With spring training in full force, it’s a good time to turn our attention to the set of Topps baseball cards that came out 50 years ago. In 1966, Topps introduced a set with a simple design, with a colored band at the bottom (showing the player’s name and position) and a matching colored band, this one diagonal, running in the upper left-hand corner (showing the player’s team). There is nothing spectacular about the formatting, but it is one that allows the photography to breath, and that is a good thing with this set of cards and its quality array of portraits and posed shots.
Of the cards that Topps produced that spring and summer, this just might be the strangest looking card in the set, if not the entire 1960s. Clay Carroll, who at one time was a very fine relief pitcher, takes on a distinctive appearance for his 1966 card. With his pointed chin, oddly coiffed hair, and mischievous expression, Carroll looks like a cross between a large bird and Jack Nicholson, a reference that seems especially appropriate at a time of year when the Academy Awards made so many headlines for so many different reasons.
Carroll’s large nose, which earned him the nickname of “The Hawk” from his teammates, is also in full evidence on his card. It’s also quite apparent that Carroll is sweating profusely. Not only is his hair wet, but there is also visible moisture right around his mouth, as if he has just completed a tough spring training workout. I would imagine that on most occasions the photographer gives players a chance to cool down and towel off before taking a picture, but it does not appear that Carroll was given that luxury here.
In spite of the sweat and the odd appearance, Carroll is grinning for the Topps photographer. As indicated earlier, it’s a mischievous grin, the kind that Nicholson gave us during his heyday in such films as Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining. That grin has become a trademark of Nicholson, whom some have called the finest actor of the last 50 years.
Much like Nicholson, Carroll is giving us the sense that he knows something that we don’t. Then again, perhaps he is just pleased that he will be featured on his own card for the first time, without having to share space with another player, as he did with Hall of Famer Phil Niekro in 1965.
For so many reasons, Carroll’s appearance on this card is memorable, but his career has been forgotten by many fans. That’s not quite fair, given how good Carroll was for much of his career. While he was certainly not a Hall of Famer, an argument can be made that Carroll ranks as one of the most underrated pitchers in the history of relief pitching. He has also overcome his share of difficulties, including a relatively poor upbringing and a rather unspeakable tragedy in later life.
Carroll grew in the small town of Clanton, Ala., known for its textile mills and economic struggles. One of nine children, Carroll lived in a crowded house that was paid for by his father, a cotton mill worker with an old-fashioned work ethic. Mr. Carroll made only $45 a week, but made sure that all of his children had enough to eat. Clay himself worked at the mill for a couple of years, and also did the laborious task of loading watermelons onto trucks, before his fastball drew the attention of Milwaukee Braves scout Dixie Walker.
The Braves offered Carroll a contract that included a bonus of $1,000. “I signed,” Carroll told the Cincinnati Enquirer in his wonderful Southern drawl. “It sounded like a lot of money. I never had seen so much money in my life.” Carroll bought himself his first a car and began working his way steadily through the Milwaukee farm system. At first, he featured just a fastball and curve, but soon learned how to throw a slider and a change-up. By 1964, that repertoire helped him make his big league debut, as he pitched nearly impeccable ball in 20 innings of work.
By 1966, the same year that the Braves relocated to Atlanta, Carroll emerged as a workhorse out of the pen. Leading the National League with 73 appearances, he pitched 144 innings, put up an ERA of 2.73, and saved 11 games. The latter number might not sound very high, but keep in mind that in the 1960s, managers did not tailor their closers for save situations. In fact, the save had not yet become an official statistic.
In 1967, Carroll muddled through a poor season, fueled in part by letting his weight rise to 215 pounds. (Carroll’s later cards show him with a much fuller face than the 1966 version, an indication of the weight that he put on as his career progressed.) That was also the season that followed the death of his father; sadly, the elder Carroll never had the chance to watch his son pitch in the major leagues. Then came a mediocre start to the 1968 season, prompting a call for change from the Braves’ front office. Concerned that Carroll had lost his effectiveness for good, the Braves dealt him and right-hander Tony Cloninger to the Cincinnati Reds as part of a six-player trade for Milt Pappas.
