Bernie Carbo

April 5, 2010

Things that were going around in the 1970s:

-the mustache was going around
-substance abuse was going around
-feeling empty inside was going around
-the gnawing ache of waiting was going around
-not lasting long anywhere was going around
-going around was going around

Bernie Carbo was the 1970s. He played tiny parts of both bordering decades, but poorly and sparingly, as if to show that he didn’t belong anywhere but in the era of mustaches and waiting and going around.

He won the National League Rookie of the Year with the Cincinnati Reds in 1970, and he smacked the last of his 96 regular season home runs in 1979, with the St. Louis Cardinals.

When drug scandals tore through baseball in the mid-1980s, Bernie Carbo’s name resurfaced in the role of a fall guy. According to a recent Boston Globe article in which Bernie Carbo spoke at length about abusing drugs and alcohol during his playing career, Carbo was mentioned by Keith Hernandez at a federal drug distribution trial as the man who introduced Hernandez to cocaine.

The decade that ended in blow began in a better place. According to Joe Posnanski’s great book on the 1975 Reds, The Machine, Carbo’s first major league manager, Sparky Anderson, had managed Carbo in the minors, and something about the young player, something more than just his prodigious talent, tugged at Anderson’s heart in a way that he had never experience before or ever would experience again. In his Hall of Fame career, Anderson managed some of the greatest players to ever grace a baseball field and won World Series titles in Cincinnati and Detroit. He held one player above them all.

“I never loved a player more than I loved Bernie Carbo,” Sparky Anderson said.

In the 1970s, certain questions were going around. For example: How long does love last?

Bernie Carbo didn’t last long in Cincinnati. Sparky Anderson, who had tried so hard to keep him on the straight and narrow, finally lost patience with the young player’s inability to focus on the game, and the outfielder was shipped to St. Louis in 1972. He didn’t last long in St. Louis, either. The Topps photographer dispatched in 1973 to get his photo for the 1974 set must have sensed that Bernie Carbo was not the kind of guy capable of putting down deep roots.

“Hey, how about I get down low and shoot you from below,” the photographer said, “and you look up into the sky. It’ll look good, kinda heroic.”

Bernie Carbo complied, but with an expression that suggested that he had some understanding that his image was being captured not to be heroic but in such a way that it could be used whether he lasted long in St. Louis or went elsewhere. The team insignia on the crown of his cap would be obscured. He could be anywhere. He could be nowhere. He looked into a cloudless sky.

His mustache seemed provisional, as if it may have been assembled with a mail order kit. You could easily imagine him later, sitting on a bench by his locker, holding one half of the mustache in his hands while the other half still clung to his lip. Am I this guy or that guy? Am I here or gone?

I got this 1974 card of Bernie Carbo when I was six. My family, minus my father, moved from New Jersey to Vermont that year, my first year in a new place, and my first year of baseball cards, though I just got a few.

I went to my first game the following year and got hooked. I remember cheering for Yaz and being in awe of Reggie Jackson. I don’t remember much else, but I can piece together, with the help of baseball-reference.com, that my love for Bernie Carbo started that day, in the ninth inning, the Red Sox down to one last chance and calling on Bernie Carbo to pinch hit. I would have known the name from my 1974 card. I would have loved him from the moment he appeared on the field with all our hopes resting on his shoulders. I would have cheered for him with all I had left of my ragged voice. And when Bernie Carbo struck out, I would have felt a hit to the gut.

The tangling of love and pain was going around.

In other words, from that moment on, Bernie Carbo was mine. That’s how I felt. Carl Yastrzemski was my favorite player, the one Cardboard God I actually tried to make contact with by sending him a letter, but I understood that he belonged to everyone, a superstar who had always been there. Bernie Carbo, on the other hand, didn’t always start, and hadn’t always been there. He shuttled from place to place. He appeared and then disappeared and then reappeared and then disappeared, twice being traded to the Red Sox, twice being tossed away. I understand now that his was a life of uncertainty and waiting. Back then, when I was a kid, I only knew that he was at the edge of the galaxy of stars that was the 1970s Red Sox, and that unlike Yaz or Fisk or Lynn or Rice he needed my love to exist. I also know now that I was far from the only fan who felt this way—as Sparky Anderson could attest, there was just something about Bernie Carbo that you wanted to love—but back then I believed that without my attention Bernie Carbo would disappear.

I always thought of him as a small guy, but he was actually bigger than Yaz. It was easy to build misperceptions of players when you hardly ever saw them. I only had the cards to go on, and the name.

Something about how the name ended in “ie” made him seem little, either a kid himself or a creation made especially for kids. Like R2D2. Like Herbie the Love Bug.

Bernie the Love Bug.

I knew him most of all from a picture of him from the 1975 World Series. He was rounding the bases after his famous pinch-hit home run, and he had his arms out, as if he was flying. I took the picture at face value, as if he had while rounding the bases decided that the feeling of tying up an elimination game of the World Series, of staving off his team’s doom, was so good that he was going to put his arms out like an airplane and pretend to fly and maybe even lift right off the ground and fly for real.

