Card Corner, 1973 Topps: Rico Cartyby Bruce Markusen
February 22, 2013
I’m currently re-reading Mike Shropshire’s highly sarcastic and delightfully wicked Seasons in Hell, which tells the story of the first futile years of the Texas Rangers franchise. So what better time to put our 1973 lens on one of the intriguing characters from those Rangers, the man who liked to refer to himself as “The Beeg Boy” and “The Beeg Mon.”
Although Rico Carty spent only a half-season in Texas, he made a memorable impression on Shropshire. Let’s consider some of the following nuggets of information:
*Throughout the early pages of the book, Rangers manager Whitey Herzog makes some offbeat assessments of his new DH. Herzog told Shropshire that the team trainer had informed him that Carty’s knees were not exactly in pristine condition. According to Herzog, the trainer had “seen better knees on a camel.” Herzog also wondered about Carty’s state of mind. “I think the guy must be practicing voodoo or something,” Herzog told Shropshire. “Check out his eyes. Rico’s crazier than a peach orchard sow.”
When Shropshire told Herzog that, “The White Rat” rolled his eyes and declared, “Oh, what a bunch of crap. If anybody throws a perfect game against this lineup, they ought to slap an asterisk on it.” Luckily, light-hitting catcher Ken Suarez eventually broke up the perfect game with a seeing-eye single, making Carty’s unwillingness to walk rather irrelevant.
*Later in the season, Carty argued with the home plate umpire over a called strike. When Carty returned to the dugout, be began yelling at Herzog, upset with the manager for failing to back him during the argument. The two men were separated by other members of the team. From that moment forward, Herzog pushed owner Bob Short to trade Carty as soon as possible. Short finally gave in to the request in August, selling Carty on waivers to the Cubs.
As a result of the move to Chicago, Rico Carty’s 1973 card is the only Topps card that shows him with the Rangers. Acquired from Atlanta in an offseason deal for an obscure right-handed pitcher, the wonderfully named Jim Panther, Carty is actually wearing a Braves uniform with the Braves logo and name obscured from view. Most prominently we see the airbrushed cap, with the blue tint brighter than the actual Ranger blue.
Despite the obvious airbrush job, it’s a pretty good close-up of the handsome Dominican star.
After the Rangers sold Carty to the Cubs, they in turn sold him to the A’s following his dispute with Ron Santo. Carty drew his release after the 1973 season, so Topps did not produce a card for him as part of its 1974 set.
Completely out of the major leagues, Carty signed with Cordoba of the Mexican League, put up a .354 batting average, and drew interest from the Indians. But it would not be until 1975 that Carty reentered the baseball card world, this time sporting the airbrushed colors of Cleveland, which signed him after his stint in Mexico.
So, have you got all that straight? As you can see, the mid-1970s were the most frenetic part of Carty’s career, which seemed to end as often as Sugar Ray Leonard announced his retirement.
Carty’s career began with a fair share of instability as well. In the late 1950s, young Latino ballplayers were recruited and signed as part of a system that lacked rules and regulations, and any enforcement of common sense. Carty, a native of future shortstop haven San Pedro de Macoris, ended up signing with 10 different major league organizations, which must be some kind of unofficial record. “I was just a dumb kid and didn’t know anything,” Carty admitted with a laugh to The Sporting News. “I just wanted to play ball.”
George Trautman, the president of the National Association, took pity on Carty and decided not to fine or suspend him. Trautman instead asked him which of the 10 teams he preferred. When Carty responded that he liked the Braves, his favorite team, Trautman allowed that contract to stand.
The strong-armed Carty came up as a catcher in the Braves’ system; except for one minor league season, he played the position exclusively in the Milwaukee chain. The Braves gave him a two-game look-see in Milwaukee in 1963, but he appeared only as a pinch-hitter, coming up hitless in two at-bats.
