It should have surprised no one that the most frequent phrase uttered in the notices was “first guess.” Most baseball broadcast analysts have in common with fans a trigger, if not a mastery, of the second guess. Tim McCarver, who died at 81 of heart failure Thursday, was the longtime master of the first guess.
Two decades as a major league catcher who saw the whole game in front of him and didn’t restrict himself to handling the pitchers who threw to him did that for him. That McCarver leavened it with disarming wit was merely what Duke Ellington would call a cherries-and-cream topping to your sundae afternoon.
And just as “first guess” was the most often deployed phrase in the obituaries, the most frequently deployed evidence for the defense was Game Seven of the 2001 World Series.
That’s when Yankee manager Joe Torre, with his Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera on the mound, and the bases loaded for the Diamondbacks with one out in the bottom of the ninth, ordered his infield in with Luis Gonzalez coming to the plate. At long last—Snakes manager Bob Brenly tended to leave him with nobody aboard to advance or drive home that Series—Gonzo had men on base to work with.
Watching the game on Fox Sports, I heard McCarver remind viewers that Rivera’s money pitch, his fabled cut fastball, ran in on lefthanded hitters and, if they made contact at all, it was broken-bat hits shallow in the outfield. “That’s why you don’t bring the infield in with a guy like Rivera on the mound,” he said.
Bing! After Gonzalez fouled the first pitch away, Rivera threw him a cutter running inside. Gonzo broke his bat sending the ball floating above Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter, into shallow center, for game, set, and Series.
The man who sent grand salami into baseball’s lexicon for the grand slam (he’d done it in one of his earliest broadcast jobs, on the Mets’ team of himself, Steve Zabriskie, and Hall of Fame slugger/from-birth booth mainstay Ralph Kiner) was a catcher who never feared learning, whether it was how to handle mercurial pitchers or how to overcome his upbringing as the son of a Memphis police officer in a time of racial growing pains for the Cardinals and the country.
In October 1964, his account of the pennant races that culminated in the World Series conquest of the last old-guard Yankee team by a new breed of Cardinals, David Halberstam recorded Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson giving McCarver a quick lesson in race relations. Quick, and profound, and perhaps a little shocking even to a white kid whose baseball heroes had actually been Hall of Famers Henry Aaron and Monte Irvin.
Gibson hailed McCarver and asked, “Hey, Timmy, do you know how a white boy shakes hands with a Negro?” When McCarver said no, Gibson enlisted center fielder Curt Flood as his co-star, Gibson playing the white guy. He shook hands with Flood—and, after looking at his hand a moment, promptly wiped his hand on his pants. “You’ve done it before, haven’t you, Tim?” Gibson asked. The shocked McCarver thought a moment and realised Gibson was right.
They became close friends (Any relationship you enter into with Bob is going to be intense, McCarver once said of Gibson), and McCarver had demonstrated his willingness to listen and learn. And, take a gag. His habit of yelling “Gigub” like a frog after losing a ball popping out of his mitt inspired Gibson to mimick it exactly. Those Cardinals used humour next to sobriety to teach their lessons to each other and the league.
But after leading the 1966 National League with thirteen triples, McCarver whacked one in an exhibition game the following, prompting Gibson to buttonhole him after the game, saying, “Hey, you like to hit triples!” According to Halberstam, McCarver took it to mean Gibson telling him he was a good ballplayer and just might be a good man, too. (When he was inducted into Cooperstown as a Frick Award winner in 2012, McCarver lamented and called for arresting the decline in African-American participation in the game.)
The Cardinals out-bid the Yankees and the Giants to sign McCarver with a $75,000 bonus in June 1959. The first things he did, according to Peter Golenbock’s The Spirit of St. Louis, were to buy his parents a new car and to pay off their mortgage, before buying himself some stock in AT&T. By 1963, he’d become the Cardinals’ regular catcher.
He bought into the Cardinals’ ways of teaching the game while flinching at the ways they over-did selling their traditions to incoming young players. “One of the bad things about the Cardinal tradition,” he’d remember in due course,
was the provincialism there in St. Louis that as far as the press was concerned was a lot more unfair than the Eastern press. Everyone says the Eastern press is a lot tougher. I disagree with that. Because provincialism is a lot more difficult to deal with than a press that may be tougher but is more objective, and I’m talking about New York, Philadelphia, Boston. St. Louis is more provincial than any of them. And that provincialism, like the obligations of the family, is much more difficult for the athlete to deal with. Whenever there’s an obligation, there is less desire to do it, because you feel you have to do it.
