meet with President Ronald Reagan, a photo caption in a St. Paul newspaper identified a tall man with sunglasses (Carlton) as a Secret Service agent.
Here is a look at some of Carlton’s career highlights and some of the baseball cards that matched those wondrous seasons.
Carlton was on the radar of many scouts during his prep career at North Miami High School. As a sophomore in 1961, Carlton was a 6-foot-3 pitcher who went 5-1 with an 0.47 ERA.
It is interesting to note that in a Miami News story from May 22, 1961, Carlton is shown in a photograph with his North Miami High School teammates as the squad prepared to play Coral Gables in the game that would decide the champion of Dade County.
The story and photograph beneath that article featured Koufax.
Carlton began his junior season by throwing a no-hitter against Edison High School en route to an 8-2 record with an 0.96 ERA. His only regular-season loss was a 1-0 decision to Norland High School, but he struck out 13 in that game.
After another strong season, Carlton signed a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals in October 1963. He moved rapidly through the Cardinals’ minor league season. After going 10-1 at Rock Hill in the Class A Western Carolinas League, he was moved to Class A Winnipeg. After a 17-strikeout performance at Winnipeg, Carlton was promoted to Class AA Tulsa, which competed in the Texas League.
Called up to the defending World Series champions in 1965, Carlton made his major league debut on April 12, walking George Altman with one out in the 11th inning before he was relieved by Bob Purkey. That game at Wrigley Field ended in a 10-10 tie.
Carlton pitched in 15 games, making two starts, but he did not figure in any of the Cardinals’ decisions.
He would be featured on a Topps rookie card (No. 477) with Fritz Ackley, who was 28 in 1965 and spent most of his 13-year professional career in the minor leagues. Ackley would go 8-11 for Jacksonville in the International League in ’65. He appeared in five games for the Chicago White Sox and won his only decision in 1963, pitching seven innings against the Washington Senators in a 7-1 victory on Sept. 27 in the second game of a doubleheader.
Carlton’s rookie card is surprisingly inexpensive for the most part, due to strong availability.
Carlton started 1966 back at Tulsa, where he went 9-5. On July 25, Carlton was brought to the majors to pitch against the defending American League champion Minnesota Twins in the Hall of Fame game.
Carlton started and went the distance, striking out 10 while allowing eight hits and picking up the victory as the Cardinals won 7-6 at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, New York.
He would make his major league debut on July 31, starting against the pennant-bound Los Angeles Dodgers but not figuring in the decision. Carlton would earn his first major league victory on Aug. 5, pitching a complete-game victory against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium.
Carlton finished 3-3 in 1966, but he came into his own in 1967. The left-hander went 14-9 with a 2.98 ERA and started Game 5 of the World Series on Oct. 9 with a chance to bring the championship home for the Cardinals. Carlton pitched six innings but gave up an RBI single to Ken Harrelson in the third inning. He left the game allowing only the unearned run, trailing 1-0. The Red Sox would take a 3-1 must-win victory to send the Series back to Boston.
Carlton would earn the first of his 10 All-Star Game selections in 1968, pitching a scoreless sixth inning to help preserve the NL’s 1-0 victory at the Astrodome.
Again, Carlton appeared in the World Series, pitching in two games and allowing three earned runs and seven hits. He did not have a decision.
After the 1968 season, Carlton introduced the slider to his repertoire and would enjoy his best season to date in 1969, going 17-11 with a 2.17 ERA.
“I had been fooling with a pitch in Japan, after Sadaharu Oh hit two home runs off me, I figured ‘What the heck,’” Carlton told Sports Illustrated in 1994. “I threw Oh, a left-handed hitter, the slider. When he backed away and the ball was a strike, I knew I had something.”
On Sept. 15, 1969, Carlton set a major league record when he struck out 19 batters against the Mets. Incredibly, he lost the game 4-3 because Ron Swoboda hit a pair of two-run homers.
After a contract dispute in the spring of 1970, Carlton had a rough regular season, going 10-19 to lead in the NL in losses. But he bounced back in 1971 with his first 20-game season.
Carlton asked for a $60,000 contract for 1972. Instead, he was traded to Philadelphia to the woeful Phillies for Rick Wise on Feb. 25. And that’s where Carlton’s legend truly began.
