Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Award Context: Rod Carew's 1977 MVP

Rod Carew's path to the bigs was far from ordinary:  Born on a train in the Panama Canal Zone and receiving his name from the Jewish physician that delivered him, Carew's family immigrated to New York where he attended George Washington High School (the same school as Manny Ramirez). It was there while playing semi-pro ball in the Bronx that he would be discovered by a Minnesota Twins' scout.  "In Manhattan, we lived about two blocks from the old Polo Ground," Carew told columnist Ed Rumill in 1967, "The Mets were playing there then, in 1963.  But offers came from other clubs.  The Red Sox, White Sox, Yankees, Pirates, Tigers and Twins all talked to me about signing.  The Yanks and Pirates invited me to tryout camps, but I didn't go.  I worked out with the Twins when they came to New York."
Carew would burst onto the Major League scene, quickly ascending to Minnesota in 1967 after three years in the minors.  A UPI reporter would credit much of the team's success that season to the nimble infielder, writing "[t]he slim Carew, whose dash and hitting ability has been a prime factor in the Minnesota Twins' pennant contention this year, has already gained one important laurel in his freshman campaign, namely being selected to the starting All-Star team, the only rookie so honored."  His first of many All-Star appearances was just a prelude to his eventual Rookie of the Year award, hitting .292 with 8 home runs and 51 RBIs while batting second for a Twins team that would finish 91-71 - one game behind the American League pennant winning Red Sox. 
From 1968 through 1976, between the ages of 22 and 30, Carew would hit .332, winding up a perennial All-Star, MVP candidate and winning the American League batting title in five of those nine seasons.  It was 1977 and his quest for .400, however, that would solidify Carew's presence in the annals of baseball history.  That season Carew would get off to a great start, hitting .349/.412/.512 in his first 21 games.  On April 30th, Tigers pitcher Dave Roberts took exception to Minnesota's six early runs and would plunk Carew in his second plate appearance of the game.  Carew, a tenacious competitor, would retaliated by throwing a punch at Roberts and be excused from the remainder of the game.  A month later on June 26th, on Rod Carew Jersey Day at Metropolitan Stadium no less, Carew would go 4-for-5, scoring five times and driving in six thanks to a grand slam to push his average above .400 to .403 for the first time that season.  For an encore the next night, the 31-year-old Carew would steal home for the 16th time in his career against the visiting Brewers.     
The remarkable average notwithstanding, Carew was also on pace to break two prestigious offensive records: George Sisler's 55-year-old record of 257 hits and Joe Jackson's record of 26 triples set in 1912. Carew became a national sensation.  Baseball fans across the country took notice and elected him to his 11th straight All-Star game - setting a record for most votes ever (4.29 million votes).  Shortly thereafter, Time Magazine placed him on their cover declaring him the game's best hitter.  Sport Illustrated trotted out Ted Williams from his New England fishing hole to deem Carew the only batter alive worthy of being included in the .400 club.  Ballplayers in both leagues would marvel at his abilities.  White Sox shortstop Alan Bannister would note "He's the only guy I know who can go 4-for-3" while Royals center fielder Amos Otis conjured up a down-home proverb, suggesting that "trying to sneak a pitch past him is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster."  Don Sutton, then a Los Angeles Dodger, perhaps echoed the feelings of National League pitchers everywhere in response to interleague game proposals: "I hope it comes a) after I have retired or b) after Rod Carew has retired." 

Carew would cool off in August (comparatively) and he would start the season's final month with a .378 average, making the .400-mark all but out of reach.  Even as the Twins toiled away in fourth place, Carew hit .439 in September to finish the year with a .388 average.  At the conclusion of the 1977 season, Carew would be at the top or near the top of the leaderboard in almost every major category:
  • His .388 batting average would top the next closest finisher in the American League, teammate Lyman Bostock, by 52 points and winning his sixth batting title.  Not only that, but his .388 average would be the highest in twenty years (matching Ted Williams's 1957 average). 
  • His .449 on-base percentage would be the best in the AL. (Because he was on base consistently and batting in front of Larry Hisle, Hisle was able to finish first with 119 RBIs). 
  • Carew's sudden outburst of power, a surprising .570 slugging percentage, would be second only to Boston's Jim Rice's .593.  
  • His OPS of 1.019 was baseball's best, beating out George Foster of the Red's 1.013. 
  • Carew's 128 runs scored was 22 more than Carlton Fisk's 106.  
  • His 239 hits would be the most since Heinie Manush had 241 in 1928.     
  • His 16 triples would be the most in the AL.
  • Carew was intentionally walked 15 time by opposing teams, the most by any AL batter.


The Twins found themselves well out of postseason contention but Carew's performance was more than enough to secure him his first and only MVP award as his season was undoubtedly one of the all-time greatest in a Twins or any other team's uniform.  His 1977 season was the first in a three-year contract with the Twins - a contract that was viewed as as an outrageous steal for one of the game's most preeminent hitters.  During his run at .400, it was pointed out that Carew's $170,000 a year was well-below that of similar talent Joe Morgan ($400,000) and Steve Garvey ($333,000).  Following his MVP season, Carew watched as two teammates in Hisle and Bostock were allowed to leave via free agency, signifying the long-harbored sentiment that the Twins have little interest in retaining high-priced players (My how things change).  In the 1977-1978 offseason, Twins owner Calvin Griffith would go on record as saying "If I ever traded Rod Carew, I might as well hop on a plane and get out of Minnesota."  Griffith kept his word until January 1979 when the Twins traded Carew to California for Ken Landreaux, Dave Engle, Brad Havens and Paul Hartzell.