SABR

Rod Carew

This article was written by Joseph Wancho.

He has no weakness as a hitter. Pitch him inside, outside, high, low, fast stuff, breaking balls-anything you throw he can handle. He swings with the pitch; that is why he’s so great, He has no holes.”1

New York Yankee pitcher Catfish Hunter’s assessment of what it was like to pitch to Rod Carew may have been the opinion of many other pitchers from around the American League. Minnesota’s Rod Carew was hitting at a torrid pace in 1977. From June 26 through July 10, the left-handed first baseman maintained an average above .400. He ended the season hitting .388. His hitting ability gripped America as he appeared on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time in the week of July 18, 1977.

The Twins were in the race for the A.L. West crown in 1977. As August drew to a close, they trailed first place Kansas City by only three games. But they hit the skids in September, their record of 7-18 effectively knocking them out of the race. Carew put his season in perspective: “Even when I was getting all that publicity in July because I was hitting over .400, I knew it would be a very tough task to stay there. I knew that when the weather got hot, my arms would get tired, or I’d have some injuries, or I’d hit the ball hard and still make outs. But hitting .400 would have been an individual accomplishment. Winning games is everyone’s main goal. When you win, it’s exciting to be in the clubhouse. When you win, you don’t hear players mumbling and grumbling. It’s fun.”2

On October 1, 1945, Eric Carew and is expectant wife, Olga, were traveling by train from their home in Gatun, Panama, to Gorgas Hospital in Ancon. They were seated in the rear coach—reserved for colored folks—as they embarked on the 40-mile trip. Olga began to feel uneasy as she went into labor. A nurse by the name of Margaret Allen rushed to Olga’s aide to deliver the baby. When the conductor realized what was happening, he hurried to the front of the train in search of a doctor. Dr. Rodney Cline rushed to Olga Carew to complete the delivery. In honor of Dr. Cline, Eric and Olga named the child Rodney Cline Carew. For her efforts, Margaret Allen was asked to be Rod’s godmother.

Known to his family as Cline, Rod Carew had four siblings, three sisters and one brother. Eric Carew worked as a sign painter along the Panama Canal. But he was an abusive father who physically disciplined his two sons (Rod and brother Dickie) on a regular basis. He also drank quite regularly, often arriving home in a foul mood. The Carew children lived in fear of their father. Carew’s relationship with his father was strained to say the least; it was his mother who offered the children guidance and support. Rod also received direction from Joseph French, the gym teacher at his grade school. French was Olga’s brother-in-law, Rod’s uncle. He got Rod started in Little League in Gamboa. Even at a young age, Carew showed that he had the potential to be an excellent batsman.

Rod attended Paraiso High School for two years. He was an exceptional student and a fine athlete. But Olga wanted to leave Panama for two reasons: first, to provide a better life for her children; second, to get the children away from Eric. Her target destination was New York City. Olga received assistance from Margaret Allen, who helped Olga get the paperwork in order. Olga’s brother Clyde Scott provided the financial aid to get the paperwork processed. After she got settled in New York, Olga requested that two of her children join her. Since Allen was Rod’s godmother she requested Rod; Dickie won a family lottery and joined Rod on his journey to the U.S. in 1962.

Rod and Dickie lived with their mother in the Washington Heights area in upper Manhattan. Rod enrolled at George Washington High School, the school attended by Henry Kissinger and Manny Ramirez. Rod got a job as a stock clerk in a grocery store. His days were routine: school and work; he did not play baseball in high school so he could hit the books. One of Rod’s biggest hurdles was mastering English; learning a new language and keeping his studies up were of the utmost importance to him.

As time passed, Carew eventually found his way to the ball diamond. In 1964 he joined the New York Cavaliers, a sandlot team that was a member of the Bronx Federation League. Carew was impressive with the way he hit a baseball, all line drives. Monroe Katz, whose son Steve was also on the Cavaliers, was a bird-dog scout for the Minnesota Twins. He passed the word about Carew to Herb Stein, who was a New York area scout for the Twins. Stein’s main profession was that of an officer with the New York City Transit Police. “Stein told me that I had a pair of wrists that exploded with the pitch. He said he liked the way I could hit an inside pitch to left field. Unusual for a left-handed batter,” said Carew.3 Herb Stein said, “He played all over. I chased him all over New York City. A lot of Spanish teams played in Central Park. And they had some pretty good ballplayers down there. Carew was the guy that shined out in my mind, and I thought he had a good opportunity to get ahead in baseball.”4

A tryout was arranged when the Twins came to town to play New York at Yankee Stadium. Carew sprayed hits all over the field, impressing the Twins’ manager Sam Mele. After Rod graduated from high school in June 1964, he signed a contract with the Twins that included a $5,000 bonus and $400 a month when he reported to Cocoa, Florida, for Rookie League.

After Carew completed the season down in Florida, he joined the Marine Corps to fulfill his military obligation. Although he was not a citizen of the United States, Carew was a permanent resident. He later would spend an additional five and a half years in the reserves.

Rod spent two years in the Minnesota minor league system. In 1965 he was assigned to Class A Orlando of the Florida State League. Rod batted .303 and stole 52 bases. The following year Carew moved on to Class A Wilson (NC) of the Carolina League. Carew manned second base for both seasons.

Minnesota had a strong team in 1967. Dean Chance won 20 games to lead a talented starting rotation that included Jim Kaat, Jim Merritt, and Dave Boswell. Harmon Killebrew led the league in homers, Tony Oliva led the league in doubles, Bob Allison was an outstanding hitter; and now they added Carew to their lineup. “Carew can do it all,” said Twins President Calvin Griffith. “He can run, throw, hit. He could be the American League All-Star second baseman if he put his mind to it.”5

Rod made his major league debut on April 11, 1967 against the Orioles at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. He singled in his first at-bat against Dave McNally in the second inning and went 2-for-4 on the day.

For the season the rookie hit .292 and played a credible second base. He was named the American League’s starting second baseman for the All-Star Game on July 11 at Anaheim. (Obviously Griffith knew what he was talking about.) It was the first of 18 mid-summer classics for Rod. He was also named Rookie of the Year by both the Baseball Writers Association of America and the Sporting News.

Unfortunately the Twins got off to a slow start in 1967 and Mele was let go after posting a 25-25 record. He was replaced by Cal Ermer. Under Ermer, the Twins went 66-46. On September 26 they held a one game lead with three games to play. But they dropped their last three games, including the last two to the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Boston squeaked in to grab the pennant.

The 1967 season saw the last true tight pennant race in the major leagues. In 1968 the Tigers breezed through the American League. In 1969, both leagues expanded by two more teams and each went to a two-division format. This created a round of playoffs before the World Series. No longer was the team with the best regular-season record guaranteed a spot in the Fall Classic.

The Twins won back-to-back American League West titles in 1969 and 1970. Both years they held off Oakland by nine games. And in both seasons they were swept by Baltimore in the American League Championship Series. Two of the defeats in 1969 were by a single run. That year Minnesota was managed by Billy Martin, who had served on the staffs of both Mele and Ermer.

Martin was seeking a two-year pact from Calvin Griffith, the Twins owner. Instead, he was let go. However, Carew was a believer in Martin, buying into Billy’s philosophy of being aggressive on the base paths. Carew stole home seven times in 1969, five of those in the first inning. He was one shy of the record set by Ty Cobb in 1912.6 “Pitchers don’t expect you to take a risk so early and kill off a potential rally,” said Carew.7 Of Martin, Carew said, “He’s smart, knows how to handle players and is aggressive. He has a theory that aggressive, running teams force opponents to make mistakes. He must know what he’s doing. He’s managed first place teams in Minnesota, Detroit and New York. Billy and I also became good friends. He helped me tremendously on the field and off, giving me meaningful, fatherly advice when I really needed it.”8

For Rod Carew, 1969 was the first of seven seasons when he led the league in hitting. He sat atop the league with a .332 batting average.

On May 20, 1970, at Kansas City, Carew became the first player in Minnesota history to hit for the cycle.9 Then on June 22—when he was hitting .374—severe injury came his way. In the fourth inning in a ballgame against Milwaukee at County Stadium, Brewers first baseman Mike Hegan upended Carew in an attempt to break up a double play. Carew felt that he was out of harm’s way, but Hegan slid way outside the baseline. Carew’s left leg snapped like kindling. Surgery was required to remove cartilage and repair torn ligaments. But it was not Rod’s way to harbor bad feelings. He returned later in the season, serving as a pinch-hitter for a few games in September.

Carew had been courting Marilynn Levy for over two years, and on October 24, 1970, they were married in a private ceremony. Both Rod and Marilynn had hurdles to climb; not only was theirs an interracial bonding, but also Rod was Episcopalian and Marilynn was Jewish. But they overcame any obstacles that came their way, including death threats that Rod more or less just blew off. “After I met her mom and dad and got to know them,” said Carew, “they told me the only thing they wanted me to do was to take care of Marilynn and make her happy.”10 Rod and Marilynn had three daughters, Charryse, Stephanie, and Michelle.

