Steve Carlton 1987 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for March 4, 2017


Another 1987 Topps card. Damn I loved that set. And man, this card looks strange.

A lot of people like to go out on top in their career. They retire when they are still playing like a star and walk away before they break down.

John Elway and David Robinson won a championship and then retired. Sandy Koufax and Jim Brown hung up their spikes when they were still the best in the game.

David Ortiz retired last year after having one of his best seasons. Mike Mussina quit after finally recording a 20 win campaign. That has a heroic warrior quality to it that you have to admire.

Then there is Steve Carlton.

When I first started following baseball in the late 1970’s, Steve Carlton was the gold standard of pitchers. Lefty was signed by the Cardinals before the existence of the draft out of Miami-Dade College in 1963 and by 1967 was a World Champion, winning 14 games and pitching 6 innings with no earned runs in St. Louis’ 7 game victory over Boston. He also appeared in the 1968 World Series.

Into the 1970’s, Lefty was a young established All Star, winning 17 games in 1969 and 20 in 1971. But he got into a contract dispute with the club and they shipped him off to Philadelphia for Rick Wise.

Now Wise was a fine pitcher. The Phillies got the best pitcher of the era.

In 1972, he won the Cy Young Award after winning 27 of the Phillies 59 wins. He pitched to a 1.97 ERA in 346 1/3 innings, striking out 310 and had an ERA + of 182 and an FIP of 2.01 all the while completing 30 of his 41 starts. By the way, he led the league in every one of those categories.

On, the single greatest website in the history of the planet Earth,  stats that a player led the league in are always in bold. Between 1972 and 1983, it looks like Carlton’s entire page is bold.

He wasn’t as media savvy as Jim Palmer nor Tom Seaver. In fact he hated the press and famously refused to speak to them. He wasn’t the showman that Fernando Valenzuela nor Vida Blue were nor as intimidating as Nolan Ryan.

He just was the best, year in and year out. In his first 12 seasons with the Phillies, he led the National League in strikeouts 5 times, in victories 4 times, innings pitched 5 times and 4 times was named the Cy Young Award winner. Throw in two more top 5 Cy Young finishes and you have a dominant stretch.

And not only did he put up the big numbers but he also delivered in the greatest run the franchise ever saw. Before Carlton’s exile to Philadelphia, the Phillies had won two pennants between 1903 and 1975. They won a grand total of one single World Series game and remained the lone none expansion franchise to be without a World Series title.

In 1976, buoyed by Carlton’s 20 wins, the Phillies won the division. He won his second Cy Young Award in 1977 and had another Division Title. Another strong season in 1978 led to their third straight October date, but still no trip to the World Series.

In 1980, he won Cy Young number three, winning 24 games, leading the league with 286 strikeouts and 304 innings pitched. He went 3-0 in the post season, including earning the victory in Game 6 of the World Series over Kansas City and clinched the first ever title in Phillies history.

His greatness continued into the 1980. He and Nolan Ryan and Gaylord Perry all passed Walter Johnson’s all time strikeout mark around the same time. Ryan and Carlton flip flopped on who had the all time title for a period of time before Ryan passed him.

Carlton picked up Cy Young number 4 in 1982 and in 1983, led the league in innings pitched while helping the Phillies clinch yet another trip to the World Series by going 2-0 in the NLCS over Los Angeles. That same year he won his 300th game, cementing his place in the Hall of Fame.

He was solid but not spectacular in 1984 but was injured in 1985. At age 40, he was done. He had nothing left to prove. He was a Cy Young winner 4 times over, pitched in 4 World Series, won 2 of them, set strikeout records and became one of the great sports figures in Philadelphia in an era where they had gigantic sports stars. By all accounts, he should have hung up his spikes after the 1985 season.

Instead he came back for 1986. He had nothing left in the tank and got clobbered in 16 starts. He was agonizingly close to 4,000 strikeouts, but the Phillies decided it was time to part ways.

Instead of a long farewell tour and riding off into the sunset, Steve Carlton, the best pitcher of his era, was released.

The San Francisco Giants picked him up. He started 6 games and did not fare much better in Candlestick. He did pass the 4,000 strikeout plateau. It was strange to see him do that in a Giants uniform but he did it.

After a month in San Francisco and with the milestone passed, the Giants cut him. Time to wave good bye to baseball. Except he did not.

Five days later, after 22 seasons in the National League, Carlton pitched his first American League game as a member of the lowly Chicago White Sox. The team was going nowhere, their stadium was empty and their uniforms, as seen on this Topps Card, were horrible.

