From ND to MLB: Frank Carpin

As the “From Notre Dame to the Major Leagues” series resumes today, it bears a new look. First, it has a graphic, however rudimentary, that, when clicked, will take you to all of the posts in the series. There’s a simple graphic — an include, as we call it in the biz — embedded in each post and a static one with player images at the top of the right rail.

And secondly, this latest installment is more than just my thoughts and observations gleaned from searching the internet for information on a long-ago player. After the New Year, I went to Notre Dame’s online alumni directory to see which former players had contact information listed. Last Saturday, I wrote out e-mails to those with web addresses, and on Monday, I sent out a letter to another. There are still more I have yet to contact, but after this initial effort, I’m more than pleased with the response. Of the six e-mails sent, I had three responses by Monday afternoon.

We’ll begin with the first response, because he wrote back within 24 hours and has been very helpful and forthcoming. I’m not a fan of Q&A formatted interviews (it doesn’t feel like writing to me), so I think the best way to present this is with some research and background, with his comments included for greater detail.

And with that, the From Notre Dame to the Major Leagues” series continues with …

1966 Topps Frank Carpin
Frank Carpin, a left-handed pitcher born in Brooklyn who went to high school in Richmond, Va., played just one season at Notre Dame, in 1958. The Irish went 20-11, reaching the NCAA Tournament, but falling in the district round with a 2-2 record in Kalamazoo, Mich. I picked up this 1966 Topps card — Carpin’s only card — at the same show where I got the 1965 Jim Hannan that began this project. (I’m not positive, but it looks like Carpin’s photo may have been taken at Shea Stadium. It looks like Shea’s left-field corner, and because of the card stock and quality of 1960s photos, I can’t be sure if the uniform is white or gray — and in ’65, both of the Bucs’ jerseys said “PIRATES.” Carpin was with the Pirates for all of their trips to New York that season.)

Baseball had no part in my decision to attend ND. I chose ND because of its reputation and Catholic background. My first choice was West Point, but that was not an option when I realized my pro baseball potential. I turned down scholarships to many Southern schools, including Wake Forest [the 1955 NCAA champ]. Ironically, the man who got me the scholarship was Syd Thrift, a Pirate scout, who later engineered my being drafted from the Yankee farm system. I did receive a walk-on scholarship at ND, but signed [with the Yankees] after one year.

But Carpin left his mark in his one season. His 102 strikeouts remained the single-season record until Aaron Heilman broke it with 118 in 1999. Heilman now holds the top three single-season strikeouts totals in Irish history, fanning 118 again in 2000 and finishing up with 111 in 2001. Jeff Manship equalled the 111 in 2006 and Danny Tamayo struck out 106 in ’01. Those, along with Carpin’s 102 and David Phelps‘ 102 in 2007, are the only 100-strikeout seasons in Notre Dame history, and all but Carpin’s came in the past 12 years. To put it into greater perspective, in 1958, the Irish played 36 games. The rest of those hurlers compiled their strikeout totals in no fewer than 61 games.

To his credit, Carpin still holds the all-time marks for strikeouts per nine innings (12.63) and in a game. On April 16, 1958, he struck out 19 Indiana Hoosiers, then hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the 10th of a 12-10 Irish victory.

After that stellar season, Carpin accepted the Yankees’ offer and headed to Greensboro in the Class B Carolina League in 1959.

Despite signing with the Yankees in 1959, the Tigers made a better offer. [John] McHale was the GM then and an ND graduate. But my father liked the Yankees and since the Dodgers were not interested, the natural choice was the opposition … just like ND became the choice when West Point was not possible.

After going 12-9 with a 3.24 ERA and 1.47 WHIP (minor league stats for the time period are incomplete, so we have to take what we can get) at age 20 with Greensboro, Carpin moved up to Class A Binghamton in the Eastern League in 1960, going 11-8/3.69/1.52. In ’61, he made the jump to Triple-A and got to go home, playing for Richmond in the International League. He went 7-9/3.52/1.25 with 104 strikeouts in 125 innings and returned the Virginians in ’62. But after starting out 1-6/4.71/1.65, he was demoted to Double-A Amarillo in the Texas League.