Flying was going around. This seemed to be paired with the spiritual atomization of the times. It was no longer so easy to simply believe what everyone who had come before you believed. You could believe anything. You could believe nothing.

Richard Bach scored two huge best-selling books in the decade by pairing an easily digestible version of Eastern mysticism with book-length metaphors of flying. In one, the protagonist was a nonconformist seagull. In the other, Illusions, a man who traveled the country giving rides in his prop airplane was the mouthpiece for the idea that everything you could ever see or touch or even love was a mirage.

Nowadays, disclosures and confessions and repentance are going around.

Back then I was high, but now I’m grounded. I once was lost, but now I’m found.

The past is impure, something to apologize for or legislate against or brand with an asterisk as unclean, unreal. The past is something to survive.

Bernie Carbo is still going around. This is no little surprise, all things considered. His life story bears some resemblance to that of some other 1970s baseball players who did not fare so well, such as Darrel Porter or The Sundown Kid. I’m glad he made it through. I’m glad he survived.

The chatter after his revelations in the Globe has been and will be that he was just another waste case of the 1970s. When you see him in the old footage rounding the bases, saving the day, which mirage will you see? Will you see only the basis for a public apology, the product of this thin era of regret, or will you see the product of an earlier time: a fallible hero worthy of love?


  1. I’d take that Sparky Anderson quote more to heart were it said by someone other than Sparky, who is known for making hyperbolic statements. Ask Mike Laga or Mickey Mahler.

    Josh, whenever you talk about that lost/wandering quality of the 1970s, I start assembling a soundtrack in my head. Today, reading the Carbo post, I keep hearing the Neil Young/Buffalo Springfield classic “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong.”

  2. Fair point about Sparky’s penchant for hyperbole. But I think it’s at least safe to say he loved Carbo.

    Sparky’s gift for hyperbole helped create one of the great World Series quotes. He said before game seven in 1975, “No matter what happens, my pitcher (Don Gullet) is going to the Hall of Fame.” Red Sox game seven starter (and Bernie Carbo buddy) Bill Lee replied, “No matter what happens, I’m going to the Eliot Lounge.”

  3. Bernie was part of one of my favorite teams, the original Big Red Machine of 1970. Carbo was the focal point of the most controversial play of the ’70 World Series when he was called out at home. Sparky thought the ump Ken Burkhart didn’t have a good view of the play and assumed Elrod Hendricks tagged out Carbo. It did appear that Carbo was safe but ultimately that one bad call didn’t determine to Series (as opposed to Super Bowl XL where the bad officiating decided the outcome). What cost the Reds the Series was the lack of hitting from Bench and Perez and the amazing glove of Brooks Robinson.

  4. Carbo looked incredibly bad on the pitch before his hit his famous home run, as bad as a big leaguer could ever look.

    Speaking of the Reds and ’70s baseball, I loved this thing below I found in Slate.com today about a kid’s book, compared to reality. It harkens back to an innocent time in baseball, before steroids made the game all dirty (sarcasm definitely intended):

    “The Kid’s Pete Rose:

    He played with a kind of energy and enthusiasm that made his statistics seem pale. … “Running is the most natural thing in the world for me,” explained Rose. “I guess I was born with all this nervous energy.”

    —Pete Rose, by Bob Rubin, Pages 16-17

    The Adults’ Pete Rose

    “You wonder where he got all the energy,” says Jim O’Toole, Rose’s teammate on the Reds until 1966. “Well, it wasn’t pure energy all the time. It was (amphetamines), which is about the only thing guys took back then.” … When Rose broke into major-league baseball, the use of amphetamines, or “greenies” as players called them, was an aboveboard practice. … Some clubhouses had a big jar for anyone to simply reach into and take what he wanted. … There is evidence Rose continued his amphetamine use right through the end of his playing career.

    —Hustle: The Myth, Life, and Lies of Pete Rose, by Michael Sokolove, Pages 78-80″

  5. The Globe article on Carbo includes Carbo’s revelations that Reds players were encouraged to take amphetamines, which were referred to by the trainers as “vitamins.”

    Rose was recently on Howard Stern and talked about how he took “diet pills” but only in spring training and only to work off the winter layer of blubber.

    He also went on at some length, and entertainingly, about getting a look at Joe Dimaggio’s johnson (an object of prodigious size and wonder, according to Rose) when the two of them were on a USO tour of Vietnam.

  6. Carbo doesn’t get enough credit for what he did in ’75 and what he did in game 6 of the ’75 series. His home run was more important than Fisk’s HR. Down 6-3, 2 outs bottom of the 8th and Bernie hit a 3 run shot.

    Also Carbo was part of two of the worst trades in Red Sox history, The Reggie Smith trade and the Cecil Cooper trade.

  7. blankemon – that song by Buffalo Springfield, Flying on the Ground is Wrong – is an unknown classic. Have you ever heard the acoustic version on the box set? Gorgeous.

  8. Another “memory” I have of Carbo is from a game he never participated in. The ’78 playoff game, when Gossage famously mowed down PH Bob Bailey on 3 called strikes. If Carbo hadn’t been traded earlier that year, he would have been the one hitting in that situation.