And Carlton pitched. He had a few decent games, throwing to Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk in his debut. He won 4 games and had a decent 3.69 ERA over his 10 Chicago starts.

He saved face in a rocky year and bid farewell to the game.

Except he didn’t. In 1987, at age 42, he signed with the Cleveland Indians. The Tribe that year had big expectations after a surprisingly solid 1986 season. Their pitching was suspect and perhaps a veteran like Steve Carlton could help.

In his first game of the season, he relieved Phil Niekro and pitched 4 innings for his second career save. One 300 game winner saved a game for another. It was a nice fun start to the season, which was the Indians first win of the year.

It was also his lone highlight in Cleveland. The Tribe was terrible in 1987 and Carlton was worse, throwing to a 5.37 ERA over 109 innings.  He pitched well his final two starts for Cleveland but it was time for the team to go to youth. So, for the fourth time in 2 years, 4 time Cy Young Award winner Steve Carlton was released.

Instead of retiring he found himself with the Twins. In his second game for Minnesota, he pitched into the 9th, throwing 8 2/3 solid frames against Oakland and earning the win. He had one other good start but was mainly hit very hard. When the Twins went to the post season, Carlton was not added to the active roster.

However, the Twins did indeed win the World Series, earning Carlton his third ring. Go out on top as a champion, eh Lefty?

NOPE! He returned as a 43 year old spot starter and long reliever to the Twins for Spring Training 1988.

On April 9th, he entered a game against Toronto in the 6th. He allowed two homers and 4 runs in 2 2/3 innings. On April 17th, he threw a scoreless inning against the Blue Jays.

On April 18th, he allowed 6 runs and 7 hits in a single inning against the Yankees.

On April 23rd, 1988, probably out of nothing more than respect, Steve Carlton started a game for the Twins against the Cleveland Indians.

Four batters into the game, the score was 4-0 Cleveland with no outs. He allowed back to back homers to Joe Carter and Brook Jacoby. The Indians extended it to 5-0 in the third, 6-0 after 5 and in the 6th, Cleveland rallied again. Mel Hall singled, Ron Washington walked and Andy Allanson doubled home Hall. Manager Tom Kelly relieved Steve Carlton and replaced him Joe Niekro, another veteran winding down his career.

Niekro would allow a homer and Washington and Allanson scored, completing Steve Carlton’s line. It would be the last big league game Steve Carlton ever pitched in.

5 days later the Twins released him and no other team picked him up. There was no need for a 43 year old pitcher with nothing left in the tank. His Hall of Fame clock, which probably should have started 3 year earlier, began in 1989.

In 1994 he made the Hall of Fame on the first ballot with 95.6% of the vote. When you consider all of the sports writers who hated him over the year, that high total is even more impressive.

That Hall of Fame plaque is cluttered with teams. Instead of just having St. Louis and Philadelphia, the engraver needed to find room for San Francisco, Chicago, Cleveland and Minnesota.

But there is something about Carlton’s bizarre ending to his amazing career that I have always admired. He left it all on the field.

A lot of times you see players come back because they are restless and wonder “Do I still have it?” or “Did I walk away too soon?” Carlton didn’t do that. He just kept pitching until there was no team left that wanted him.

When he walked off the mound against the Indians that day in 1988, there was no doubt he was done. And with that comes no regrets.

Walk out on top? Maybe for some. Walk out knowing it is over? That was Lefty’s way!


Sully Baseball Daily Podcast – January 25, 2016


carlonCaptureNever make decisions while in a spiteful mood. Why? Because it can cost you a Hall of Famer and potentially a pennant or two.

Just ask the Cardinals of the 1970s.

It is a clearing the head episode of The Sully Baseball Daily Podcast.

Continue reading

Great Milestones in Strange Uniforms



I got an idea for a blog post from one of my readers.

It is an interesting concept. Often when we think of great milestones reached by a player, they are wearing a uniform of a team that we associate them with.

Players like Carl Yastrzemski, Derek Jeter, George Brett, Robin Yount and Tony Gwynn played their entire careers with one team. So when they passed 3,000 hits, they did so in a uniform we were expecting. Rickey Henderson had several tours with the A’s, and it was in his second one that he passed Lou Brock for career saves and declared himself the greatest of all time in Oakland.

Other players returned to former teams to pass milestones. Eddie Murray was back with the Orioles when he slammed home run number 500. Greg Maddux returned to the Cubs for win number 300.

