Monday, July 3, 2017
Let's keep Rico Carty in pantheon of baseball's greats
I remember when Carty was playing for Toronto, not at his best at the time, our great broadcaster Halsey Hall said "I don't care what this guy's average is, he's a good hitter."
Carty was so good in 1964, he hit for a higher average than our phenomenal rookie here in Minnesota, Tony Oliva. Only Roberto Clemente had a higher average in 1964. Carty was a rookie in '64 but, believe it or not, did not get Rookie of the Year. Instead it was Philadelphia's Richie Allen who got that honor.
Carty developed a devoted following in Milwaukee. Those were the days of the Braves, not the Brewers. The Braves shifted to Atlanta where Carty's popularity was such, we saw "Carty's Corner" in the left field stands. Carty might have climbed to Hank Aaron stature were it not for some bumps in the road. He had illness, injuries, issues with his defensive play and rough edges in his personality. He came to the American League in 1973 (my year of high school graduation).
In theory the new designated hitter rule seemed most suited for Carty. In theory the rule was supposed to help some fine hitters extend their career because of being relieved of defensive rigors. It doesn't really work like that. A player who finds it difficult to play in the field will probably have problems hitting too. The whole body is involved in hitting. Carty did not take to the DH role initially.
A man of the people with votes
I remember Carty really bursting into public consciousness in 1970. Fan balloting for the All Star game was new. Carty was on fire with his batting prowess. But his name wasn't on the All Star ballot. The list of 48 candidates in each league was compiled during spring training. No Rico Carty on the ballot. A more corporate personality might have helped him.
More than two million fans voted. A write-in campaign helped the big guy get 67,000 more votes than Pete Rose! So Carty, thanks to the determined and well-publicized write-in effort, joined Aaron and Willie Mays in the starting National League outfield. He walked and grounded out in the 1970 All Star showcase. He overcame injuries to lead the N.L. in batting average with a sizzling .366 mark.
Even in this, his best season, Carty had problems with a volatile nature. He got in a fight with pitcher Ron Reed. He had the highest career average among active players. Nevertheless he was the subject of trade rumors. Playing in the Dominican League after that 1970 season, Carty collided with teammate Matty Alou and fractured his knee. His leg was in a brace for 1971 spring training. He hobbled out of the dugout on Opening Day to a standing ovation. He got a blood clot in his injured leg.
Complications continued when he and a brother in law got in a fight with two off-duty Atlanta cops. A racial slue precipitated, legend has it.
My, those physical challenges continued into 1972: elbow tendinitis and a pulled hamstring. He managed to bat .277. October saw him get traded to the American League's Texas Rangers. Braves fans were deflated. Carty and the new Atlanta manager, former Braves superstar Ed Matthews, were not on the same wavelength. Meanwhile the Texas manager, none other than Whitey Herzog, said he was "looking for ballplayers, not Boy Scouts."
Alas, Carty was dealt another piece of injury misfortune as Pedro Borbon delivered a pitch that fractured Carty's jaw. Herzog saw Carty as a fine DH candidate. But Carty didn't share that enthusiasm. His stats sank as the DH but then he got re-assigned to left field, even though his errors would often outnumber his assists. He broke a bone in his foot sliding into second base. He was batting .232 when he was sent to the Cubs. The Cub experience was fleeting and then it was on to Oakland. The A's won the World Series but Carty was not eligible for the post-season roster. He was released on December 12.
Doubt circulated as to whether Carty could continue as a productive ballplayer. Carty himself was resolved to keep going. He was up for winter ball again. His skills were revived and this got the attention of the Cleveland Indians. Despite a hamstring issue, he batted .363 in 33 games as the Tribe's DH and first baseman.
Carty pulled on the Cleveland uniform again in 1975 at age 35. His talents were most intact with a .308 batting average. Things got better in 1976, at least for a time, as he flirted with a .400 average. Despite more injuries, Carty played in a career-high 152 games and batted .310. He produced a team-best 83 RBIs. He had finally come around to the DH role. He was voted Man of the Year by the Cleveland baseball writers.
He was picked by Toronto in the 1976 expansion draft, but he was promptly traded back to Cleveland where in 1977 he was the highest-paid team member. A clash developed with manager Frank Robinson. Carty was not carrying himself very gracefully. But it was Robinson who appeared to come out on the short end as he got fired. I seem to recall Gaylord Perry not getting along well with Robinson either.
Carty got righted with his hitting and produced a .280 average with a team-best 80 RBIs. But he was sent to Toronto for 1978. He produced 19 RBIs in April for Toronto. He had a super August homestand. But he would be on the move again, pulling on an Oakland A's uniform as he was traded for Willie Horton. He had an early 15-game hitting streak for Oakland. He hit eight home runs in his first 19 games. His 31 home runs for the season was his career-best! Amazing resiliency by this veteran.
He was granted free agency. He became a Toronto Blue Jay again, inking a bulky five-year contract (probably incentive-laden). He claimed an odd injury: stabbing himself with a toothpick. His hitting suffered. August 6 of 1979 saw Carty hit his 200th career home run. He could not resist the ravages of time and age anymore. His extended contract lasted but one year and he was released on March 29, 1980.
Born to be a hitter
He may have been big and slow but he seemed as natural a hitter as Tony Oliva. His regular comebacks from various kinds of adversity were inspiring. He could engage in cheerful banter with fans. It's ironic that he also had a reputation as somewhat of an agitator. He merely claimed that he "stood up for his rights" and this he did with a wide variety of individuals. You might say he was "equal opportunity" in that respect.
I think it's unfortunate that the big guy isn't remembered better, not in the same league as the squeaky-clean Hank Aaron. He was volatile as many talented people are. Let's keep his memory alive!
Addendum: It dawns on me that Carty gets mention in "Ball Four," the groundbreaking baseball book by Jim Bouton, groundbreaking because of the rules it broke. Of Carty, the knuckleballing Bouton said he didn't trust banks. "He also doesn't trust clubhouse valuable boxes." So when Carty was on TV and you saw a big bulge in his back pocket, it's his wallet! Bouton's book went below the surface in evaluating ballplayers and their idiosyncrasies, the idea being to make them totally human. I guess we all should have understood that in the first place.
Maybe there was something to be said about Carty's paranoia about the financial world!
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org