“I was mentally committed to winning 25 games with the Cardinals and now I had to rethink my goals,” the Baseball Hall of Fame quoted Carlton as saying. “I decided to stay with the 25-win goal and won 27 of the Phillies’ 59 victories. I consider that season my finest individual achievement.”
Carlton would win the pitcher’s version of the Triple Crown. In addition to his 27 wins, he led the league in ERA (1.97) and strikeouts (310). Carlton also led the NL in innings pitched (346.1), complete games (30) and games started (41). He also threw eight shutouts.
Carlton won his first Cy Young Award by a unanimous vote and finished fifth in the NL’s MVP voting.
This happened after Carlton opened the season with a 5-6 mark. But beginning in June, he pitched in 19 games and won 15 of them with four no-decisions. He finished the season winning 46% of the Phillies’ games that year.
He has a regular issue card with the Cardinals (#420) and was among a small group of high profile players featured on Topps’ first foray into “Traded” cards in the final series of the 1972 Topps set. The latter is tougher and more expensive than the regular issue but neither will break the bank.
Carlton would slump to 13-20 in 1973, but he led the Phillies to three straight division titles from 1976 to 1978 with records of 20-7, 23-10 and 16-13. Carlton would win his second Cy Young Award in 1977, earning 17 out of a possible 24 first-place votes.
He did not fare as well in the playoffs during those three years, going 1-2.
But the accolades kept coming.
In 1980, Carlton won his third Cy Young Award with a 24-9 record and led the Phillies to their first World Series title. He led the league in starts (38), innings pitched (304) and strikeouts (286). That earned him 23 out of 24 first-place votes in the Cy Young balloting.
In the postseason, Carlton won the opening game of the NLCS against the Houston Astros and two games in the World Series — Game 2 and the title-clinching Game 6.
It was the first World Series crown in franchise history.
In 1982, Carlton would win his fourth Cy Young Award with a 23-11 record. It was his last great season, as he led the league in starts (38), complete games (19), shutouts (6), innings pitched (295.2) and strikeouts (286). He had a 3.10 ERA.
Carlton would become the fourth left-hander in major league history to record his 300th victory, following Eddie Plank, Lefty Grove and Spahn.
On Sept. 23, Carlton earned his milestone win against the team that first signed him to a pro contract. He went eight innings and struck out 12 as the Phillies defeated the Cardinals 6-2. Carlton also walked just one batter and allowed eight hits.
The victory enabled the left-hander to even his record at 15-15, but he lost his final start of the season four days later.
Between 1982 and 1986, Carlton traded places for the all-time strikeout lead with Nolan Ryan. While Ryan eventually passed him and became the first pitcher to fan 4,000 batters in 1985 (Danny Heep was the victim), Carlton joined the 4,000 club on Aug. 5, 1986.
He did not hit the milestone with the Phillies, though. Philadelphia released Carlton on June 24 and he was 18 whiffs shy of 4,000.
However, Carlton signed with the San Francisco Giants, and on Aug. 5 he achieved the milestone by striking out Eric Davis of the Cincinnati Reds in the third inning.
It was the only highlight in the game for Carlton, who allowed seven earned runs in 3.2 innings and saw his record for the season fall to 5-11.
Carlton announced his retirement but it did not last long. He finished the season with the Chicago White Sox, going 4-3. When the White Sox did not offer Carlton a contract in 1987 he signed with Cleveland.
Fun fact: On April 9, 1987, Carlton came in to relieve Phil Niekro, pitching the final four innings in Cleveland’s 14-3 victory against the Blue Jays in Toronto. It marked the first time in MLB history that two 300-game winners pitched for the same team in the same game.
It was Niekro’s 312th career win.
Carlton got his final win on Aug. 8 with the Twins, going 8.2 innings in a 9-2 victory.
His final game came the following season, taking the loss in a 10-2 decision against Cleveland on April 23, 1988. He would be released five days later.
Despite the final indignity, Carlton’s place in MLB lore was secure. He did it his way.
“No other pitcher was as revered as Steve Carlton was,” McCarver would say in 1994.
Carlton continued to appear on baseball cards throughout his post-baseball life and you can find numerous autographs in various products, most of which are very inexpensive. Upper Deck featured a tribute to his career on its 2005 Heroes insert cards. You can check out all of the current eBay listings for his cards here.