But other players reached their great career highlight in a uniform that virtually nobody remembers them wearing.

For example…

Boston Herald

,  Boston Herald

Hall of Famer Paul Waner (aka Big Poison) got 2,868 hits over his 15 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But when he became the 7th player to collect 3,000 hits on June 19, 1942, he did so as a Boston Brave.

Eddie Mathews played with the Braves in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta. But when he became just the 7th player to hit 500 homers on July 14, 1967, he did so as a member of the Houston Astros.

Photo credit:   John Iacono - SI

Photo credit: John Iacono – SI

Gaylord Perry spent the bulk of his career with the Giants, winning the Cy Young Award with the Indians and Padres. But he won his 300th game on May 6, 1982 with the Seattle Mariners.

1984 Fleer

1984 Fleer

The player Pete Rose was best remembered as a Red and later led the Phillies to their first World Championship. But when he became the first player with 4,000 hits since Ty Cobb on April 13, 1984, Pete was playing for the Montreal Expos.



Tom Seaver was “The Franchise” for the Mets and famously was dealt to the Reds. But his win #300 happened on August 4, 1985 as a member of the Chicago White Sox.

AJN Rules

AJN Rules

Also in 1985, Phil Niekro, who began his career with the Milwaukee Braves and played in Atlanta over three decades, won his 300th on October 6th during his cameo with the Yankees.



Don Sutton was best known as a Dodger, but his 300th win was recorded on June 18, 1986 while he pitched for the California Angels.

SF Chronicle

SF Chronicle

The first 21 years of Steve Carlton’s career was split between the Cardinals and the Phillies. He played for four more teams in his final three seasons. He recorded career strikeout number 4,000 during his “blink and you will miss it” stint with the San Francisco Giants on August 5, 1986.

Photo By Bruce Bisping

Photo By Bruce Bisping

Dave Winfield is best remembered for being a star Padre and Yankee and leading the Blue Jays to the World Championship. But the native Minnesotan returned home and on September 16, 1993, got his 3,000 hit as a Twin.

AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File

AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File

Paul Molitor was one of the great players in Milwaukee Brewer history. Like Winfield, Molitor helped lead the Blue Jays to a World Series title. Also like Winfield, he was a native Minnesotan who returned home to the Twins where he recorded his 3,000 hit. Molitor hit a triple on September 16, 1996, making him the only person to triple for his 3,000th.

Tampa Bay Times

Tampa Bay Times

Wade Boggs was one of the best hitters in Red Sox history (which is saying something.) He would later help the Yankees win the 1996 World Series and ride a horse in the process. But when he collected his 3,000th hit, he wasn’t wearing one of those classic uniforms. He was a member of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He slugged a home run on August 7, 1999, being the first to ever homer for number 3,000. (Derek Jeter would be the second.)

Photo: Stephen Gunn - Getty Images

Photo: Stephen Gunn – Getty Images

Rickey Henderson broke the single season and career stolen base record as a member of the Oakland A’s, the team most teams associate with him. But hit number 3,000 happened on October 7, 2001 when he was a member of the San Diego Padres.

Eric Miller - Reuters

Eric Miller – Reuters

Frank Thomas was the greatest slugger in Chicago White Sox history. But when Thomas crushed his 500th home run on June 28, 2007, he did so as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays.



Tom Glavine pitched 17 seasons with the Atlanta Braves but notched his 300th victory on August 5, 2007 as a member of the New York Mets.

Greg Fiume/Getty

Greg Fiume/Getty

The most recent 300 game winner was Randy Johnson, who reached the milestone on June 4, 2009 pitching for the San Francisco Giants.

Simmons - NY Daily News

Simmons – NY Daily News

Gary Sheffield never stayed on one team for very long. So perhaps it is appropriate that his greatest achievement, home run number 500, took place during his brief stint with the New York Mets on April 17, 2009.

Greg Fiume/Getty

Greg Fiume/Getty

Wherever Jim Thome played, he was a beloved fan favorite. He joined the 600 home run club on August 15, 2011 not as a member of the Indians but with the Minnesota Twins.

I always wondered what those fan bases thought about those moments. They barely got to know these players but managed to witness one of their great career defining moments.

With A-Rod and Ichiro closest to 3,000 hits, I wonder where their celebrations will be. If CC Sabathia wins 95 more decisions, he will be a 300 game winner. Which uniform will he be wearing then?

Let’s appreciate those events, even if the uniform is a bit jarring.