Obutuary: Tim McCarver (1941-2023)

RIP to Tim McCarver, who won over countless baseball fans as both an All-Star catcher and an award-winning broadcaster. There aren’t many, if any, people other than McCarver who could lay claim to a playing career and a broadcasting career that both spanned four decades. McCarver died on February 16 in Memphis, Tenn., at the age of 81, from heart failure. He spent 21 years in the major leagues, for the St. Louis Cardinals (1959-61, 1963-69, 1973-74), Philadelphia Phillies (1970-72, 1975-80), Montreal Expos (1972) and Boston Red Sox (1974-75). He also was a broadcaster for the Phillies, Cardinals, Yankees, Mets and Giants, as well as the go-to analyst for more postseason games than anyone else.

James Timothy McCarver was born in Memphis on October 16, 1941. His athleticism was evident at a pretty early age; while he was still at St. Thomas Parochial School in 1954, he was selected to a group of football all-stars to challenge a team from Nashville. McCarver kept playing football, basketball and baseball at Christian Brothers High School, and he also was the starting catcher on two American Legion teams that were regional champions. By the time he was a senior in 1959, his games were well-attended by scouts. He signed with the St. Louis Cardinals for a reported $70,000 signing bonus and went to Keokuk of the Class-D Midwest League. McCarver hit so well there (.360 batting average in 65 games) that he was moved up to Rochester of the International League. He hit .357 at the highest level of the minors and was part of a group of young prospects that were called to the disappointing big-league team in September.

A mid-1960’s sketch of Tim McCarver by columnist Murray Olderman.

McCarver was 17 years old when he pinch-hit on September 10, 1959, in Milwaukee. Facing reliever Don McMahon, the teenager flew out to Henry Aaron in right field to end the game, a 7-4 loss. McCarver started all three games of a series against the Chicago Cubs and led off the September 13 game with a single against Glen Hobbie for his first major-league hit. McCarver had a total of 4 hits in 8 games for a .167 batting average in 1959. But by all accounts, he didn’t look or play like somebody who was just a few months removed from high school. “He does a remarkable job for a kid of his age, though he doesn’t hit the ball with authority yet,” said his Cardinals manager, Solly Hemus. “I think he’ll be an outstanding catcher in a few years.”

For the first few years of his career, McCarver would start the season in the minor leagues and get brief looks by the Cardinals. He made it into 10 games with St. Louis in 1960, mainly as a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner (he had good speed early on). He joined the Cardinals for 22 games in the summer of 1961, hitting his first major-league home run off Milwaukee’s Tony Cloninger on July 13. Milwaukee won that game 6-3, mainly because Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson didn’t have a great game and was knocked out after 3 innings. However, Gibson would have many brilliant games ahead of him, with McCarver as his batterymate.

McCarver spent all of 1962 with the Atlanta Crackers of the International League, and he hit 11 home runs after hitting just 8 in his first three professional seasons combined. The Crackers won the pennant and knocked off Louisville in the Little World Series between the IL and American Association. He entered 1963 as the presumed No. 2 Cardinals catcher behind Gene Oliver. Oliver had more power, but McCarver was the better overall hitter. By June 15, the veteran Oliver had a .225 batting average, compared to the .338 mark put up by the 21-year-old McCarver. June 15 was the day that the Cardinals traded Oliver to the Braves for Lew Burdette, making the youngster the starting catcher. About a week later, he slugged a 3-run homer off Sandy Koufax to show that he could handle the job. St. Louis, after several bad seasons, jumped up to second place, and McCarver slashed .289/.333/.383 with 4 homers and 51 RBIs. He committed just 5 errors behind the plate for a .994 fielding percentage. The Associated Press named him the Sophomore of the Year, and he was universally praised by his teammates. “Without Timmy, we would have never stayed in the race all the way,” said first baseman Bill White.

