Card Corner: Rico Cartyby Bruce Markusen
October 08, 2010
In striking a pose for his final Topps card, Rico Carty looks a lot like the wise, old baseball veteran, ready to provide counsel to his younger teammates on the Blue Jays. That kind of image clashes with the reputation that Carty carried for much of his career, when he rarely backed away from controversy or confrontation, sometimes pitting himself against the most popular player on his team.
Even from the start, Carty was hardly a conventional athlete. A talented boxer, Carty decided to pursue a professional career in baseball, playing as a catcher. As an amateur, he flaunted a system in which young Latino players were recklessly scouted and signed without regard to rules and regulations. Carty signed contracts with 12 different major league teams while he was an amateur. Organized Baseball threatened to discipline Carty, but chose not to impose any fines or suspensions on the highly touted youngster.
|Rico Carty, 1980 (Icon/SMI)|
Ultimately, Carty’s contract with the Milwaukee Braves was the one that was allowed to stand. Almost immediately, Carty displayed the kind of minor league batting prowess that would earned him a quick promotion to Milwaukee, but the Braves also realized that he did not have the defensive skills to stay behind the plate. They moved him to the outfield, where he would hardly excel, but where he could do far less damage.
After a brief cup of coffee with the Braves in 1963, he received a fulltime playing role in 1964 and responded with a .330 batting average and a .554 slugging percentage. Carty played so well that he finished second to Dick Allen in the National League’s Rookie of the Year race.
In 1965, Carty hurt his back, forcing him to miss half of the season. The injury would prove to be a sign of things to come:
Illness and injury would frequently limit his at-bats and his playing time in left field.
After moving with the franchise to Atlanta in 1966, Carty continued to build his reputation as one of the National League’s most feared hitters, combining the ability to bat for average and power, while rarely striking out. In spite of a separated shoulder in 1967, Carty posted two respectable back-to-back seasons for the Braves, but a major setback laid waste to his 1968 season. Carty contracted tuberculosis, sapping him of much of his strength and rendering him unavailable for the entire season. He spent five months of that season in a sanitarium, attempting to recuperate from what some considered a career-threatening illness.
Undeterred, Carty bounced back forcefully in 1969. Though he played in only 104 games, he reached base 40 per cent of the time and slugged a cool .549. That kind of season provided the appetizer to 1970. Now fully recovered from his bout with tuberculosis, Carty reached the peak of his career when he led the league with a thunderous .366 batting average and a .456 on-base percentage. Carty made such an impression with his lusty hitting that fans voted him onto the National League All-Star team despite the fact that his name did not appear on the ballot.
Then, during the off-season, Carty’s career came to a crossroads. During a winter league game, he collided with fellow Dominican outfielder Matty Alou. The incident resulted in a crushed kneecap, which forced Carty to the sidelines for the entire 1971 season.
The repeated injuries to Carty represented only part of the problem. Carty’s personality sometime put him in conflict with teammates and managers. During his years with the Braves, he became involved in several ugly incidents. He tussled with 6-foot-6 right-hander Ron Reed. Off the field, he sustained injuries in a brawl with Atlanta police, who mistook him for another man; the altercation caused permanent damage in one eye. And in another celebrated incident, Carty fought with the Braves’ best player, Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.
Carty’s continuing problems with Aaron eventually influenced his trade to the Rangers after the 1972 season. Carty seemed like a perfect fit for the American League, which had just adopted the designated hitter rule. The new rule would keep Carty out of the outfield, where his lack of speed and throwing ability made him a liability. Serving as a DH also figured to limit his risk of injury. On paper, Carty and the Rangers seemed like a perfect match, but he soon sparred with manager Whitey Herzog, which resulted in a hasty midseason departure.
The Rangers sent him back to the National League, this time selling his contract to the Cubs. Carty proceeded to butt heads with another popular star player, Ron Santo, one of the Cubs’ senior veterans and most prominent clubhouse leaders. Within a few weeks, Carty was back to the American League with the Oakland A’s.
