Rod Carew (born 1945) is widely recognized as one of the best hitters of his generation in professional baseball.
During his 19 seasons with the Major League's Minnesota Twins and California Angels, Carew lined, chopped, and bunted his way to 3,053 hits, winning seven batting titles and hitting .300 or better for 15 consecutive seasons. Thought by many sportswriters and fans alike to have elevated the skill of hitting a baseball to an art form, Carew was named to 18 straight All-Star teams and received American League Rookie of the Year honors in 1967 and the American League Most Valuable Player award ten years later.
In 1991, five years after his retirement, Carew became only the twenty-third player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in his first year of eligibility. A national hero in both his native Panama—where he proudly retains his citizenship—and the United States, Carew has spent his retirement years running a batting school for young players in suburban Los Angeles.
Carew's early years were marred by illness and poverty. On October 1, 1945, Olga Carew went into labor and boarded a train in Gatun, Panama, hoping to reach a Gamboa clinic in time for doctors to attend to her child's delivery. The baby would not wait, however. Margaret Allen, a nurse, and Dr. Rodney Cline, a physician, both of whom happened to be on the train, delivered the woman's second son. While the excited mother asked the nurse to become the child's godmother, she honored the doctor by naming her son Rodney Cline Carew.
As a young boy, Carew was frequently ill and contracted rheumatic fever at the age of 12. The weakness that accompanied the disease brought only contempt and rejection from his father. Carew's uncle, Joseph French, who was a recreation official and Little League coach in Panama, attempted to fill the void. French cultivated the boy's interest in baseball and encouraged him to develop his athletic abilities despite the illness. As Carew grew stronger, he joined the other boys in pickup games played with a broom handle and rag balls wound in tape. His outstanding play in the local Little League even won him a Ted Williams bat, a prized possession that he often carried with him—even to bed, where he dreamed of traveling to the United States and becoming a big-league baseball player.
Sandlot Discovery Led to Tryout
When Carew was 15, his mother immigrated to New York City, where after finding a job and a place to live, she sent for her two sons. Once in New York, Rod enrolled at Manhattan's George Washington High School, but a part-time job at a grocery store to help support the family prevented him from trying out for school sports. The family's financial concerns, though, did not prevent Carew from participating in weekend sandlot games in Macombs Dam Park next to Yankee Stadium. It did not take long for him to show his skill at the plate; after a few weeks of play, a teammate's father—an unofficial scout for the Minnesota Twins—took notice of the talented kid from Panama and made a phone call to another scout. When the Twins came to town for a series with the Yankees, Carew came to Yankee Stadium for a tryout. Once inside the batting cage, the skinny 18-year-old demonstrated a hitting power that belied his six-foot, 170-pound frame. So many balls landed in the bleachers that Twins Manager Sam Mele—afraid the Yankees might offer him a higher signing bonus—halted the tryout. One month after the tryout, Carew signed with the Twins for a $5,000 bonus.
Moved Quickly to Major League
Unlike most players who need several years in the minor leagues to develop their skills, Carew spent only three years in the farm system before Twins owner Calvin Griffith brought him up to the big league club, inserting him into the starting lineup at second base for the start of the 1967 season. Although some within the organization—including Mele—did not believe the 21-year-old from the Class-A farm team was ready for the majors, Carew silenced the skeptics by hitting .292 his first season and winning the American League Rookie of the Year award. While quickly becoming one of the game's leading hitters, Carew also dazzled fans with his speed on the base paths with a record—breaking seven steals home. In one game that same season he stole second, third, and home in a single inning— a feat performed only once before in the previous four decades.
Despite his success on the field, Carew developed a reputation in his early years as "a loner who made friends slowly and suffered slights poorly," according to Time. Much of this changed, however, after he was introduced to Marilynn Levy at a local nightspot. At first the white Jewish woman was not interested in the black baseball player from Panama. As Marilynn told Time, "Sports? I didn't know from the Twins, and like a cocky little broad, I wasn't impressed." Despite the inauspicious beginning, the two began dating and married in October of 1970. While Carew was quickly accepted into the Levy family, he received a number of death threats and insults from Twins' followers. The two did not let racism prevent them from settling in Minneapolis, where they would have three daughters.