St. Louis won the NL pennant in 1964 with 93 wins, as McCarver batted .288 with 9 home runs and an OPS+ of 102. Had the award existed, he would have been named the MVP of the World Series — or at least shared the honor with Gibson — as the Cardinals edged the New York Yankees in seven games to be crowned champions. McCarver hit .478 with 11 hits in the Series, including hits in five consecutive at-bats. His biggest moment came in Game Five, after Tom Tresh of the Yankees tied up the game with a 2-out, ninth-inning 2-run homer off Gibson to knot the game at 2. White led off the top of the tenth inning with a walk off reliever Pete Mikkelsen, and Boyer reached on a bunt single. Dick Groat tried to bunt the runners over but missed, allowing White to steal third base. Groat grounded into a force play, leaving runners on the corners. Had Groat successfully bunted the runners over, Yankees manager Yogi Berra said he would have walked McCarver intentionally to load the bases. Instead, Mikkelson threw a sinker that didn’t sink, and McCarver crushed it for a tie-breaking 3-run home run. The Cardinals won Game Five 5-2 on their way to World Series glory. McCarver capped off his stellar performance by stealing home in Game Seven.

The Cardinals stumbled for a couple of seasons following their World Series win, but McCarver’s star kept rising. It went his on-field accomplishments. He was confident without being cocky, and that confidence spread throughout the team. Veteran pitchers like Gibson and Curt Simmons put their faith in him quickly. “He’s a sharp kid with a born sense of baseball,” Simmons said. “Even in the first season I found I wasn’t shaking off his calls more than once or twice a game.” Gibson, for his part, said that he wanted his catcher to call the game. “I concentrate so much on my pitching that he has to be the one who decides what I will throw. With one as young as McCarver at first I worried if he could do it. But with him there was never any doubt.”

The young catcher also established himself as a joker and a quick wit. When the Cardinals were filming the team for a documentary in the spring of 1965, McCarver cupped his hands and shouted, “All right everybody, quiet on the set!” He also was known for wearing a monster mask on the team bus and would hide a dummy wearing that same mask in the bathrooms of Cardinals charter flights, to prank whoever opened the door next. “I do these things to relax myself,” he explained. “If I thought baseball all the time, with the tenseness and pressure, I’d go nuts.”

McCarver earned his first All-Star Game selection in 1966. He didn’t start the game — Joe Torre got the nod — but he led off the bottom of the tenth inning with a pinch-hit single off Pete Richert. He was bunted to second base by Ron Hunt and scored the winning run on a Maury Wills single. “Oh yes, I faced Pete before. It was in the minors. But that’s all I did — face him, not hit him,” McCarver joked. He ended up being the first catcher to ever lead the majors in triples in 1966, with 13 three-base hits. He added 19 doubles and 12 home runs to go with a .274 batting average. He repeated as an All-Star in 1967 and had one of his finest all-around seasons, with a .295/.369/.452 slash line. He reached career highs with 14 home runs and 69 RBIs. McCarver finished in second place in the MVP vote, finishing behind Cardinals teammate Orlando Cepeda. St. Louis also had Lou Brock and Julian Javier in the Top 10, no doubt because of their fantastic season. The team won 101 games, returned to the World Series and defeated the Boston Red Sox in seven games. McCarver didn’t have the dominant Series performance he had in 1964 — 3 hits and 2 RBIs for a .125 batting average — he he won his second championship ring.

Philadelphia Phillies general manager John Quinn (center) welcomes his new players, Joe Hoerner (left) and Tim McCarver. Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 14, 1969.

McCarver’s batting average fell to .253 in 1968, but he was once again magnificent in the World Series. He batted .333 with a 3-run homer off Detroit’s Pat Dobson that led St. Louis to a 7-3 victory in Game Three. He also received praise as the catcher for Bob Gibson’s remarkable 1968 season, including a record-setting 17-strikeout performance in Game One of the World Series. McCarver later said Gibson had adequate stuff in that game. “But when Bob Gibson has adequate stuff, he strikes out 17 men,” he added. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Gibson’s pitching wasn’t enough to defeat Detroit, as the Tigers won the World Series in seven games.

In his final season in St. Louis (for the time being), McCarver hit a career-high 27 doubles in 1969 but had a .260 batting average and a below-average OPS+ of 93. On October 8, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies with Byron Browne, Curt Flood and Joe Hoerner, in exchange for Dick Allen, Jerry Johnson and Cookie Rojas. McCarver had mixed emotions about the trade, but the reactions of the other players quickly overshadowed him. Allen was overjoyed about getting out of Philadelphia, but Flood hated the trade so much that he retired on the spot, setting the stage for a lengthy and ultimate futile battle to declare himself a free agent. The Cardinals later sent Philadelphia a couple of other players as a make-good for Flood’s portion of the trade.

