Carlton's magic season of 1972

Carlton's magic season of 1972

Carlton's magic season of 1972
When Larry Shenk asked me to come up with some memories of Steve Carlton's magic season of 27 wins, including a 15-game winning streak, the first thing that came to mind was that the whole experience was surreal.

The 1972 Phillies were a bad team that won only 59 games in a strike-shortened 156-game season.

Carlton came to the Phillies in a Spring Training trade for right-hander Rick Wise. It was a deal that was unpopular with the fans and probably would have been panned by today's 24/7 media circus.

A season that started with Frank Lucchesi and ended with Paul Owens as manager, didn't have such a bad start. The Phillies were 15-10 on May 15, just three games out of first place.

Carlton won his first start in Wrigley Field when the season finally opened on April 15, and he was off to a 5-2 start. Then reality struck and the roof collapsed on the 1972 Phillies. It started with a loss to the Cubs on May 16.

When the dust cleared on June 6, following a loss to Robin Roberts and the Houston Astros, the Phillies had lost 19 of 20. They were in sixth place to stay, 16 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates.

It was more a sense of relief than a sign of things to come when Carlton broke a team nine-game losing streak, and a personal four-game spin, with a 3-1 win over the Astros.

Lefty's record was 6-6. Starting every fourth day with three days' rest (that was the norm in 1972), he was about to embark on an incredible run that would not see him lose a game until August 21. No pitcher in Phillies history has come close.

I didn't remember all the details about that streak, but an outstanding recent publication, "Drinking Coffee With A Fork" by Dave Brown and Steve Bucci, was a big help.

I do remember, like it was just yesterday, a damp Sunday, June 25. We were in Montreal for an afternoon game with the Expos. The Phillies had split the first two games between teams going nowhere.

However, Gene Mauch was in the Expos' dugout, and a game was never just a baseball game when he was involved. He approached every game with an unmatched intensity, and he was not a man the opposition liked.

I was still a few years away from having the chance to broadcast Phillies baseball, so this afternoon in Quebec saw me watching the game and keeping the "official" scorebook and producing the notes and stats for the media. Larry and I used to alternate trips in those days. This trip to Cincinnati-Houston-Atlanta-Montreal-Chicago was a long one, and the Baron had no interest in being a part of this marathon. I was the junior member of the PR staff and he was the boss, so I took the trip.

With two outs in the fourth, Ernie McAnally hit Joe Lis with a 0-2 pitch. It didn't seem like a big deal at the time. However, it didn't sit well with Carlton and the man with perfect control decided to even the score. The first batter for the Expos was Tim Foli, a player not well liked by the Phillies nor any other team. I remember being stunned when Carlton's first pitch hit Foli in the head.

Down Foli went, then as he staggered to his feet like a newborn foal, all hell broke loose. There is some great, grainy video of Carlton taking a few steps towards Foli before an image flashed from his right and passed in front of him, only to be covered by a mountain of humanity in a matter of seconds. While the Phillies weren't a good team, they were very big -- I mean football-team big. Whoever was at the bottom of that pile was being whipped pretty good, and they were serious about slugging the man who had disappeared wearing the Expos uniform. Turned out the object of the severe pounding was Mauch, and he paid the price.

As the players and umpires worked on the pile, Mauch finally emerged with his uniform in tatters. Plate umpire Dick Stello ejected Mauch and Foli, and, amazingly, Carlton stayed in the game.

Prior to the opening of Olympic Stadium in 1976, the Expos played their home games at a little ballpark called Parc Jarry or Jarry Park. To access the clubhouses, both teams had to walk down the foul lines.

I'll never forget seeing Mauch dragging his body down the line to the cheers of the crowd. He could have been taken off on a cart, but he elected to walk. No surprise there.

Carlton, who later dodged a pitch from McAnally that got the Montreal pitcher ejected, won the game 1-0, was 8-6 and had won three straight.

The Phillies headed to Dorval Airport to catch a commercial flight to Chicago for the final leg of this neverending two-week trip that included two doubleheaders. Since there were no charter flights in 1972, the Phillies headed to their boarding area and, lo and behold, who was right next to them? Yep, the Montreal Expos were also headed out of town. There was no interaction between the two traveling parties.

