If there is a performance in baseball more remarkable than the one Steve Carlton is currently turning in for the Philadelphia Phillies, the record books fail to yield it. At the end of last week Carlton had won 19 games and lost only six for a team whipping along at a winning percentage of .381.
Through the years only six other pitchers have won 20 games for teams as phutile as the Phils (people jumping off the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge in steel suits usually come up with a better percentage than .381), but none of them—Christy Mathewson, Iron Man McGinnity, Bobo Newsom, Ned Garver, Noodles Hahn or Jiving Young—approached the winning percentage that Carlton has so far rolled up. Garver won 20 games and lost 12 for the 1951 St. Louis Browns while poor Young had to swallow 21 defeats with his 20 wins for the 1905 Boston Braves.
In beating the Montreal Expos last Sunday Carlton won his 14th consecutive game and his strikeout total was more than 50 above that of the second-ranked pitcher. His complete-game total of 19 is surpassed only by Gaylord Perry, the man who brought the dry look from San Francisco to Cleveland.
Carlton is thinking about winning 25 games for Philadelphia, a goal he had set for himself over the winter when he was still a St. Louis Cardinal and had an excuse for entertaining such lofty aspirations. Last year the Cards scored nearly 200 more runs than the Phillies. When Carlton was traded for Rick Wise in late February because General Managers Bing Devine of St. Louis and John Quinn of Philadelphia were having no luck at all signing either pitcher, it seemed a safe assumption that the two had balked their ways into 20-game years, wins for Wise, losses for Carlton.
Things certainly have not worked out that way. By the end of last week, Wise was 11-12. Carlton, in contrast, got off to a splendid 5-1 start before losing five in a row as the Phillies provided him with only 10 runs during a five-game span. But beginning in the second week of June, he pitched so well that even Philadelphia's puny offense could no longer drag him down. In 15 games he gave up a total of 15 runs.
For the second straight season the Phillies are proving themselves to be the worst team in the National League, perhaps even 'The Worst Damn Team in Baseball." This is somewhat surprising, considering their start. Early in the race the Phils roared through the West, and all was joy in Philadelphia when they returned home with an 11-6 record. But then hopes went tumbling, the team fell under a spell and in May lost 19 of 26 games. Quinn was fired, then Manager Frank Lucchesi was bounced. "I guess it's the same in politics, war and everything else," said Owner Bob Carpenter. "You can't change the army, so you change the general."
On hindsight, it seems almost inevitable that Carlton would one day find himself an ex-Cardinal, and some of his troubles stem from his own excellence. Touring Japan with the Cards after the 1968 World Series, Carlton started working on a slider. He wanted the pitch to discourage hitters from waiting on his fastball. In 1969 he threw a slider so well that he set the major league record for most strikeouts in a single game, 19, a feat only slightly diminished by the fact that Carlton lost the game. With a superior curve to go along with the slider and fastball, he won 17 games, had the second-best earned run average in the National League (2.17) and decided he was ready for a fat raise the following year.
With exquisitely bad timing, he held out before the 1970 season. That was the year of the Curt Flood case—Flood did not want to leave the Cardinals—and the case of Richie Allen, who seemed to be reluctant to join them. Carlton was "middled" by the two, and it was a bad middle to be in with fuming Owner Gussie Busch around. In the heat of a press conference Busch said of Carlton, "I don't give a damn if he never pitches another ball for the Cardinals."
When things finally cooled off to just a normal boil, wiser heads pointed out that somebody was going to have to pitch for the team and Carlton was signed for $90,000 for two seasons. During arguments, negotiations and name-calling, Carlton managed to lose three weeks of spring training and, primarily because of that, he junked the slider. "I could never get it to feel right or throw it right," he says. "The few I threw hurt me and I abandoned it." He might just as well have abandoned the season. He finished with a 10-19 record.
One would think that by 1971 Carlton would have reactivated the slider, but he didn't. "I just plain quit on it last year," he says, "and won 20 games without it. I didn't even throw it while warming up."