McCarver’s first stay with the Phillies was short, and it kicked off a tumultuous period in his playing career. Though the team was thrilled to have their first true star catcher, he batted just .246 through May 2, 1970. That was the fateful day against the San Francisco Giants that both McCarver and backup Mike Ryan broke their hands while catching. McCarver was lost until September and raised his batting average to .287 with a good final month. He kept that hitting up through 1971 as well, as he hit .278 with 8 home runs and 46 RBIs. However, it wasn’t enough to keep him in Philadelphia. There were some complaints about his ability to throw out baserunners — by his own admission, McCarver had a weak arm. He also noted that nobody ever complained about it when his team was winning World Series with him behind the plate. Philadelphia soured on McCarver after a slow start to his 1972 season and traded him to Montreal on June 14 for catcher John Bateman. When he reached his new team, Expos manager Gene Mauch explained that Terry Humphrey was the team’s starting catcher, and McCarver would back him up as well as see time elsewhere in the field. For the first time in his major-league career, he played 14 games in left field and 6 at third base. He didn’t take to either new position well and hit .251 in 77 games for Montreal. At the end of the season, he was traded back to St. Louis for outfielder Jorge Roque.

McCarver was generally an even-tempered person, but the slams against his playing ability were too much. “When people look at a ballplayer, they look at what he can’t do rather than what he can do, and I can do a helluva lot more things right than I do wrong, or else they wouldn’t be paying me $80,000, would they?” he told columnist Milt Richman in 1972. “It paces me off when people are so quick to criticize your faults rather than point out your virtues,” he added, after some careful editing by Richman or his editor.

McCarver’s return to St. Louis didn’t include a return to his catching position. The Cardinals had a young superstar and future Hall of Famer in Ted Simmons behind the plate. McCarver appeared in 130 games, but only 11 of them were as a catcher. He played 77 games at first base, splitting time with Joe Torre, who split his playing time between first base with McCarver and third base with Ken Reitz. McCarver was also one of the team’s most frequently used pinch-hitters, though he was barely a .200 hitter off the bench. He fared better as a starter and hit .266 overall with 3 home runs and 49 RBIs. He was almost exclusively a pinch-hitter in 1974 and batted .217 with St. Louis. His contract was purchased by Boston in September, and he played in a handful of games the Red Sox at the end of 1974 and start of 1975. He hit well, when he could get into a game. However, 1975 was also the year that Carleton Fisk came into his own as a major leaguer, and McCarver was released by Boston that June.

On the way back to Memphis, McCarver stopped in Philadelphia, just to say hi to some friends on the Phillies. He had already planned on auditioning for a job as a sportscaster for a local Philadelphia TV station. While there, he ran into Executive Vice President Bill Giles, who felt that McCarver wasn’t ready for retirement yet, and McCarver signed with the Phillies on July 1, 1975. He was 33 years old and was almost considered washed up. There was no chance that he would start regularly with the Phillies, who had Bob Boone as the backstop. However, McCarver turned this last-chance opportunity into an impressively long stint with the Phillies. He played through 1979, never reaching 100 games played but serving as a valuable bat off the bench. He even batted .320 in 1977, with 6 home runs and a 145 OPS+.

Source: The National Baseball Hall of Fame.

McCarver took to his new role with his customary humor. “The hardest part of our game is to be mentally prepared,” he said after beating the Cubs in 1976 with an 11th-inning single to give the Phillies a 3-2 win. “It’s not that hard for me because I’m like a football player. If you can’t get up for a game once a week, you’re in a lot of trouble.”

McCarver also gained playing time as the personal catcher for Phillies ace Steve Carlton. He joked that he and Carlton should be buried 60 feet, 6 inches apart when they die. With Carlton winning 20 games and Mike Schmidt slugging home runs, the Phillies finished in first place in the NL East from 1976 through 1978. The team just never made it out of the NL Championship Series, losing to Cincinnati in 1976 and Los Angeles in 1977 and ’78.

McCarver retired after the 1979 season after batting .241 in 79 games. Almost immediately, he joined the team as a broadcaster and spent 1980 watching the eventual World Series winners continue their dominance over the NL East. Before the season was over, McCarver returned to active duty with the Phillies. Why? Since he had started in his career in 1959, he had a chance to achieve the rare feat of playing in four different decades. Ignore the semantics of when a decade actually ends for a moment — McCarver played in the 1950s, ’60s, 70s, and (for 6 games) ’80s. His final game as a player came on October 5 in Montreal. He hit a 2-run double off Steve Ratzer for his only hit following his un-retirement. As the Phillies went on to win the World Series, McCarver became a world champ for the third time in his 21-year career.