By 1964, the Braves had decided to move Carty to the outfield. Winning the left field job, he responded with a .330 batting averages (the second best mark in the National League), 22 home runs, and a .554 slugging percentage, numbers that sounded like they belonged to teammate Hank Aaron. Under ordinary circumstances, those numbers would have been good enough to earn Carty Rookie of the Year honors, but the award went to Richie Allen, who hit 29 home runs and outslugged Carty by a mere three points. Even though their numbers were close, Allen won the award almost unanimously.
The Braves loved Carty’s bat, but didn’t have the same affinity for his glove work in left field. So in the spring of 1965, they tried the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Carty at first base. That soon proved a disaster, as he made three errors in one game. By the start of the regular season, he moved back to left field and continued to hit well, but the injury bug hit for the first of many times in his career. Hit in the back of the neck with a pitch by the Phillies’ Ray Culp, Carty struggled with a sore neck and a bad back. He batted .310 with a slugging percentage near .500, but was limited to 83 games and 293 plate appearances.
His defensive play also concerned the Braves. For the second straight year, he finished with more errors than assists, never a good ratio for an outfielder. So in 1966, the Braves (since relocated to Atlanta) began to move Carty around, putting him back at catcher for 17 games and giving him a couple of shots at first base. Unfortunately, wherever the Braves played Carty, they found him lacking. He didn’t have the speed to play the outfield, the agility for catcher or the soft hands required of a corner infielder.
Despite the constant shifting, Carty hit well. He batted .326 with 15 home runs, and also showed a new sense of patience, drawing a career-high 66 walks. Except for base-running speed, Carty had it all offensively.
After he hit .300 or better in his first three full seasons, Carty’s hitting fell off badly in 1967. He hit only .255 and slugged only .401, highly uncharacteristic numbers. A separated shoulder hurt both his strength and ability to make contact.
The separated shoulder would soon seem inconsequential. During spring training in 1968, Carty did not feel well and visited a doctor, who informed him that he had contracted tuberculosis, a potentially deadly disease. The bout with TB sapped Carty of his strength and left him bedridden. Spending five months in a Florida sanitarium, he would miss all of the 1968 season. Some skeptics wondered if the disease might end his career.
To his credit, Carty worked hard to return to the Braves, dispelling the forecasts of the naysayers. He returned in time for Opening Day of the 1969 season and hit remarkably well, but soon hurt his shoulder. Despite repeated shoulder separations during the course of the season, Carty still managed to play in 104 games and remarkably hit .342. Carty’s OPS of .951 represented the high-water mark of his career to date and helped him earn some support for National League MVP.
Carty was even better in 1970, when he compiled a 31-game hitting streak. A year removed from tuberculosis and now at full strength, he reached career highs in every major offensive category. He hit .366, good enough to win the batting crown, and also led the league with an on-base percentage of .454. At 30 years of age, Carty had completed a remarkable comeback to make himself one of the game’s elite hitters.
On the field, Carty played splendidly. But off the field, he found controversy. On a team flight, Carty was speaking loudly with some of the other Latino players on the Braves. They spoke Spanish, laughing intermittently. A few feet away, Hank Aaron overheard the conversation and began to suspect that Carty was talking about him. Aaron turned around and told the players to speak English, if they were going to continue to talk about him.
Carty then cursed at Aaron, calling him a “black bleep.” Aaron responded by rising from his seat and taking a swing at Carty, but he missed, his fist putting a dent into the side of the airplane. Teammates then tried to restrain both Aaron and Carty. Momentarily subdued, Carty then broke loose of his teammates’ grip and landed a punch, hitting Aaron in between the eyes.
The incident did little to dampen Carty’s popularity with Atlanta fans, who came to love him for his constant smile and affable personality. He also gained popularity nationwide. Despite being left off the All-Star ballot, he received substantial write-in support, making the team as the starting left fielder.
With Carty at the peak of his game, misfortune hit him yet again. Playing in winter ball, Carty collided with Matty Alou and suffered a crushed kneecap. The injury required immediate surgery and would knock him out of action for all of 1971. For the second time in his career, Carty had to spend an entire season on the disabled list.
