By Sam Bush
Tim McCarver died yesterday, and most consumers of this site only knew him as one of the best announcers baseball has ever seen.
And he did have a long run as one of the most recognized, incisive and talkative television commentators in the country.
But Phillies fans should have an extra slice of appreciation for Tim McCarver the player.
McCarver would later become Steve Carlton’s personal catcher when both were with the Phillies. He was in the starting lineup from 1976 through most of ’79 almost whenever Carlton was on the mound. During that period, Carlton was 48-26 with McCarver behind the plate.
“When Lefty and I leave this world,” McCarver liked to joke, “they should bury me 60 feet, 6 inches from him.”
McCarver retired from playing after the 1979 season and moved into Phils broadcast booth, where he quickly prospered, though he ended up returning to the playing field for six games for the World Series-champion Phillies in late 1980, making him one of the few players to play in the Majors in four decades.
Among the few players to appear in major league games in four different decades, McCarver was a two-time All Star who worked closely with two future Hall of Fame pitchers: Bob Gibson, whom McCarver caught for St. Louis in the 1960s, and the introverted Carlton, McCarver’s fellow Cardinal in the ’60s and a Phillies teammate in the 1970s.
Statement from Phillies Managing Partner & CEO John Middleton on the passing of Tim McCarver. pic.twitter.com/e2Dk98nh5s
— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) February 16, 2023
He switched to television soon after retiring in 1980 and called 24 World Series for ABC, CBS and Fox, a record for a baseball analyst on television. He became best known to national audiences for his 18-year partnership on Fox with play-by-play man Joe Buck.
Six feet tall and solidly built, McCarver was a police officer’s son from Memphis who got into more than a few fights while growing up but was otherwise playing baseball and football and imitating popular broadcasters, notably the Cards’ Harry Caray. He was signed while still in high school by the Cardinals for $75,000, a generous offer for that time; he was just 17 when he debuted for them in 1959 and was in his early 20s when he became the starting catcher.
McCarver attended segregated schools in Memphis and often spoke of the education he received as a newcomer in St. Louis. His teammates included Gibson and outfielder Curt Flood, Black players who did not hesitate to confront or tease McCarver. When McCarver used racist language against a Black child trying to jump a fence during spring training, Gibson would remember “getting right up in McCarver’s face.”
McCarver liked to tell the story about drinking an orange soda during a hot day in spring training and Gibson asking him for some, then laughing when McCarver flinched.
“It was probably Gibby more than any other Black man who helped me to overcome whatever latent prejudices I may have had,” McCarver wrote in his 1987 memoir “Oh, Baby, I Love It!”
Few catchers were strong hitters in the ’60s, but McCarver batted .270 or higher for five consecutive seasons and was fast enough to become the first in his position to lead the league in triples. He had his best year in 1967, when he hit .295 with 14 home runs, finishing second for Most Valuable Player behind teammate Orlando Cepeda as the Cards won their second World Series in four years.
McCarver met Carlton when the left-hander was a rookie in 1965 “with an independent streak wider than the Grand Canyon,” McCarver later wrote. The two initially clashed, even arguing on the mound during games, but became close and were reunited in the 1970s after both were traded to Philadelphia. McCarver became Carlton’s designated catcher even though he admittedly had a below average throwing arm and overall didn’t compare defensively to the Phillies’ regular catcher, Gold Glover Bob Boone.
“Behind every successful pitcher, there has to be a very smart catcher, and Tim McCarver is that man,” Carlton said during his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1994. “Timmy forced me to pitch inside. Early in my career I was reluctant to pitch inside. Timmy had a way to remedy this. He used to set up behind the hitter. There was just the umpire there; I couldn’t see him [McCarver], so I was forced to pitch inside.”
McCarver liked to joke that he and Carlton were so in sync in the field that when both were dead they would be buried 60 feet, 6 inches apart, the distance between the rubber on the pitching mound and home plate.
During a 21-year career, when he also played briefly for the Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox, McCarver batted .271 overall and only twice struck out more than 40 times in a single season. In the postseason, he averaged .273 and had his best outing in the 1964 Series, when the Cards defeated the New York Yankees in seven games. McCarver finished 11-for-23, with five walks, and his three-run homer at Yankee Stadium in the 10th inning of Game 5 gave his team a 5-2 victory.