The most humbling [moment] was being sent down in 1962 by the Triple-A Yankee team from my hometown — Richmond — to the Texas League. I went from a prospect who nearly made the Yankees in 1961 and 1962 to a suspect who could not win a game until sent out of the organization in 1963 to Lynchburg.

In ’63, Carpin returned to the Southeast, starting out with the Augusta (Ga.) Yankees in the Double-A South Atlantic League before being sent to Lynchburg in the same circuit, but part of the White Sox organization. It was with Lynchburg where he experienced a turning point.

I told this story to the young kids I coached to help them understand what is necessary to be successful in sports or any field. In 1963, I was languishing in the bullpen in Double-A Augusta, Georgia, after a horrible 1962 season and demotion from Triple-A to Double-A. I literally could not get anybody out and the August manager had to send someone out at cut time. They couldn’t send me back to Greensboro, where I had started five years earlier, because of option rules, so they offered me to Lynchburg in the same league. I walked across the diamond that night to join the opposing Lynchburg team, and the manager, Les Moss, asked if I could pitch that night because I was all they had. I eagerly accepted the start and pitched better than I had in two years. The minute I crossed the diamond from one clubhouse to another, everything changed. Two of my next three starts were shutouts on the way to a 15-game winning season and another win in the playoffs against my former Yankee teammates. I asked my kids — What changed? I had the same arm and same “stuff.” The only performance-enhancing substance I took was Wheaties. That’s how much the mental aspect plays in sports and the confidence you get when someone tells you, “You’re all we got.”

Carpin finished ’63 with a 15-9 record, 3.12 ERA and 1.24 WHIP, fanning 142 in 196 innings. He spent ’64 back with Richmond, going 5-3/2.79/1.39, fanning 87 in 97 frames. After the season, the Pirates selected him in the minor league draft, assigning him to Triple-A Columbus, where he started 4-0/2.67/1.44 before getting the call. On May 25, 1965, he made his debut with the Pirates.

The happiest moment was the news of the call-up while in Triple-A early in 1965 and the win that night. My debut was very memorable: Two innings of relief and a win against the Cubs that started a long winning streak for the Pirates, who had started very poorly. I became a good luck charm among the players.

The win in Carpin’s debut was actually the fifth in a 12-game winning streak for the Pirates that season. Before the streak started, they had been 9-24 on the season; Carpin’s win improved Pittsburgh’s record to 10-24. By the end of the streak, they were 21-24 and had cut their deficit in the National League from 13 1/2 games to 7 1/2 and improved their standing from last place (10th in the league) to sixth. They spent most of the season in the middle of the pack before going 10-2 over the final two weeks to finish third.

Carpin finished his rookie year with a 3-1 record, 3.18 ERA and 1.49 WHIP in 39 games, all out of the bullpen. He finished 14 contests, saving four of them, and struck out 27 and walked 24 in 39 2/3 innings. After the season, the Astros selected him in the Rule 5 Draft.

He opened the ’66 season with Houston, appearing in four games and earning the fourth win of his career before being sent down to Triple-A Oklahoma City. On May 5 at the Astrodome, he came into a tie game with two outs in the top of the 13th inning, caught the Cubs’ Adolfo Phillips trying to steal home to get out of the inning and earned the win without throwing a pitch when Joe Morgan scored the game-winner for Houston in the bottom half.

During his 44-game stint with the 89ers, Carpin went 3-5/2.92/1.35 before a recall to the big leagues. He finished the season with a total of six innings in 10 Major League games, going 1-0/7.50/2.50. His final game came on Sept. 3, 1966, two innings in a 12-2 loss at Atlanta, allowing no hits and three walks.