The change of scenery worked out well. Carroll became the Reds’ closer, pitching brilliantly for the rest of 1968. With his good fastball and his aggressive approach to pitching, Carroll proved a perfect fit for the late innings. But in 1969 and ’70, he had to make another adjustment in his career, becoming a capable setup reliever for the team’s new relief ace, sidearming Wayne Granger. When Granger tailed off some in 1971, Carroll regained the closer’s role.
Rather than rely so heavily on his fastball, Carroll now leaned on his ability to mix four different pitches, along with impeccable control. Sparky Anderson, who became his manager in 1970, loved Carroll’s reliability and willingness to take the ball, calling on him more frequently than he did any other Reds reliever during his tenure as manager.
Carroll’s performance in 1972 would become a season for the ages. He led the National League by making 65 appearances. Limiting the opposition with an ERA of 2.25, Carroll set a major league record by saving 37 games. While this record has been broken many times since then, it was an unheard-of total for a relief ace in 1972. Carroll became so trusted at the end of close games that Anderson called upon him repeatedly in that role, even while asking him to pitch more than one inning at a time.
By 1972, Carroll was also making good money, at least by the standards of the day. As he explained to a reporter for the Associated Press, baseball had given him the chance to live a “comfortable life.” It was a far cry from his modest upbringing in Clanton.
In 1973, Carroll came down with a bad case of the flu, followed by a painful bout with shingles, but he continued to pitch. By 1974, Carroll had lost his closing role with the Reds, but continued to pitch effectively in the middle innings. He remained with the Reds through the 1975 season, giving him a chance to earn his first and only World Series ring. (To make the accomplishment even sweeter, Carroll picked up the win in Game Seven at Fenway Park.) Although Carroll pitched very well that season, Anderson no longer called upon him as frequently, seeming to prefer two younger pitchers, Rawly Eastwick and Will McEnaney. Now 34, Carroll became trade bait that winter. The Reds sent him to the Chicago White Sox for two younger players, left-hander Rich Hinton and a career minor league catcher named Jeff Sovern.
In total, Carroll pitched eight seasons for the Reds, spanning from 1968 to 1975. Except for one season, he was steady and effective regardless in whatever role Anderson chose to employ him. And he wasn’t just good in the regular season; in the Championship Series, he posted an ERA of 1.50, and in the World Series, he did even better, lowering his ERA to 1.33.
It did not take long for Carroll to become the best reliever on a bad White Sox team. He pitched well to start the season, but then suffered a broken hand in late June, putting him on the sidelines for more than a month. The following spring, the Sox opted for youth, sending Carroll to the St. Louis Cardinals for another big right-hander reliever, Lerrin LaGrow.
Carroll did good work for the Cardinals, only to return to the White Sox later that summer when the “South Side Hit Men” found themselves in contention in the American League West. After a rough finish to the season, Carroll drew his release the following spring and then signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he made a couple of appearances in relief. In 1979, he signed a minor league contract with the Milwaukee Brewers, but never made the team’s big league roster.
Carroll left baseball completely, settling into a fairly normal life of post-baseball retirement. Tragically, that normalcy ended in 1985. By then, Carroll had been married to his second wife, Frances, for four years. Carroll’s stepson, Frederick Nowitzke, began exhibiting bizarre behavior. One horrific day, he embarked on a shocking shooting rampage, killing Frances and his own stepbrother. Carroll himself was also shot, enduring a wound to the face, but survived the incident. Ruled guilty of murder, Frederick remains in prison to this day.
When news of the tragedy made newspapers, some of Carroll’s former teammates reacted publicly. One of them was right-hander Jack Billingham, who remembered some of Carroll’s previous difficulties, including the earlier death of a son. “He’s had some tough times after he got out of baseball,” Billingham told USA Today. “He’s had awful experiences throughout his life.”
Shortly after the murders, Carroll moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., where he went to work in construction. Now fully retired, he continues to make appearances for the Reds as a member of their Hall of Fame and as a participant in their fantasy camps.
By all accounts, the personable Carroll remains one of the game’s good guys, retaining his sense of humor despite the traumatic events surrounding his family. It’s difficult to imagine what he has gone through, and how he has managed to cope, but Carroll continues to persevere into his retirement years. Just as he did for 15 major league seasons, Clay Carroll has found a way to survive.
References & Resources
- Clay Carroll’s biographical file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
- Joe Posnanski, The Machine