Steve Carlton, who turned 74 today, is one of the greatest lefties to ever grace the mound. While he mainly carved out his legacy with the Liberty Bell in the background, his time with the St. Louis Cardinals was exceptional in its own right.
Steve Carlton was actually signed directly out of Miami-Dade College by the St. Louis Cardinals while Carlton was still a 19-year old student, circumventing the draft process. Carlton received a small $4,500 bonus for his first contract, which is just as paltry as it sounds, even accounting for inflation ($34,950 in 2018).
He needed just 26 starts in the minors to tune up for major league action, making his St. Louis Cardinals debut on April 20, 1965, at the age of 20 years old and 111 days. This apperance wasn’t anything spectacular — he faced a single batter and walked him — but the road ahead of Carlton was bright. He quickly adapted to the major league level, finishing with a 2.52 ERA over 15 appearances for the Cardinals.
Carlton actually spent a large chunk of the 1966 season in Triple-A, but it wasn’t entirely about his talent. It made no sense to rush Carlton because the Cardinals were not in a position in which they needed Carlton in any capacity.
The Redbirds came into the ’66 season with a dominant staff, even without Carlton. They sported an elite four man rotation of Bob Gibson, Al Jackson, Ray Washburn, and Larry Jester; and paired that with the three headed monster of Joe Hoerner, Nelson Briles, and Hal Woodeshick in the bullpen.
Carlton was eventually called up in late July, where he began to show his incredible potential. After a decent start in which Carlton gave up 8 hits and 2 runs in four innings, Carlton posted a 2.28 ERA over his next four starts, while allowing a middling .233/.292/.291 line to hitters.
He eventually came back to Earth, but still finished the season with a solid 3.12 ERA. It was clear Carlton was ready to begin something special, and he never played in the minor leagues again after ’66. He had a stellar first full year in the rotation, picking up 11 complete games in 28 starts, and recording a sparkling 2.98 ERA in 193 innings. Carlton was on his way towards establishing himself as the strikeout artist he is known as, ranking 8th in the league in K/9 that season.
While Carlton’s performance up to this point had been spectacular, the moment that you could truly tell that Carlton was going to be special was the ’67 World Series. He took a loss, but Carlton allowed just a single unearned run in 6 innings in his sole appearance that season.
The true emergence of Steve Carlton happened in the ’68 season. While Carlton’s strikeout numbers dropped and he picked up 11 losses, Carlton finished the season with a 2.99 ERA with 5 complete game shutouts.
Unlike the previous season, Carlton’s regular season success would not translate onto the biggest stage. Carlton had a horrible relief outing in Game 2 and a meaningless appearance in Game 6 of what would become known as one of the most infamous World Series losses in St. Louis Cardinals history.
1969 was the best season of Carlton’s St. Louis Cardinals tenure, and is among his best overall. He pitched 236.1 innings of 2.17 ERA ball with 12 complete games and a 8.0 K/9, which was a career best at that point. Carlton and Gibson came together this season to make one of the scariest one-two punches in history, but the team only picked up 87 wins, and finished 4th in the NL East Division.
Carlton hit a bit of a bump in 1970, racking up 19 losses and finishing the season with a 3.73 ERA. This may have been the beginning of the end of Carlton’s time in St. Louis, as this less than impressive mark paired with the 3.56 ERA he posted in 1971 may have been a factor in the Cardinals hesitation to pay Carlton the money that he wanted.
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Sure, the numbers weren’t bad, but they were a stark contrast from the pitcher that Carlton was in years prior, which can be more concerning in many ways than a mediocre pitcher having a bad year.
We will never know for sure whether or not that played a factor, but what we do know is that Carlton and the St. Louis Cardinals got into a contract dispute over his salary, which prompted the Cardinals front office to trade Carlton to the Phillies for Rick Wise.
This will go down as arguably the worst trade in St. Louis Cardinals history, as Wise spent two substandard years with the Cardinals, while Carlton carved out a Hall of Fame career.
Carlton’s accolades are quite vast, and each one is like pouring a bucket of salt in a gunshot wound. Carlton has the second-most career strikeouts among left-handed pitchers (4th overall), and was the first pitcher to win four Cy Young Awards in a career. He held the lifetime strikeout record several times between 1982 and 1984, before another legend in Nolan Ryan passed him.
One of Carlton’s more interesting feats came in a year where his team was the least successful. He recorded nearly half of his team’s wins in 1972, when he won 27 games out of the team’s 59 wins that year. He proved to be an elite workhorse that you don’t see in today’s game, as he is the last National League pitcher to win 25 or more games in one season, as well as the last pitcher from any team to throw more than 300 innings in a season.
While it does suck that the Cardinals let one of the greatest left handed pitchers ever slip through their hands, what matters is the one World Series ring that he helped the Cardinals win, the same as he did with the Phillies. It’s easy to think about what may have been, but on Steve Carlton’s birthday, let us appreciate what he was for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Steve Carlton was one of the greatest pitchers ever, and his time with the St. Louis Cardinals was an invaluable part of that. While Steve Carlton will be remembered for his time in Philadelphia, Carlton’s ERA of 3.10 with the Cardinals was just .01 points above his ERA with the Phillies, which is a testament to Carlton’s contributions in St. Louis that should be remembered.