St. Louis Cardinals: Steve Carlton and the worst trade in Cardinals’ history

COOPERSTOWN, NY - JULY 24: Hall of Famer Steve Carlton is introduced at Clark Sports Center during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony on July 24, 2016 in Cooperstown, New York. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
COOPERSTOWN, NY - JULY 24: Hall of Famer Steve Carlton is introduced at Clark Sports Center during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony on July 24, 2016 in Cooperstown, New York. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /

The St. Louis Cardinals trade of Steve Carlton to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1972 is considered the worst trade in franchise history.

The St. Louis Cardinals should take a cautionary approach as they consider trades this off-season.  The trade of Steve Carlton in 1972 to the Phillies and the story behind it should be a lesson for Cardinal management.

Pitcher Steve Carlton’s trade in 1972 to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Rick Wise is considered by many now as the most lopsided in MLB history.  Carlton went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Phillies, while Wise spent two serviceable seasons with the Redbirds.  After the 1973 season, Wise was traded to the Red Sox.

However in 1972, many considered the Carlton-for-Wise deal an even swap.  Tim McCarver who caught for both Carlton in St. Louis and Wise in Philadelphia, described the trade as “a real good one for another real good one.”

Of course the assessment by McCarver didn’t hold up.  Steve Carlton went on to be considered one of the best left-handed pitchers in the history of the game.  Rick Wise went on to a respectable, but certainly not a stellar career.

Wise’s career stats of 188 career wins over 18 years pales in comparison to Steve Carlton’s.   The Lefty’s 329 career wins over 24 years, 4 Cy Young‘s, 1972 triple crown, 5-time NL strikeout leader, and 10 All-Star appearances still make St. Louis Cardinals fans break out in tears.

If that is not bad enough, Al Hrabosky, keeps reminding us during the FSM broadcasts, that the trade probably cost the Cardinals three pennants in the 70s.  Looking back at the races, The Mad Hungarian may be right.

In 1973, the Carlton-less Cardinals finished 1.5 games back in the Eastern Division race behind the Mets. Whereas Steve Carlton finished the year with a hapless last place Phillies team 13-20 with a 3.90 ERA. A drop off for sure from his stellar 1972 season.  Rick Wise on the other hand was 16-12 with a 3.37ERA.

An argument could certainly be made that Rick Wise was the better pitcher in 1973.  However, looking more closely at some of the stats that year, Steve Carlton pitched more innings (293 vs 259), more complete games (18 vs14), and strikeouts (223 vs 144).

In 1974, the St. Louis Cardinals once again finished 1.5 games back of the Eastern Division Champs Pittsburgh Pirates. Carlton rebounded with a 16-13 record and a 3.22 ERA. The lefty’s other stats closely resembled 1973.  Rick Wise had been shipped out to the Red Sox before the start of the season.

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The 1981 strike-shortened season is the other year that the Cards could have possibly won the pennant.  In a Bowie-Kohn-inspired plan, the season was divided in to two sub seasons.

The Cardinals managed to finish second in the Eastern Division in both sub-seasons, but ended up with the best combined record if the two sub-seasons had been combined.  Confused?  Google it.

Of course the question is why did the St. Louis Cardinals trade Steve Carlton?

After the 1971 season, Carlton found himself involved in a salary dispute with Cardinal owner Gussie Busch.  Stories among Cardinals fans about this dispute are many.  However, it has been reported the dispute was over a difference of $5,000.

But it has also been reported that Carlton and Busch exchanged comments about each other through the media and the touchy Cardinal owner decided to trade Carlton at any cost.  Then-GM Bing Devine allegedly got down on his knees in front of Gussie Busch’s desk and begged him not to make him trade Carlton.  This was to no avail and the left-hander was shipped to Philadelphia.

Next: Winter GM meetings W2W4

The final analysis of this historic bad trade is that the venerable Al Hrabosky may be right.  The long-term impact on the St. Louis Cardinals did cost multiple pennants.  The moral of this story is that the Cardinal management should approach the winter meetings with caution and keep the lessons of 1972 in mind.