Card Corner: Bernie Carbo

Bernie Carbo hasn’t swung a bat in anger for 30 years, but he’s still making news. Just last week, Carbo revealed that he used a potpourri of drugs during the 1970s, notably amphetamines, which were pushed on players by untrained medical staff. According to Carbo, the Reds’ team trainer told him the pills were “vitamins.”

Carbo, sounding much like the late Dock Ellis, also revealed that he “played every game high” during his major league career. For those who have been following Carbo’s journey, this revelation is not surprising. It’s just the latest chapter in a bizarre tale that began over four decades ago.

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A few years ago, Carbo offered some similarly sobering revelations about his life during a lecture in Worcester, Mass. He discussed a steady drinking problem that evolved into full-blown alcoholism by the time he Carbo reached his 19th birthday, and about his use of a wide variety of drugs, including crystal meth. The wild life and times of Carbo included a long list of “eccentricities” during a baseball career that spanned the decade of the 1970s. Some were connected to his severe abuse of alcohol and drugs, while some had nothing to do with his off-field habits. All were interesting. Let’s consider just a few.

*After an early-career trade that sent him from the Cardinals to the Red Sox, Carbo received a stuffed gorilla from former Cardinals teammate Scipio Spinks. Carbo’s new friend earned the name “Mighty Joe Young,” in honor of the legendary film character from 1930s cinema. When on road trips, Carbo did not like to travel alone; therefore, he usually took his “companion” with him. To ensure that his pet “gorilla” would remain by his side, Carbo often paid for an extra ticket. For Carbo, it was worth the expense.

*Shortly after joining the Red Sox, Carbo gave $20 to an older gentleman who was in the Boston clubhouse and asked him to fetch a cheeseburger and fries. Carbo thought the older man was a clubhouse attendant. He didn’t realize that he was actually Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey.

*Playing on June 26, 1975 in a game against the rival Yankees, Carbo made a daring catch at the right-field wall at Fenway Park, robbing Chris Chambliss of a home run. Carbo crashed into the wall, somehow escaping injury but managing to lose the chaw of tobacco he had in his mouth. Carbo then asked umpires for time, so that he could search the outfield for the missing chaw. After holding up the game for nearly 10 minutes, Carbo finally found the tobacco lying on the warning track. He picked up the filthy chaw and put it directly back into his mouth, most likely to the disgust of the fans watching from the right-field stands.

*During batting practice at Fenway Park in 1978, Carbo used to toss baseballs into the stands to certain fans—those who had thrown marijuana joints his way. When Red Sox owners Haywood Sullivan and Buddy Leroux caught wind of the “trades,” they decided to make a trade themselves, sending Carbo to the Indians for cash.

*Carbo was one of the few major leaguers who harbored interest in becoming a professional hairdresser. After the end of his baseball career, Carbo went to cosmetology school and operated a hair salon for eight years. During his playing days, Bernie coifed his hair in a permanent, which was certainly not out of the ordinary for 1970s culture but was fairly uncommon for ballplayers of that decade.

At the time, many of Carbo’s habits were considered quaint, but some of his on-field episodes and off-the-field mental lapses were likely influenced by his addiction to alcohol and drugs. Carbo managed to keep his drug problems quiet for much of his career, but talked openly about them after his retirement from the game. “I was a drug addict and alcoholic for 28 years,” Carbo first told The Sporting News in 2001. “I started drinking when I was about 16 or 17, started on marijuana when I was 21, did cocaine when I was 22 or 23, and got into crystal meth, Dexedrines, Benzedrines, Darvons, codeine. There wasn’t much I didn’t do.”

In 1989, Carbo’s problems escalated. His mother committed suicide. A few months later, his father passed away. Carbo himself then went through a divorce. He contemplated suicide for himself. “I did not want to live in this world,” Carbo admitted.

Fortunately, several of Carbo’s former teammates with the Red Sox learned of his plight. Dalton Jones, who played on the “Impossible Dream” team of 1967, advised him to bring Jesus Christ into his life. Ferguson Jenkins and Bill “Spacemen” Lee, both of whom had experienced their full share of personal problems, placed calls to Carbo. They convinced him to address his drug problems by entering rehabilitation. During his time in rehab, Carbo learned about Christianity. Embracing the values of the religion, Carbo became a Christian minister while also performing as a motivational speaker.

Though his ascent from depression and drugs has been laudable, Carbo’s travails have not ended. In addition to losing his mother through suicide, Carbo watched his three daughters land in prison because of their involvement with selling drugs. One of the daughters remains behind bars, which explains why Carbo adopted three of his grandchildren, who are now in the custody of Carbo and his wife. Carbo’s efforts to gain custody of the children stirred debate on some internet baseball sites, with some dissenters claiming that his past involvement with drugs and alcohol should preclude the adoption.

Without knowing the particulars, I don’t know for sure whether Carbo should have been allowed to adopt the children. But I have to admit I’m rooting for him. First off, he was a good role player, an underrated and smart hitter with power, and the owner of a cannon arm in the outfield. He was a likeable and fun personality who brought life to clubhouses in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Boston and a few other ports of call. More importantly, he has clearly made the effort to overcome serious drug and alcohol addiction and has come back from the verge of suicide to do some meaningful work as a counselor and social worker.

In 1980, Topps gave us this final impression of Bernie Carbo. In providing subject matter for his last Topps trading card, Carbo epitomized the notion of a 1970s flake. With his unusually permed hair and his slightly dazed look, he appeared to be preoccupied with thoughts that have nothing to do with baseball. And then there’s Carbo’s bat, which appears to have been slathered in mud from bottom to barrel. If it’s pine tar, then Carbo clearly exceeded the 18-inch limit made so famous by George Brett only three seasons later.

Like many fans of the game, I used to perceive Carbo as I viewed this card—with amusement. But there’s really nothing amusing about alcohol abuse, or popping amphetamines, or dipping into the world of crystal meth. Just ask Bernie Carbo now; he’d be the first one to tell you that he wasted what could have been a Hall of Fame career.

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