1972 was a unique baseball season in many ways: Before a single regular season pitch was thrown the Washington Senators franchise had moved to Arlington as the Texas Rangers, Mets manager Gil Hodges passed away in spring training, and the first player strike in Major League history took place in April, resulting in a total of 86 lost games. Then the Oakland A’s began a dynasty of three straight World Series championships, and on New Year’s eve Pittsburgh Pirate great Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash.
The year will also will be remembered by outstanding performances from two players on last place clubs, both with statistically historic contributions to their teams.
During the early 1970s lefty Steve Carlton featured a curve, slider, and rising fastball that were all considered as good as any pitcher’s in the majors. Pittsburgh’s Willie Stargell said “Hitting against Steve Carlton is like eating soup with a fork”. He was never more dominant in his Hall of Fame career than in 1972, when he went 27-10 with a 1.97 ERA in his first season with the Philadelphia Phillies after being acquired from the Cardinals in a straight-up swap for Rick Wise. Carlton fanned 310 batters, most in a National League season during the decade, and his 27 wins were the 70’s best in either league. No pitcher has won more games in a season since. Carlton accomplished this for a Phillies team that finished dead last in the NL East with only 59 wins. He accounted for a major league record 45.8% of his team’s victories – the first time in 50 years that a pitcher had more than 40% of his team’s wins. Along the way, Carlton received little help from the Philadelphia bullpen; he went the distance in 30 of his 41 starts, and only 3 of his 27 wins were saved.
Meanwhile, in San Diego, the Padres struggled through their third year of existence in familiar territory – the National League West basement, where they would finish in each of their first 6 seasons. One of the Padres few bright spots in 1972 was their 6′ 2″, 190 pound slugging first baseman, Nate Colbert. Despite the Padres scoring a league-worst 488 runs, Colbert somehow drove in 111, 5th best in the majors. The next highest total for a Padre was Leon Lee with 47! In essence if you were attending a Padres game back then it would have made sense to watch Nate hit and then make your way to the refreshment stand. Colbert was the San Diego offense; his 38 home runs were more than 3x better than team runner-up Lee’s 12. He also led the team in hits, 141, (30 more than Lee’s 111), 87 runs, (37 more than Lee’s 50), 70 walks (29 better than second baseman Darrel Thomas’ 41), and doubles (28). Colbert only hit .250 and did strikeout 128 times, but imagine what the guy could have done in a lineup with an actual table-setter or two in front of him (opening day leadoff man Enzo Hernandez hit .195 and #2 hitter Darrel Thomas, .230), or some more protection behind him. Colbert’s 111 RBI were 22.75% of his team’s runs scored, an all-time record. Only 10 men in baseball history have driven in more than 20% of their team’s runs, and the only other hitter to do it in the 1970s was Frank Howard with 126 RBI out of Washington’s 626 runs (20.13%) in 1970.
Joe Gersbeck is a baseball historian and lifetime fan/student of the game who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons. His website is http://www.1970sBaseball.com and his book, 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: