St. Louis Cardinals

Greatest Cardinals No. 46: LHP Steve Carlton

The 100 Greatest Cardinals: 51-60

Counting down the top 100 Cardinals of all-time, this video features numbers 51-60 on the list.
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Counting down the top 100 Cardinals of all-time, this video features numbers 51-60 on the list.

NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.

NO. 46: LHP STEVE CARLTON

It didn’t take the Chicago Cubs three seasons to realize that the deal they made with St. Louis General Manager Bing Devine in 1963 was less a trade than it was a swindle.

They gave up Lou Brock, who went on to become a World Series hero, the stolen base king and, eventually, a Hall of Famer. In return, Devine gave them right-handed pitcher Ernie Broglio, who won just seven more games before dropping out of baseball.

The Cubs have yet to even that score, but Devine and the Cardinals got their comeuppance on Feb. 25, 1972, when the Philadelphia Phillies pilfered lefthander Steve Carlton for Rick Wise.

Wise, a right-handed pitcher, twice won 16 games for the Cardinals before they shipped him off to Boston. Carlton won four National League Cy Young Awards and 329 games, more than any lefthander in history other than Warren Spahn.

In fairness, the lop-sided trade was not all Devine’s idea.

Owner Gussie Busch had lost his patience with players and their demands when outfielder Curt Flood refused to report to Philadelphia after the Cardinals traded him there. Flood made baseball history by successfully challenging the century-old reserve clause and winning his free agency, but St. Louis was forced to give up prized prospect Willie Montanez and a first-round draft pick to complete the deal with the Phillies.

So when Carlton, who was coming off a career-high 20 wins in 1971, held out for a $65,000 contract, Busch fumed and ordered the ungrateful so-and-so traded. Then, with a final thumbing of the nose, the Big Eagle rewarded Wise with the payday Carlton had demanded.

Cardinals faithful have been wondering “what if” ever since.

“Lefty,” who was signed by Devine as a free agent straight out of high school in 1963, had given St. Louis five good seasons as an understudy to bigger names like Bob Gibson, Ray Washburn and Nelson Briles.

In 1967, still just 22, Carlton won 14 games with a 2.98 ERA and allowed just one earned run in six innings during the team’s seven-game World Series winner over the Boston Red Sox. He followed that with 13 wins and a 2.99 ERA as the Cardinals repeated as National League champions in ‘68.

St. Louis slumped to fourth place in 1969, but Carlton and Gibson comprised the best starting tandem in baseball by combining on 37 victories. Carlton, having added his signature slider to the arsenal, posted career highs in wins (17), ERA (2.17, a team best), innings (236) and strikeouts (210). He also set an MLB record by striking out 19 New York Mets in a nine-inning game., which the Cardinals lost, 4-3.

It was after those 20 wins and third All-Star selection in four seasons that Busch ordered Carlton dispatched. Without him the next season, the Cardinals fell into fourth place.

The Phillies were even worse, though, finishing 37 ½ games out of first at a lowly 59-97. Carlton won nearly half of those games himself with one of the greatest seasons by a pitcher in the 20th century. He completed an astounding 30 of his 41 starts, winning 27 of them with a 1.97 ERA and striking out 310 batters. All were best in the National League, thus earning him his first Cy Young Award.

Over the next 12 seasons, Carlton won 20 or more games four times, posted sub-3.00 ERAs four times and led the NL in strikeouts five times. He also led the Philadelphia to its first World Series title (1980), finished in the top five of the Cy Young balloting six times, was picked for seven more All-Star Games, and even won a Gold Glove. What’s more, Carlton fashioned a 38-14 career record against St. Louis.

During the same stretch, the Cardinals finished in second place three times, each time within 1 ½ games of first. Could Carlton as their $65,000-a-year ace have made up the difference between a close second and three more shots at a pennant (or beyond)?

What if?

SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1965-1971

KEY STATS

77-62, 3.10 ERA with St. Louis | 3x All-Star | WS ring | 21.0 WAR | HoF ‘94

TOP 100 SCORE: 3.20

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BND Assigning News Editor Todd Eschman has won numerous state and regional awards for his columns, feature stories and news reporting. He was born and raised in Belleville, attended SIU-Carbondale, and is a member of the BBWAA, SABR and St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame.

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