When he signed with the Cardinals as a teenager, he said Saturday while accepting the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence, he went to an organization that was a "stickler for details." As a catcher, he also had to learn to be a keen observer of every aspect of the game.
"My training ground was in uniform, behind the plate and in the dugout," he said during his acceptance speech at Doubleday Field. "While learning how to play this game, I was learning how to think this game. And that was the basis for my learning how to explain the game years later."
A catcher, he said, has to learn to see everything. He can still see center fielder Curt Flood, for example, breaking three steps to his left on tailing fastballs by Curt Simmons, getting a jump before the ball ever got to the plate.
"This repository of memories," he said. "From behind the plate and three feet from the batter, you have indelible thoughts. I can still see Henry Aaron come up to the plate, stand upright ... and before the first pitch only he would clear his throat.
"Before clearing the bases."
He remembers that Willie Mays had manicured fingernails. He remembers Billy Williams putting a half stick of gum in his mouth before leaving the home dugout at Wrigley, getting to the batter's box and taking one practice swing. "And then he'd spit the gum in the air and take another swing at it. And in 12 years I never saw him miss the gum. Never," he said.
Those are the kinds of acute observations that have allowed McCarver to have a successful 32 years in the broadcast booth, most recently teaming up with Joe Buck for the FOX Game of the Week, with no end in sight. As Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan, who also made the transition to announcing, noted in his introductory remarks, McCarver was a very good player. But it's in his post-playing career that he's made an even greater impact.
And there were any number of times when he could have taken a different path. After the 1979 season, then-Mets manager Joe Torre offered him a spot as a bench player. By then, though, he had already agreed to a two-year deal with the Phillies as an analyst. He later had feelers from the Cardinals about becoming their general manager, but had just signed a four-year contract with the Mets as an analyst. One of his suggestions, Dal Maxvill, got the job. The Twins checked to see if he wanted to be their manager. Again he declined. Tom Kelly got the job and Minnesota won the World Series.
McCarver has a reputation for being verbose, and poked fun at himself in his speech. He said he told Hall of Famer Frank Robinson ahead of time that he'd try to be brief. "He said, 'You?'" the former catcher said with a laugh.
As a player, McCarver caught two of the best pitchers of his generation, Bob Gibson with the Cardinals and Steve Carlton with the Phillies. Both were on the dais as he accepted his award. He said that Hall of Famer Bill Dickey once told him that the catcher should always try to be a friend to his pitchers and that he was proud that the two behind him were among his best friends.
"I've got to tell you one story about Bob," he said. "I've only been to one Induction. That was in 1994 when Steve was inducted along with Phil Rizzuto. I was the last speaker at the dinner the night before. And I got up and I said, 'If Carl Hubbell goes down in history as having the best screwball, Sandy Koufax the best curveball and Nolan Ryan arguably the best fastball, then Steve Carlton will go down in baseball history as having the best slider in the history of the game.
"Lefty and I are hugging and over Steve's right shoulder I see this familiar figure swimming through the crowd. It took him about 2 1/2 minutes to get there and it was Bob Gibson. And he stands about six inches from my face and he says, 'The best left-handed slider.'" McCarver ended his remarks with a rallying cry calling for baseball to continue doing its best to reverse the trend of the best African-American athletes choosing to play sports other than baseball. "To keep America's pastime strong, we need to provide opportunities to our best young African-American athletes so they will consider baseball as much of an option as other sports," he said.
He didn't just talk about it, either. He's donated a significant amount of money to help build a ballpark or ballparks in his native Memphis for inner city children.
Live coverage of the induction ceremonies on MLB Network and simulcast on MLB.com begin Sunday at 12:30 p.m. ET.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.