Upon his arrival in Oakland, Carty publicly criticized Santo, labeling him a selfish player. Carty bitterly predicted the Cubs would never win a division title or league pennant until they rid themselves of their longtime third baseman. Although Carty’s criticism likely had little to do with it, the Cubs traded Santo to the cross-town White Sox after the season.
After the season, the A’s released Carty, leaving him without a baseball card for 1974, and more importantly, without a job in the major leagues. Determined to make a comeback, Carty signed a contract with Cordoba of the Mexican League. He hit well enough to impress scouts for the Indians, who offered him a contract in August of 1974.
Signed at a bargain price, Carty would prove to be one of the Indians’ best acquisitions of the 1970s. He became the Indians’ primary DH, slugging over .500 in 1975 and posting on-base percentages in the .370 range in two consecutive seasons. He also cemented his reputation as the best two-strike hitter of his era, an opinion shared by a number of scouts, coaches and managers.
He employed a distinctive style at the plate. Unlike many hitters who step out of the batter’s box and tug at their uniforms between pitches, Carty stood firmly planted in the box throughout each at-bat. He remained motionless, all the while glaring at the opposing pitcher. Carty’s stance and stare only made him more intimidating to rival hurlers. He added to that level of intimidation by sometimes screaming at pitchers who insisted on throwing him breaking balls instead of challenging him with his preferred pitch, the fastball.
The Indians thought so much of Carty that after the Blue Jays selected him in the expansion draft, they worked to bring him back via a trade. One month after losing Carty to the Jays, the Indians reacquired him in a deal for young catcher Rick Cerone and veteran outfielder John Lowenstein.
Carty remained a productive hitter with the Indians through the 1977 season, but he repeatedly clashed with manager Frank Robinson. An old school skipper through and through, Robinson preferred his players to keep quiet and play through minor aches and pains. An injury-prone player like the outspoken Carty did not fit the Robinson mold. Some felt the Carty-Robinson relationship epitomized the hard feelings that sometimes bubbled between Latino and African-American players of the era, largely because of cultural and language differences.
By the winter of 1977, the Indians had parted ways with both Carty and Robinson. They fired Robby in midseason, and then traded the aging Carty that winter, sending him to the Blue Jays, this time without a return ticket. Though 38, Carty was hardly done. Splitting the season between Toronto and Oakland, Carty hit a career high 31 home runs, six more than his previous best.
Carty did not begin to show his age until the following season, when he returned to Toronto as a free agent. His batting average fell off 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 March, bringing his major league days to an end. In spite of it all— tuberculosis, a crushed kneecap, and repeated clashes with teammates and managers—Carty had managed to last 15 seasons as a big league hitter.
Carty could make controversy with the best of them, but he was colorful. He proudly called himself the “Beeg Boy” in a heavy Spanish accent. Carty also had an interesting personal habit. According to Jim Bouton in his groundbreaking Ball Four, Carty had such little trust in either banks or the clubhouse valuables box that he stuffed his money into his game-worn uniform pants. “So that big lump you see in his back pocket during baseball games is his wallet,” wrote Bouton.
In many ways, Carty’s habits and histrionics overshadowed his intelligence. After his playing days, he became a political figure in his native Dominican Republic. In May of 1994, Carty was elected mayor of his hometown, San Pedro de Macoris, and was scheduled to be sworn into office in mid-August. Political machinations then wreaked havoc on Carty’s career. On Aug. 2, a controversial recount gave the mayoral job to Carty’s principal opponent.
Carty had promised to repair many of the city’s streets as mayor and step up efforts to fight pollution in San Pedro de Macoris. He also wanted to ask the United States for help in bringing equipment—specifically bats and baseballs—to the Dominican Republic. Although Carty’s political desires were grounded, he still managed to earn the honorary rank of general in the Dominican Army.
Given such a prestigious honor, maybe the image on the 1980 Topps card was an accurate one. Perhaps Rico Carty has been the wise, old leader all along.
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.
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