Beginning in 1969, Carew began a streak of 15 straight years of hitting .300 or better. He led the league six more years as a member of the Twins; 1972 (.318), 1973 (.350), 1974 (.364), 1975 (.359), 1977 (.388) and 1978 (.333). In the history of major league baseball, only Ty Cobb (12), Honus Wagner, and Tony Gwynn (8) have led the league more times.11

Gene Mauch took the helm of the Twin in 1976 and moved Carew to first base. Although Carew had started 14 games there the previous September, this time the move was permanent. The shift was made ostensibly to extend Rod’s career, first base being the least taxing position on a player’s body.

The Twins ended their season at Kansas City. George Brett, Hal McRae, and Carew were all vying for the batting title. But on that day, Brett topped them all, going 3-for-4 while Carew and McCrae both turned in 2-for-4 performances. Brett finished with a .333 average, McRae at .332 and Carew at .331.

In spite of a certain amount of success, Minnesota was in the middle of the pack in the A.L. West Division. The losing began to take a toll on Carew, although his play on the diamond still sparkled. Like all players, no matter what their accomplishments were on the field or how large a contract might be, their ultimate goal was to win a world championship. Carew had signed a three-year pact before the 1977 season with the Twins, so he was obliged to play out his contract and then test the waters of free agency. Carew had watched as former teammates Larry Hisle and Lyman Bostock signed lucrative deals with Milwaukee and California respectively. Rod’s relationship with Twins’ owner Calvin Griffith had turned downward, as their differences were played out in the press.

The Twins of course realized that Carew would not sign a new deal and began shopping him around. Carew was entitled to approve any team that he was traded to, and those with the deepest pockets came knocking. In the end it was the Angels who put together the right package. On February 3, 1979, Carew was dealt for outfielder Ken Landreaux, pitchers Paul Hartzell and Brad Havens, and utility player Dave Engle. “We obtained the best hitter in baseball,” said Angels General Manager Buzzie Bavasi. “We expected it would cost us a lot in player personnel, but we felt we could not give up the players Griffith insisted on originally.”12

The trade was expected to have an effect on ticket sales, and it did. The Angels ticket department took in an estimated $45,850 for season ticket packages, and further projected that an additional $30,000 would have been raked in if single-game tickets also went on sale.

Supporters of the Halos, both old and new, were not disappointed. The Angels had built a formidable team, mostly through free agency. Joe Rudi, Rick Miller, Don Baylor, Brian Downing and Bobby Grich had all joined the Angels by that route. In 1979 California broke the three-year stranglehold that Kansas City held on the A.L. West Division to take the crown. Unfortunately for Carew and the Angels, they were matched up against Baltimore in the LCS. The Orioles had been Minnesota’s nemesis a decade earlier, and times did not change much as they defeated California three games to one.

For Carew, the address change to Southern California did not diminish his skill at the plate. For five straight years (1979-1983) he batted over .300. Unlike his years with the Twins, Carew had more protection in the Angels’ lineup. The Angels returned to the postseason in 1982, but were eliminated again in the LCS. This time Milwaukee ousted California in five games.

On August 4, 1985, Carew singled off Minnesota’s Frank Viola in the third inning to notch his 3,000th career hit. “It’s something I thought I would never accomplish,” said Carew, “but I’ve been around for 19 years, and if you stay around long enough, good things happen to you.”13 Carew was the 16th player in major league history to reach the 3,000 hit plateau.

It turned out to be the last hurrah for Rod Carew. In 1986, major league rosters were reduced to 24 players. Suddenly, and to many surprisingly, he was on the outside looking in. When no teams offered him a job, even at a reduced salary, Rod Carew retired from the major leagues. His career batting average was .328. He totaled 3,053 hits including 445 doubles, 112 triples, 1,424 runs and 353 stolen bases. He hit 92 home runs and drove in 1,015 runs.

Rod Carew was inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991. He was the 27th player in history to be elected in his first year of eligibility. “The Hall of Fame’s very sacred to me,” said Carew. “I remember Bobby Doerr looked at me and said ‘Welcome to one of the greatest fraternities in the world.’ There are such exceptional athletes in there.”14 Carew was the first player from Panama to be enshrined. Today, Carew waits for his fellow countryman Mariano Rivera to join him. Rod will no doubt share the same sentiment with Rivera: Welcome to one of the greatest fraternities in the world.

