William C. Kashatus is a historian, educator, and the author of more than twenty books, including Macho Row: The 1993 Phillies and Baseball’s Unwritten Code (Nebraska, 2017) and Jackie and Campy: The Untold Story of Their Rocky Relationship and the Breaking of Baseball’s Color Line (Nebraska, 2014). His book Lefty and Tim: How Steve Carlton and Tim McCarver Became Baseball’s Best Battery was published last year.
When Tim McCarver passed away last month at the age of 81, the baseball world lost one of its greatest treasures. During his 60 years in the game, McCarver was an All-Star catcher who figured prominently in the careers of two future Hall of Fame pitchers: Bob Gibson, the tempestuous ace of the St. Louis Cardinals, and Steve Carlton, the enigmatic stopper for the Philadelphia Phillies.
In the 1960s, McCarver was part of a nucleus of young players who led St. Louis to two World Series titles. Traded to Philadelphia after the 1969 season, he partnered with Carlton to develop a talented group of younger Phillies into a perennial contender. That’s when I began to follow his career.
Growing up in Northeast Philadelphia in the early ’70s, I fell deeply, if not madly, in love with baseball and my hometown Phillies. But I knew that I would have to work hard to become a successful player. I did not have much natural ability and envied those who did. Since no one on my junior high school team wanted to play catcher, I decided to give it a try and make a virtue of a necessity.
McCarver defined for me what it meant to be a catcher: intelligence, confidence, leading by example, and placing team success above every other consideration. I watched him carefully, both behind and at the plate. He was the ideal combination of “tough guy” and “thinking man.” He was excellent at pitching, calling, setting up defenses and blocking balls in the dirt. Although McCarver did not have the strongest arm, he made up for it with a quick release that enabled him to throw out base stealers. Tim could also hit and run just as fast as a middle infielder. And he was selfless, placing team success above his own.
But what truly distinguished Tim was a rare ability to get the most from his pitchers. He was indeed a hurler’s best friend as well as an amateur psychiatrist, knowing how and when to motivate each member of the staff. Carlton would be the first to admit that McCarver saved his career by insisting that he throw inside to hitters and by giving him the confidence to exploit his slider, a devastating pitch that earned him four Cy Young Awards and propelled him into the Hall of Fame.
Despite his many contributions behind the plate, Tim never received the credit he deserved as a catcher. The negligence was due, in part, to those backstops who came after and re-defined the position. Catchers like Johnny Bench, Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk forged their Hall of Fame careers mostly on power-hitting and strong arms, though Tim was every bit as talented at blocking, calling a game and leading a team.
In 1980, when McCarver made the transition to broadcaster, he taught me even more about the game of baseball. Not only did he possess an encyclopedic knowledge of pitching and hitting, he knew how to deliver the information in an engaging manner. A spellbinding storyteller, Tim was articulate, smart and quick-witted; all the assets necessary to be successful behind the microphone.
Not surprisingly, McCarver enjoyed a long run, calling 24 World Series for ABC, CBS and Fox; a record for a baseball analyst on television. In 2012, the National Baseball Hall of Fame recognized Tim’s invaluable contributions with the Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in broadcasting. When he retired seven years later, McCarver was one of the most recognized, insightful, and talkative television commentators in the nation.
Sometimes we don’t fully appreciate what we have until it’s gone. In Tim McCarver, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Major League Baseball had someone who was pretty special.
Photo courtesy of The Phillies/Ed Mahan