Nelson Briles, a fine pitcher and a character in his own right, once called McCarver the team’s de facto captain behind the plate.
I have never pitched to a catcher who could call a better game, strategise behind the plate, know what was going on. He was a fiery competitor as well. He was really into the game. He paid attention to game situations, paid attention to the way the hitters were hitting, paid attention to their stance, and if they had changed. And watched what was going on.
And if you shook him off, he was in your face, wanting to know why. “What’s your reason for doing that? I’ll tell you why I called for my sign: Two pitches from now, I want you to do this.” Maybe he was not the best defensive catcher, but he battled for you. He was in the game and would constantly be there to kick you in the pants or to lift your spirits.
That about the kid who once had the nerve to think about going out to the mound to talk to Gibson, before their relationship solidified, only to get an earful from Gibson before he reached the mound: Get back there behind the plate where you belong! The only thing you know about pitching is that you can’t hit it. Rarely at a loss, McCarver eventually zinged Gibson back: “Bob is the luckiest pitcher in baseball. He is always pitching when the other team doesn’t score any runs.”
(Let the record show that the pitchers who threw to McCarver behind the plate lifetime posted a 3.23 ERA, 43 points below the league average for the span.)
He caught two World Series winners (and stole home during the 1964 Series) and in due course provided analysis on television for 29 straight Series. He was part of the trade to the Phillies that provoked Flood to his reserve clause challenge and thus began the dismantling of the reserve era finished when Andy Messersmith pitched 1975 without a contract and won in arbitration.
He became the personal catcher for notoriously insular Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton, who loved that McCarver would call for as many sliders as Carlton wanted to throw. (“When Steve and I die,” he once said, “we are going to be buried in the same cemetery—sixty feet, six inches apart.”)
He became a broadcaster who learned quickly enough that the game looked far different from above than it did from behind the plate, and he adapted almost as swiftly as a Gibson heater or a Carlton slider hit his mitt. He refused to surrender his objectivity, even when it cost him, as it finally did with the Mets in 1999. Not even when the target of one McCarver barb dumped ice water over him, as Deion Sanders did when he high-tailed it from the postseason-playing Braves to play an NFL game.
McCarver ended his national broadcasting career fortuitously enough; the Cardinals went to the 2013 World Series during his final year in the Fox booth. (They lost to the Red Sox.) A year earlier, he stood at the Hall of Fame podium accepting his Frick Award. “I saw [Hall of Famer] Frank Robinson at breakfast,” he began his acceptance speech, “and I said, ‘I’ll try to be brief.’ He said, ‘You?‘”
It’s to regret only that McCarver—who analysed World Series games for ABC and CBS before joining Fox—was never paired with the late Vin Scully on a World Series broadcast even once.
He returned to St. Louis to become part of a rotating analytical team on local Cardinals broadcasts, until a St. Louis-only broadcast setup for 2021 collided with his doctor’s orders not to travel while he still lived in Florida.
“When do moments in life become memories?” McCarver asked in his Fox farewell, then answered. “I’m not sure, but maybe it starts with a flutter in your heart or a gasp in your throat and ends with just the hint of a tear in your mind’s eye. Maybe it’s the magic of October, because when it comes to baseball, I have never felt more moments to remember than in the World Series.”
That from a man whose professional baseball life began as Hall of Famer Stan Musial’s teammate and whose national baseball life ended with Xander Bogaerts playing in his first World Series, with the Red Sox. A man who caught World Series games in which Hall of Famers Gibson, Carlton, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Lou Brock, Orlando Cepeda, Carl Yastrzemski, Al Kaline, and Mike Schmidt played.
McCarver had only one part of life with more moments to remember, his 58-year marriage to his high school sweeheart, Anne, their two daughters (one a broadcast news producer, the other an accomplished triathlete), and their grandchildren.
Their sorrow now can be mitigated only by knowing he’s serene in the Elysian Fields with his longtime batterymate Gibson, teammates such as Musial, Briles, and Brock, opponents such as Kaline, Ford, Mantle, and Robinson, maybe even getting to call a game with Scully at last. But only partially.