New members of the Philadelphia Phillies writing staff at TBOH always begin with a piece on the first team that they ever followed regularly.
I’d only been to one Phillies games prior to the 1972 season. It was on April 10th, 1971, that first game ever played at Veterans Stadium. By this time I had been playing little league for a couple of years, and I was beginning to take an interest in the local pro and college sports teams.
I wasn’t hooked on baseball yet, but I do clearly remember 3rd baseman Don Money hitting the first home run at the Vet, and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning as the starting and winning pitcher in that historic first game on home Astroturf.
By the time the 1972 season had rolled around, I was seriously into sports and couldn’t wait for baseball to begin. I began reading the sports pages during the winter prior to that ’72 season, but wasn’t yet familiar with players on the other teams. My knowledge of opposing players was limited to the backs of their baseball cards, and that knowledge was relegated to only the very biggest stars of the day.
The first article I remember reading about the Phillies detailed the now famous trade of ace starting right-handed pitcher Rick Wise to the Saint Louis Cardinals for lefty starting pitcher Steve Carlton.
At the time I didn’t know who Lefty was at all. I did know about Wise, and vividly remembered the no-hitter that he threw against the Cincinnati Reds on June 23rd of the previous season. The two home runs that Wise hit in that game made it even more especially memorable.
For an 11-year old kid, I was amped up for the 1972 regular season to begin. Following spring training wasn’t something I was yet doing, and access to information wasn’t readily available like it is today. I loved the tradition of Opening Day always being played in Cincinnati one day before the rest of the big leagues began play. The people concerned with the business of baseball dropped that tradition in their ever-present pursuit to maximize revenue.
Here I was, ready for the start of the 1972 baseball season and what happened? The players call for the first strike in the history of Major League Baseball. I couldn’t believe it.
That first strike would not last as long as the 1981 strike a decade later that would cause a first-ever MLB split regular season, or as devastating as the 1994 strike that wiped out the 2nd half of the season and the World Series, but it was my first taste of a strike in pro sports. The Phillies lost six games off the schedule to the strike, with some teams losing as many as nine games.
The Phillies season finally began on April 15th, 1972 with Carlton toeing the rubber against the Chicago Cubs and their ace starting pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, an ex-Phillies starter whom the club had dealt away to the Cubs early in the 1966 season.
In a true heavyweight bout between future Hall of Famers, Carlton and the Phils came away with the ‘W’, the first of only 59 wins that the club would enjoy during that season.
Carlton’s performance on that delayed Opening Day during his first-ever official regular season start for the Phillies began ‘Lefty’ out on would become the story of the 1972 Phillies season…his consistently brilliant dominance.
The ’72 season was my breakout year as a Phils fan and a baseball fan in general. I read the sports page daily and would look at every box score. I knew every National League lineup by heart by the All Star break, and became a stat freak in the process. It wasn’t a good year to be a Phillies fan, but I didn’t care. I found something that I loved in the game of baseball, and would watch and listen to just about every game available.
After the Phillies surprisingly won 13 of their first 20 games, the bottom fell out on the team. Wins were tough to come by as the offense struggled nightly to score. When Lefty took the mound they were a different team. It seemed like they knew they were the better team on those nights, like they had a greatly improved chance to win that night, and the whole team would come alive.
After starting out 5-1 to open the season, Carlton lost five straight decisions. With their ace unable to post a win, the Phillies finished May with a 16-24 record, going 3-17 in the final 20 games of the month.
The losses didn’t bother me too much at the time, because I was still learning about the team and about Major League Baseball in general. It was becoming an obsession for me. I remember watching the Phils every Sunday afternoon, and listening to west coast games in bed on my little $6 transistor radio. My lifelong passion was in its infancy and I just rolled with it.
Fiery shortstop Larry Bowa and center fielder Willie Montañez, “Willie the Phillie”, became my favorite position players. This was due more to their personalities than their ability.
I loved Bowa’s fierce competitiveness and his hatred for losing. I believe he hated losing more than he loved winning. At the other end of the spectrum was the cool Montanez, strolling to home plate doing half-flips with the bat on his way to the box.
I also remember thinking what a great feeling it would be to start in center field for the Phils myself one day. Center field is where I played as a kid, and I would frequently daydream about some future time when I’d be patrolling center on The Vet carpet.
The biggest story of that 1972 season wasn’t how bad the Phils were, and at an NL worst 59-97, they were very bad. Rather it was the emergence of Carlton as one of the most dominating pitchers in the game.
Lefty set out at one point on an amazing 15-game winning streak. By the time the streak had reached to 10 games, the whole city was talking about him on the day that he pitched and the day after he had won yet again.
The anticipation grew as Carlton approached the Major League record of 19 consecutive wins, but it wasn’t meant to be. After going 15-0 with three no decisions tossed in, the streak that had begun on June 7th would finally come to an end on August 21st in heartbreaking fashion thanks to a 2-1 extra inning defeat to the Atlanta Braves in which Lefty pitched all 11 innings for the Phillies.
I only saw one game at Veteran’s Stadium that year. It was a complete game victory by Carlton on June 29th against the New York Mets. The tickets were a birthday present from my uncle, who took my cousin and I to that game. Lefty struck out 13 that night while walking six. Thank goodness there weren’t pitch counts in those days.
When the season was over Carlton set a record for winning the highest percentage of his team’s games in a single season. That record still stands today at 45.8%. In 346.1 innings pitched the big left-hander went 27-10, struck out 310 batters, and finished with a miniscule 1.97 ERA.
From the day “the streak” began on June 7th through the end of the year Lefty started 29 games. The Phillies went 24-5 on what became known as “Win Day” to his teammates. Lefty’s record in those 29 starts was 22-4 with an amazing 1.51 ERA over 251 innings pitched.
Carlton would go on to win the first of his four career Cy Young Awards that year in what was a season for the ages. His 30 complete games is nine more than the great Clayton Kershaw has in his entire eight-year career. To make his performance even more incredible by today’s standards, most of Carlton’s outings came on three days rest.
There were other players who began to emerge in that 1972 season who would prove to be keys to the team eventually becoming a winner. 21-year old left fielder Greg Luzinski, “The Bull”, would blast 18 home runs to lead the club. And in mid-September, the club called up a 24-year old catcher named Bob Boone and a 22-year old 3rd baseman by the name of Mike Schmidt.
The 1972 Philadelphia Phillies may have been a bad team, but Carlton and company captured the imagination of a little kid living in and watching from South Jersey. A life-long passion was born that year, my first Phillies season.