“Carew had great hand action, probably as good as anyone who ever swung a bat. He always used the entire field. Because he could bunt so well, he brought the third baseman in close. He made the defense come to him instead of the other way around. He had a great sense of the strike zone, never chasing a bad ball, and had no fear at the plate,” said Bill Rigney, one of Carew’s managers.
Born on a train in the Panama Canal Zone, Carew moved with his mother to New York at age 17. After signing with the Twins a day out of high school in 1964, he played three minor league seasons before jumping from Class C to the majors in 1967. He got his first ML hit on Opening Day off Baltimore’s Dave McNally; 18 years later, on August 4, 1985, with California, Carew singled off Minnesota’s Frank Viola to become the 16th player to attain 3,000 hits.
Carew batted .292 in 1967 and was named AL Rookie of the Year. He hit .273 in 1968, but followed with 15 consecutive seasons over .300. Only Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, and Honus Wagner have exceeded that achievement. Carew won seven AL batting championships, and won them by consistently larger margins than anyone except Rogers Hornsby. In his MVP 1977 season, Carew’s .388 was 50 points higher than the next-best average in ML baseball, Dave Parker‘s NL-leading .338. This was the largest margin in ML history.
In 1970 Carew was off to his best start when he injured his knee, and he played just 51 games. In 1972 he became only the fourth player and the first in the American League to win a batting title without hitting a home run. After capturing three more straight championships (1973-75) Carew batted .331 in 1976, but lost the title on the last day, to George Brett (.333) and Hal McRae (.332). He came back in 1977 to lead with his .388, and in 1978 led for the final time with .333.
Hitting was Carew’s trademark, but he was also one of the game’s best baserunners. Said Twins manager Frank Quilici, “There’s nobody alive, nobody, who could turn a single into a double, a double into a triple the way Rod could. He may have been the most complete player of his time.” Twins owner Calvin Griffith put Carew in the same class with Hall of Fame second basemen Hornsby and Charlie Gehringer.
Carew was moved from second to first base in 1975 to lengthen his career. After a dozen years with Minnesota, Carew forced a trade by announcing he would play out his option if the Twins did not deal him. (This was prompted in part by racist public statements by Griffith regarding black fans.) The club would receive nothing in return if he became a free agent. On February 3, 1979, he was traded to the Angels for Ken Landreaux, Dave Engle, Brad Havens, and Paul Hartzell. Carew, despite sitting out more than six weeks with a thumb injury that season, was instrumental in the Angels’ drive to their first division title.
When Carew first came up, he was a loner – temperamental, often sullen – and didn’t get along with his managers. He said in his autobiography, “I was always moody with managers…threatening to jump the club.” Carew met with some racism in baseball, and following the announcement of his engagement to a Jewish woman, Marilynn Levy, he received death threats. As Carew matured, he became a family man, and a friendly, outgoing team leader.
Carew was on the losing club in four LCS, two with Minnesota and two with California. He would have played in 18 consecutive All-Star games, but was replaced due to injury in 1970 and 1979, and for the same reason was not chosen in 1982. In 1977 Carew received over four million All-Star votes, more than any other player ever. He established an All-Star record with two triples in the 1978 classic.
Always a base-stealing threat, Carew tied a ML record with seven steals of home in 1969, and amassed 348 career stolen bases. On May 18, 1969, he stole three bases in one inning. He led the league three times in base hits and once in runs scored, and led once and tied once in triples. He recorded 200 hits four times, and his 239 hits in 1977 was the highest total in the majors in 47 years. His 128 runs scored in ’77 was the highest since 1961. Carew hit for the cycle in 1970, connected for five hits in a single game five times, and is 12th on the all-time hit list. His .339 average in 1983 set an Angels record, and he holds Twins season records for runs, hits, singles, triples, stolen bases, and batting average.