Was Lefty’s ’72 Season the Greatest Ever? Author Steve Bucci Tells Us

Another great interview with an author. This time it’s Steve Bucci, who has spent over 20 years as a sports journalist, over half of them as a sports anchor and reporter on KYW. He has written several books on the Phillies, his most recent one with Dave Brown called Drinking Coffee With a Fork: The Story of Steve Carlton and the ’72 Phillies. The title comes from a great quote from Willie Stargell, who once said, “Sometimes I hit him (Carlton) like I used to hit Koufax, and that’s like  drinking coffee with a fork.” As most local sports fans know, Lefty’s ’72 season was nothing short of jaw dropping, as he won 27 games for a team that won 59 games all year. Steve tells us whether or not Carlton ever blew up on his less talented teammates, whether Philadelphians knew they were watching something special that year, and the biggest question of them all: was Steve Carlton’s 1972 season the greatest pitching year in MLB history?

JGT: What inspired you guys to write this book?

STEVE: We were inspired by the numbers Carlton put up that season for such  a bad team.  Dave Brown and I thought it would make a good book, because it doesn’t seem possible, does it? How could a guy pitch that well for a team that bad? And I’ve always felt that Carlton’s ’72 has gone largely overlooked in the annals of great seasons. Most people automatically think of Gibson’s ’68, or Guidry’s ’78, or one of Koufax’s great seasons of the mid-60s, but few every mention Carlton in 1972. He was the first, and up until recently, the only Cy Young Award winner from a last place team.  We thought it was time he was given his due.

JGT: If Carlton had played on an even decent team, how many games do you think he would he have won that year?

STEVE: My guess is he would have definitely gotten to 30, which is a magic number in baseball history. There was a players strike that year that wiped out the first week of the season, and cost them six games. The Phillies only played 156. So that may have cost him two or three starts.  As it was, he almost won 30.

JGT: How much of winning that many games for such a terrible team was luck?

STEVE: One can never discount the element of luck as it applies to winning baseball. There is always some degree of it, whether it’s simply the fact that key players stay healthy over the course of 162 games. And Carlton was injury-free throughout the season, and was able to make an astonishing 41 starts. He also had 30 complete games. Think about that, 30 complete games. Guys today don’t have that many in their entire careers.  But, there wasn’t too much luck involved. Every night it seemed he was matched-up against the other team’s best pitcher. Gibson, Marichal, Seaver—as well as pitchers who were not future Hall of Famers but were having good years, such as Milt Pappas of the Cubs, and the Pirates Steve Blass.
JGT: Did Cardinals management trade him to the baseball badlands as a punishment for his stubbornness, or was Rick Wise the best deal they could get for him?

STEVE: Both players wanted more money, and owners back then wouldn’t stand for that. This was before free agency. The owners had all the power, and they exercised it. If you refused their contract offers, there was a good chance they’d move you.  The Cardinals knew the Phillies had a disgruntled pitcher on their hands, too, and would probably be willing to trade him. It was about principle; the owners had to make a stand. But, a baseball writer friend of mine contends that if the Cardinals had any idea what Carlton would become, they never would’ve made the deal, and he’s probably right.  The fact that they thought Wise was on a par with Carlton is another crazy facet to the whole thing.
JGT: Did Carlton get frustrated by how terrible the team around him was?

STEVE: Surprisingly no.  From what everyone, and I mean everyone, we talked to said, Carlton was always positive. Never thought about anything negative with that team.  He knew the team he had around him, but he never got down, and he never got down on his teammates.  On the contrary, he raised their level. He made the guys around him better. They actually played better when he pitched.  He never got down on guys; he always tried to instill confidence in everyone. He was the leader of that team from day one, and everyone we talked to agreed that Carlton was a great teammate.
JGT: The year after that, he lost 20 games and got hounded by the Philly media for being out of shape. Considering his performance the year before, was the grief he got from the Philly media warranted? Did he overreact by refusing to speak to them again?

STEVE: He never got off on the right foot that year, beginning in the off season. There were too many banquets, too many award dinners and events. It took time away from his training. Then in spring training he got bronchitis and that really set him back. He just never got going. Somebody wrote that it was because he was out drinking too much, and Lefty didn’t like that. But the refusal to talk really began a couple of years later, and it was a combination of alot of things, that season included.
JGT: Did fans know that Carlton was having a special season in 1972, or was anybody even paying attention to that terrible team? Were there bigger crowds when Carlton would pitch?

STEVE: At one point in the ’72 season Carlton won 15 in a row. When he got to about 7 or 8,  people began to notice and it became a big deal. From that point on it was all about Carlton, he was all the fans had to look forward to.  It became the Summer of Steve, and the crowds grew for his games. They would draw, on average, about an extra 15,000 a game.
JGT: Ok, now for the $64 question: Was Carlton’s 1972 season the greatest pitching season in baseball history?

STEVE: We try to build that case in the book. When you consider the team he played for, it’s hard not to think so.  If you make a list of a dozen or so seasons that qualify, I guarantee, every guy on your list will have pitched for either a World Series winner, or a pennant winner, or a team that finished no lower than second in it’s league or division.  Gibson, Pedro, Koufax, Guidry, Randy Johnson, Maddux, Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson, etc, etc.—they all played for good teams in their Greatest Seasons Ever. The question is: would they have done what Carlton did with that team behind them?  A couple of years ago, MLB Network ran one of their “Prime 9″ specials on the subject. Carlton’s ’72 was ninth. I thought that was way too low.

PREVIOUSLY: Interview with author Bruce Kuklick about Shibe Park.

Interview with author Tom Swift about Chief Bender.



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