September 15, 1969: Steve Carlton sets record with 19 strikeouts vs. Mets

Steve Carlton didn’t realize he was closing in on the single-game strikeout record until he looked up after eight innings and saw the number 16 flash across the scoreboard.

Those 16 strikeouts left him just two shy of 18, a major-league record shared by Sandy Koufax (who accomplished the feat twice), Bob Feller, and Don Wilson. One more strikeout would tie Carlton with arguably the top two pitchers in Cardinals history – Dizzy Dean, who struck out 17 Cubs on July 30, 1933, and Bob Gibson, who K’d 17 Tigers in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series.

“I decided then to go all-out for the record,” Carlton said. “I wanted it badly then.”[1]

With the single-game strikeout mark within reach, Carlton struck out the Mets’ Tug McGraw, Bud Harrelson, and Amos Otis to finish the day with 19 strikeouts and etch his name in the major-league record books.

“I still can’t believe what I just did – it’s so unreal. It’s like a dream,” Carlton said. “My wife couldn’t get to the game, but she called me in the clubhouse to congratulate me and was almost crying.”[2]

The 24-year-old Carlton entered that September 15, 1969, game against the Mets with a 16-9 record and 1.92 ERA. In three previous games – June 8 against the Astros, June 27 against the Cubs, and July 16 against the Phillies – Carlton had totaled 12 strikeouts, and he had struck out 10 batters on two other occasions, including his previous start, a 3-2 loss to the Pirates in which he allowed two earned runs in seven innings.

Earlier that summer, Carlton was the National League’s starting pitcher in the all-star game, where he allowed two runs in three innings and earned the win. It was the second of 10 all-star nods Carlton would receive in his career.

As he prepared to face the Mets, however, Carlton was looking to finish his season strong after losing three of his last four decisions. He set the tone early, striking out Harrelson and Otis to open the game, then – after Tommie Agee reached on an error and Donn Clendenon singled – punching out Ron Swoboda to end the inning.

He was up to six strikeouts after two innings, then struck out one in the third inning.

Vada Pinson gave Carlton a 1-0 lead with an RBI single off Mets starter Gary Gentry in the bottom of the third, but the Mets answered in the fourth. After Clendenon drew a leadoff walk and Swoboda homered to give the Mets a 2-1 lead, Carlton struck out three of the next four batters he faced to give him 10 strikeouts after four innings.

“Once I had nine, I made up my mind to go all the way with it,” Carlton said. “It cost me the ball game. I was challenging everybody.”[3]

He added two more K’s in the fifth to give him 12 for the day before the Cardinals regained the lead in the bottom of the inning. After Gentry retired the first two batters of the inning, Lou Brock singled to center field, then stole second base. Curt Flood followed with an RBI single and Joe Torre added an RBI single into left-center field to give St. Louis a 3-2 lead.

Carlton struck out Swoboda in the sixth and Otis in the seventh to bring his total to 14. After Agee led off the eighth with a single, Carlton made Clendenon his 15th strikeout victim of the day. However, Swoboda hit his second home run of the day (and ninth of the season) on a hanging slider to put the Mets ahead 4-3. It was the first multi-home run game of Swoboda’s career.

“The Amazin’ Mets and their Super Swat got me,” Carlton said.[4]

Carlton ended the eighth inning by striking out Al Weis for K number 16. In the ninth, he struck out McGraw on a 1-2 fastball, then caught Harrelson looking on another 1-2 pitch for his record-tying 18th strikeout.

“There was no point in just tying the record, so I still had to get Amos Otis,” Carlton said. “I was tense, but I knew Otis was tense too, because nobody likes to go into the record book that way – as the No. 19 strikeout. That’s why I thought he might bunt. At the time, I felt I’d rather see Otis get a hit instead of fouling out or grounding out so that I’d have a shot at the record.”[5]

On a 2-2 pitch, Carlton threw a slider that dove into the dirt. Otis swung, and catcher Tim McCarver threw him out at first for Carlton’s 19th – and final – strikeout of the day.

“I had a great fastball that kept rising and my curve was falling right off the table,” Carlton said.

Every player in the Mets’ starting lineup had at least one strikeout, and six struck out twice. Otis struck out four times in his five plate appearances. Afterward, he was asked if he had considered bunting in his final at-bat.

“If I’m going in the books, I’m going in right,” Otis said. “I wasn’t doing any bunting.”[6]

Meanwhile, Carlton told reporters after the game that he had been sick much of the day. In fact, Carlton said, he was battling dizziness, fatigue, and nausea in the middle innings.

“I had a fever all day and I felt so bad that I slept an extra hour and didn’t get to the ballpark until 7 o’clock, an hour before the game was to start,” he said.[7]

Mets manager Gil Hodges admitted his team – which also committed four errors – was fortunate to come out with the win against Carlton.

“It’s great to win when you play badly,” he said.[8]

The Mets finished the regular season with a 100-62 record to win the National League East Division, then beat the Orioles in a five-game World Series.

Carlton went on to win 17 games in 1969. After leading the league with 19 losses in 1970, he bounced back with the first 20-win season of his career in 1971. After that campaign, however, Cardinals owner Gussie Busch grew frustrated by Carlton’s salary demands and ordered general manager Bing Devine to trade him. On February 25, 1972, the Cardinals traded Carlton to the Phillies for Rick Wise.

Carlton spent 15 seasons in Philadelphia, winning four Cy Young Awards and making seven all-star game appearances. A member of the Cardinals’ 1967 World Series championship team and the Phillies’ 1980 championship squad, Carlton was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994.

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[1] Neal Russo, “Carlton Whiffs 19, But Mets Strike, Too,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 16, 1969.

[2] Neal Russo, “Carlton Whiffs 19, But Mets Strike, Too,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 16, 1969.

[3] Dick Young, “Ron’s HRs Top Carlton’s 19 K Mark,” New York Daily News, September 16, 1969.

[4] Neal Russo, “Carlton Whiffs 19, But Mets Strike, Too,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 16, 1969.

[5] Neal Russo, “Carlton Whiffs 19, But Mets Strike, Too,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 16, 1969.

[6] Dick Young, “Ron’s HRs Top Carlton’s 19 K Mark,” New York Daily News, September 16, 1969.

[7] Neal Russo, “Carlton Whiffs 19, But Mets Strike, Too,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 16, 1969.

[8] Dick Young, “Ron’s HRs Top Carlton’s 19 K Mark,” New York Daily News, September 16, 1969.

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