In those 21 seasons, McCarver slashed .271/.337/.388. He had 1,501 hits, including 242 doubles, 57 triples and 97 home runs. He drove in 645 runs and scored 590 times. He had a career OPS+ of 102, and Baseball Reference credits him with 28.3 Wins Above Replacement.

As a natural comedian, McCarver was made for a TV broadcaster. When asked if his new role as a baseball analyst gave him any new insights into the game, he answered, “There is one thing that I see now that I never saw from behind the plate,” he said, adding after a dramatic pause, “Fans’ backs.”

A quick wit doesn’t always translate to broadcast success. There have been plenty of offbeat ballplayers who turned into mediocre-at-best announcers. McCarver, though, combined his humor with baseball instincts what had been honed by more than two decades behind the plate. He could predict outcomes and explain decisions in a way that made sense to even the most casual listener. He wasn’t always right, but he could be uncannily accurate.

From 1980 through 2013, McCarver broadcast games for the Phillies, Mets, Yankees and Giants. He also the analyst on countless nationally broadcast games, on every network. He called World Series games, off and on, from 1985 through 2013, sharing the mic with Jack Buck, Joe Buck and Al Michaels. The World Series has been broadcast since 1960, and nobody can match McCarver’s longevity. He also hosted various television specials, wrote books and appeared in many baseball movies. He was named the 2012 Ford C. Frick Award winner by the National Baseball Hall of Fame, cementing his legacy as one of the game’s greatest broadcasters. He also had an entire stadium named after him. The ballpark in Memphis that was named Blues Stadium was renamed Tim McCarver Stadium in 1978 — a fitting tribute to one of the city’s leading baseball sons. The park was torn down in 2005.

McCarver stepped down from his role at Fox after the 2013 World Series, but he didn’t really retire, even at the age of 72. He had a syndicated sports talk show that ran until 2017. He also worked for the Cardinals part-time, calling a few dozen games for the team’s local broadcasts through 2019. He stopped working in 2020 due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and formally retired in April of 2022. “I think I’m happy about it,” he said at the time. “I think that’s the best.”

It’s never fair to judge a broadcaster by the last years of their career. Every announcer slows down or becomes prone to mistakes, no matter how good they are. If you judge Tim McCarver’s broadcast career on his final years on Fox Sports, then you don’t get the full picture of his career. Keith Olberman, who gave a lovely 20-minute remembrance of McCarver on this episode of his Countdown podcast, credited McCarver for restoring his love of baseball. He also highlighted the above World Series call as the broadcasting equivalent of Bill Mazeroski’s famed Series-ending home run. Greg Prince of Faith and Fear in Flushing wrote a touching tribute that helps to show what McCarver meant to his audience.

In his one appearance on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot as a ballplayer in 1986, McCarver received 16 votes, which was not enough to keep him on the ballot any further. Syndicated columnist Stan Isaacs wrote a column in favor of McCarver’s induction, but the ex-catcher himself torpedoed the campaign before it got off the ground.

“I have enough respect for all the people in the Hall of Fame not to want to see myself in it. I don’t have the numbers, the consistency. No chance,” McCarver said. Then he added, “If there were a Hall of Fame for loving the game, that I’d be in.”

McCarver is survived by daughters Kathy and Kelly and two grandchildren.

For more information: Canale Funeral Directors

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5 thoughts on “Obutuary: Tim McCarver (1941-2023)

  1. Tim McCarver lost a grand slam on Bicentennial day, July 4, 1976, when he was called out for passing Garry Maddox after reaching first base, and was credited with a 3-run single. The next night, the Phillies were at home to the Dodgers on ABC’s Monday Night Baseball, and Bob Uecker, with the ABC crew, interviewed McCarver before the game, and kidded him about his lost grand slam. McCarver then brought up their time as teammates with the Cardinals when they won the 1964 World Series. McCarver said words to the effect of, “You didn’t play in any of the games, but just sitting on the bench, you were an inspiration to us.” I wish someone would post that on YouTube.

    Liked by 1 person

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