Steve Carlton in . . . The Nagging QuestionApril 22, 2008
By way of contrast to the Jim Colborn card I posted yesterday, which featured a sun-drenched photo that stands as one of the most aesthetically pleasing displays in my entire shoebox of messages from the gods, here is what may well be the ugliest card I own.
Centering the ugliness is the bright red blob mushing down one of history’s more ill-advised perms while also somehow (the cap seems brimless and even hyper-real, as if it’s a smudge of card-doctoring Day-Glo paint) shadowing the unappealingly sharp, avian features of the subject’s ashen face, his smile strangely off-putting, verging on an acidic grimace, his neck wrinkled, the top of his chest appearing clammy, clinging uncomfortably (one can’t help but imagine) to the chafing polyester of the cheap candy-striped uniform.
From there it just gets worse. The blur of gray sky behind him, such an awful contrast to the spring blue most often seen in my other cards, seems less like sky than hardened Kaopectate. The green border of the card furthers the dismal effect. The drab block lettering along the top of the border somehow sucks all the joy out of the all-star distinction it proclaims, and the yellow block lettering of the player’s name along the bottom turns what could have been a moment of gleeful recognition of a superstar into a vague but visceral yellow-green unease. The bulbous, crudely-rendered cap icon on the lower left, a leaden image made even less appealing by the joyless block lettering jamming the crown, helps drag the overall impression of the card into that of a senseless dumping ground. This impression is clinched by the presence of the baseball icon in the lower right, a brand new lawyerly blight on the cards that season, 1981, when Topps by court order relinquished its benevolent monopoly on baseball cards, the icon signaling that everything—even baseball cards, those potent symbols of innocence—is a fight, a grab for power, that the noise and clutter of the real world is going to start encroaching on the realm of the Cardboard Gods.
And though I’m sure the odd ugliness of the card surely undermined any excitement I might have had at finding an all-star in a pack—it may be no accident that it was the last all-star card I would ever receive, my buying of cards dropping off precipitously that year—the ugliness has increased over the years with further knowledge about the reclusive man pictured in the card. As reported in a 1994 article by Pat Jordan, Steve Carlton believed, among other things, that world events were heavily influenced by “12 Jewish bankers meeting in Switzerland” and that the AIDS virus was created “to get rid of gays and blacks.” Carlton denied that he made these claims, but because of Jordan’s journalistic reputation it’s hard not to add at least a dash of execrable wing-nut seasoning to the rancid stew presented in this card.
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Today the promising new Virile Lit website is featuring my review of the great recent Pete Maravich biography by Mark Kreigel. In the review I pose the following question: If you could have the skills for one day of any athlete from any time in history, which athlete would you choose?
My answer, given the subject of the review, will not surprise you. But it got me thinking about limiting the question to baseball. And while nobody from the world of baseball sprung immediately to my mind upon reshaping the question, my first thought on the subject rendered one certainty:
Left-handed. I’d want to be left-handed.
This fascination with the southpaw has been with me since I started following and playing baseball. Many a time I went into a windup in front of a mirror just so I could watch myself as a lefty. Lefties were different from me. Lefties were more graceful and smooth, their bodies seeming to more fully and deeply hew to the demands of whatever motion the game they were involved in required. I saw this in the whipcrack serve of John McEnroe, in Fred Lynn’s ability to in one smooth motion catch a flyball over his shoulder on the run and whirl to throw it back to the infield, in the fast, balanced, lethal swing of Ted Williams. But nowhere was the uncommon grace of the left-hander more apparent than on the pitching mound.
Oddly enough, though I don’t have a distinct memory of Steve Carlton’s windup, I do not associate it with the symmetrical poise and balance of, say, a Ron Guidry windup. When I think of Carlton the pitcher I recall first his brutal training regimen, which included most notably him churning his arm around for hours in a vat of rice, then I think of his most renowned pitch, a nasty slider, and the general impression in my mind is not of effortless grace but of grunting herky-jerky exertion leading to the stinging pain of a bat sheared off at the handle. And even though in the terms of today’s Nagging Question I’m not imagining myself into the batter who would feel that pain (and failure) in his palms, I still don’t want to dream myself into a situation including that pain.
In other words, I’d want to be a lefty, just not the permed Lefty pictured above, even though he’s probably the second-best Lefty in the history of Lefties (after Grove). I considered choosing Sandy Koufax, but there, too, is pain, all those stories of him having to slather himself with scalding balm before games and plunging his throbbing arm in ice for hours after games. Grove himself might be a good choice, but I associate him with ferocious intensity that at times boiled over into locker-wrecking post-game tirades, so as good as he was I’d want to avoid spending my one day with legendary skills in a fugue of blinding, volcanic anger.
Instead, I’ll go back even further, to the very first great lefty, one who didn’t clutter up his prodigious gift with any apparent anger or even much effort. He just wound up and fired and blazed pitches past batters at a rate so far above that of other pitchers of his time that even without looking I feel fairly certain that, in a historical context, he was the greatest strikeout pitcher who ever lived. And by what little I’ve read about him, he was not an unhappy fellow, and certainly would never have thought to spend hours gruntingly churning his arm around a vat of rice or devising Jew-related world conspiracy theories. He’d rather run after firetrucks! Yes, if I could be any baseball player from history for one day, I’d be that long gone simple-minded left-handed marvel Rube Waddell.
And now, finally, I’ll pass the question on to you:
If you could have the skills for one day of any baseball player from any time in history, which baseball player would you choose?