Carew operated a hitting school near his home in Peralta Hills in Anaheim. He tutored major league ballplayers and amateur players alike, offering patient and steady guidance. In 1992 he accepted an invitation by Angels manager Buck Rodgers to become the team’s hitting coach. It turned into a nine-year gig, followed by two more in Milwaukee in the same capacity. “I picture Rod as this great guru on top of a mountain on the Andes,” said Angels utility player Rex Hudler. “Only it’s a state-of-the-art mountain where has videotapes of every hitter and every pitcher and people come from all over the world to find a remedy. But think about this. He’s not on that mountaintop. He’s right here. He’s our own. We’ve got him to ourselves. How selfish is that?”15

Unfortunately, Rod Carew’s darkest days were ahead of him. His 18-year old daughter Michelle was stricken with leukemia in 1995. It was imperative that a bone marrow donor be found in order to give her a chance to beat the disease. Her two older sisters were a match for each other, but not for Michelle. Carew, a private person who had often been cold and indifferent to the press, found himself in the position of needing to use the press to find a donor. “At first, I had to think about it. I didn’t want to make a spectacle out of my daughter’s health. We talked about it as a family. Michelle said if it would help out other kids, then we should do it. And I said ‘OK.’ She knew how tough it was for me because of my past experiences with the press,”16 said Carew. Sadly, finding a donor for Michelle was not to be. But through Carew’s efforts, the registry rolls for bone marrow transplant grew by 500,000 in the first year. It is a cause that Carew fights for to this day.

Unfortunately, what often happens when a child passes away is that there is collateral damage. Rod and Marilynn divorced after 26 years of marriage.

Although his work on the baseball field is what most people will recall when the name Rod Carew comes up, his work in the community is what sets him apart today. In 1975 Carew received the Order of Vasco Nunez de Balboa. It is awarded to an individual who best displays distinguished diplomatic services and contributions to international relations with other states. Established in Panama in 1941, it is the country’s highest award. Carew was the first athlete to be so honored. In 1977, he was the recipient of the Roberto Clemente Award. It is awarded annually to the player who best exemplifies the game on and off the field. “Fans everywhere are aware of Rod Carew’s magic with a baseball bat,” said Commissioner Bowie Kuhn when he made the presentation. “Carew’s magic however doesn’t stop with his excellence on the diamond. His many charitable activities in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, especially with youngsters, make him an outstanding choice as this year’s Roberto Clemente Award winner.”17

In 1979, Carew and Ira Berkow wrote his autobiography, Carew. It was a very candid and open look into the ballplayer’s life up to that point in his career.

As of 2015, Carew lives with his second wife, the former Rhonda Jones, in California. He will often spend time watching youngsters playing the game he loves, offering tips and suggestions on how to play the game the right way. The Twins hired him as a special assistant in 2013. Before the All Star Game at Target Field in 2014, a portion of Second Avenue N. between 6th and 7th streets was named in his honor. Carew’s number 29 has been retired by both the Minnesota Twins and the California Angels.

After Carew notched his 3,000 hit, he talked about the importance of the achievement. “When you get in the class with Ty Cobb, with Hornsby, with Pete Rose, it means a lot. I was blessed with the ability to hit—with good eyesight, good hand-eye-coordination. When I first came up, the Twins expected me to hit .240 and play second base, but I knew I could do more than that.”18

Indeed. Rod, you have given all of us more. Much, much more.

Last revised: June 4, 2015

 

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank SABR member Stew Thornley with his help on this bio.

 

Notes

1 Time Magazine, July 18, 1977

2 The Sporting News, October 15, 1977,3

3 Rod Carew with Ira Berkow, Carew, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2010, 43

4 Stew Thornley phone interview with Herb Stein, August 7, 2004.

5 The Sporting News, March 25, 1967, 27

7 New York Times, April 16, 1989

8 Carew and Berkow, 115

10 The Sporting News, December 26, 1970, 38

12 The Sporting News, February, 17, 1979, 30

13  Los Angeles Times, August 5, 1985

14 Orange County Register, February 23, 2010

15  Los Angeles Times, August 13, 1985

16 USA Today Baseball Weekly, June 4, 1996, 35

17 The Sporting News, April 9, 1977, 24

18  Los Angeles Times, August 5, 1985

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