As if missing the 1971 season wasn’t frustrating enough, Carty became embroiled in an incident with Atlanta police. One night, he and his brother-in-law pulled their car up behind an Atlanta policeman. Another car, occupied by two white men, also pulled up next to the police car, with one of the men shouting, “These niggers are harassing me.” When Carty heard the racial insult, he left his car and allegedly struck the man. The policeman and two other officers ended up restraining Carty, but also left him with two black eyes, several bruises, and an injured finger.
Carty was initially charged with battery against a policeman, but the charge was soon dropped. Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell conducted an investigation and suspended the officers, whom he felt had committed “blatant brutality” against Carty.
Again working fervently, Carty made his way back to the Braves in 1972. But there was still concern about the condition of his knee. “Rico was never a speedster, but I’ve never seen him as slow as he is now,” Braves skipper Lum Harris told United Press International.
His hitting also suffered, as his batting average fell off to .277. With his knees creaking and his birth certificate putting him the wrong side of 30, the Braves decided to make him trade bait. They settled on a relatively meager return of Panther, a pitcher who would put up a 7.63 ERA in an Atlanta uniform.
After his Texas-to-Chicago-to-Oakland journey, Carty settled in with the Indians in the mid-1970s. He became one of the American League’s most productive designated hitters and such a respected member of the Indians that he was named the team’s “Man of the Year” for 1976. When the Blue Jays drafted Carty in the expansion draft, the Indians just couldn’t part with him. They almost immediately reacquired him, sending Rick Cerone and John Lowenstein to Toronto.
On April 25, 1977, Carty officially received his Man of the Year award at the team’s Wahoo Club. With approximately 600 fans, his 24 teammates, Indians GM Phil Seghi, and manager Frank Robinson in attendance, Carty stepped to the podium and proceeded to question the team’s leadership, in particular the manager’s tendency to criticize his players. “We need your help, Frank,” said Carty, looking at Robinson, who was sitting about three feet away. “If you don’t help, we’ll all be in trouble.”
At that moment, the inhabitants of the Wahoo Club watched in stunned silence. Robinson looked uncomfortable, but said nothing.
That was most appropriate, considering that Robinson and Carty would hardly talk for the remainder of the 1977 season. They came from opposite ends of the spectrum: Robinson was an old school hard-liner who had little patience for Carty’s frequent injuries. By the end of the 1977 calendar year, both men would be gone from Cleveland. The Indians fired Robinson in midseason, and then nearly dealt Carty to the Yankees prior to the Sept. 1 deadline. The Indians finally traded Carty that winter, sending him to the Blue Jays for minor league pitcher Dennis DeBarr.
Though 38, Carty was hardly done. He started the season with the Toronto but was traded to Oakland for Willie Horton. He put on a 41-game rampage for the A’s, hitting 11 home runs in 141 at-bats and compiling an OPS of .928. He finished the season with a career-high 31 home runs.
Carty did not begin to show significant decline until the following season, when he returned to the Jays as a free agent. His batting average fell to .256, his worst showing since 1973, and his home run total plummeted to 12. The Blue Jays gave Carty one more chance in the spring of 1980, but released him in spring training, halting his 15-year career.
Since his retirement, Carty has remained out of Organized Baseball, but still stays connected to the game as a mentor to young players in his native San Pedro de Macoris. His pupils have included the Yankees’ Robinson Cano and the Cubs’ Alfonso Soriano. In some ways, he has become an ambassador for the game in his native Dominican Republic.
Carty has also ventured into politics. After being made an honorary general in the Dominican army, he was elected mayor of San Pedro de Macoris, only to have the election taken away in a recount. That actually turned out to be a good development for Rico. “I didn’t like politics anyway,” Carty once told MLB.com. “You have to lie too much.” For the always outspoken and outgoing Carty, that would be nearly impossible to do.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.