Although Carew won four batting titles between 1972 and 1975 and missed his fifth straight by .002 points, he did not receive the media attention granted to far lesser players. This was due in part to the fact that Carew prided himself in hitting singles rather than home runs. In 1975, Twins owner Griffith turned down Carew's request for a modest salary increase, claiming that the future Hall of Famer did not hit enough home runs to deserve the pay raise. The arbitrator sided with the Twins management and fixed Carew's salary at only $120,000—more than modest by league standards for a man of his ability. As if to prove his critics wrong, Carew hit 14 home runs the following season.
It was Carew's performance in 1977, however, that reserved him a position in the Hall of Fame and gained the respect of the national media. As Carew made his bid to become the first player in 36 years to hit .400, he appeared on the cover of Time as well as several sports publications and was featured in Newsweek. After one blazing hitting streak in late June that brought his average to .411, Carew told Newsweek's Peter Bonventre that every pitch that came to the plate during that banner season "look[ed] like a basketball." When asked by Bonventre how to get Carew out, Gaylord Perry, a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Texas Rangers replied, "Greaseball, greaseball, greaseball. That's all I throw him, and he still hits them. He's the only player in baseball who consistently hits my grease. He sees the ball so well, I guess he can pick out the dry side." Although his average hovered above the mark well into the season, Carew finished at .388. But with 100 runs batted in and 100 runs scored to go with his lofty average, he was still the runaway winner of the American League's Most Valuable Player award.
Despite Carew's singular performance that season, he could not reach a contract agreement with management and was traded to the California Angels just two years later. After spending seven years in California, where he hit better than .300 five times, he was suddenly released after the 1985 season. Angered by the way Carew was treated, a Minneapolis media celebrity led an unsuccessful campaign to bring him back to Minnesota for a farewell season in 1986. No one was more disappointed than Marilynn Carew with the failed effort. "I'm still angry about it," she told the St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch. "With the d.h. rule, Rod should still be playing. He would have done a lot for [Minnesota]." After the initial feelings of bitterness, however, her husband was ready for life on the other side of the basepaths. "Once I started coaching my daughters in softball and then started the hitting school," he said. "I found out I could get along without baseball."
Inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame
The transition to civilian life was made easier in 1991 when Carew was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, receiving more than 90 percent of the sportswriters' votes. "He was one of the best hitters I've ever seen." Twins owner Griffith told the St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch. "He was just a natural up there. That's all there was to it. He had a stroke that God gave him and he took advantage of it." Former manager Mele, who initially opposed Carew's promotion to the majors, shared Griffith's sentiment. "I don't know who you could compare him with …," he told the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. "You could put him in a tunnel with the lights out and you still know he's going to hit."
While many used the occasion of Carew's induction to remember his brilliance on the field, others recalled his regular travels to the Mayo Clinic to visit patients, his winning of the 1976 Roberto Clemente Award for distinguished community service, and his strong attachment to his Panamanian background. As former Twins Manager Gene Mauch stated in Time, "As impressed as I am with Rod Carew the hitter, Rod Carew the baseball player, I am more impressed with Rod Carew the man."
Carew faced perhaps his most difficult test off the field when his 18-year-old daughter, Michelle, died of leukemia on April 17, 1996. Since his daughter's diagnosis with the disease in September of 1995, Carew led a campaign to find an appropriate donor for a bone-marrow transplant. Unfortunately, because the donor pool is so limited in diversity, the operation was never performed. However, Carew succeeded in bringing media attention to the need for donors, and won even further admiration for his tireless efforts on behalf of his daughter.
Further Reading on Rod Carew
Los Angeles Times, January 9, 1991.
Minneapolis Star and Tribune, January 9, 1991.
Newsweek, August 11, 1969, pp. 61-62; July 11, 1977, pp. 46-47.
People, December 4, 1995, p. 133.
Sports Illustrated, July 17, 1995, pp. 28-36.
St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch (Minnesota), July 20, 1987;January 9, 1991; July 22, 1991.
Time, July 18, 1977, pp. 52-62.