In 1966 I had three children and an expectant wife. There were bone chips starting to develop in my pitching elbow and the Houston doctor told me I had an arthrithic elbow. He suggested they send me home in late August and see how things looked in the spring. I was making $12,000 and this was before free agency and arthroscopic surgery. I also had a Notre Dame degree and my oldest son would start grade school in the fall. My wife said she was not going to accompany me the following year and take my son out of the Richmond school. In addition, I had been working in a training program in the offseason to become a stock broker. All I needed was to pass the exam. I did so that October. What if there had been arthroscopic surgery then? Free agency? More than $12,000 salaries? I rested for two years then started pitching again. Blood flow had dissolved the developing chips and I only pitched once a week in the summer college league in Shennandoah Valley. The results were outstanding. Scouts asked if I would report to their Triple-A clubs right away if they could secure my services. I said no. My brokerage career was taking off, my family was happy in their place and pitching once a week wouldn’t cut it in pro ball. Plus, the money was not there as free agency was still a few years off. But looking back, it is easy to second guess.

Carpin’s career line reads 49 games in those two seasons, a 4-1 record and 3.74 ERA. He holds a distinction for having the most wins since 1930 without allowing a home run, though Craig Kimbrell won four games for the Braves last season, his rookie year, without allowing a long ball. For the moment, Kimbrell and Carpin share that distinction.

Though his career was cut short, Carpin counts five Hall of Famers among his teammates: Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski and Willie Stargell with the Pirates and Joe Morgan and Robin Roberts with the Astros.

Interesting point on Robin Roberts … I first met him in Yankee spring camp 1961 and renewed the relationship in 1966 at Cocoa Beach (Astros). He invited me fishing in Ft. Lauderdale and we surf fished together at Cocoa Beach. My first encounter with him was Richmond, Va., circa 1949. The Phillies were barnstorming north prior to the season and they came to Richmond to play the Cardinals. I was the only one at the ballpark early one Saturday morning when I saw him staring at the outfield in a box seat. I asked for his autograph and he never broke his stare. In 1961, I told him that story and the next day two autograph pictures were in my locker. Then he invited me fishing offshore and in 1966 he confided with me about Marvin Miller and his part in having a players union with Marvin as head. He introduced me to Marvin, who was also a Brooklyn native and Dodger fan. The Astros, I believe, were the only team that voted against the union and Marvin Miller. Management poisoned everyone’s minds, except me … The rest is history. Maz was a great teammate in Pittsburgh and Willie and Roberto were obviously great players. My Astro experience was a big letdown after Pittsburgh.

Now 72, Carpin still lives in Richmond, where he is a stock and commodities broker for Oppenheimer & Co. He said he follows Notre Dame football “religiously,” attending several games a year, and keeps tabs on the basketball, baseball and top Irish women’s sports. “My wife played against Pat Summit’s first team, so that and soccer are on my viewing list,” he told me. In a follow-up e-mail he sent me yesterday, he offered some thoughts on his decision to leave Notre Dame. With the news that star receiver Michael Floyd would return for his senior season in the fall, I found Carpin’s comments to be quite poignant.

Looking back on my decisions as a young man, I do regret leaving Notre Dame after one year as a baseball player. My education and receiving a degree is not the issue. I graduated in February 1962 with a B.A. in history. Although my career at ND was short, I am more proud that I was Domer than I was a Major League player. And I regret that I cut my college athletic experience short. I think about this when the NFL beckons with the big money. Today’s players don’t have much choice with injury a major concern, especially football players. But baseball is different. There was some money involved, but the main reason I jumped was wanting to find out if I could compete. Patience has never been a virtue, but I wish it had in respect to ND.

1966 Topps Frank Carpin reverse

As I take this “From ND to MLB” series forward, I think Mr. Carpin’s willingness to share his memories have set the bar pretty high. In addition to trading e-mails with me during the week, he also asked for my mailing address. Yesterday, two signed photos of him at Forbes Field (one posted above, the other here) arrived in my mailbox — such a kind gesture. I wasn’t expecting anything and won’t be asking others for anything in return — only their time and their memories. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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