    And while you can never know what might have happened, the facts are that Gossage got lit up like a pinball machine by the rest of the Sox lineup in his 2 2/3 innings of work. He gave up four singles, a double, and a walk. And some very hard hit outs. I like to think Carbo would have doubled to right, or homered into the screen, and the Sox might have won.

  9. psychsound – yes, I have. Also, Neil did it solo acoustic during the Santa Monica Flyers/Tonight’s The Night shows of 1973. Drugs were the overriding theme of the setlist.

  10. Right on, johnq11.

    I was sitting with a pack of guys in my UMass college dorm when Bernie crushed his pinch-hit ’75 bomb, and the room flat-out exploded. The Fisk homer was awesome but Bernie’s was the one that yanked us from our graves. And the fact he was probably whacked out of his mind does not dampen the moment one bit. YOU try hitting a major league fastball when you’re high.

  11. “I probably smoked two joints, drank about three or four beers, got to the ballpark, took some [amphetamines], took a pain pill, drank a cup of coffee, chewed some tobacco, had a cigarette, and got up to the plate and hit.”

    I couldn’t believe what I was hearing on the Jim Rome Show. I must have seen the highlight of that HR 100 times in my life. They say that hitting a baseball is the toughest thing to do in all of sports. It’s mind boggling, really.

    On a lighter note, I purchased my copy of Cardboard Gods today on Amazon, and threw in the DVD “Full Metal Jacket” to get the free shipping. I’m due for a day of holing myself in. Next weekend should be epic.

  12. champsummers: It really was an amazing feat, but then again maybe Carbo inadvertently discovered the optimal depressant/stimulant/hallucinogen mixture for hitting a baseball over the center field wall in a moment of extraordinary pressure.

    Thanks for ponying up for the book! I love that I’m booked as part of a double-feature with Full Metal Jacket (though as I once pointed out elsewhere on this site, Stripes is really the perfect complement to Full Metal Jacket).

  13. As you are probably aware (although it’s not as lyrical as your re-creation), players were always photo’d from under the brim like that in case they got traded, as Carbo did. Otherwise you end up with the ’73 John Ellis card with his entire Yankee uniform airbrushed into a logoless Indians uni — I haven’t looked, but I’d bet big you’ve mentioned this before.

  14. The ’73 Tommie Agee is another horrifying example of Airbrush Gone Wild.

  15. I am listening to Flying on the ground is wrong. I miss this site so much. I was reading it little by little at work and now it is blocked there.

    I can’t wait to get the book. Good luck, Josh!

  16. Perhaps this quote from baseball digest (the one with RICK MANNING on the cover) in june 1976 with an article on
    Bernie Carbo: The making of a legend,
    explains everything:
    page 38

    Carbo: “I don’t know why, Carbo said with a chuckle, but everything is up or down for me, there is no in between.”

    lol, i think we understand now the ups and down were all drug related.

  17. FYI for fun, check out the article “you think you know baseball” on page 49 of that same issue

    Also why hasn’t anyone ripped “instant replay sports record albums” shown on page 66 to the web?


  18. My all time favorite player. Anyone who knows anything about baseball knows the most important hit in Game 6 of the 1975 WS was Carbo’s 3 run Homer in the 8th inning that tied the game up.

    BTW, Bernie is doing very well. he runs a ministry in Alabama that preaches the bible and baseball. If you send him an email he will usually reply within about a day.

  19. —— Sqrsayers— I remember Bernie Carbo best for one thing; a little episode during a game I attended at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis… Bernie started that season in right field for the Redbirds, and the thing he displayed most prominently was his throwing arm…Like a German ’88..
    —– In a game with the Cubbies, one of them hit a sharp line drive into the right field corner, and proceeded to round first base on the way to second, showing all the intent of turning his double into a three-bagger… Carbo, in right field, closed quick on the ball like a cat deep in the right field corner fielded it off the wall on a single hop, then, FROM THE CORNER in the same motion came 180 degrees around, then rifled a parabolic straight-overhand peg-throw toward the infield…This throw was not to a cutoff man, nor did it go toward the plate… It sailed on a frozen rope all the way OVER the infield to terminate in the webbing of the glove of third-baseman Kenny Reitz, AT THE BAG, who had to JUMP UP SOME THREE FEET and reach high OVER HIS HEAD to CATCH IT!That Cubbie runner, halfway to third, recovered somehow & scrambled back into second base..
    I believe Reitz was himself so amazed by that throw that he somehow forgot to peg the ball back into second and try to catch the runner off the bag… I have YET to see another throw like that, and the fans all ooohhed and ahhhed their appreciation after the play… NOBODY ever ran on Carbo when he played here in right field, and I saw him throw out a number of runners trying to score from second on singles to right… Bernie could HIT, too, but I’ve NEVER seen anything like that cannon hanging from his left shoulder… I’ve seen Parker, Van Slyke, Reggie Smith, God knows how many other arms in my day… But Carbo’s was the exception… Almost freakish…

  20. Thanks for that story, Gary. Carbo had a -4 arm (better than anyone except Dwight Evans) in Strat-O-Matic

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