When Carlton pitched, "It was win day." That was a term he coined and it stuck with his teammates. On the days and nights the big guy was on the mound, the Phillies played like champions. Big plays, clutch hits, all of a sudden they couldn't lose when Carlton pitched.

Attendance at the Vet started to spike dramatically when his turn came up. On a warm Aug. 13, Karl Wallenda would scare many of us silly walking foul pole to foul pole between games of the Sunday doubleheader. Game 1 was a 2-0 gem by Lefty, his 19th win and 14th consecutive.

Win No. 20, and 15 in a row, was scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 17. The night before, the Phillies lost to the powerful Reds, 8-2, as Ken Reynolds dropped to 0-10 before 10,385 fans.

The next night, the Vet throbbed with electricity as Carlton went out and his teammates pummeled Cincinnati, 9-4. Think about the noise and excitement that has enveloped Citizens Bank Park for so many years. That was the Vet on that night as 42,635 gave Carlton a prolonged standing ovation after the final out. Lefty responded by emerging from the dugout and spending a long time waving to the crowd and shaking hands with fans near the dugout. What a night and performance. We all wondered how long it could last.

Unfortunately, his next start was against the Atlanta Braves at the Vet. Phil Niekro was his opponent. A knuckleballer, "Knucksie" was in his prime and as a tough as any pitcher in the game at that point.

The two future Hall of Famers staged an epic battle that lasted 11 innings. Mike Lum blooped a broken bat hit to center off Carlton that ended the magical streak in front of 41,212 in two hours and 24 minutes. Both pitched complete games. Forget the bullpens and closers. That's the way it was played in 1972.

Carlton finished the season 27-10. He threw 346 innings and struck out 310. His ERA was 1.98 and he had 30 complete games. And the number that still resonates with me, he hit ONE batter. And that was deliberate.

The streak included three no-decisions and 14 complete games. He beat every team in the league and made the 1972 Phillies watchable every fourth day for two months. "Super Steve" he was.

Carlton had a reputation of being aloof and cold when he played. It was self-perpetuated for a number of reasons and ultimately resulted in his complete shutdown of any contact with the media.

But in reality, he was and remains an eccentric, fascinating man who can be great company.

In late July, I was invited to join Tim McCarver at the Hall of Fame as McCarver received the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence. The afternoon and evening was an overwhelming experience, but one of the best times was saved for the end. Renee and I were attending the FOX party for McCarver when I headed for the men's room.

As I passed through the main lobby of the historic Otesaga Hotel, I was stopped dead in my tracks by an unmistakable sound. I saw a tall man with his head tilted back. "HA HA HA" was all I heard. And there he was. For many years, Carlton and I had greeted each other with Lefty's unmistakable laugh, so he knew I'd react.

He wanted to know what I was doing. I told him I was at McCarver's party and he should be there. He gave a "HA HA HA" and said, "I think I'm supposed to be there." So we walked back to the room and his old friends McCarver, Bob Gibson and others migrated towards Lefty as the stories and laughter began.

It had been almost 40 years since Carlton mesmerized us with his incredible year, highlighted by that streak. He was looking happy, healthy and anxious to come to Philadelphia for another Alumni Weekend and a chance to be with his many friends, including McCarver.

On Toyota Alumni Night, the Phillies are saluting McCarver for his Cooperstown honor by having him throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Reversing their career roles, Lefty will catch McCarver's first pitch. I asked him how he felt about being on the other end. He laughed and said, "I want to be back there, because I can't throw a ball 15 feet anymore. HA HA HA!"

Baseball is the game of our youth and childhood. When many of us were young, Carlton thrilled us like no other in the magic year of 1972. In 2012, he's still a man who's name brings chills thinking of what once was. And when you say "Lefty," it can only mean one man. I'd say that's a pretty strong legacy.

Chris Wheeler is a contributor to MLB.com. Wheeler joined the club's public relations department in 1971 and was added to the broadcast team six years later, making him the dean of the Phillies' broadcasting team. He also authored a book about his Phillies career, "View From the Booth," which will be published in paperback this summer, featuring some new material. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.