Steve Carlton

September 28, 1971: Steve Carlton reaches 20 wins in his final game with the Cardinals

Steve Carlton’s final start for the St. Louis Cardinals was a milestone game in more ways than one.

The Cardinals’ September 28, 1971, win over the New York Mets marked not only Carlton’s final appearance wearing the birds on the bat, but also clinched the first 20-win season of his career. Coincidentally, it also marked Nolan Ryan’s final start for the Mets.

Carlton’s 1971 campaign started strong, as he won his first four games and ended May with a 9-2 record and 2.47 ERA. After claiming a complete-game victory over the Mets on August 30, Carlton’s record was 18-7. However, he suffered two losses and a no-decision in his next three starts and didn’t pick up his 19th win of the season until September 19, when he threw a four-hit, complete-game shutout against the Expos.

Five days later, Carlton couldn’t repeat his success against Montreal, surrendering a three-run lead with six runs allowed over eight innings. With no decision in that game (the Cardinals went on to win, 10-6), Carlton entered his final start of the year with a 19-9 record.

His opposing pitcher, Ryan, was coming off a win over the Cubs that upped his record to 10-13 record, giving him a double-digit win total for the first time in his career. He was unable to carry that momentum forward in his final start for the Mets, which was played in front of just 3,338 fans at Shea Stadium.

Ryan lasted just five batters in the first inning, walking Lou Brock, Ted Sizemore, Matty Alou and Joe Torre before Ted Simmons singled to right, scoring Sizemore and Alou. Already trailing 3-0 with no one out, Mets manager Gil Hodges handed the ball to Jim McAndrew, who got a couple of groundouts and a pop fly to escape the inning without allowing another run.

“It seemed he was just throwing the ball because it had to be thrown,” Hodges said.[1]

“It was the most distressing day of my life,” Ryan said. “I never was so embarrassed. I felt like I was picking up a ball in mid-December.”[2]

By mid-December, Ryan was with the Angels, having been traded with Leroy Stanton, Frank Estrada, and Don Rose for Jim Fregosi. Ryan went on to build a Hall of Fame legacy, pitching 22 more years, making eight all-star games, and winning two ERA titles.

One inning after Ryan left the game, the Cardinals got to McAndrew. Carlton led off the second with a single to left. Lou Brock scored him with a triple to right and Sizemore hit a sacrifice fly that extended the Cardinals’ lead to 5-0.

That was more than Carlton needed. Though he had all but abandoned the slider during the season, Carlton was throwing the pitch so well in his pregame bullpen that he relied on it against the Mets.

“The Mets are like the Giants and the Reds for me – they all wait for my fastball,” the 26-year-old Carlton said. “So as you get older, you get wise. You figure, ‘Why challenge them with the fastball for nine innings?’”[3]

In the sixth inning, Bob Aspromonte hit a sacrifice fly and Jerry Grote added an RBI single to cut the Cardinals’ lead to 5-2. The Mets never threatened again, however. In the ninth, Grote led off the inning with a walk, but Carlton struck out Tim Foli, then retired Ken Singleton and Bud Harrelson on fly balls to end the game.

“Nobody was going to take away his 20th victory this time,” shortstop Dal Maxvill said.[4]

With the win, Carlton improved to 20-9, becoming the first Cardinals southpaw to reach 20 wins in a season since Ray Sadecki in 1964. Carlton finished the season with a 3.56 ERA over 273 1/3 innings. It was a significant upgrade from his 1970 campaign, when Carlton went 10-19 and led the majors in losses.

“I’m not jumping up and down about 20 for the first time, but it makes you feel good inside,” Carlton said. “There was a lot of skepticism before the season about me. A lot of people didn’t think I could bounce back after last year.”[5]

Sadecki, now with the Mets, suggested that the Cardinals made a mistake in starting Carlton a day early.

“They should have saved Carlton for Thursday’s game against Tom Seaver,” he said, “and then sent both bullpens home and let them go one-on-one.”[6]

Less than five months later, the Cardinals traded Carlton to the Phillies for pitcher Rick Wise. After earning a reported $50,000 in 1971,[7] Carlton sought a significant raise for the 1972 season. While some reports claimed that Carlton sought $75,000, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Carlton was asking for $65,000.[8] The Cardinals, however, were unwilling to go above $57,500.[9]

In his 2004 autobiography, Cardinals general manager Bing Devine said that the decision to trade Carlton wasn’t truly his to make: after delaying as long as he could, he received word that Cardinals owner Gussie Busch wanted Carlton traded within 48 hours.

“Basically, Mr. Busch wanted him gone,” Devine wrote.[10]

Carlton went on to pitch the next 15 seasons for the Phillies, winning four Cy Young awards on his way to a Hall of Fame career. With Carlton at the top of the rotation, the Phillies won the National League East in 1976, 1977, and 1978, then won the World Series in 1980. Philadelphia made the playoffs again in the strike-shortened 1981 season, then captured the National League pennant again in 1983.

In 15 seasons with the Phillies, Carlton won 241 games and posted a 3.09 ERA over almost 3,700 innings. After making his final major league appearance in 1988, Carlton was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1994. He retired with a 329-244 career record, 3.22 ERA, and 10 all-star appearances. He posted a 38-14 record and 2.98 ERA for his career against the Cardinals.

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[1] Neal Russo, “Steve’s 20th No 9th-Mare,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 29, 1971.

[2] Neal Russo, “Steve’s 20th No 9th-Mare,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 29, 1971.

[3] Neal Russo, “Steve’s 20th No 9th-Mare,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 29, 1971.

[4] Neal Russo, “Steve’s 20th No 9th-Mare,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 29, 1971.

[5] Neal Russo, “Steve’s 20th No 9th-Mare,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 29, 1971.

[6] Neal Russo, “Steve’s 20th No 9th-Mare,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 29, 1971.

[7] Dick Kaegel, “Cards Deal Carlton To Phils For Wise,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 25, 1972.

[8] Bruce Keidan, “Phils and Cards Solve Salary Problems – And Wise, Carlton Receive Increases,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 26, 1972.

[9] Dick Kaegel, “Cards Deal Carlton To Phils For Wise,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 25, 1972.

[10] Bing Devine with Tom Wheatley, The Memoirs of Bing Devine: Stealing Lou Brock and Other Winning Moves by a Master GM, Sports Publishing, New York, N.Y., Page 163.

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